A Guide to Accessibility at Walt Disney World Part One: Services for Physical Disabilities

Going to Walt Disney World when you have a disability can be difficult and sometimes overwhelming. There’s a lot of uncertainty being in a new place and knowing what to expect can help, so I wanted to put together as comprehensive of an accessibility guide as I could.

Of course, disability is an umbrella term covering many different conditions, and each person has a different experience. If you have a question about a specific accommodation that I don’t answer here, it’s best that you contact Disney or speak to a Cast Member onsite.

I, myself, am autistic, and have briefly used a wheelchair while visiting Magic Kingdom with a head injury so while I am not an expert on all disabilities, I am drawing from some personal experience. This guide is focused on Walt Disney World’s four main theme parks. The first part will focus on physical disabilities, while part two will focus on cognitive disabilities and other sensitivities. Many disabilities are comorbid, so you might find it useful to check out both guides and I will re-iterate some information in both.

[Picture ID: A moment from Finding Nemo the Musical at Disney’s Animal Kingdom featuring puppets of Nemo and Marlin, two clownfish, looking at each other. Nemo has a “lucky fin” from when he was injured as an egg. The lucky fin is smaller than his other fin and makes swimming more difficult.]

General Information

First things first, every Walt Disney World park has a specific guide map for guests with disabilities. This will be available at Guest Relations. This disability guide includes extensive information for people with mobility, visual, and hearing disabilities, as well as for people with service animals. While every guide map has accessibility information, this guide will list relevant resources all together so you don’t have to search the map for what you’re looking for. If you would rather not carry a paper map, accessibility information is also available on the My Disney Experience App.

Depending on your disability, you may find it helpful to utilize the Rider Switch pass at one time or another. This pass is designed for parents who want to ride something that their child does not or is not able to ride. With Rider Switch, one adult or whole party may board the attraction while another adult waits with the non-rider(s). When the first adult returns, the second may use the pass to ride the attraction without waiting in line. This pass can be helpful if someone in your party does not wish to ride an attraction because of their disability, but everyone else in the party does, or if a service animal is not able to ride the attraction (more information below). If you want a Rider Switch pass, ask the Cast Member at the front of the attraction. Note that not all attractions have Rider Switch, but most with a height or service animal restriction do. A full list of attractions with Rider Switch is on the Disney World website.

Walt Disney World has companion restrooms in all of the parks. They are marked on all maps, and can be found in the My Disney Experience app. They’re usually next to the other restrooms, and there’s at least one or two companion restrooms in each land. All restrooms have multiple accessible stalls of varying sizes. Some restrooms are smaller and dirtier, so look for restrooms in less busy areas of the park that are trafficked less.

Walt Disney World’s FastPass+ system is a great way to plan ahead and can be helpful for disabled folks who anticipate having a hard time waiting in line or need a plan. For free, you can select three FastPasses a day beforehand either on the Walt Disney World website or through the My Disney Experience app. You can also select FastPasses at kiosks throughout the parks, but it’s best to get these ahead of time. With FastPass+, you will be given a specific time to board an attraction and therefore get to wait in a shorter line. When selecting your FastPasses, you will first choose the people in your party who will be using the FastPass and the date that you wish to use them. You are limited to three FastPasses per day, and only one park per day. FastPasses use a tier system which means that usually out of the park’s three most popular rides, you can only select one. My Disney Experience will give you different options for rides and times that are available. You cannot have more than one FastPass at the same time, and each FastPass window lasts for an hour. For example, you might have a FastPass for Peter Pan’s Flight at 10:15am-11:15am, and then a second FastPass for Splash Mountain at 11:30am-12:30pm. Most attractions have a FastPass+ option, but some of the shows and less busy attractions don’t. You can book up to 60 days ahead of your trip if you’re staying at a Walt Disney World resort or 30 days for off-property, and it’s best to do this as soon as possible as FastPasses are limited, especially for the most popular rides.

Disability Access Service

Disability Access Service (DAS) is something Disney can provide if you have a disability that prevents you from waiting in a regular queue for a long time. This is not necessary for people using wheelchairs or scooters (more about their accessibility later). This service is more aimed at people with cognitive disabilities (such as autism) but could also be useful for people who have difficulty standing for a long time and don’t regularly use a wheelchair. It’s not unlike the FastPass+ system, but you cannot reserve through DAS before your trip.

When you arrive at a Walt Disney World park, you can head immediately to Guest Services to register for DAS. Guest Services is located at City Hall in Magic Kingdom, to the left after entering Disney’s Animal Kingdom, to the left after entering Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and to the left after Spaceship Earth at EPCOT.

