Photo courtesy of Aimee Christian

What Disney World Is Really Like For Kids With Disabilities

It claims to be the most magical place on earth, but how is Disney World for people with disabilities? My younger daughter Freyja qualified for Make-A-Wish, and, like half of all wish recipients, she wished to go to Disney World. But traveling with her and all her accessories is exhausting just to contemplate. Freyja uses a walker to walk when she has energy. When she is fatigued, she uses a wheelchair. She switches back and forth, often multiple times a day, and insists on having both whenever possible. Planning the logistics of this trip — the medical equipment, the bathrooms, the long lines, the crowds, the heat, the millions of temptations and distractions, all of it — filled me with anxiety and worry, but when we got there, we found out firsthand just how accessible Disney World is.

Before we went, a friend of mine told me the thing she liked best about Disney was how it felt like a truly safe space for bodies, genders, sexualities and more. While you’re there, she said, you can wear whatever you want and feel safe about it. She was right. I saw bodies of every size and shape in summer gear and I didn’t stress about how my body looked in tank tops and short shorts because it was 87 degrees and I was in the sun for 10 hours a day chasing after two kids. In fact, you almost look out of place if you don’t wear something outrageous or Disney-themed (or both); it is truly de rigeur to don any variety of Mickey earware, a tiara, a lanyard full of pins, big round buttons proclaiming 1ST VISIT, HAPPY BIRTHDAY, or WE’RE CELEBRATING. We saw people in fairy wings and glitter, wrapped in blinking lights, and specially made t-shirts coordinated with their spouses (MY FAVORITE DISNEY VILLAIN IS MY WIFE) or even their whole family (GONZALEZ FAMILY VACATION 2019!). I loved that.

For us, that safe space also extended to my daughter and our entire family in a way we were unprepared for. In life, there are many things we simply cannot do because we have a child with a significant disability. Accessibility is an ongoing issue. Extreme fatigue is another. An even bigger issue is getting others to think inclusion through. (For example, I know it’s a blast for your kid to use the one fun cart at the supermarket, but food shopping with my daughter is impossible without that cart: she’s too big to sit in the baby seat of the regular cart, she doesn’t have the strength to walk up and down the aisles with me, and I can’t push a cart and her wheelchair at the same time, so please use a regular cart if you can so she can sit in the “fun” one.) We expected these issues to follow us on this trip, but we were wrong.

We had a Genie pass, which is something that Disney provides to the families of Wish recipients.

First, Disney eschews the term “handicap parking” in favor of “disability parking” or “medical parking.” We had a rental car with local plates, but the parking permit we brought from home — which in our state is only valid when inside our own vehicle — was all we needed. I hung our permit from the rearview mirror and was instructed to follow the blue line which led us to parking that was very close to the park entrances. I felt hopeful from the moment we drove through the gates.

Whether you are there on a wish trip or otherwise, Disney goes to great lengths to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities throughout the entire experience. If you need assistance getting from the disability parking area to the entrance of the park, there are courtesy wheelchairs available for use.

Photo courtesy of Aimee Christian

At every park entrance you can rent a scooter or wheelchair if you do not have your own, and there are listening and captioning devices available for the visually or hearing impaired. There are maps and guides in English and at least a dozen other languages. There is also an extensive and informative guide for guests with disabilities of all kinds (grouped by mobility, visual, hearing, and those using service animals). It highlights which rides are fully or partially accessible, which ones require a transfer (i.e., the person has to be able to get out of their wheelchair or scooter to get into a seat on the ride), and which ones are loud, high-speed, or have other physical considerations. We found this guide indispensable.

We had a Genie Pass, which is something that Disney provides to the families of Wish recipients. I wore this image of Aladdin’s big blue pal on a lanyard around my neck, and he never stopped working his magic for us. Our daughter — and our entire family — was escorted to the front of every line for every ride and every character greeting without so much as a second glance. Just a nod of acknowledgment and “How many are you?” and a parting of the Red Sea to let us through, as though we were celebrity VIPs.

