When planning a visit to Walt Disney World, two important considerations are: how do I get there and how will I get around?
As a child, my parents drove the family many, many hours (18? 24?) one time to visit. My husband remembers his family doing the long drive once as a youngster, then flying for other trips. Enduring a long drive can be worth it for the epic fun of visiting WDW, but many visitors (who aren’t local) tend to fly in and then use the onsite transportation options.
In this article, I review the accessibility of Walt Disney World transportation for people with mobility disabilities to be aware of when planning their visits.
Getting to Walt Disney World
I don’t have the physical stamina for a long drive to WDW, but admire the people who do. Having your own vehicle would be useful for offsite grocery shopping, traveling to the parks, and just having a comfortable transportation option that you can use at whatever time you desire.
For the rest of us non-locals, flying is usually the option for traveling to Orlando and visiting WDW. It turns a two-day (or longer) drive into a couple hour flight. Although I find flying stressful and exhausting, the reward of WDW makes it worthwhile!
As a wheelchair user, flying is scary because I have to trust airlines with my motorized wheelchair. It is custom made for me and it is my mobility. But I’ve had a lot of bad airline experiences damaging (or even totaling) my wheelchairs. To try to minimize problems, we arrive early to the airport to get special tags for my wheelchair and we attach handling instructions to it (such as, don’t disconnect or unscrew things). I board first with assistance, then my wheelchair is taken to be (hopefully gently) loaded into the luggage hold. When we arrive, I am last to deboard because I have to wait for my wheelchair to be unloaded (after the luggage) and then brought up to the door of the plane. If all goes well, I transfer back into it and zip off to my magical Disney World holiday.
For those with their own cars, they never have to deal with the airport and have their own local transportation. Because we fly, we’ve used Magical Express to transport us to our Disney resort for more than a decade. We always chose ME because it was reliable (never had a long wait or a no-show) and accessible. As you may guess, accessible transportation can be hard to come by. I’ve lost count the number of accessible cabs that were reserved weeks in advance and never showed. (Don’t get me started on the ride share services that hardly have any accessible vehicles, if at all.) Hopefully, the new service launching by Mears in January 22 (or continuation of the buses under the previous contract operators) will be just as accessible and reliable.
We’ve never looked into renting an accessible van, because my other travel experiences have shown this to be cost prohibitive. As in hundreds of dollars. With that in mind, the paid shuttle will be our go-to option starting next year.
On Site Travel
Without our own vehicle (owned or rental) and the complication of using a motorized wheelchair, we’ve been happy to rely on the many accessible transportation options offered by WDW. Not only are they free for guests, they are plentiful and accessible for a variety of wheelchairs.
When we think of transportation at Walt Disney World, many of us think of the Monorail—the gold standard of swift travel between Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and several of the deluxe resorts around the lake.
Although the list of destinations may be short, travel between them is swift and comfortable on the Monorail. However, boarding with a wheelchair involves a small extra effort. An attendant needs to set up a ramp and find a space for boarding. The space on the train cars can be a little confined, so using the Monorail may be best recommended for people with highly-maneuverable wheelchairs.
Buses are the circulatory system of Disney World. They go everywhere! They loop the large resorts and then transport guests to every park (including water parks), as well as Disney Springs. We’ve come to depend on the buses as they are always accessible and have regular routes that make it easy to plan.
Every bus kneels (lowers on the boarding side) and has a motorized ramp for easy boarding with a wheelchair. They all have at least two parking spots (where the seats fold up to make space for a wheelchair) and tie-downs for securing the wheelchair during travel. Some buses even have three or four spots. In my experience, the bus drivers have all been well-trained in how to safely board and secure passengers in wheelchairs for travel.
The down sides of buses are the unpredictable wait times. On some trips, the buses come regularly and we have no issues. But usually we have a time or two when the wait is incredibly long. Last year during a visit there was a communication problem at the depot and no bus showed to return us (and a hundred new friends from the line) to our resort from EPCOT for more than an hour. No staff were managing the buses on site, so we were finding phone numbers and making calls from our dwindling cell phones.
Similarly, when the wheelchair spaces on the buses are filled, we have to wait for the next bus. This can seem like a long wait! Often the drivers will call the depot and let them know a wheelchair visitor is waiting for transportation, which helps to speed things along.
One of my favorite ways to travel around WDW is by boat. The boats can be the most direct route between locations, so they can be surprisingly efficient. But what I really enjoy is being on the water and enjoying the views and perspectives of different parks and resorts.
If we can manage it, I like to shop and dine at the Polynesian Resort during our Disney visits. It’s a beautiful place and they always have fun tropical shirts. (My husband has quite the collection from visits over the years!) We leave a little early from the Magic Kingdom and take a boat to the resort across the lake. It’s a great way to unwind and get into the Polynesian mood.
A few years ago we took a different boat over to the Wilderness Resort. That was so much fun! It was a smaller boat and went through a winding way to dock. Such a great view and then we had a look around the gorgeous resort before an amazing dinner with Snow White and friends.
Perhaps my favorite boat discovery were the ones that run from EPCOT and Hollywood Studios to the Swan and Dolphin Resorts (plus other resorts). They ran frequently and provided an easy transportation option. These Friendship Boats have several spots for wheelchairs and can be boarded using a portable ramp. Even better, the Ferry Boats have a smooth transition ramp for boarding.
The down side of riding the boats is sometimes the wheelchair spaces can fill up and then you may have to wait awhile for the next boat. However, I found this is rare. On the larger boats there are many spaces, so this is more common for the smaller ones. Of course, they also don’t go everywhere and so can only be used for certain trips.
The Skyliner is the latest and greatest in transportation from Walt Disney World. It’s a gondola in the sky that runs between EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and several resorts (such as the large Caribbean Beach Resort). It is fast and efficient for travel between these locations, but it can include a long wait in line that leaves one wondering if the bus would have been just as fast.
A huge plus is how accessible the gondola cars are. Just roll on and an attendant places a break stop behind the wheels before lift off. The accessible boarding area is separate, so the vehicles stop (where as regular board means they are constantly moving). When you arrive, the attendant at the stop pulls the break and helps to guide the wheelchair straight out backwards. It’s simple and doesn’t require a special gondola or time-consuming tie down.
Until recently, we never had the pleasure of rolling (or walking) to a park from the resort we were staying at. What a wonderful thing!
Since my wheelchair runs on batteries I can keep going for a long time (as long as the charge holds out), but I regularly check in with my husband about how he is doing with the walking. We put on a lot of mileage rolling around parks, so I am sensitive that his feet and legs will tire. Lucky for us, he has a high walking tolerance, so we have never had any trouble, as long as we get some breaks in for him to rest a little (and of course refuel with a Mickey Bar!).
When we stayed at the Dolphin Resort I was excited to try out walking to two of the parks (Hollywood Studios and Epcot). I love the freedom of being able to roll and get there in our own time. We ended up deciding to roll/walk in the mornings and take the boat back in the evenings to give my husband’s feet a break. This turned out to be a nice combination as we got to the parks nice and early on our own steam while enjoying sipping on coffee and the lovely morning views. In the evening when we were all tuckered out, we could relax and watch the boat coast along.
At Walt Disney World there are a plethora of accessible travel options. It’s perhaps the only place I ever visit where all options are accessible and open to wheelchairs, without great effort or stress. If only other locations would embrace this kind of Disney magic!