The disabled guest who will be using DAS should be present at this registration to have their photo taken, but a parent or guardian can have their photo taken instead. There is no “proof” such as a doctor’s note required for this registration (legally, they cannot demand to see documentation like this) and Cast Members work on a case-by-case basis to determine what accommodations are best for your needs. Tickets for everyone in your party will need to be presented to electronically associate them to the DAS party.

Like FastPass+, DAS allows you to reserve a return time for an attraction instead of waiting in the queue. Unlike FastPass+, you cannot make these reservations beforehand and you can only have one at a time. After you get registered for DAS, you can approach any attraction and they will assign a return time based on the current wait time for the attraction. For example, if you go to Peter Pan’s Flight at 12pm, and the wait time is an hour, your return time will be 1pm. After receiving your return time, you are free to do anything else in the park. You can redeem your return time at any point before park close, so in the example above, you wouldn’t have to return at exactly 1pm. However, you can only have one return time active at a time so if you want to use DAS for other attractions, you will need to return to the first attraction you signed up for. The disabled guest using DAS does not need to be present when receiving the return time but must board the attraction at the same time as the rest of their party. Once you have finished this first attraction, you can get a return time for the same or other attraction.

You can use both DAS and FastPass+, which I recommend if you want to ride a lot of attractions. That way you will have three attractions you definitely have short lines for, and then can use DAS for additional attractions.

DAS is valid for 14 days after sign up (60 days for Annual Passholders) and can be used at any of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks, so you don’t need to keep signing up at the beginning of every day. You can read more about DAS in this document from the Disney website.

Parking

All of the parks have a handicap section at the front of the parking lot. This is available for anyone with a valid disability parking permit. Disney Resort hotel guests and select Annual Passholders get free parking, while standard parking is approximately $25 per day. There are also ChargePoint stations for electronic vehicle charging in the main theme park and Disney Springs lots:

  • Magic Kingdom: 5 spaces—1 space at the front of the Medical Parking Lot and 4 spaces at the front of the Zurg Parking Lot
  • EPCOT: 4 spaces at the front of the Journey Parking Lot
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom: 4 spaces in the Medical Parking Lot
  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios: 4 spaces at the front of the Mickey Parking Lot
  • Disney Springs: 9 spaces—3 on the 5th floor of the Orange Garage, 3 on the 5th floor of the Lime Garage and 3 spaces on the 3rd floor of the Grapefruit Garage

east-tram-epcot-parking-4.jpg

[Picture ID: A parking lot tram in EPCOT’s parking lot. Two people are about to board.]

All of the four theme park lots have trams which can transport you from your car to the front of the park (or to the Transportation & Ticket Center), or you can walk if you’re comfortable. Magic Kingdom’s parking lot is the biggest, so the tram is even more helpful there. Keep in mind, you might have to wait a few minutes for a tram to arrive. The trams have roofs but open windows, so prepare to deal with any adverse weather. Magic Kingdom parking is only at the Transportation & Ticket Center (TTC), and after parking, you will then take a ferry boat or monorail to the park. Monorails are completely enclosed with air conditioning and are all accessible for wheelchairs and scooters. In the TTC parking lot is a wheelchair station, where you can pick up a complimentary temporary wheelchair to help you travel through the parking lot or the rest of the way to the park. Once you arrive in the park, you will need to rent a wheelchair if you want one for the rest of the day (more information below).

Service Animals

up dogs dug

[Picture ID: A screenshot of Dug and three other dogs from Disney’s Up. These dogs provide specific services to their master in the film, but those services include harming other people and animals which they would not be allowed to do at a Disney theme park.]

Service animals are welcome at Walt Disney World, and these days you can’t take a stroll through any of the parks without at least spotting one or two. Most attractions allow service animals. If the attraction has some sort of seatbelt for you, such as Dumbo at Magic Kingdom, you can put this belt through your service animal’s harness for better security.

Rides that do not allow service animals are usually more turbulent and liable for the animal to fall or be injured. With these attractions, you can ask a Cast Member about a Rider Switch pass, so you can ride while someone from your party watches your animal. You can also ask for a portable kennel, which each of these attractions has on hand, for your animal to stay in while you ride. Applicable attractions can be found on a guide map or on the Disney World website.

I beg people who do not have service animals to not try to bring your pets into the park. Service animals are carefully trained animals and are just as important as a wheelchair for some disabled people. While your pet may be trained, if it does act out at all, it can create a bad name for working animals, not to mention mess with the quality of other guests’ vacations.

That being said, if you see someone with an animal that you don’t believe is a service animal for one reason or another, it’s best not to confront them. Service animals can come in many different shapes and sizes, and provide different services. You may not be able to tell what service the animal is providing just from looking. If an animal is acting dangerous towards guests, then tell the nearest Cast Member.

