Accessing Theme Parks with a Disability

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Let’s be honest, taking a vacation as a disabled person brings a variety of challenges. Not only must we consider the common things able-bodied people do but we must calculate the variables of our access. Will my hotel room meet my needs? Will I be able to share in the experience of my travel companions? Can I have fun if I’m worrying about all these things? 

I’ve worked in Orlando theme-parks for 8 years and during that time, I went through the process of diagnosis for Hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, or  hEDS. This is a rare connective tissue disorder that results in joint pain, fatigue, and dislocations. With my own access at the forefront of my mind, I realized that across the board, theme parks are more accessible than the average vacation destination. So, if you’re planning a trip to the Sunshine State, here are five things that will make your time there much more enjoyable.

1. Plan, Plan, Plan! 

We must consider what our body will require, as well as what we would like to do. And no matter what theme park you choose to go to, you’ll have an abundance of options! It is improbable you’ll get to it all.. So, how do we combat this? Visit your destination’s official website.It is an excellent and informative resource. (Walt Disney World,Universal Orlando Resort). Identify what you’re interested in on a park map and plot your route. Just remember: any of those attractions you’ve pinned in your mind could go down for technical maintenance. Prepare to pivot to nearby activities if there’s a delay in operations.

2. Know Your Limits

There are high-velocity roller coasters, slow-moving dark rides, immersive 3D simulators, and dazzling shows. So, how will you know what is right for you? Good news: not only does each attraction post their health and safety advisories outside the entrance, but the parks often have a comprehensive guide as well. These pamphlets can be downloaded, or picked up in person and have explicit details for each experience. 

For example, most high-intensity attractions require riders to have the ability to sit upright, hold on with an upper extremity, as well as sustain the motion of the ride vehicle. These experiences will also require a lateral transfer, either independently or with assistance from your travel party. Conversely, some slower attractions can accommodate guests in a standard or personal wheelchair. You know your body best and the attendants know the ride best. So don’t be afraid to be honest with them. They will always be honest with you.

The best thing about theme park tickets is that most types have the ability to grant same day re-entry. If you know you’re ready for some time away, you can pop out to your hotel room for a time and return later. These destinations are large and you will cover a lot of miles, so there’s no shame in taking a break. It’s also a good way to avoid the Floridian sun at its brightest.

rosanna pansino saying oh i love this

3. Accommodations are Everywhere 

Theme parks have teams dedicated to advocate for accessibility. Below are some examples of the accommodations you may find:

  • For those in the Deaf/HOH communities, many attractions have handheld captioning, open captioning, or interpreter services. There are scheduled performances with ASL Interpretation, but you can request in advance for a specific time or performances.Please give them at least two-weeks' notice. ( resources here). 
  • For those in the Blind community, there are handheld audio description devices, braille/ large print guidebooks, and tactile maps (both stationary and portable). Service animals are always permitted in the parks and there are relief areas set aside for their potty breaks.  
  • For those with cognitive disabilities, these parks can provide a lot of external stimulation at once. There are usually designated quiet areas specifically set aside at First Aid. But, there are also plenty of places in the parks that are away from the crowds without removing yourself entirely. Pro-tip: If there isn’t a sensory room, First Aid will have rooms for nursing mothers. As long they are not in use, these are a great substitute as they’re dim and calm. 
  • For those using mobility aids there are many ways to get from point A to B. Park transportation, such as boats, buses, and trains are equipped with ramps. Most terrain is delightfully flat but wheelchair users should be aware that there may be uneven ground. Some parks are built on top of employee tunnel systems, which can lead to large inclines/declines on the Guest level. If you’re using a powerchair, it should prove to be a minimal challenge. If you’re a manual chair user, a theme park day definitely benefits from the use of an external power drive, a willing friend, or frequent breaks.
  • If you have dietary restrictions, each park has a team of nutritionists an email away. They’re happy to answer your questions before the trip even begins. In addition, medications that need to be refrigerated can often be kept at First-Aid for you.

drew barrymore taking notes

4. What an Accessibility Pass is and How it Works

If your condition(s) prevent you from waiting in extended attraction queues there are additional accommodations that can be requested. The Walt Disney Parks have a system called the Disability Access Pass (commonly referred to as DAS). At Universal Parks, it’s referred to as a Guest Assistance Pass (GAP for short).They allow the Guest and a certain number of party members to receive a return time for their desired attraction. Instead of standing in the queue, you will pass the time doing other things. These passes are not the best fit for everyone and there are limitations in order to keep the system effective. 

For example, if the condition/disability in question is aided by the use of a wheelchair the pass is usually not granted. This is due to the fact that queues are either ADA accessible or have alternative entrances. If the condition is not mobility-related, (i.e. cognitive like Autism Spectrum Disorder or physical like IBS/Crohn’s), these passes would be beneficial. Most U.S. based parks do not ask for proof of diagnosis or a doctor’s note, but be prepared to speak openly about your needs with a member of staff. They will never ask the specifics, so share to your comfort level.

5. Hydration and Heat 

It is supremely important to keep yourself topped up on water. If you’re not the biggest fan of water, I propose stocking up on electrolyte supplements (like Liquid IV or Nuun). Time and time again, especially in the summer, attendees will fall victim to heat stroke. To keep safe, here are a few pro-tips for you:

  1. You can bring your own water bottle through security! If it’s a disposable plastic bottle, it must retain the factory seal. If you’re bringing along a refillable bottle, it must be completely empty upon entering the parks. Don’t worry; there are plenty of places to fill up.
  2. Any quick-service location will provide you a cup of water upon request at no cost. You are not required to dine there; simply head up to the counter and ask! Be aware, these cups vary in size.
  3. Straws are no longer automatically provided but you can request one. Whether or not it will be plastic is a toss up, so if you know you’ll need a reliable straw it may want to bring one along. Drink lids are also not always available, so my advice? Request a coffee lid. It’ll prevent spills and most often you can stick a straw through the spout.

Vacation, no matter your ability level, should be attainable as well as enjoyable. I sincerely hope this overview of information and little nuggets of wisdom can help you on your next big trip to a theme park. So take lots of pictures, breathe in the thrills, and don’t forget to drink water. You’re gonna have the time of your life.