I just got back from Disney World. It was far from my first time there; I’ve lost count of how many visits I’ve made to the place. But this was my FIRST trip to Walt Disney World in a wheelchair. And that’s the story.
This entry is going to be longer than my usual 500-word spiel, so I’ve more-tagged it out of mercy for those who would prefer to skip. So if you’d like to read on, please step all the way into the blog post, keeping your hands, arms and legs inside the reading material at all times.
Not having fought in World War I or worked with threshing equipment, I am not missing any limbs. So I spent the year of trip planning absolutely terrified of the wheelchair concept. What would people think when they saw an apparently able-bodied woman cruising around the Magic Kingdom at her leisure, skipping lines and avoiding the Disney Curse of throbbing feet? How would the wheelchair work? Would it be really heavy to haul around during the times I wasn’t riding? In other words, good old-fashioned fear of the unknown combined with that oh-so-Midwestern-Anabaptist conscienciousness of pulling one’s fair share of the weight. (Not for nothing did we Midwestern Anabaptists found some of the more successful socialist communities in history.) Thanks to the insistence of family members who have had a front row seat to my decline and the persistence of friends who both know Disney and know about caring for relatives with health issues I caved and ordered the chair from Walker Mobility a few weeks before our trip. If I could still cross my fingers I would have done, because there was a LOT more than my pudgy crippled body riding on this little chair.
When we last went to Florida in October of 2008 neither my husband nor I were quite aware of how my disease would affect our trip. I assumed that the standard daily naptime would be fine and that otherwise I would proceed just how I always had–walking and carrying a small bag of our things. Since I wasn’t pushing a stroller I figured I was already getting off much easier than my mother had during the Disney trips she made at my age and I should just grin and bear it. By the end of the week both my husband and I were angry, embarrassed, disappointed and–worst of all–realising just how bad this Rheumatoid Arthritis thing actually was. When we wearily climbed aboard the (misnamed) Magical Express bus to take our return flight, neither of us were eager to ever come back to the place we once had considered our home-away-from-home. It took a year and a half for me to even think of Disney in kind terms, and another half year to consider possibly returning. The tipping point was when we began planning our 20th Anniversary trip and realised that a flight to Hawaii (the trip we’d been shooting for for 20 years) was a physical impossibility for me. I hesitatingly advanced the idea of returning to WDW and that slowly became our plan.
And then there we were, checking in like we always had before. Thrilling to the sound of “Welcome Home!” from the Cast Member at the concierge desk in the Wilderness Lodge and getting geeked at the sight of our Keys To The World–those room keys which also act as park tickets and charge cards and adorable souvenirs. Suddenly it could no longer be avoided.
“I was told there would be a wheelchair waiting here for me. It was rented through Walker Mobility.”
No klaxons sounded, no red light whirred. No one asked to see a doctor’s note as proof of infirmity. A second woman merely smiled and said she’d go get it but she might be a few minutes because there “were a lot down there.” It seems that people who can’t walk CAN go to Disney World after all. And a few seconds later there it was. Folded in half, much smaller than I thought it would be, yet looking sturdy enough to bear me and whatever packages I might be toting. I began to call it my “Umbrella Wheelchair” as it so very much reminded me of those old strollers from the 70s.
Soon we were wheeling back through the lobby, on our way to our traditional first day pursuit of riding the Monorail around the World and easing back into the Disney way of life. At our first stop–the bubbling hot spring in the lobby–I insisted on a picture to memorialise the occasion. (I had no idea that the Dercum’s tumors in my stomach would make me look so well-rounded.) We had a chair that was nearly as good as having wings and we were off.It was while waiting in line for the Monorail that I realised the universal truth of being in a wheelchair. You are at eye level with the butts of the world. And people touch their butts more than they realise. I think folks are assuming that everyone’s eyes are three feet further up and not necessarily looking when they adjust underwear, confront itchy rumpcheeks etc. I was either going to have a front row seat to surruptitious hind grooming or learn to keep my eyes aimed permanently upward. In the end (hah!) it was not a hard skill to master, given the alternative.
