How using a wheelchair changes the theme park experience

October 2, 2013, 11:09 AM · My theme park life can be divided in two parts; my able body experience and my disabled experience. 1999 was the year that changed the way I would experience the same rides that I rode before. Ending up in a wheelchair with no ability of standing up on my own and with upper torso weakness, it changed my ride’s experience. Actually the changes have been from the minimal to the impossible.


On the minimal side is E.T.; this ride has a special vehicle that can carry a wheelchair. It was exactly the same experience than when I was body able. Even better, the wheelchair always goes on the first row; the first time I rode it (body able) I was on the last row, and the first row is much better because the feeling of flying is more real.

Disaster falls in the same category as E.T., but with a slight change. Like E.T., this ride can accommodate a wheelchair, but that spot is on the first row to the left when entering the train. It is not the best spot, and the experience was less exciting with the wheelchair.

Other rides with minimal change were all the ones that accepted wheelchairs, such as it’s a Small World and the river boat at Epcot’s Mexican pavilion (the only change in these rides is that I see everything from a higher height, and when another boat bumps behind my boat, I feel a stronger jolt).

Going down the ladder are the rides where I have to transfer (with help of family members). The first time I rode Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom, I experienced the stretching room. People in wheelchairs have to enter through the exit, so I never saw that room again. Cast members stop the ride so one can transfer. Once seated, it is the same experience.

Going further down the ladder are the rides that are difficult to transfer. When I rode Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom in 1996, it was relaxing and enjoyable; when I rode it again in 2001, it was relaxing and enjoyable except for the transfer out of the boat. The family member who rode it with me could not get me out, and we got lucky that there was a guest who helped us. After that experience I never rode Splash Mountain again. I miss that ride.

Going even further down the ladder are the rides that I don’t feel comfortable anymore. I rode Dinosaur in the nineties; by then I found it exhilarating, but when I rode it again in the 2000s, I felt that I was going to slip out of the vehicle. I was lucky that my brother-in-law was sitting next to me, and he hold me tight. This time I did not enjoy the ride at all.

Space Mountain

At the bottom of the ladder are the rides that are impossible to experience again. I enjoyed Space Mountain (MK) in 1996; now I don’t even dare to try. It’s a low vehicle with only one seat per row and very narrow. Very narrow leg room as well. Another impossible ride that I enjoyed in the nineties and became non-accessible for me was Spaceship Earth at Epcot. The disabled had to enter the ride through the exit, and they had to climb stairs! A few years ago they changed those stairs for a ramp, and I was able to experience the ride again.

Being a theme park fan and disabled sucks (for a lack of a better word), but one day I saw something that changed my perspective of life; there was a blind girl in front of me at one of the rides, and even though she couldn’t see the ride itself, she was able to listen to the music and feel the movement of the vehicle. Her imagination must have gone wild. Nevertheless, I felt blessed that I still can see the sights, and it also was a learning experience that no matter what limitations one can have, there is always an enjoyment to be had in a theme park.

Replies (12)

October 2, 2013 at 11:30 AM · Thank you for perspective on what it's like to be wheelchair bound in a theme park. As someone who cares for a disabled person, I can attest that it definitely changes the world around you. It's why I get so angry at those who try to "beat the system" by renting a wheelchair or scooter when it's not actually needed. There are those who need assistance or special vehicles, those who would prefer to be able to use standard queues and experience the ride as most others do. Mom's favorite rides are Splash Mountain and Pirates Of The Caribbean, both of which she will never be able to experience again. It breaks my heart, however I am very grateful for those rides that have been made accessible as the smile on her face tells all.
October 2, 2013 at 11:45 AM · I'd like to add that Men In Black and Cat in the Hat also has wheelchair accessible cars.
October 2, 2013 at 12:45 PM · I know Richard, but my article is about rides that were open when I was able to walk, and the rides that you mention opened after I was left in a wheelchair. So there is no way to compare them before and after my disability.
October 2, 2013 at 2:00 PM · Daniel, I love your columns. They are so important because they give such a great perspective that no one else writes. It is such a joy to see something new from you. I learn something every time.
October 2, 2013 at 3:54 PM · Interesting discussion. You can't experience the same way most able bodied person can. It got me thinking about other things related to the using of wheelchairs.

1. Even if you transfer to the Train, you must leave the wheelchair at the station. You can't leave at the next station.

2. Can you feel your legs? You will miss out on some special effects at the 3D theater shows.

3. Most marque rides are thrills. Doesn't that impede enjoyment especially since you can't brace yourself or standup? I would think you're also more susceptible to nausea.

