As I’ve previously written, I’m a huge fan of Walt Disney World not only because it is a fun and amazing place to visit, but because it is generally very accessible for people with disabilities. In my case, I use a wheelchair due to a condition acquired in childhood that attacks my joints, resulting in reduced strength and mobility. However, my disabilities and wheelchair have not affected my enjoyment of a good time!
My husband and I have been visiting WDW together for more than a dozen years, always having fun and enjoying most of the attractions together.
However, as we passed the 31st anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act last summer and Walt Disney World began celebrating their 50th anniversary in October, I started wondering: why is it that so many classic attractions have not been updated for accessibility over the years? Isn’t it time to make this happen?
Harnessing the Creativity of Imagineers for Accessibility
Believe me, I understand that accessibility updates don’t just occur with a sprinkle of pixie dust and a snap of Mary Poppins’ fingers. It takes planning, creativity, and hard work. However, these are all things that Disney has in abundance with the incredible creative resource of their Imagineers. Therefore, I’ve got to believe where there is a will, there is a way. After all, they invent new technologies and file new patents all the time!
So, I’m left wondering: is there a lack of will and planning to increase accessibility of older attractions at WDW?
Most of the attractions I’m thinking about are popular and older installations at both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. My suggestions don’t involve changing the essential nature or experience of these attractions, but to improve the accessibility of transferring into the vehicles so that guests can have an easier, more comfortable experience.
First, let me explain there’s two categories for accessibility on WDW attractions. One type is “Roll-On” where an individual can ride in their wheelchair (such as The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh where a special honey pot opens wider and accommodates parking my wheelchair). Another category is labeled “Must Transfer” and a great example is the Mad Tea Party where a door on the teacup vehicle opens wider and a transfer bench is set on the vehicle so one can slide from their wheelchair across the bench and into a seat for the ride. However, this category is used for rides not only for transferring as described above, but also for taking steps up and down or walking distances. Transfer has a specific meaning for wheelchair users that applies to sliding or pivoting from seat to seat, so how this term is used in describing attractions is less than ideal.
While the roll-on vehicles are great for wheelchair users, this wouldn’t work for more active rides like roller coasters. Personally, I wouldn’t expect nor want all rides to be roll-on as I like the variety of experiences offered by the transfer rides. However, I would like for transfers to be easier and more accessible. It would also help to have them more clearly described so that guests don’t get surprised by these barriers when it’s time to board.
Here’s a brief summary of the barriers and considerations.
It’s been a very long time since I was on Splash Mountain because I had to be lifted by two people the last time I road. Boarding the ride entails a big step down and over the edge of the faux log ride vehicle. For many wheelchair users, this just isn’t do-able. To be accessible, the ride vehicle needs to be at a height for transferring from a wheelchair or be adjusted with an add-on device to assist with transferring. My hope is that as Disney updates this attraction with the new Princess and the Frog theming, it will also incorporate access updates. The timing is right for making this kind of change when they are doing such a substantial renovation.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Again, this classic attraction involves a huge step down into a low boat. (Do you see a theme?) While it may not be feasible to change the vehicle height, it could be possible to develop an assistive device to help with transferring in and out from a wheelchair to ride Pirates of the Caribbean. What about a hydraulic seat that raises to transfer height and lowers for the duration of the ride? I think the Imagineers could come up with something brilliant with some guidance from disabled guests.
Peter Pan’s Flight
This is one of my favorite attractions, yet a very challenging one to board. Although I use a wheelchair and have difficulty walking, I can walk a few steps with the support of my husband to help me keep my balance. In order to ride Peter Pan’s Flight, I have to request a short stop, park my wheelchair a few feet from the start of the boarding ramp, then walk about 10 feet to sit in one of the vehicles. Deboarding the attraction works about the same, just in reverse from the exit portion of the attraction. While I am grateful I have the strength to manage walking that distance, I don’t know that it will always be possible and I am mindful of the many other wheelchair users (such as those with paralysis) that cannot walk and must transfer. The ride currently doesn’t allow for transferring and I think it is due to the older nature of the moving boarding ramp. To make this attraction accessible, a new boarding ramp that can support wheelchairs moving up to the attraction vehicle (while stopped) and a better cut-out of the vehicle’s side to allow for sliding transfer are both needed. Perhaps this could be considered when there is a planned maintenance closure for this lovely classic attraction.
It’s been a long time since I was able to board Space Mountain, but I remember it as a tiny coffin with violent turns and yet a surprisingly fun experience. The last time I rode, I needed significant lifting help as I couldn’t step down into the vehicle. Another problem is that the seating is so small and due to my condition my legs do not bend up very well, so the vehicle is actually painful. For me, this ride may never be something I can do just because of the harshness of the turns and the pain it gives my body (yes, it was very memorable even though it was years ago). Yet, I believe people with mobility disabilities should still have the choice to ride. Perhaps this means a special accessible vehicle, which has been developed for many other rides. In this case, this vehicle could have more leg room, a transfer device, or other upgrades to make it more accessible.
Frozen Ever After (formerly Maelstrom)
Due to inaccessibility issues, I never had the chance to ride Maelstrom at EPCOT before it was converted into Frozen Ever After. And I still haven’t been able to ride Frozen. A couple years ago, my husband went into the attraction to see if I could do it, but determined that this boat ride (again!) wasn’t going to accommodate me. I love boat rides and enjoy plenty others at Walt Disney World, but am disappointed by the ones that don’t have accessibility for boarding. Again, I’m wondering if a seat that raises or a new transfer device would create access where it is currently missing.
People are often surprised when I tell them that I love thrill rides. As a child, if we were anywhere near a roller coaster, I had to ride it. My father and I would always ride these rides together and enjoy those thrills over and over, while my mother and brother preferred to stay safely on solid ground. So naturally I love Test Track, but it is so hard to get in! It’s even more frustrating when considering the relative newness of this attraction as it was built in the late 90s. Even with the add-on seat to assist with transfer, my husband has to do some lifting to get me back into my wheelchair after riding. I’m not sure what can be done, but a setup where the vehicle seat is at a height better for transferring to a wheelchair would be helpful.
Why Accessibility Improvements Should Be a Priority
The suggestions I’m making wouldn’t increase guest waits for the attractions, but instead save time because improving accessibility by making boarding transfer easier also speeds up the boarding time and process. Additionally, there are many examples of accessibility improvements helping more people (if not everyone) to have a better experience. A perfect example is curb cut ramps, which make streets more accessible for all, whether you are pushing a stroller, pulling luggage, or moving in a wheelchair. Improving accessibility of classic attractions would likely bring more access for more people, as well as help Disney to discover and patent new ride solutions.
Critics may suggest: why do you need to ride these attractions when there is plenty else to do? Why should Disney spend the time and money to improve accessibility? I have a few answers. First, as a disabled guest, I pay full charge for my ticket yet don’t have access to the full experience. Would you settle for that? Second, its just the right thing to do if we want to fully include all people. And third, there is beauty in inclusion and for a long time, Disney has worked to be better, to provide a magical experience to all—so this is exactly the kind of thing that suits that dream.
The power of creativity and problem solving is strong with Walt Disney World (and Imagineers, specifically). So I firmly believe that if they decided to work on improving accessibility of classic attractions, it could be done. They may be surprised at how easy the solutions are, once they put their minds to it.
My only recommendation is to engage guests with disabilities early and often in this type of effort. Every disability is unique, so while there may be one solution, it needs to encompass a variety of accessibility needs. Bringing in guests with various disabilities to give feedback, test possible solutions, and refine would ultimately lead toward the best success for enhancing accessibility.