And here’s the second thing you should know about being in a wheelchair at Disney. All the Cast Members (Disneyspeak for “folks who work here”) are extremely helpful, polite and kind. But you will have to interact with them MUCH more than when you were on your own two legs. Wheelless, I would get on and off the Monorail as the whims guided, sitting anywhere I wanted and seeing what I wanted to see. But the chair requires an access ramp so you need to tell the cast member where you are planning on debarking. You go in the car they put you in and you stare out the direction your chair is aimed, with your back to the other window.
When we went into the Magic Kingdom on Monday the pattern continued. Cast Members who would merely nod or offer one-word greetings to other patrons all made sure to look me in the (much lower down) eye and greet me with a full sentence. “Welcome to the Magic Kingdom, Ma’am. How are you today?” I would of course respond in kind and offer the huge smile and “Thank you!” that are my normal stock in trade. That alone–the fact that I had actual interactions–made me feel a lot less bovine than I have on other trips. Ironic, when you think about it. But being singled out did have peculiar disadvantages. The main one being the “line skipping”.
Here’s the thing…years ago the wheeled at Disney (and their entire party) WERE able to “go to the front of the line” as it were. Then the irretrievably obnoxious got wise to this and started renting a wheelchair for their group and using it to hop lines. So the policy changed. Now that’s fine with me, really, because I wasn’t in this to find shortcuts. I wanted to be treated as normally as possible while finding a way to enjoy my trip within my new parameters. But we were there in a time with virtually no lines. Rides that would enjoy hour-long waits during peak season were virtual walk-ons. Trouble is, if you’re not WALKING on, you’ve got a whole different ride to enjoy.
A cast member is always stationed at the very front of whichever attraction you’re visiting. In this example I’m going to single out “Pirates Of The Carribean” for no other reason than the surprise we got at the end.
Cast Member: “Welcome To Pirates of the Carribean, ma’am. Are you able to transfer?” (By this they want to know if you can get out of the wheelchair and take a few steps to board the ride conveyance.)
Assuming you’ve answered “yes” then the next instruction comes–often quickly, and often aimed in a direction where only one of you–the party in the chair or the party whose ears are two-and-a-half-feet higher, attached to the head of the person pushing you–can hear: “From here you’ll go up to the line in the building and keep to your left.”
When you get to the actual line ANOTHER cast member stands at the ready to drop the rope for you to pass through a larger entry gate. Be prepared to be asked about your transferring ability AGAIN. Also be prepared for people with strollers to cut in front of you.* From here you’ll wait in whatever line there is for everyone else. If there are children in the line with you, half of them WILL stare at your feet and legs to try to see what put you in the chair. In my case my feet were pretty heavily bound (a necessity with my type of arthritis) and DID look “funny”. Once at the front of the line you’ll be asked a third time about transferring. Then they’ll tell you to go all the way up to the numbered-slot corresponding with your boat seat and to leave the chair with them on the dock. From here you’ll hobble on board and enjoy the ride. And there is a pretty good amount of hobbling you’ll do, even if you AREN’T suffering from arthritic lower limbs. You’ve been riding a wheeled thing around all day and suddenly you are two feet taller and on solid ground, and even more suddenly stepping into a slightly-rocking boat or ride car. There’s a small amount of dizziness that comes with this operation. From there the rest of the ride is like it always was. Until the end.
In every Disney Ride the wheelchaired either get a truncated boarding experience or an abrupt disembarking. On Pirates Of The Caribbean the rest of the world leaves up a moving ramp through an elaborately-themed exitway. Those of us in wheelchairs are instead directed to a door right off the side. You press the Manual And Automatic Door button (how quickly those things become your pusher’s friend!) and suddenly you are out of the ride and…in the back of an office complex circa 1975. From a tiny cream-coloured stucco vestibule you’ll board an elevator that looks exactly like the ones I used to ride when I worked in an old building on Music Row. Wood paneling, steel floor, ivory-painted metal door and chrome siderails all around. The first time we exited the ride we had to hang back while young people dressed like pirates pushed several empty wheelchairs out of the elevator and the mystery of how my chair got there was solved. The slooow piston elevator then spills you outwards, into another cream stucco corridor that looks like the back hallway in a shopping mall. It’s a decidedly prosaic experience.
