If you or your friends or family have a disability, there’s no reason you can’t enjoy a vacation at Disney World. This post is a continuation of my interview with Bob Minnick, the Technical Director of Global Accessibility and Facility Safety at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. He explained to me how Disney theme parks are committed to providing access to guests with disabilities. I’ve captured some highlights from our discussion here, and then summarized the services offered to guests with disabilities.
Dr. Val: Why is Disney so committed to universal access?
Minnick: Walt was all about guest service – he wanted the place to work for everybody, even guests who have unique needs. Our mantra is “guest service,” not “compliance.” We do things because it’s the right thing to do. For example, we were building wheelchair-accessible rides long before the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) became law. Also, we won’t patent a ride vehicle design because there are only so many ways to make rides accessible. If we invented a great idea and patented it, then nobody else could use it. Since we’re about creating access for everybody, we don’t mind if people use the idea or approach to improve the world we live in for people with disabilities.
Dr. Val: This must cost a lot – what’s the business case for it?
Minnick: I’m truly blessed to work for a company that “gets it.” We want to bring our guest service amenities to everybody. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s the Disney brand. For us, it’s worth the investment to give everyone the opportunity to experience the joy and magic of Disney parks. All the senses are stimulated at Disney – scents, sights, sounds, and touch and we want to enable as much of the sensory experience as we can for all our guests.
Dr. Val: Do any of your competitors go out of their way like you do to accommodate guests with disabilities?
Minnick: Many in the industry are doing a great job accommodating their Guests with disabilities. We have some unique services that many of them don’t offer. For example, the reason why we provide hearing and visual aids is that our rides are designed to tell a story. You can build an iron roller coaster to create a “motion” experience of being turned upside down and thrown about. But we tell a story with our rides and we want to bring that story to life for everybody.
Services for Guests with hearing disabilities
Sign language interpretation is provided at many shows, 2 days a week at all of the parks (except Animal Kingdom).
Assistive listening service (ALS): amplified audio and captioning technologies are bundled into a Blackberry-sized device that is free of charge and may be carried throughout the parks.
Services for Guests with visual disabilities
Audio Description: Visually impaired individuals can listen to a description of what’s happening on stage or in the shows in between the audio narrations. It is also equipped with a GPS module so that as the guest walks around the park, it offers a way of finding information and tells you where you are.
Braille is available on most park maps. There are Braille guide books available as well.
Services for the Guests with mobility disabilities
Seated parade viewing – special roadside sections exist for guests in wheelchairs so that they get a clear view of Disney parades without other guests standing in front of them.
Zero grade entrance to pools. Gentle slopes (rather than stairs) lead in to all water attractions. This facilitates wheelchair entry and is safe for young children.
Aquatic wheelchairs are provided as needed.
Accessible golf carts are available. They are designed to allow the seated rider to be raised up to standing level so they can swing a club more easily.
Special design features of rides. Many rides are designed so you can’t tell if a guest is in a wheelchair (this normalizes the experience, especially for kids). A special “spur track” feature takes the coaster car offline so that the guests with disabilities can take as long as they need to get in. Then the car rejoins the next line of coasters and enters the ride stream. Toy Story Mania is an innovative ride that provides an optional, closed-captioning service with a shooting mechanism designed for people who can push a button but can’t pull a trigger.
Practice vehicles are available just outside the entrance to various rides. Guests can practice transfers, and getting in and out of the ride vehicle before getting on the actual ride. They can even have pictures taken in the model vehicle.
Guest Assistance Cards are available to customize services to the needs of individual guests. Customized cards include requests for shade while waiting to enter a ride, the ability for parents to use strollers in lieu of wheelchairs for young children with disabilities, a front row seat pass, a pass to enter attractions via special entrances, and a green light pass for the Make-A-Wish Foundation participants.
Alternate entrances are available for all attractions so that guests with special needs may be ushered in discretely as needed. This design feature is particularly useful for guests with cognitive disabilities who cannot tolerate waiting in lines.
Dietary accommodations are made by Disney chefs trained to prepare food to accommodate special dietary needs.
Make-A-Wish Foundation is a partner of Disney’s. Children with terminal illnesses whose last wish is to go to Disney World are offered special accommodations and service, free of charge.
Emergency medical services are available at all theme parks in case a guest has an immediate medical need. EMS staff arrive within minutes of any distress call.
Bob Minnick summarizes it this way: “Walt Disney World is a place where everybody gets to be a kid. It levels the playing field for children with disabilities – even 60 year olds wear Goofy hats. Everyone’s having fun and acting funny, so it really normalizes the experience for guests with disabilities – because no one stands out or feels different from others.”