by Kendall Foreman
For a number of individuals with health restrictions, special needs and/or disabilities, taking a trip can be moderately to entirely overwhelming. Many find it easier to opt for a staycation rather than a getaway. Their traveling companions and/or caregivers often find it equally as daunting. These concerns can be alleviated, if not eliminated, by planning a trip to a destination where vacationers are offered needed assistance as well as treated with courtesy, compassion, respect, dignity, and equality. Walt Disney World Resort is just such a place. Disney faithfully demonstrates the desire to aid guests with disabilities and/or other special needs conditions. It is clear that one of the Company’s primary goals is to provide the highest level of customer service to all its visitors. Guests in need of support services can rest assured that efforts to accommodate them will be made at every opportunity and level. Employees of WDW Resort are willing and able to offer these services to insure the best possible experience for everyone. Furthermore, Imagineers have painstakingly designed and developed Walt Disney World to enable individuals with health restrictions, special needs and/or disabilities to fully enjoy their visit. Through innovation, ongoing elevation of its standards and principles as well as implementation, Disney goes beyond compliance across the board. This post has been written to assure individuals with health restrictions, special needs or disabilities as well as their caregivers and/or traveling companions that they can be confident in and enthusiastic about vacationing at WDW Resort. Additionally, this information has been provided to be shared by those who do not require such services but know someone who does… so please pass it on.
Included with Admission
When considering a vacation at WDW, it is not uncommon for individuals with health restrictions, special needs and/or disabilities as well as their party to be intimidated by the idea of navigating and tolerating attraction queues as well as boarding rides. These can be problematic not just for those with mobility issues but also for those with social disorders, digestive difficulties, sun sensitivity and a wide range of other health conditions. At each of the four parks, Guest Relations offer Guest Assistance Cards or GACs to visitors with special needs conditions. These cards enable a party of up to six to receive assistance necessary to access attractions more easily. GACs are absolutely not the equivalent of a FastPass. (Note: Abuse of GACs is deplorable and strenuously discouraged!) The guest requiring a GAC must be present at the time of its issuance and the following information must be provided: the name of the individual, the dates of his or her stay, the number of people included in his or her party, and the type of need and how it can best be met. (Note: Since the medical data privacy law known as HIPPA exists to protect the privacy of patients, individuals will not be required to provide a doctor’s letter. However, in order to support the need for a GAC—or other special needs services—such a letter may be useful in explaining the individual’s needs.)
Upon request, there are several services to aid those with hearing and visual impairments. Assistive Listening Devices are available to amplify sound in a specific listening environment. The Handheld Captioning System, which is a wireless receiver that displays text while on moving attractions, is also available. In addition, Disney’s Reflective Captioning projects text on an acrylic panel positioned in front of hearing impaired guests. American Sign Language or ASL interpretation is provided at specific live attractions and shows as well as parades at the four parks on a rotating basis—that is to say, each park offers this service on specific days of the week—not every day. Times and dates of ASL offerings can be obtained via Guest Relations at each park. (Note: Sign Language interpretation is also available at special events and shows—i.e. dinner shows at resorts, etc. However, it must be requested and scheduled well in advance via Walt Disney World Resort Information.) For those with visual disabilities, Audio Description is available through the use of Disney’s Handheld Device. It works in tandem with existing attraction audio to describe various visual elements. Braille guidebooks that describe attractions, shows, and stores are available at each of the four parks. (Note: A $25 refundable security deposit is required to rent a device or guidebook.) Maps with large print, raised graphics and a clear Braille overlay are available at park Guest Relations. Special mention: Trained service animals—which must be leashed or harnessed—are welcome in almost all locations.
While Disney makes every effort to accommodate and insure the safety of its guests, some attractions do include features such as strobe lighting, intense speeds, banking curves, etc., which may pose health risks for certain individuals. In order to protect guests as well as the Disney Company, warnings are prominently posted and announcements are made by Host Cast Members regarding specific health risks on attractions and during shows.