There are some other rides–Haunted Mansion, Snow White, Small World–where instead of waiting with everyone else and leaving through a strange door you will be taken through an alternate door that LOOKS to others as though you are skipping the line. What is really happening is that you are being taken around to the back of the ride where you will wait (in some cases, like the Haunted Mansion, you’ll have a longer wait than the walking folks) to board the ride at the exit. So the myth persists about wheelchairs jumping line, yet it is just that. A mistaken belief held by people who see PART of the story and assume the rest.
What I can’t stress enough, though, is how NORMAL the whole thing will feel. You are never treated with anything less than the utmost courtesy and kindness by staffers. The very few people who stare or cut you off are vastly outnumbered by those who will hold doors, smile kindly or just treat you as normally as they would anybody else. Of course, the crowd reaction to folks in chairs varies from park to park within Walt Disney World. My experience on this trip was that the Magic Kingdom was by far the best park to experience from a seated position. You have the bonus of seeing the whole thing the way you did when you you were six and eight and that much shorter. Designed to appeal to children’s eyes as well as adults, there is much to see at every level and the immersiveness of the park is a tonic. EPCOT is the second-best place to be, even though the crowds are a bit surlier and pushier. We didn’t try Hollywood Studios for a number of reasons unrelated to the chair, but we did attempt Animal Kingdom.
Ironically, the most recently-built park is the absolute WORST place for those of us on wheels. Unless you really really really love animals, have fantastic dental work and a very strong bladder I would advise anyone in a wheelchair to just skip Animal Kingdom and do anything else. Taking your car to have its muffler fixed would be a more enjoyable experience in my opinion. Part of the problem is the park’s design; it’s meant to make you feel like you’re in a lush, wild and foreign landscape. This means there are few things at eye-level to engage those seated, and it’s much harder to maintain your directional orientation. The cast members are not as charming–more on that in a minute–and the few rides there are don’t seem suited for the disabled as they are all jostly, swaying and actually painful. Even the bug movie jabs you right in the back, and I was wholly unprepared for a spinal tap that day. All of this, however, pales in comparison to the pathways in Animal Kingdom. They are purposely unevenly laid, with additional pits and bumps meant to simulate the roadways in remote African and Asian villages. If you have any loose fillings, bridgework or jewelry you’ll rattle like the hind end of a snake for the entire day.
Perhaps my favourite thing about visiting in the chair was that I got more honest interaction with Cast Members than I have in the past. Because they seem to be under some sort of directive to make the disabled feel especially welcome, the Cast Members do speak to you not only in line but in other situations as well. Since I’m the sort of person to honestly ask folks how they are doing, I ended up getting some honest answers. While this may not be part of the Disney Handbook, I really DID enjoy hearing about the personal woes and opinions of the occasional working stiff. That was how I learned that the guests at Animal Kingdom are generally ruder than in other parks and tend to shove a lot more and refuse to abide by line rules. It was how I learned that the Cast Members in the hotel prefer to do four days of doubles if they can have Friday and Saturday off so they miss the bulk of check-ins. How I learned that any Cast Member would much rather talk to a guest than just standing around.
So yes. There are things you can’t do–like rub the head of the last bat in line at the Haunted Mansion or get your own Dole Whip. But the sides of Disney you see are engaging, enchanting, informative or–at the very least–funny as all get out. I’ll never ride an old elevator again without feeling like I just got off a pirate boat. If you are contemplating going to Disney World in a wheelchair I promise you it beats not going at all, hands down.You won’t feel ashamed–like I thought I would. You won’t feel second-class, like I feared. Most importantly, the people you’re going with will also enjoy themselves more. Wheeling a chair around is a lot less restrictive than being held captive by your illness. It’s not a bad way to have a really good time.
*There is an unspoken heirarchy with wheeled conveyances within Disney World. Wheelchairs get more respect than ECVs, simply because people are conditioned to believe that those in wheelchairs are more likely to have an actual health problem, whereas the ECV people are often “just cruising.” This prejudice is reinforced by the families who rent ECVs and take turns riding them around like hot rods. But the stroller people…ah. The Stroller People. I think they are tired from shoving sleeping, screaming babies around. (The post about why people bother taking their babies to Disney World is for another day.) But the Stroller People will cut you off over and over again, assuming that the ramp or open gate you’ve been waiting five minutes for was put there just for them. Thankfully Cast Members are pretty adept with hand motions that instruct the Stroller People to hang back for the wheelchair. Otherwise there may have been some curt words coming from this chairbound opinionated woman.