Walt Disney World has long been synonymous with family vacations. The sights, sounds, smells, and of course the rides and shows, all combine to create a truly magical experience. But for families dealing with a special need, the excitement of planning may be tempered by real-world concerns. What if my child gets overheated? I am not able to stand and walk long distances. How will we cope with the crowds?
Fortunately, at Walt Disney World, all of these concerns and more are easily and seamlessly handled. From ride vehicle designs that are above and beyond ADA requirements, to the legendary Cast Member guest service training, the Walt Disney World resort strives to give every guest, regardless of disability, a magical and stress-free experience.
I have had the opportunity to experience this first-hand on many occasions. I am the primary caregiver for my now-disabled father. I was raised in the parks as a child, and we continue to visit several times a month. I have found that with a bit of knowledge and planning, Walt Disney World is one of the best vacation destinations in the world for those facing special challenges.
Epcot, with its iconic “golf ball” entrance, is divided into two sections. Future World gives a look at the science and technology that await us in the not-so-distant future. World Showcase provides a World’s Fair type celebration of human cultures around the globe.
The parking lot resides directly outside Epcot’s front gates. If you have a disabled parking permit, you can park extremely close to the gates. There is also tram service from the far reaches of the lot. However, should you require one, courtesy wheelchairs are available free of charge in the disabled parking area. They are marked with flags, and permitted only between the parking area and the Stroller and Wheelchair Rental located just inside the park gates.
Once inside the gates, proceed directly to Stroller and Wheelchair Rental if required. For a nominal charge you may rent a wheelchair, ECV, or stroller. Rentals are popular, and often sell out early in the day, so plan to arrive early, particularly if you will be renting an ECV. Your rental is good for a full day, even if you leave and return, or park-hop. Simply return the wheelchair or ECV, then take your receipt to Wheelchair Rental at the next park, where you will receive a new one at no additional charge.
*Note* Epcot is a large, spread out park, and much of the terrain is somewhat hilly. I strongly recommend an ECV rather than a wheelchair, unless your “pusher” has a strong back and a lot of stamina. I can comfortably push my father in a wheelchair around the Magic Kingdom all day, but three hours at Epcot stretched me to the limit.
After you rent your wheelchair or ECV, proceed to Guest Relations. Disney offers a wide variety of adaptive devices and accommodations for every disability. Simply describe the nature of your disability and necessary accommodations to the Cast Member at the desk, and he or she will be happy to provide you with whatever you need.
Epcot was designed with a lot of open space. Pathways are large and roomy, and all queues are wheelchair accessible. Except around the World Showcase lagoon in the last hour prior to Illuminations, you should not run into significant difficulties with navigation even on busy days.
Future World is subdivided into two sides: East and West. Both sides roughly mirror each other, with rides and attractions dedicated to the technology of the near future.
All attraction queues are wheelchair accessible. Some difficulties with tight turns may be experienced on an ECV, particularly in the queue for The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Should you have any difficulties, speak with a Cast Member about possible alternative boarding arrangements.
All EPCOT attractions are accessible, though some require a transfer (either from ECV or power chair to standard wheelchair, or from chair to standard ride vehicle). Attractions of particular note to guests with special needs are Mission: Space, Soarin’, and Honey I Shrunk the Audience.
Mission: Space was designed in partnership with NASA to give guests the opportunity to experience an extremely realistic re-creation of the feelings of spaceflight. Apparently the experience was too realistic in some cases. Some park guests complained of dizziness, nausea, and headaches. Airsick bags were provided in the capsules.
Mission: Space now offers two separate versions—the Orange side (extremely intense, original version) and the Green side (less intense).
*Warning* Both sides involve being seated in a very small capsule with three other people, restrained with a shoulder harness. The film, on a personal viewing screen for each person, is loud and often dark with dizzying visual effects. Not recommended for those with claustrophobia or fear of loud noises. However, the capsule seating is capable of accommodating guests of larger size comfortably. Do not be afraid to experience this attraction due to size, but do pay attention to the claustrophobia warnings.
Sustained centrifugal force creating prolonged G-Forces in the range of 2.5. My father, who suffers from arthritis in his spine and breathing problems, is normally able to tolerate this side. However, he claims to feel pressure in his chest during liftoff, and he will opt to skip it if he is not feeling his best that day. Many guests, including those who have never before experienced motion sickness, complain of nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and headaches after experiencing this side. It is NOT recommended for those with heart, neck, back, or other disorders, or any form of motion sickness. Take the warnings seriously.
I have received conflicting reports. Some say that this side does not spin at all, however an inside source claims that it spins at 25% of the original rate. In any event, most park guests experience no ill effects from this side. The queue, ride vehicle, film, etc are exactly the same on this side, it just limits or eliminates the spinning.
This ride requires a bit of logistical trade-off for those with limited mobility traveling on ECVs. The front row is by far superior seating on this attraction, which lifts your ride vehicle into the air and moves it in tandem with a film projected on a giant projection screen dome. In any row except the first, you can see the feet and legs of the riders in front of you, thereby taking away a bit of your view.
The problem is this: The queue is extraordinarily long, much longer than any other queue on Disney property. Even with a Fast Pass, you must walk the full length of the queue. The queue is wide and easily accessible to both wheelchairs and ECVs. However, in order to board the front row, it is necessary to take a very sharp turn. This turn precludes guests on ECVs from boarding in the front row. Therefore, a guest with an ECV must choose between riding the ECV through the queue before transferring onto the ride vehicle, and getting a less perfect seat, or parking the ECV at the entrance to the queue and walking a particularly long distance in order to obtain better seating. Ultimately, the choice is yours.
*Tip* If you decide to park and walk, you may bring the ECV all the way into the Land pavilion, where Soarin’ is located, and park it at the entrance or exit of Soarin’. Also, be sure to ask the Cast Member at the boarding platform to seat you in the front row.
Honey I Shrunk the Audience
This fun film at the Journey Into Imagination pavilion is based on the hit Honey I Shrunk the Kids series. Wheelchair seating is available, however if you are able to transfer into a regular seat, I suggest doing so. In that way, you can experience the full effects of this 4-D theatre.
This World’s Fair inspired portion of the park poses no particular difficulties for guests with special needs. You may need to transfer to a ride vehicle for some attractions. Queues are easily accessible, and many pavilions offer films, shows, and outdoor entertainment that can be enjoyed from the comfort of your wheelchair or an available bench.
An illumination, the nightly fireworks show, takes place around the World Showcase Lagoon. Disabled viewing is available; check your park map for viewing locations. However, another option is to view the show from one of the World Showcase pavilions. A particular favorite is the outdoor seating area of the bakery in the Norway pavilion. You will have a slightly obscured view of some of the effects, but you will be able to make your way in about half an hour before park closing, grab a snack, and settle in to enjoy the show, all without having to fight the crowds. This will keep you back from the mad exodus immediately following the show as well, permitting you to finish your snack and make your way leisurely to the exit rather than risking a stampede.
Epcot is one of the largest theme parks in terms of physical distance in guest areas. Pushing a wheelchair will tax all but the hardiest of family members. An ECV is an excellent option for touring the park. You will find wide walkways, friendly Cast Members, and accessible queues. Epcot is an excellent park choice for guests with special needs.
Another article of interest: EPCOT for the vision and hearing impaired