On a recent bonus trip to Walt Disney World, I tested out accessible Mears cab transportation and experienced a failure rate of 50%. One of two trips worked and I came close to missing my flight home. Unfortunately, this is exactly the problem I predicted in January with the planned elimination of Disney’s Magical Express at the end of the year—the failure to find accessible and reliable ground transportation to the WDW resorts.
Ground Transportation is Necessary
As a wheelchair user, accessible ground transportation is essential for my visits to Disney World. If I can’t find a method of traveling from the Orlando airport to WDW, then it's been a very nice (and expensive) visit to the airport and nothing more. If I can’t return to the airport (as almost happened in this case), then my extended stay at Disney World has the potential to become quite a bit more expensive. In my particular case, I use a motorized wheelchair and it does not fold up or come apart. So, I require a vehicle with a lift and wheelchair space (like Magical Express) or a van with a ramp (like many taxicab companies provide).
After getting our COVID vaccinations, my husband and I decided to treat ourselves with a short bonus visit to WDW. We wanted to visit a warmer climate and enjoy the pleasures of hanging at the beautiful Walt Disney World theme parks. We’ve only ever stayed at official Disney resorts on our visits, and since this was a shorter trip, decided to try out the more loosely affiliated Dolphin Resort.
Researching Accessible Ground Transportation Options
One of the potential downsides of the Swan and Dolphin resorts is that transportation is not offered through Magical Express. So, we took this as an opportunity to try out Mears transportation to and from the airport. My husband started the transportation research first by calling the hotel and was told to call Mears directly. We learned that previously Mears ran group shuttles (similar to Magical Express), but this service has been paused due to the pandemic.
However, we found out that Mears offers accessible taxicab service and that we could use this for our ground transportation. For our arrival, we were told an accessible cab could not be booked in advance. (I did try anyway!) After arriving and picking up our luggage, we went to the taxi stand and requested an accessible cab.
I have to note, this made me very nervous as my personal experience is that wheelchair accessible cabs must be booked in advance and we could be waiting a long time (such as hours) to get to our resort. After an early morning wakeup and stressful flight (quick glimpse into the life of a wheelchair user: worrying whether my chair has been broken in transit?), I was ready to relax by the pool with a mango daiquiri and not worry myself to death waiting for an accessible cab to appear.
Thankfully, it was only a few minutes before a wheelchair accessible cab appeared like magic and whisked us off to the Dolphin Resort. We had a nice chat with the driver and explained we are regular visitors to WDW and would be needing a ride back to the airport in a few days. He offered his card and said he would be happy to pick us up at the appointed return time if we needed it.
Our day was saved by a kind and timely driver. Or we had very good luck! I’m not sure which, but was pleased to have a relaxing afternoon for us to recover before starting our park visits the next day. During the next four days we visited each park and had some great times, excellent meals, and enjoyed fun in the sun. It really was a pick-me-up after a long, challenging year.
The Return Trip was Not Smooth Sailing
The day before our return home, I attempted to call Mears to confirm the accessible cab ride I had booked 15 days before using their smartphone app. After a long time on hold (more than 15 minutes), I gave up and just had to hope for the best. The ride was listed in my Mears app account and there was nothing more that I could do.
Since our flight was in the evening, we checked our luggage early in the morning at the hotel's Bell Service and headed to Magic Kingdom for a few more hours of fun before needing to return for our cab pickup scheduled at 3:15 pm. We returned early to enjoy one more of those mango daiquiris by the pool, pick up our luggage, and have plenty of time to spare without feeling rushed. By 2:45pm, we were in the lobby and all ready when I tried calling Mears again to check on the status of my pre-ordered wheelchair taxi. This is when the trouble began.
On my first call I was told “we are working on it” and I would receive a text message when the cab was on the way to me. On the next call I made at 3:15pm (when the cab was scheduled for pick up), I was told “we are very busy and are working on it.” When I explained that I had booked more than a week in advance, there was no comment. When I asked what Mears would do if I missed my flight I was told: “Nothing. We are an on-demand service and there is no guarantee.” I was also given a spiel (which I have heard from the taxi company in my hometown, so there must be a shared script) about how the pandemic has impacted their ability to provide accessible cab service (which I don’t doubt, but no longer feel is an excuse when a cab to the airport is booked more than a week in advance). In sum, they were rude and unconcerned.
I wonder what “on-demand” cab service means when I schedule a ride and it doesn’t come? I also wonder what this means when a non-disabled person would likely have a cab pick them up with no problem, but the cabs are not as equally available to wheelchair users. It seems more like an "at their mood service" than a customer on-demand service. Finally, I wonder what booking or reserving a cab means when they don’t seem to be able to honor the commitment? Maybe they should rename it to: “possibly seeing a cab at some point in time, but not when you actually need it service”? Huh, that may be too long to catch on.
A Last-Minute Rescue
Miraculously, my husband called the cab driver who picked us up from the airport while I was on with Mears and found out that he was available and could head to us. We waited about 20 minutes, but sighed with great relief when he came and delivered us to the airport in time. It is also thanks to my habit of booking extra early because we still arrived in time for a slow-moving security line and the additional hassles we have to manage with checking my wheelchair with the airline.
Mears never called me back nor contacted me to explain when or if a cab was coming. I am left to assume that I would still be sitting outside the Dolphin Resort now if we hadn’t found a transportation alternative.
In the end, all turned out OK, but it was due to extra time, some luck, and a friendly accessible cab driver that we made it to the airport in time to catch our flight home. The day after our return, I emailed Mears a detailed complaint and have yet to receive an acknowledgment (much less an apologetic response).
I also emailed the City of Orlando and received a response right away that they wanted to speak with me. The taxicab service oversight officer listened sympathetically and apologized for my bad experience. He said that Mears is usually a reliable company. Unfortunately, other than referring me to a contact at Mears, there was nothing more he could do as the pickup at the Dolphin Resort is out of the jurisdiction of the City of Orlando and no such oversight entity exists in that area of Orange County, Florida. At this point, I am hoping that Mears decides to be responsive to accessible cab concerns as I don't know of any other options to improve service.
A Radical Wish: Reliable, Accessible Cab Service
Unfortunately, the reliability of accessible cabs is an ongoing battle in my life as a wheelchair user. It seems to be an issue in every place I visit (except London, which makes all their cabs wheelchair accessible), and very little progress has been made. It was a problem before, during, and now after the pandemic—so it isn’t new. And I still have this radical wish: to order a wheelchair cab and have it show up on time (or frankly, at all).
With these many years (decades) of experience of poor cab service, a reasonable person would understand my distrust of cab companies and my fears when no other alternative transportation options are available. When I returned home, I wrote Walt Disney World Guest Services an email about my story and concerns about the ending of Magical Express service. I fear that without Disney’s leadership, accessible ground transportation will become as inhospitable as the Yeti.
I should also mention affordability as an issue. While the Mears shuttle is shared (during non-pandemic times) and therefore would likely have a lower cost, a cab one-way was at least $60. The price is steep, even steeper when the accessible cab one has ordered doesn't show. WDW management may want to consider that adds up to a tidy sum that will not be spent in the theme parks, even less so if the guests can't reach the resort at all.
When it comes to Disney World, we plan on using Magical Express for our next trip, but it sounds like that will be the last time the service will be available. I have no idea what we will do in the future, but am very concerned about how we will visit Disney without reliable and accessible ground transportation.