Disneyland With A Disability
For those of you that don't know: My beautiful soul walks around in a diseased crap basket instead of a human body. I have fibromyalgia, arthritis, bursitis, and a host of other co-conditions that make the simplest activities sometimes feel impossible. It's depressing, but I work hard to keep my illness from keeping me from living a fulfilling life. One example of this came up when my friend Sadie visited LA recently, and we decided to go to Disneyland.
Wait. I'm actually getting ahead of myself. First we were planning on going to Magic Mountain, but when I looked into disability services available at Magic Mountain and found out that there were practically NONE*, I said, "Screw you, Magic Mountain. I'm going to Disneyland!"
*Note: I never called Magic Mountain to ask about disability services. I found enough evidence through my research to make me believe they wouldn't be of help to me, if they even took my call at all. I read countless reviews of Magic Mountain visits by disabled persons, and testimonials from former park employees. There is no information on the Magic Mountain website about disability services besides, say, wheelchair rental, except to say that you can go to the park and talk to guest services. I wanted a sure thing, and I knew Disney was dedicated to making sure all guests have a wonderful experience while at their parks.
I started planning our trip to Disneyland about a month before our actual trip. (I am an obsessive planner, in case that wasn't clear.) I called guest services and explained my disabilities and asked what kinds of services they could provide for me. I made a point of saying that my illness is essentially invisible, but I can prove through doctor's notes, my handicapped parking pass, and any other documentation they might need that I am indeed in need of disability services when tackling something like a day at Disneyland. The woman I spoke to was incredibly nice, and explained that legally no cast member can ask for proof of my disability. They also can't press me for information, so any services I received would be based on how much I wanted to tell them. All I needed to do was go to City Hall when I first entered the park, explain my situation, and the cast member would offer me a solution based on what I told them. The solution is a Guest Assistance Card, but the amount of assistance/access varies based on the guest's needs.
I have a friend with lupus, and she told me that she had a hard time with a cast member giving her the proper stamp on her pass, so I was nervous about blindly going to City Hall and hoping they would take care of all my needs. There have also been stories recently about people abusing the Guest Assistance Passes, and because while my disability is completely real, but not outwardly visible, I was worried they'd call me a faker and throw me out of City Hall on my arthritic ass. I was so anxious about getting this pass that I snapped a picture of my handicapped parking pass on my phone, and slipped a copy of my rheumatologist's notes from our most recent appointment (listing my many ailments) in my bag.
Ahead of us in line at City Hall was a girl who was asking for a Guest Assistance Card. When asked to explain why she needed assistance, she explained, " I just get like, really anxious? Like in long lines I get anxious." When asked if she could possibly explain what exactly she needed, she answered, "Like, long lines? They make me anxious?" The cast member offered her a pass that would let her stand in a wider line if one was available, and the anxious girl said, "Um...okay?" Look. I'm not saying this girl wasn't suffering from anxiety. I myself was there asking for help with a condition that is invisible and very hard to explain to someone you've just met, so I try not to make assumptions. What I'm saying is that she did a really crappy job of expressing her needs. When it was my turn, I decided to lay it all out on the table.
I explained that I have a chronic illness called fibromyalgia that, in addition to other things, makes it hard for me to stand for long periods of time. I added that I have bursitis in my hip and knee and arthritis that make it impossible for me to walk up more than a couple of steps without severe pain. AND, because I was a complete wreck and thought they would tell me I was full of it and deny me any help at all, I added a lot of co-existing conditions that weren't necessarily going to limit my enjoyment of Disneyland, but I figured they'd help prove that I AM disabled and DO need assistance, i.e., endometriosis, Raynaud's disease, light sensitivity, and cognitive issues. I then explained that while I'm a disabled mess, I can manage to ride rides and see attractions, and if I need to I can wait through lines, I just need to be sitting in the shade to do so. I told this cast member (who I'm sure was sick of my blabbing, but never showed it) that I just wanted to have a fun time with my friend, and my goal was to have good time without letting my disabilities get in the way. Anxiety girl should have taken notes from me, because the cast member immediately got out a Guest Assistance Card and asked me a few questions about how they could help me. Mainly, how many people were in my party, and if a stamp saying I needed handicapped access to rides would suffice. From what I understand, this was the extent of what she could offer me through the Guest Assistance Card, so I don't think I was in a position to demand anything more, but it was nice of her to ask.
