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Does This Wheelchair Make Me Look Fat?

Friday, September 10, 2010

In a wheelchair at EpcotI didn't expect to be a Walt Disney World Guest needing special assistance to enjoy the parks. But after all, I'll bet many of the folks I've seen at Disney using wheelchairs, ECVs, or other assistive devices didn't really plan it that way either.

My idea of a medspa vacation seems to be sneaking off for a chest X-ray in between Epcot and Raglan Road. I thought I'd recovered from a recent bout of flu before leaving on vacation, but when I spiked a fever in transit from Boston to Orlando, I knew I had a problem. I managed to get my teenage son and myself safely to our resort late that Saturday evening, and in the morning visited a nearby urgent care clinic for diagnosis, medication, and the assurance that I didn't have anything highly contagious. The secondary infection needed treatment (and would warrant a second urgent-care visit later in the week), but I could continue my vacation.

I thought a day of bedrest would get me on my feet. Then I thought two days of besrest would get me on my feet. Then I decided it was time for a wheelchair.

I was more than a little sheepish about this. I'd seen people complain about having seen "able-bodied people" using ECVs and wheelchairs to get preferential treatment in the parks, yet still able to walk over to the restroom, or getting out of their wheelchairs for short times. Those complaining seemed sure that those "able-bodied people" were gaming the system. But ultimately, I decided that if anyone wanted to judge me, that's their own business. Plus, never underestimate the power of jonesing for a glimpse of Spaceship Earth after days of feverish bedrest just minutes away.

I hadn't known I'd be needing special assistance on this trip, so I hadn't availed myself of any of the fine resources for people with disabilities vacationing at Walt Disney World. PassPorter's Open Mouse always gets rave reviews, and I wish I'd had it along. I didn't even have a laptop with me, so instead made do with whatever resources I could easily get to with my smart phone's mobile browser, most notably an ECV/Wheelchair FAQ at AllEars, and Larry Heidenberg's advice on TouringPlans.com. Also, my spouse had arrived in the interim, so I had more personal assistance as well.

When we arrived at Epcot the next morning, I was impressed by the ease of access. A Cast Member guided us to the disabled parking area, where my spouse was able to easily pick up a transfer wheelchair. Security Cast Members seemed friendlier than usual, and also a little patronizing; I can't remember the last time anyone had called me "young lady" in quite that tone. When we were delayed a bit at the main gates by the fact that my Annual Pass was demagnatized, not only was a Cast Member able to fix the problem on the spot (i.e., no trip to Guest Services), but we were given a "No Strings Attached" voucher for priority access to one attraction, to apologize for the inconvenience. Not the usual process, and I felt odd about accepting the voucher, but grateful for a kind gesture on a rough morning.

A short time after, we'd returned the transfer wheelchair, rented a regular wheelchair for $12/day, and were off to the attractions. We never needed our priority access voucher, as there weren't really any lines long enough to circumvent. The regular queues could accommodate wheelchairs, so we didn't get (or need) front-of-the-line access; in fact, it took a little longer than usual to board and to disembark, as we needed to park the wheelchair before the ride, and track it down afterward. We even had a lovely lunch at Le Cellier.

Transfers to and from the parking lot was easy enough that we had no problem bringing me back to the condo for a badly needed afternoon nap, before a little more time in World Showcase that evening.

Empowered by a great time at Epcot, and with my health improving slowly but surely, I decided to try renting an ECV the next day at Magic Kingdom, to spend a day with my son. I blanched at the price of ECV rental. Fifty dollars a day (plus a $20 refundable deposit) felt awfully pricey, but my spouse reminded me that after all we'd invested in our vacation, spending another $50 to ensure I could actually enjoy myself was quite reasonable. 

Getting from the TTC to Magic Kingdom's ECV rental desk is no easy feat, as the AllEars FAQ had warned me. Had I not been able to walk for short distances (5-10 minutes at a time), I would not have been able to visit Magic Kingdom at all that day. But once we were there, everything was smooth. I was strangely embarrassed to rent the ECV, but nobody else seemed to mind. The Cast Member who rented me the chair even offered me the traditional retail enticements of a packable jacket or picture frame for just $9.95, since my $50 rental was a "qualifying purchase" for the promotion. (Gee, I hadn't thought of renting medical equipment as a shopping opportunity.)

Attraction access was more difficult at Magic Kingdom, perhaps because it was built before Epcot, and perhaps because I was in the bulkier, heavier ECV. The map claimed that some queues would require me to "transfer to a standard wheelchair", but Cast Members couldn't always direct me to those wheelchairs, so I had to either walk a good bit, or try to find the standard wheelchairs myself. On the other hand, for both Peter Pan's Flight and Buzz Lightyear we were whisked into the Fast Pass line (without a Fast Pass), shown a parking place for my ECV, and given access to the front of the line. I was also grateful for the VIP seating area at the Columbia Harbor House, where I could easily navigate to a table and a kind Cast Member even brought over a regular chair I could transfer myself to, rather than eating in my ECV. Without the assistance of my son, though, I'm not sure how I could have picked up and carried my food to the table.

It's a lucky thing that the parks were very quiet both days I used these assistive devices. Otherwise, I can only imagine it would have been difficult to navigate, especially for a novice such as myself. Even with light crowds, it often felt like people were jumping in front of me, though I'll bet in most cases they just didn't notice I was coming, since I was traveling so low to the ground. Others, though, seemed to run in front of my as if they were worried they'd end up having to let me pass unless they ran across my path first, much like a person rushing across the street as they see a car coming.

Even just this brief experience in assistive devices made me wonder: Would it realy make sense for someone to rent a wheelchair or ECV in order to game the system? Setting aside the moral and ethical problems, there's a simple cost/benefit issue: Any "special treatment" I received was absolutely not worth the inconvenience and expense of renting and using the devices. Because I was ill, though, those small niceties and the ability to access the parks at all made the difference between lying on the condo couch watching yet another episode of Phineas and Ferb, and enjoying Illuminations with my family. I came home from the trip slightly sad about having missed out on some of the fun I'd planned, but deeply grateful for the good times I did have, thanks to special assistance.

I'm glad to say that later in the week I was well enough to return to the parks on my own two feet, at least for a few hours at a time, and I was able to travel home at the end of the week without complication. I'm also very grateful for the advice I was able to find online, and for the knowledge that there's plenty more help that I can avail myself of next time. 

Because there probably will be a next time. After all, according to the Center for Disease Control, 15% of non-institutionalized adults have some form of "physical functioning difficulty," and about half of that number have mobility impairments. And that doesn't count situations like my own, where I needed assistive devices for only a few days. Disability, whether temporary or permanent, touches many of our lives, and chances are this isn't the last time I'll need help, or need to assist a loved one with disabilities. Thank goodness we don't have to do it alone.