But even without the Genie Pass, Disney’s guests with disabilities — both visible and invisible — are accommodated. Upon arrival, that guest or the guest’s family can go to Guest Relations to obtain a free Disability Access Service (DAS) card that allows them to get return times for a variety of attractions so they do not have to wait on the line, and in some cases also gives them access to alternate entrances and more to make their experience safer and easier. Though the rampant abuse of the Disability Access Service (DAS) is well documented, Disney maintains that they continue to trust the guests who need this service to self-identify. If the guest has a disability that necessitates the use of a wheelchair, walker, or scooter, that person does not need a DAS card to receive these benefits.

A very kind cast member who had been watching us pulled me aside and whispered, 'Just FYI, the littler boom is at 16 minutes past the hour, and the bigger boom is at 43.' Saved again!

On our first day, we went to Magic Kingdom. We tried to convince Freyja to use her wheelchair, but she was so amped up and full of energy that she begged and begged to use her walker. We knew that the monorail ride from the parking lot into the park would be enough to exhaust her, so we tried hard to convince her to leave the walker in the car, to no avail. In the end, we brought both, and worried about how we’d make it through the day carrying everything. We stumbled on the perfect solution to this completely by accident. A cast member overheard me complaining and told me that each park has a First Aid station, which turned out to be roomy and well-equipped infirmaries staffed by registered nurses who offered to store the walker for us while Freyja used her wheelchair. They were completely unfazed when we returned at various points throughout the day to switch out. One day they even went above and beyond that, letting us leave our bags with the walker when we could not resist the shops and ended up with more gear than we could carry. Allowing us to leave two giant bags full of stuffies with the walker was one of the most helpful things anyone could have done for us, and the nurses did it with a smile.

Photo courtesy of Aimee Christian

Arriving at Hollywood Studios another day, we heard a huge boom. Freyja nearly jumped out of her skin. About a half hour later, we heard it again, only louder. It was part of the Star Wars performances, but you could hear it throughout the park. Freyja decided she was going to wear her noise-canceling headphones all day, which meant that she would not be able to hear a single thing any of us said to her. I sunk into despair, feeling felled by this obstacle I had not foreseen. That’s when a very kind cast member who had been watching us pulled me aside and whispered, “Just FYI, the littler boom is at 16 minutes past the hour, and the bigger boom is at 43.” Saved again!

Also, there were disability viewing areas for the parades and the fireworks, so we did not have to line up or hoard spots like most people. We were led into roped off areas with clear views even for those who could not stand up, and when Freyja wore her big headphones to enjoy the fireworks without the noise, she was one of many.

The regular bathrooms had at least one accessible stall, ample changing tables, and quickly moving lines. Even better were the companion bathrooms: a fully compliant, large, wide private space with a toilet, a urinal, and a changing table. Many families I know need this desperately: they have teenage or adult children with disabilities who not only do not fit on a changing table but also need privacy. My daughter cannot use the bathroom safely by herself. We need to hold her so she does not lose her balance and injure herself. These companion bathrooms were a blessing to us especially in a place where the regular bathrooms continue to be segregated by sex, making it hard for a dad to take his seven-year-old daughter to pee. We all went into these together, taking turns assisting Freyja and taking care of our own business.

I’ve read that sick and disabled kids can be the hardest thing about working at Disney. With 8,000 wishes granted at Disney World every year, there were medically fragile children everywhere we turned. We encountered many wish families, most of whom gave us the silent “I see you” nod, reminding me that there are others out there like us. This has to be both rewarding and difficult for Disney cast members, who see it, too. The characters, who interact with seriously ill and dying children every single day, could not possibly be immune to this heartbreak, but not one let on when interacting with my kids. People working the rides knew how to park Freyja’s wheelchair without needing to be shown, and the fur and face characters all seemed comfortable wheeling her around to dance with her and pull her into a hug when she wanted one. Everyone treated both my daughters equally with kindness and respect, humor and delight. If it was emotional for Mickey or Tigger or anyone else to bend down to hug my daughter in her wheelchair with her Make-A-Wish button pinned to her chest, we were none the wiser.

Even more moving was the way many of the fur characters pulled me into a deep hug too, intuiting somehow that I needed it as much as my girls did. When Pooh embraced me, he patted my back in a way that made me melt into him. Before pulling me into a hug, Mickey pointed to my girls and then to me, and flexed a bicep. I knew he was telling me I was a strong parent and at that moment, feeling hot and sweaty, frazzled and tired, it was exactly what I needed to just relax and let the magic do its job.

Thank you, Disney, for making us forget how different we are, just for a few days.