The cast member at City Hall explained that I need to carry my Guest Assistance Card with me at all times (no one can use it but the person with their full name printed on it), and I should show it to the cast member at the entrance to an attraction and they would tell me where to go. This was, 90% of the time, to the exit for the ride, where there was a separate handicapped line that would slowly intersperse the disableds with the ableds as the ride loaded. These areas were often partly or completely shaded, and some even had places to sit. The longest wait we had was about 10 minutes for Splash Mountain, which was a long time for me to stand/lean against a wall, but it was considerably less than the 90 minutes guests had to wait in the regular line.
I never had to ask about stairs, either. When I showed a cast member my card and asked them where to go, they would immediately ask if I was ok with stairs. As I mentioned before, it would be easier for me to win a game of Scrabble against Noam Chomsky than climb a set of stairs. I didn't go into so much colorful detail, but when I told the cast members that no, stairs were the devil's handiwork, they'd be sure to put me in a ride vehicle that was on the stair-free side, or guide me to where there was an elevator (we got to know the Indiana Jones elevator very well). Occasionally this wouldn't work out perfectly, and I'd have to walk back through the ride vehicle to get to a non-stair side. When this happened on Indiana Jones, I got a really nasty look from a teenage girl waiting to board the ride. As though I got off the ride, decided I'd like to just hop back on and explore The Temple of the Forbidden Eye once more, and the cast member was like, "Sure thing, chicken wing!" I have many non-Disney friendly words for this girl and those like her, but I'll spare you. At least there was another handicapped woman who had to walk through the car and get a dirty look, and we got to complain about that teenage twit all through our two elevator rides back to the exit.
The coolest ride, in terms of accessibility, was Space Mountain. It was the first attraction we hit after I got my pass, and after waiting for about 5 minutes in a separate line next to the exit (inside, with seats, praises be), we were sent through and loaded into a car... that wasn't on the track. It was literally like we were in one of the extra cars they keep in a warehouse, but it was right next to the actual ride track. We waited for a few other handicapped guests to load, took photos of this strange situation (see above), and watched a few regular riders head off into Space. Then, it was our turn. The car zipped right over and snapped on the track in a matter of seconds. Maybe one second. It was muuuuch faster than I expected. Then we were off! When we got back to the station, our car zipped right back to the side and we were able to disembark at our leisure. The lesson here is, if you're disabled at Disneyland, one ride on Space Mountain is actually three rides. SCORE.
Almost every cast member I showed my pass to and asked for assistance was more than helpful. There was only one circumstance where a cast member outright denied me access. It wouldn't have been a big deal if this man hadn't let in a young man with the exact same pass as me (same stamp and everything) through the handicapped line mere seconds before he told me my pass was no good and I needed to go through the regular line. The man who showed his card before me had the "look" of a disabled person*, while I look like your average 20-something gal. I spent the whole ride thinking about how the cast member at the front of the line completely judged me based on my appearance, and didn't even ask if I needed any extra assistance. (The wait was only five minutes, but on other rides with a short wait the cast member would ask if I was ok with waiting in the regular line, or if I needed extra time to load, to avoid stairs, etc.) This cast member let one man though the handicapped line, and simply said to me, "The wait is short enough that you have to wait over there." No questions. I thought I was being hypersensitive (I do get touchy when people say I'm not "really" disabled because I'm not like, missing an arm or something), but after the ride my friend commented, without me bringing it up, on how she believed the cast member was judging me based on my appearance, so I felt justified in my outrage. I thought of telling guest services, not to get this cast member in trouble, but to remind all cast members that not all disabilities are visible, and you can't tell what a person is dealing with by just looking at them. In the end I decided that I wasn't going to let this one cast member ruin my whole day, especially when I was thrilled to be treated with so much understanding my every other cast member I encountered.
