Last Wednesday morning, just after we arrived at the Magic Kingdom, Gabriella and I waited on a short standby line for Prince Charming’s Carousel. Lisa and Alexander had fast-passed Space Mountain, and my daughter and I were taking in the sights and sounds of Disney World, beginning with Cinderella’s castle. From the moment we came through the front gates, her face had brightened with joy.
A cast member directed us to a separate entrance marked with a wheelchair and soon they helped us roll into an accessible ‘car’ on the merry-go-round. All around, eager riders had climbed onto well-crafted horses. As we waited, we heard Chim Chim Cher-ee, one of Gabriella’s favorite tunes from Mary Poppins.
Then the bell sounded, like in the memorable scene from Poppins, and the platform began to rotate. She gloried in the sight of the horses and riders rising and plunging. When the ride ended, I tried to get the cast member’s attention to unload us, but even waving my arms was unsuccessful. When he did his final rounds for the next circuit, he saw us and realized he had forgotten about us. He apologized … and invited us to go around again. Which we did.
While the oversight was unusual at Disney, the flexibility and generosity were anything but.
This time Gabriella grew excited at the opening bell, knowing what was coming next, and she enjoyed it even more. As we rode, I recalled our last visit three years ago, when a cast member working the Winnie-the-Pooh ride offered us a second turn.
This became a familiar theme for us last week, with our good fortune on the carousel followed by other ‘double chances’. As we boarded the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, the cast member said we were welcome to ride twice, and mentioned several other rides throughout the park (including Pooh and Jungle Cruise) that allowed second trips. We especially enjoyed Aladdin because Lisa and I were both able to sit with her as we rose and dipped and ducked the water-squirts from the camels around the perimeter.
This was our fourth trip to Disney as a family, and we’ve always found it far more accessible than other theme parks. More than just about anywhere else. But it’s been interesting to watch the evolution over 17 years.
The first time we visited, two months after 9/11, they gave preferential treatment to people with disabilities. When we approached a ride, we were led to the front of the queue. Both of our kids had autograph books, and the cast members working the character greetings moved us forward. While we were relieved that our daughter didn’t have to wait in the hot sun, we also felt badly … and even more when a girl we jumped ahead of cried.
On subsequent trips, we left the autograph collections at home. When we wanted to meet characters, we found short lines or joined breakfasts where they featured.
By our third trip, Disney changed their policy in response to visitors taking advantage. We heard that some families actually ‘rented’ a person with disabilities to avoid waiting in line. Now the parks issue people like our daughter special status that enables them to go to a ride and receive a return time (often an hour or more later) rather than standing out in the sun. It’s another way they’ve created access.
The thing I love most about Disney World is that they plan accessibility into the design of their attractions. The park brochures are clear which rides allow a passenger to remain in her own wheelchair, which require a transfer, and which are not accessible.
In each case, Disney invests big in welcoming people with disabilities. In addition to accessible vehicles within many rides, they devote both space for alternate pathways that are just as well decorated. And they provide cast members at every gate, always happy to help us load and unload.
Because it’s difficult to lift Gabriella up or down into position, we limit ourselves to one or two rides in each park that require transfers. She has always enjoyed Soarin’ in Epcot, and this year she got to experience the Na’vi River Journey, part of the new Pandora world within Animal Kingdom. (We will write to ask that they add an accessible car to this ride by our next visit, and are grateful that they are open-minded enough to consider it.)
During our earlier visits, we worried that the parks would present Gabriella with sensory overload. Now we focus on sound. We have an excellent set of noise-reducing headphones that allows her to hear at a reduced level without becoming overwhelmed. Nowhere was this more appreciated than at the Rivers of Light show; on our prior trips Animal Kingdom closed at 6 pm, but along with staying open later they have added this new attraction that accomplishes with water what the Magic Kingdom does with fireworks. Comfortable within her headphones, Gabriella gushed Whoo-ee over and over as they projected images of animals on spraying fountains.
But it’s not just the splashy rides and shows that make Disney magic for our daughter. From the butternut squash soup at Boma, to the motion of the train around the Magic Kingdom and the ferry to Disney Springs, to the beeping of the monorail and even in our elevator in Bay Lake Tower, she basked in the overall experience.
Gabriella even enjoyed the AutoTrain. She didn’t seem to mind the multi-hour delays in both directions. She was probably aware we were on our way to her two favorite places on earth, Disney World and home.