If a minor health issue arises while in one of the parks, First Aid Station and Baby Care Centers staffed with registered nurses are located next to the Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, within the Odyssey Center in Epcot, at Guest Relations in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and near the backside of the Creature Comforts Shop in the Animal Kingdom. Guests can store items such as insulin and insulin pumps, nebulizers, medications requiring refrigeration, dialysis supplies, portable oxygen concentrators, and many other medical supplies at the station. There are areas within the stations where guests with various needs can perform processes such as dialysis exchanges, breathing treatments, etc. (Note: Nurses there are not permitted to assist with these processes; however, if the individual or a member of his or her party is trained to do so, it can be done without leaving the park.) The First Aid Station and Baby Care Centers offer a quiet, dimly lit room to breastfeeding mothers. These rooms, if unoccupied, can be utilized by parents to calm children with sensory processing needs.
Where to Stay
When staying on the Walt Disney World Resort property, individuals with health restrictions, special needs and/or disabilities, their caregivers, and/or traveling companions really cannot make a bad resort selection. All of the resort locations have a number of rooms designated for the accommodation of these guests. Options vary at each resort. A sample list of special room amenities includes: wider bathroom doors, roll-in showers, handheld shower heads, bathroom rails, lower beds, Text Typewriters (TTY), strobe light fire alarms, closed captioned televisions, etc. All resorts have areas where guests can store medications requiring refrigeration. Furthermore, upon request, Mousekeeping will deliver a container to the room for the disposal of bio-hazardous hypodermic needles. Additionally, some items can be brought to the room if needed. It is recommended that travelers needing special accommodations and/or items inquire about them when making resort reservations. At that time, the cast member will explain what is available at the resorts being considered. Once a resort has been selected, notations detailing guest requests and needs will be added to the reservation.
WDW Resort pools are renowned for being spacious, beautiful and fantastically fun. They are also designed to provide full accessibility to every guest. Several resorts have zero-entry pools, which enable guests with water-capable wheelchairs to roll right into the pool. (Note: Some resorts have these wheelchairs available for guest use.) Disney recently equipped all resort pools with mobility assistance pool entry chairs that allow guests to be transferred from their wheelchair into and out of the pool. Life vests are available for children of all sizes at all resorts as well as for adults at resorts with marinas. If an adult life vest is needed at a resort without a marina, guests may request one at the resort front desk, and it will be delivered to that resort a.s.a.p.
All WDW buses are handicap accessible and make travel to and from the resorts and parks easier for guests with special needs. (Note: Wheelchairs and Electric Convenience Vehicles or ECVs must be able to fit on a standard bus lift which is 32” X 48”.) Monorail transportation can be accessed via ramps that lead to the loading area on the boarding platform. For guests requiring wheelchair or ECV accessibility, a Cast Member will position a portable ramp leading into the center car of the monorail. Some of Disney’s larger resort watercraft offer wheelchair and ECV accessibility via a ramp positioned by a Cast Member. Be sure to ask dock or boat Cast Members about boarding accessibility.