Wheelchair Accessibility

magic kingdom wheelchair

[Picture ID: Me wearing Minnie ears and carrying a plush dog in a rental wheelchair near Cinderella’s Castle at Magic Kingdom.]

You may bring your own wheelchair or ECV, or one from an outside rental company, into any of the Walt Disney World parks. Walt Disney World has their own wheelchair rental at the front of each park. Magic Kingdom’s rental station is to the right just after entering the park and before going beneath the train station. Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s rental stations are also immediately to the right after entering. While EPCOT is currently under construction, it’s possible the rental station has moved or will move, but it is usually to the left just in front of Spaceship Earth. Stroller rentals are usually in the same area or nearby if you need a stroller as well. For up-to-date information about rental prices, you can check the Walt Disney World website.

If you bring in your own stroller and need it to be designated as a wheelchair, then you would go to Guest Relations to receive a special tag for the chair. Strollers are not allowed on every attraction or in every attraction queue, so if your child needs to remain in the stroller, you’ll need to get one of those red tags.

Most Walt Disney World attractions allow you to stay in your wheelchair or electric conveyance vehicle (ECV) until boarding the attraction. Some attractions have separate lines for wheelchair users and the Cast Member in front of the attraction will be able to direct you. If you would rather, you can leave your wheelchair or ECV parked outside of the attraction and stand in line without it. Some queues are more accessible than others so this is up to your comfort level.

Attractions that allow you to remain in your wheelchair are typically shows, and a Cast Member will be able to direct you to the wheelchair seating area. Keep in mind, if you stay in your wheelchair for a show with extra sensory effects, you might not be able to experience all of them unless you transfer to one of the attraction’s show seats. Some examples of shows like this would be It’s Tough To Be A Bug at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Mickey’s PhilharMagic at Magic Kingdom. If you’re unsure about whether or not there are extra sensory effects or if you want to experience them, talk to one of the attraction Cast Members.

If you stay in your wheelchair for a moving ride, you may have to wait longer for the wheelchair accessible vehicle to arrive at the boarding station. These accessible vehicles have extra space for the chair, as well as seats for others in your party. Unfortunately, if you’re traveling with multiple wheelchair-users, you might not be able to all ride together as most of these vehicles only fit one chair. If you’re comfortable leaving your wheelchair or ECV, and don’t want to wait or do have multiple wheelchair-users in your party, I would recommend transferring to the built-in ride seats, but it’s entirely up to you and what you’re comfortable with. Cast Members always ask if you’re “comfortable” getting out of your chair, never if you’re “able”, and are happy to accommodate whatever your needs are.

Some attractions require you to transfer from an ECV to a standard wheelchair that will better fit in the attraction. A handful of attractions require you to transfer from an ECV to a wheelchair for the queue, and then transfer from the wheelchair to the ride vehicle. In either case, a Cast Member will let you know the procedure and have a wheelchair on hand for you to transfer to.

If the attraction does require you to transfer from your wheelchair or ECV, you can park your chair in a designated area of the queue. These areas are usually as close as possible to the ride vehicle so you don’t have to stand or walk for long, and members of your party can help you. If you have to leave your wheelchair or ECV, I don’t recommend leaving any personal items with it. While there is usually a cast member by the chairs, they are helping other guests and aren’t able to keep an eye on personal items at all times.

In general, you’ll find newer attractions tend to be more accessible, but it does depend on the type of attraction. You can find a full list of which attractions allow you to remain in your wheelchair or ECV and which require you to transfer on the Walt Disney World website. Attractions are also labeled on the guide maps that you can pick up at the front of each park. All guide maps are labeled, not just the maps specifically for guests with disabilities.

Hearing Disabilities

Some Cast Members can communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) and will have this indicated in a golden box under nametag. Cast Members only have these language indicators if they have passed a test proving they are fluent in the language, so anyone with an ASL tag will be able to communicate. There are not many Cast Members who know ASL, but if you’re having a serious emergency, another Cast Member might be able to call one in. I am not sure if any non-American sign languages are indicated on nametags, but in personal experience I have never encountered a Cast Member who was fluent in a non-American sign language. If you rely heavily on sign language that is not American, you may want to learn a few of the most important ASL signs before visiting.

Walt Disney World has various ways to experience their different shows and attractions. All four theme parks have Disney’s Handheld Devices available at Guest Relations on a first-come, first-serve basis. There is a fully-refundable $25 daily deposit to rent one of these devices. The Handheld Devices offer Assistive Listening, Handheld Captioning, and Video Captioning, though availability for each of these depends on the attraction.

disney handheld accessibility device

[Picture ID: The Disney Handheld Device. It is a blue and black tablet with a screen that lists Assistive Listening, Handheld Captioning, ALS & HC, and Audio Description. To the right of the screen are navigational buttons. A pair of headphones are plugged into the left side of the device.]