4. Interactive rides like Buzz Lightyear isn't much fun if you can't shoot the laser guns.

5. Many seats are slippery especially the Fantasyland dark rides. You will slip onto the floor if can't sit upright and no one is there to help you.

On the bright side, you can still enjoy the parks.

October 2, 2013 at 5:02 PM · Anon, I miss any effect that involves the legs, but I don't mind. I enjoy the rest that a 4D movie has to offer. The train at Magic Kingdom is wheelchair accessible, but the station on main street is not. You are right about the interactive rides; I don't have strength on my hands to shoot the targets, and this makes those rides boring for me. One exception is Toy Story because it's easier for me to pull a string. And yes, thrill rides are too rough for me unless it has an over-the-shoulder restraint; that is why I don't have a problem with Forbidden Journey.

October 2, 2013 at 6:20 PM · My wife was diagnosed with MS shortly after we started going to WDW with my sons, we got to see the progression of doing Disney as an able bodied person to a walking with a cane to using an ECV to being wheelchair dependent.
Our experience has changed but not our love of enjoying the parks, it takes us a little longer and the rides my wife can enjoy has diminished but Disney is still one of the easier vacations for us to enjoy as a family.
October 3, 2013 at 3:43 AM · For me this is a though read. The next time I go to the parks it'll be in a chair and that is a bummer.
With the changes Disney is putting in it's service for disabled people I think a stay at Universal is much better.

Anyway thanks for your article and please keep them coming.

October 3, 2013 at 5:31 PM · I'm glad you got to ride Spaceship Earth again, but I need to correct an error. (And let you know you actually could have ridden it sooner than you think).
It never had stairs from the handicapped entrance ( from the exit). We have been coming to WDW with a person using a wheelchair since 1987. She can't walk or stand without someone holding her up. We have ridden Spaceship Earth with her at least once a year and actually bring her wheelchair right into the boarding area, almost touching the ride car.
There are no stairs and never were in that area.

What they DID add in the last 10 years is an ADA ride car with a side door which opens wider than the 'regular' ride car. That makes it easier to get in.

October 3, 2013 at 10:29 PM · I am deaf myself, I like how accessible some of the attractions at Disney World are, for instance, the Hall of Presidents, you can watch the show with closed captions. Although I do think they need to switch from Rear Window Captioning (RWC) to CaptiView (CV) or Sony's Access Glasses (SAG) because with CV and SAG, you can sit anywhere you want to. With RWC, you are restricted to a certain spot. Myself, I prefer to sit in the centre and that is made possible with CV and SAG. Most of the times, the RWC seatings are often at the very edge of the row, so as a result, you can't always see everything on the stage because of the angle you are at. RWC is an old and outdated technology, it's time for a change.

Universal Studios parks are accessible too as well. In fact, they put captions right on a second viewer at some of their attractions. For instance, The Simpsons Ride. They also have sign language interpreters there on a daily basis. Disney parks only have interpreters a couple times per week at each park and once at Animal Kingdom. It was wonderful to have the interpreters at the Universal Studios parks on any given day, this way, I didn't have to pick the day I would have to go just to take advantage of the interpreters.

What truly astonished me about the Disney parks was how many cast members knew some sign language. Something that I didn't expect at all. Both Universal Studios and Disney Parks have their pros and cons.

October 6, 2013 at 2:52 PM · Paul, I'd never noticed that with RWC. I actually strongly prefer RWC to Captiview because I can put the plastic thing right in front of the screen and have it look pretty much the same as open captions (which would be my preference). The local theaters only offer captiview (which admittedly is still much better than nothing!) and I find I have to either block part of the screen, or look back and forth between the action and the captions.
October 7, 2013 at 10:36 AM · In response to your comment, it sounds like SAG (Sony's Access Glasses) is the best fit. This is an option they would be able to utilize at the Disney parks. I see your point about the RWC being able to overlap while CaptiView would block the view. The reason why I prefer CaptiView to RWC is because you don't have to determine where to sit and try to adjust it so the captions will show up, and that it won't be too big, too small, etc. I've had situations where the captions were too big that they wouldn't fit on the panel.

A while ago, they invested in a handheld captioning device that you carry around, it looks like a small tablet of some sort. You have to make a deposit of $25 and you will get it back by the time you return the device. The device is full of glitches, I suspect it's something to do with the radio interference.

Anyway, the SAG probably would work the best if it's modified and made more light so you can carry it around the park. It would be better than the RWC and the CaptiView, and you would not have to ask anyone to activate it as long as they are in the wifi range of the attraction itself. Less work for everyone involved. Just some ideas I had in mind.

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