Where to Eat
Disney is known for going above and beyond what is officially required and/or expected to make its resorts and parks accessible, safe, and enjoyable for all its guests. For visitors with dietary restrictions, dining at WDW is no exception to that rule. Guests with specific eating issues such as food allergies, gluten intolerance, lactose intolerance and/or other dietary health issues will find several options available. Such an individual is encouraged to make inquiries and requests as needed. At quick-service locations, it is recommended that anyone with food allergies alert the Cast Member at the ordering station. The chef or manager will be called out to speak with the patron about menu options as well as how selections can be modified to meet specific dietary needs. Some quick-service locations have menu items for those requiring sugar-free, gluten-free, or vegan options. Because food allergens such as shell-fish or peanuts and peanut residue may be transferred from one dish to the next, Buffet lines can pose a unique risk. For that reason, a guest with specific allergies is strongly urged to speak with the buffet chef prior to dining. With the help of the chef, an individual with particular food intolerances or dietary restrictions can make safe selections from a buffet. When planning to dine at a table-service restaurant that accepts reservations, a guest should tell the Cast Member responsible for taking his or her reservation about any allergies, dietary restrictions, and specific requests. This detailed information will then be added to the dining reservation. (Note: It is preferable that this be done, by phone, at least 72 hours in advance.) When a guest requiring any of the aforementioned assistance arrives at the restaurant, he or she needs to speak with the Host Cast Member. That information will then be passed along to the chef and/or manager. Similarly, if advanced ordering is not possible, it is important to talk with the restaurant’s Host Cast Member about allergies and specific restrictions. The chef will make every effort to meet the patron’s needs. Some guests requiring a special diet may prefer to bring their own food into the parks due to extreme restrictions or simply due to preferences. While this is acceptable, the Security Officer at the bag check must be informed. For more information on dining with dietary restrictions at WDW, read Angie Carriero’s blog series “Fish Are Friends, Not Food”. It is important to note that she lives with gluten-intolerance and adheres to a strictly vegan diet. While her posts may specifically benefit those with similar health issues, the information she offers may also be invaluable to individuals with other dietary restrictions. For more advice, read Angie’s post, “Fish Are Friends, Not Food: How to Order Special-Diet Food at Walt Disney World”.
For those visiting WDW with health restrictions, special needs and/or disabilities along with their traveling companions and/or caregivers, additional services and offerings can be enjoyed at added cost.
- In certain cases, it might be preferable to rent a wheelchair. This can be done in any of the four theme parks for $12 per day or with a length-of-stay rental fee of $10 per day. It is important to know that equipment rented within a park must remain there; for that reason, if a length-of-stay rental is utilized, it will be necessary to retain and present the receipt for each subsequent rental use during the guest’s WDW Resort stay. Convenience Wheelchairs, which are those with blue seats and blue flags, are available free-of-charge to transport a guest to and from the nearest wheelchair rental location. On a first-come-first-served basis, Electric Convenience Vehicles or ECVs are available for a single day rental fee of $50 plus a $20 refundable security deposit. In May of this year, the parks began offering Electric Standing Vehicles (ESVs) that are equipped with four wheels and function similar to a Segway. These require the same rental fee and refundable security deposit as an ECV.
- Turner Drug is an offsite, full service pharmacy that works with WDW Resorts to provide guests with prescription medication and non-prescription items when necessary. Any guest needing to obtain a prescription must contact his or her healthcare provider who will then phone-in a prescription order to Turner Drug. Turner Drug will also deliver a number of healthcare items such as over-the-counter medications, braces and elastics, heating pads and ice packs, medical equipment, etc. (Note: Turner Drug can be contacted at 407-828-8125 or online at http://turnerdrug.com) Once purchased and filled, the order will be delivered to the front desk of the guest’s resort for pickup. (Note: A $7.50 delivery fee will be added to the purchase total.)
- Guest rooms without a refrigerator or microwave can be equipped with either or both for a rental fee of around $10 each per night. Depending upon the medical needs of the individual, there are circumstances under which this fee might be waived. (Note: Guests will not need to provide a doctor’s note to obtain the waiver since HIPPA protects patient privacy.)
There are countless guests with health restrictions, special needs, and/or disabilities who visit the Walt Disney World Resort every year. Testimonials abound on the internet detailing how individuals have been able to enjoy their vacation at WDW Resort because of the accommodations and assistance afforded to them during their stay. Hopefully the information provided in this post will make WDW the destination of choice for those who may have thought certain concerns and restrictions would limit their vacation enjoyment. Anyone who has knowledge and/or experience pertaining to health restrictions, special needs and/or disabilities services at WDW Resort please share any tips, suggestions, or success stories in the comments section below.
Kendall began visiting Walt Disney World in 1991 with her family and has continued to visit the resort with her husband. As a child, she and her family filled vacations with challenges such as “How many times can we ride Splash Mountain during SpectroMagic and the fireworks?” (Answer: 7) Now, after marrying a converted Disney skeptic, she and her husband enjoy challenges such as “How many hours can we eat nonstop at the Food & Wine Festival?” (Answer: 4)