Assistive Listening amplifies sound through headphones or an induction loop and is recommended for guests with mild to moderate hearing loss. Assistive Listening is currently available for 23 Walt Disney World attractions, including Jungle Cruise and Kilimanjaro Safaris. These two attractions are notable because they have a live Cast Member speaking directly to guests for the duration of the ride, so the experience does not necessarily have a set script and relies more on the live narration.

Handheld Captioning displays on-screen text in 29 attractions, so is available for most attractions that involve spoken word. There are lots of shows that rely more on an auditory experience, but most actual rides are primarily visual and just have background music. Some rides where I think the spoken narration is especially important are Haunted Mansion, Journey Into Imagination With Figment, Living With The Land, Spaceship Earth, Frozen Ever After, Enchanted Tiki Room, and Carousel of Progress. These are also relatively tame attractions so using the handheld device would not be difficult.

Video Captioning is also available at select locations. Many queue areas for attractions have video screens throughout that give exposition for the attraction’s story. With most of these queues, about a third of these videos have captions directly on the screen. If you’re having trouble finding these screens, you may need to ask the nearest available Cast Member. Video Captioning on Disney’s Handheld Device is available for 15 attractions, most of which are shows or mild attractions that rely primarily on a video screen.

To access lists of which rides have which of these accessible options, you can check this page of the Walt Disney World website.

Many attractions also have American sign language interpretation on certain days of the week. Disney has a PDF guide of which attractions offer interpretation on which days, so you can plan ahead. Each park has specific days they offer sign language interpretation:

  • Magic Kingdom: Monday and Thursday
  • EPCOT: Friday
  • Hollywood Studios: Sunday and Wednesday
  • Animal Kingdom: Tuesday and Saturday

This way you can visit each park in one day and still be able to see all the attractions with interpretation. No matter when you are going to see an attraction with interpretation, you will need to arrive at an attraction 15-25 minutes early to request an interpreter or be seated in the appropriate section to see the interpreter.

WDWNT’s Alison has videos of sign language interpretation around the parks and I’ve included a few examples below.

As you can see, interpreters are usually dressed in a blue shirt and black pants, and are stationed to the side of the stage. Interpreters don’t wear nametags that might get in the way of their signing.

Visual Disabilities

Walt Disney World offers services such as audio descriptions and braille maps for people with visual disabilities. If you want to utilize the audio description service, which describes visual elements of an attraction, you’ll need to pick up a Disney Handheld Device at Guest Relations. They are available at all four theme parks on a first-come, first-serve basis and have a fully refundable $25 daily deposit. An image of the device is above in the Hearing Disabilities section. Audio description is available for most shows and slow-moving rides. You can find the full list of attractions with audio description service on Disney’s website.

Disney World offers two guidebook options for people with visual disabilities, and both are available at Guest Relations on a first-come, first-serve basis with a refundable $25 daily deposit. The braille guidebook is printed in large text and has descriptions of attractions, restaurants, and stores. The portable tactile map booklet is a map of the park with tactile representations of the outlines of buildings, walkways, and landmarks.

You are not able to reserve any of these items before your trip, so make sure to visit Guest Relations first thing when you arrive in each park.

There are also stationary braille maps throughout the parks. There is one in every Guest Relations, and you can ask a Cast Member for additional locations as parks usually have two. These are braille maps that I know of throughout the parks, though of course locations are liable to change when areas of the park are under construction:

  • Magic Kingdom: While facing Cinderella’s Castle, it will be to the right at the end of Main Street U.S.A., in front of the ice cream parlor and next to the outside seating area.
  • EPCOT: The map is to the left as you walk down the main path towards World Showcase, before reaching the Disney Traders shop.
  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios: As you face the Chinese Theatre, it will be to the right at the end of Hollywood Boulevard (the main street), just past Sunset Boulevard and behind a fountain.

Here’s a video of one of the stationary braille maps at EPCOT.

The stationary braille maps indicate the location of attractions, service animal relief areas, restrooms and companion restrooms, Guest Relations, and First Aid.

That’s it for part one of A Guide to Accessibility at Walt Disney World. Keep an eye on WDWNT.com for part two in the next few days. I will cover best practices for those of us with cognitive disabilities visiting Walt Disney World, including what to bring, where to rest, and what to expect from character encounters.

As I said, I am not an expert on all disabilities and I acknowledge that I can’t cover everything, so if you have any major concerns or corrections about something in this article, please email me at [email protected]

3
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x