*This is a prejudicial thing to say, and I'm only saying it here to give my story context. You cannot look at someone and know their life story. This is something those of us with invisible disabilities have to contend with every day. It's a pain in the ass.
There were only two instances where I wasn't able to use a separate line or gain easier access: Waiting to meet characters, and watching Fantasmic! One of my missions on my trip to Disneyland was to meet Tinkerbell and take a video to bring back to my three year old neighbor and Tinkerbell fanatic Ava. I showed my pass to the woman at the entrance to Pixie Hollow, and she told me there was no way I could cut the line to meet Tink. This was a no brainer. I didn't expect to cut in front of a bunch of preschoolers to meet Tinkerbell, but I did want to know if there was a place I could wait and sit in the shade. The cast member said of course, and showed me where the handicapped line was. It was much wider and there was a place for me to sit down, and after about 45 minutes I was able to meet Tinkerbell and give her the card Ava made for her. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L7PnM75E7Sg&w=640&h=360] Fantasmic! was another story. I was hoping to use my Guest Assistance Card to gain access to the handicapped viewing area, where I could sit down with an unobstructed view. This area, however, is only for guests in wheelchairs. This makes sense if you think about it. Anxiety Girl doesn't need unobstructed viewing, even though she does need a Guest Assistance Pass. But one of my issues was that I can't stand for long periods of time, but the only area with seating near Fantasmic! would allow me to only see part of the show. I didn't want to separate from my companion, and I didn't want her to have a less-than-great experience because of me. In the end, I stood and tried to keep my body moving as much as I could (which sometimes helps). It was the end of the day, so if it exhausted me and sent me home, I was okay with it. I only wish I had known about this wheelchair policy before viewing Fantasmic! I would have either shown up super early so I could sit on the ground in front, rented a wheelchair and used it just for Fantasmic! viewing, or spoken with Guest Services about any other options. In the end, I was able to make it (painfully) through Fantasmic! and ride one or two more rides before needing to head home and collapse. In hindsight, I pushed it too far. I should have sucked it up and sat down. But I wanted the trip to be perfect! I was infected with Disney Madness! Plus, sometimes I just shut up and put myself through something unnecessary and potentially harmful to avoid being "Disabled Girl." I'm working on avoiding self-sabotage. This night I was not on the job, apparently.
In the end, Disneyland completely exhausted me, and did cause me to have a bit of a fibro flare. But I was expecting that. Like I said, I work with my disability and decide what to use my limited energy for. Disneyland was something that, to me, was worth using a couple days worth of spoons. The difference the Guest Assistance Card made to my trip was invaluable. Without it, I could have maybe done Disneyland for a few hours before I was completely spent. With the card, I was able to make a full day of Disneyland, and I was able to have a good time without worrying about my disability getting in the way.
Edited to add: I recently listened to Episode 1213 of the WDW Today podcast (which I reviewed here), and one of the panelists said that Disney is reworking the Guest Assistance Passes. According to the podcast, the new system will work like this: A guest will show their Guest Assistance Pass to a cast member, and the cast member will give them a return time based on the current wait for the ride. So, say you go to Space Mountain at 10am and the wait is an hour, the cast member will write "Space Mountain - 11am" on your card, and you can come back at 11 and board the ride through the handicapped line. This is basically what I offered to do when asking the cast member in City Hall for assistance. I'll wait - I just need to be sitting, preferably in a shaded spot. I think this is to keep guests from using the Guest Assistance Pass irresponsibly or unnecessarily, and I'm totally cool with it. As long as there is some kind of access provided for all kinds of disabilities, Disneyland will continue to be the Happiest Place on Earth for all types of guests. Please note that WDW Today, like the name implies, covers Walt Disney World almost exclusively. Disney World is much more advanced in terms of guest services than Disneyland. They have a completely different ticketing system, for instance, but this new Guest Assistance program may still apply to the Land, so I thought it was worth sharing