Doing Disney with Disabilities
Updated: Sep 9, 2019
We all love Disney World. Or at least, I assume you do, or at least are interested in it, or you wouldn't be here, reading this. But what if you, or someone you care about, has a disability? Surely, that would make enjoying yourself more difficult?
Short answer: it's easier and better than you might think.
Now, for the long version.
My own disability is visual impairment. I am functionally blind, with no vision at all in the right eye and only light perception and occasional colour in the left. At first blush, you may think this ought to make a theme park unfeasible for me. After all, Disney is so visual, right? All those dark rides with their clever animatronics, all those shows, all that attention put into making the areas of the park distinct.
You would be wrong. Sure, the visual element is wonderful. I've been there with considerably more vision, I know the parks are beautiful. But if you're a Disney goer, I urge you to take time to sit down somewhere and close your eyes. Really pay attention to what you hear and smell, and you will find that there is still a textured experience for you to enjoy.
That alone would have made my recent visit a magical one, but Disney has done more. You can get a little boxy device from Guest Services that you can wear around your neck and plug earbuds into, and that little box is an audio description unit. It doesn't just describe the rides - more on that later - but the area you are in, in quite a bit of detail, as well as announcing which area you are entering. There are buttons to access menus which will tell you about nearby shops, attractions, restaurants, washrooms, etc as well as adding even more detail to the description.
And then there are the rides. So long as it is not a thrill ride (basically, not a roller coaster or ride that drops you) chances are, it has an audio description track that will automatically begin as the ride does. I got to hear rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, Spaceship Earth, Frozen Ever After and the like described.
And then there was Flight of Passage. For the unfamiliar, this is a simulation ride based on the movie Avatar, where you are seated on the back of a Banshee. The actual thing you are on looks like a futuristic motor cycle, and while your beast seems to fly, you can feel wing beats between your knees and an in and out of breathing as well. The "flight" is on a screen in front of you, and 3-D glasses make it look more real as does air, mist and scents being blown over you. On top of that, it also has audio description, though in this case your earbuds plug into the front of the ride itself. It was amazing. I never thought I could enjoy a simulator ride, because I don't get the kinetic sense of forward motion that adds to the dark ride experience. But it was a mesmerizing adventure for me. The audio track was in perfect sync with the dips of my little ride vehicle seat, and the narrator conveyed emotion really well. This ride is more emotional than you might expect.
Disney doesn't just cater to the blind, however. The same device I picked up from and returned to Guest Services each day can also be set up to be a closed caption device, which will give you a display of the vocal tracks of the rides. Oh. And both also work on a lot of the shows, too.
All of the new rides have been set up to allow for ECVs/scooters to navigate the lines just like everyone else, while the older ones that don't allow for this do have courtesy wheelchairs that you can use while you leave your ECV parked outside, or else have a separate entrance that you can use. One thing to note is that at least some rides will not allow for more than one ECV/wheelchair user to board at once.
Disney also understands that some people just can't wait in a traditional line for a variety of reasons, and for them there is the DAS. It isn't a "skip the line" pass, but is probably the most fair workaround I have ever seen. You can go to the ride of your choice, talk to a Cast Member (Disney's term for anyone they employ at the parks) and get a return time. You still wait, but can do so in a manner that you can manage, whether that means just sitting down, stationing yourself near a washroom, getting out of the heat or moving around. Then, when your time is up, you can go right in. I found the Cast Members I dealt with, both during setup and getting return times, to be exceedingly kind, because I did get it for a variety of reasons. Because of how it is set up, I think it also nixes the feelings of guilt some of us have when we take advantage of things like this, because I'm waiting as long as everyone else is, I'm just doing it in a manner that won't make the rest of my day a sheer misery. This is also particularly great for people with sensory issues, kids with autism, people with IBS and a host of other invisible disabilities. No one but the Cast Members will even know you're using it.
If you just read about that and were left wanting to use it yourself, all you have to do is take your entire party (up to six people) to Guest Services on your first park day. They will set you up, get everyone linked up on a magic band or whatever you are using, take the picture of the person whose name the thing is in, and you're good to go for the rest of your vacation. If you do have multiple people with disabilities in your group, it may be worth your while to get them separate passes, though, just in case one wants to ride a thing that the other doesn't. The actual DAS holder has to be riding for the others to use it, for obvious reasons, and their picture does come up for the Cast Members to see.
Disney has gone to great lengths to make their parks places that everyone can enjoy, and it shows. They have done things they certainly don't need to do. For example, they could charge money to rent out those devices, and they don't. Yes, there is a $25 deposit, but being a deposit you do get it back if you return your box intact, and those things are darned sturdy. I would have paid for it, and am pleased I didn't have to. They do also rent out wheelchairs, strollers and ECV's, and I think the prices are reasonable. The company could have done a lot less and called it good. Most places do way, way less and call it good.
So if you are yearning to go to Disney, but either you or someone you want to go with has some sort of disability, know that you can do it, and you will be taken care of.