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? As adults, we are sometimes 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 am the primary caregiver for my now-disabled father and have had the opportunity to experience this first-hand on many occasions. Being raised in the parks as a child, we still 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.
Animal Kingdom, as the newest park on Walt Disney World property, is also one of the most seamlessly accessible. It is, however, one of the largest. Sloping pathways and the sheer distance between attractions make an ECV preferable to a wheelchair when touring this park.
Courtesy wheelchairs are available in the disabled parking area, and as the walk from the parking lot to gates is fairly lengthy, I suggest utilizing one if you plan to rent a wheelchair or ECV. The courtesy wheelchairs are marked with flags and are only to be used between the parking lot and the Stroller and Wheelchair Rental located just inside the front gates.
Once inside the park, proceed to Stroller and Wheelchair Rental. You may rent a wheelchair or an ECV here (the ECV being generally the better choice for this park). Be sure to arrive early, as the rentals go fast. If you plan to leave the park and return, or visit another park in the same day, simply return your chair before exiting the park, then take your receipt to Stroller and Wheelchair Rental at your next location. You will not need to pay again within the same day.
Your next stop should be Guest Relations. Disney offers a variety of adaptive devices and accommodations for every disability. Simply describe the nature of your disability and needed accommodations to the Cast Member behind the desk, and he or she will provide whatever assistance you require.
You are now ready to begin your day. Animal Kingdom is part zoo, part theme park. One important consideration, depending on the time of year that you visit, is the heat. Most attractions are outdoors, and there is little shade in some areas. If you are heat sensitive, be sure to plan accordingly. Disney allows guests to bring in unopened bottles of water, and a few tucked into a backpack could make all the difference.
Animal Kingdom is divided into seven themed areas—the Oasis, Discovery Island, Africa, Camp Minnie-Mickey, Rafiki’s Planet Watch, Asia, and Dinoland USA. It is important to note that this is not a “rides park”, though there are some excellent rides here. This is a wonderful place to explore at a more leisurely pace. Most areas have nature trails, often housing beautiful animals, and all trails are fully accessible.
This is the park entrance, leading to the Tree of Life. There are no “attractions” here, however, be sure to keep an eye out for animal life.
Home of the 4-D show, It’s Tough to Be a Bug, which is housed inside the Tree of Life. Although the theater is fully accessible, if you can transfer to a seat, I strongly suggest doing so. This will enable you to fully experience the 4-D effects.
Get immersed into Pandora, the land of Avatar, and be amazed by the detail that went into recreating this picturesque land. From floating mountains to the colorful sparkling brilliance of walking through this land at night!
The main attraction here is the Kilimanjaro Safari. A 20-minute ride in a safari jeep through the Harambe Wildlife Preserve, the Safari does allow guests the option of remaining in a standard wheelchair. If you decide to do so, simply join the regular queue, and at a certain point, you and your party will be directed to a separate loading dock. The ride is quite bumpy, but most guests tolerate it well.
Formerly Conservation Station, this area offers a behind-the-scenes look at animal care, as well as several interactive exhibits mostly focusing on protecting the Earth and its animals. It can be reached only by Wildlife Express train. The trains are fully accessible, and if you have limited mobility, keep your chair with you. Once you arrive at the station, you still have quite a walk ahead of you to get to the exhibits.
Affection Section, the petting zoo, is accessible, however, due to crowds of small children and animals, my advice would be not to take an ECV into that area. You can park it just outside the gate and pick it up when you are finished.
This area is home to two of Animal Kingdom’s thrill rides, Expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids. Both rides carry health restrictions, and both require a transfer from a wheelchair into a ride vehicle. Also, on Kali River Rapids, you will get wet. You will likely get soaked. Be sure to plan accordingly.
As with all lands, Asia is also home to nature trails, which are fully accessible and worth a visit. Don’t miss the Maharajah Jungle Trek, home of tigers, a Komodo Dragon, and many other beautiful animals.
This area features two rides of special note to guests with disabilities, Dinosaur and Primeval Whirl. Dinosaur is a thrill ride combining a track layout with simulator effects. It carries health restrictions and is quite bumpy, featuring shakes, turns, and fast cornering. It is also dark, loud, and somewhat scary.
All other attractions in Dinoland USA are accessible and should pose no problems for guests with special needs.
Animal Kingdom is a wonderful place to explore. Be sure to consider the weather, and plan to visit when you are not rushed for time. It is easily accessible and offers a very different experience from the other parks. An excellent choice for all guests, regardless of disability.