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? Does Disney assist guests using wheelchairs ?
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.
The Magic Kingdom is probably the best-known of all the Walt Disney World theme parks. As the original park, it was built prior to modern ADA accessibility requirements, and so presents unique challenges. However, Disney has done a remarkable job at retrofitting the attractions, and as always guest service and assistance from Cast Members is top-notch. Ask about procedures at each attraction, as not all queues are wheelchair-accessible. If that is the case, however, you will generally be taken through the ride exit for boarding. Additionally, many rides require that you “transfer” either to a standard wheelchair or from the wheelchair into a standard ride vehicle. Again, the Cast Members are well-trained and will assist you in every way possible.
*Note* Cast Members are not permitted to physically assist a guest. The Cast Member will steady the wheelchair or strap it onto the ride vehicle, but a guest who is transferring can be physically assisted only by members of his or her party.
The Magic Kingdom parking lot is located at the Transportation and Ticket Center. From there, guests may ride a monorail or ferry boat to the park gates. Should a member of your party require a wheelchair or ECV, courtesy wheelchairs are available in the disabled area of the parking lot. You are permitted to use one of these wheelchairs free of charge to assist you in getting from your car to the Wheelchair Rental located just inside the front gates. However, these chairs are marked are with flags, and are not permitted to be taken further into the park.
Wheelchairs and ECVs, as well as strollers, may be rented at Stroller and Wheelchair Rental for a nominal charge. If you plan to visit on a crowded day, be sure to arrive early, particularly if you would like an ECV. Rentals are extremely popular and tend to go quickly. Your rental is good for the entire day, even if you leave the park and return, or if you park-hop. Simply return the wheelchair or ECV before leaving the park, then take your receipt to Wheelchair Rental at the next park and receive a new one at no additional charge.
Be sure to make Guest Relations your first stop upon entering the park (after renting a wheelchair or ECV if needed). Depending on your specific needs, Disney offers a wide array of adaptive devices and accommodations. Simply describe the nature of the disability and necessary accommodations to the Cast Member at the desk, and he or she will provide you with the needed assistance.
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Magic Kingdom Districts
The Magic Kingdom is divided into seven distinct, themed lands – Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Mickey’s Toontown Fair, and Tomorrowland. After renting your wheelchair or ECV if needed, and visiting Guest Services, you are ready to begin your day.
The Magic Kingdom terrain is fairly flat and even, and the park is compact, presenting no particular navigational difficulties. The exception to this rule is during parades and just before the evening fireworks show. Crowds begin to pack the sidewalks and thoroughfares quite early, making navigation significantly more difficult. Plan ahead for these events. If you plan to view the parade or fireworks, check your park map to locate disabled viewing areas, and make your way there at least an hour prior to showtime. If you do not care to see a particular event, check your park map for the route, and plan to explore the other side of the park during that time.
*Tip* There are often two parades. During the earlier parade, take advantage of diminished wait times and go on popular rides. Then see the second parade with a much smaller audience.
Mostly home to shops and restaurants along a beautiful re-creation of an early 20th century small town street. The shops stay open at least an hour past park closing, and will be extremely crowded right at park open and close. If you wish to shop, right before closing grab a hot dog at Casey’s or some ice cream, sit at an outdoor table and people-watch for awhile, then visit the shops as the crowds begin to thin.
*Caution* Watch out for the trolley car tracks running the length of Main Street to the “Hub” (the circular area just outside Cinderella’s Castle). They are easy to negotiate once you realize they are there, but could present wheelchair or crutch difficulties, as well as difficulties to the vision-impaired, if not noticed.
A collection of attractions based on the mystery and romance of exotic lands. All attractions are able to accommodate those with special needs (you may need to transfer), with one notable exception: The Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse. The Treehouse is a walk-through re-creation of the Treehouse built by the Robinsons following their shipwreck. Numerous stairs are involved, and there is no elevator. If you are able to climb stairs, it is worth seeing, and you are welcome to leave your wheelchair or ECV parked at the bottom.
Attractions here are based on the theme of the Old West. Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad have health restrictions, but are accessible to guests meeting the requirements who are able to transfer. Tom Sawyer’s Island is mostly accessible for standard wheelchairs (some tight areas and some stairs to play areas), but for safety reasons does not permit ECVs.
The theme is that of a Colonial town. The Haunted Mansion is accessible via transfer to the ride vehicle, and the Hall of Presidents is fully accessible.
Where fairytales and Disney cartoons come to life. All attractions are accessible (some through transfer), though their queues generally are not. Ask at each attraction for more information.
*Tip* Fantasyland is extremely crowded during midday, with strollers vying for limited walking space. Plan to visit this land earlier or later in the day.
*Tip* If you are somewhat mobile, but require a wheelchair or ECV for long distances, park your chair in the Stroller Parking area located on the Liberty Square side of the land. Attractions are extremely close together, and you can see several before retrieving your chair.
*Tip* If you are more interested in the pyrotechnics than the storyline, this is an excellent spot to be in during the evening fireworks. You will be behind the Castle, and will not see the laser projections and such. However, you will be literally surrounded by fireworks, and will not have to fight the crowds.
A town fair featuring your favorite Disney characters, including an opportunity to meet Mickey at his house. Goofy’s Barnstormer, a kid-size coaster with enough thrills for adults as well, has health restrictions. All other attractions are easily accessible. This is a newer area of the park, built after the ADA requirements went into effect, and spaces are larger and more easily navigable overall. This is also an excellent area in which to rest while the kids in your party burn off some energy.
“The future that never was and always will be” Space Mountain has health restrictions, and as an indoor dark roller coaster may be inappropriate for some guests. All attractions are accessible (some by transfer). Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin and Stitch’s Great Escape take place in the dark as well, complete with loud noises. Be aware that some people might be frightened by the effects on those attractions.
Though the Magic Kingdom was built many years before modern ADA requirements went into effect, Disney has put great effort into making its signature park as accommodating and comfortable as those built many years later. No matter what your disability or special need, you can look forward to your Magic Kingdom vacation, knowing that you will be treated with respect and seamless accommodation by those eager to ensure that your vacation is magical.