The HandiChap is an ongoing project in which I review places and activities from the perspective of a person with a disability.
I started going to the “big” amusement parks in the early 1970’s, when once a year, my family would load up the station wagon and drive us to Florida for a few days in Walt Disney World before heading to the beach. Being born in 1971, the same year Disney World opened, I kind of grew up with the place. I also got to witness first hand how handicapped access policies have evolved over the years. Years later, in my 20’s, I developed a taste for thrill rides when my wife Candice convinced me to try the roller coasters at Six Flags Great America in Chicago. Up to that point there was no way I’d go on anything that hung you upside down. But most guys will do anything for a cute girl.
One important concept to remember is that normally rides are usually designed with passenger loading in one area, and passenger unloading in another area. Often you will enter on one side of the ride and exit on the other side of the ride. This means your wheel chair will have to be on the exit side when the ride ends.
Here are a few highlights (and lowlights) of my recent amusement park adventures.
Six Flags Great America, Chicago
Located just north of Chicago, this is within driving distance for me, so it’s the park I frequent most often. There are a lot of great rides, including several inversion coasters. The rides themselves are accessible via the exit ramp. The policy is that you visit an information desk when you arrive. You are then given an access pass listing all the “big” rides. Someone in your party takes this pass to the exit ramp of one of the rides, where an employee writes a time in one of the boxes on the pass. This is your return time. This time reflects the current wait time for someone in the normal line. You are free to do other things such as eat or go on some of the “smaller”, less busy rides, but you can’t get a return time for any other rides until you have ridden one ride first. When your return time arrives, you go up the exit ramp, wait a few minutes, and are loaded onto the ride.
On its face, this seems like a fair system. You are waiting as long as everyone else, but you don’t have to stay in line. However, in my experience, there are some major problems. First, the pass only allows the holder and three other people to enter the ride. So if you have more than three companions, the rest of your party will have to wait in line and not ride with you. Because I have a family of five, someone is always left out. Second, someone in your party is required to go up the exit ramp to the ride in order to get a return time. Sometimes the ramps are very long and involve a lot of ramps. So if two people in chairs are at the park together, someone is going to get tired rather quickly.
And third, the deal breaker. After your first visit of the season, you have to produce a letter from your doctor stating that you are disabled in order to get an access pass. You read that right. Even if you are in a wheel chair and have an obvious disability such as an amputation. No exceptions, you need a note from your doctor. I found this to be insulting and intrusive, and for this reason, I won’t be going back to Six Flags parks. Which is a shame, because they really do have some great rides.
HandiChap Rating: TWO CRUTCHES DOWN
Universal Studios, Florida
Admittedly, I haven’t been to Universal Studies in a few years, so their policies may have changed. However, I will base this review on my last visit.
Universal has a lot of great rides and attractions. At the time of my visit, Universal allowed wheel chair access not via the exit, but via the entrance using the normal, accessible line. Because of this, there was no limit to the number in your party. But because you entered on one side of the ride, someone would have to move a wheel chair to the exit while you are on the ride. Unfortunately the staff refused to do this, so someone in your party would have to skip the ride and move your chair. This breaks up your party and makes someone miss out. I also found the staff to be younger and not very well trained.
HandiChap Rating: ONE CRUTCH UP
Walt Disney World, Florida
I may appear biased because I have been to Disney parks in Florida so many times. However, the accessibility is one reason I keep coming back. For me, Walt Disney World in Florida is the gold standard for accessibility and has been ahead of every other park since the beginning.
Disney World is composed of four major parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom), as well as two water parks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach). The policies depend on each park and each ride may vary, so you will have to check with an employee before getting in line. This is because the rides were built up to 45 years ago, so accessibility will vary. Newer rides have accessible entrance lines. The employees seem well trained, and I have not met one yet who did not have an excellent grasp of the handicap policies for the ride they were working.
At Magic Kingdom, you are given an access pass much like the one in Six Flags, which you present at the exit in order to get a return time. However, this is only necessary for a few rides. Most will either allow you to wait in the normal line, or allow you to enter the ride via the exit after a short wait. After each ride, your chair will be waiting for you at the ride exit, even if an employee has to move your chair for you. There is no limit to the number in your party. I recently visited with a party of eight, and had no problem. Access at the other parks is the same, except that they do not require an access pass.
Transportation between parks (if you are staying at a Disney hotel) is provided via buses. These buses have changed and improved over the years. Currently, every bus is accessible via a ramp, and can hold up to two wheel chairs or scooters, which are strapped in the bus. Disabled riders are loaded on the bus first.
All other buildings such as restaurants and hotels are equipped with ramps and elevators.
Blizzard Beach is also accessible for the most part, via ramps and a ski lift that includes an accessible gondola. For some slides, you can use one of their water wheel chairs for free, so you don’t have to have someone move your chair to the end of the slide. I did not visit Typhoon Lagoon recently, so I can’t comment on accessibility, but according to employees, it is not accessible.
In all cases, Disney employees have leaned to the side of being more accommodating and lenient. I have never been given a hard time and have always felt welcome. I’ve also seen employees stretch the rules for me on several occasions.
HandiChap Rating: TWO CRUTCHES UP