Over the years, we’ve traveled to Orlando, Fla., with tots, tweens and teens in tow. The theme parks are constantly adding new rides and shows to keep people coming back, and we love exploring new attractions, hotels and restaurants.
We never tire of Orlando. It’s a favorite vacation destination for our family and one of the most wheelchair-friendly places in the country.
The Orlando/Orange County Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.Orlandoinfo.com; 800-972-3304) provides comprehensive information about the city for guests with special needs. Sign up early for the free Orlando Magic Card worth up to $500 in savings on accommodations, dining, shopping, golf, transportation and attractions.
The Visitors Bureau recommends calling theme parks directly for accessibility information. Universal Studios Orlando (universalorlando.com; 407-224-4233) offers a 44-page comprehensive guide for guests with disabilities that tells everything from where to walk a service animal to which rides require guests to remove prosthetic limbs. Walt Disney World’s accessibility info can be found at disneyworld.disney.go.com (click on “guests with disabilities”) or (407) 824-4321.
Before every Orlando trip, we spend time at our local bookstore scanning the guidebooks. Besides noting wheelchair accessibility, they’re filled with tips on everything from navigating the theme parks to budget-conscious dining.
We always carry at least one guidebook in Barbara’s wheelchair pocket, and frequently refer to it. Two of our favorites are The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009 (Wiley, John and Sons, 2008) and Fodor’s Walt Disney World with Kids 2009: With Universal Orlando and Seaworld (Fodor’s Travel Publications, 2008).
With so much to see and do, it’s a good idea to spend some time planning your trip before you leave home. Have a family meeting and ask everyone what’s on the top of their “must do” list. Not every ride is accessible and most have height restrictions. Some can be ridden from a wheelchair and others require transferring. (Note: Many rides are only accessible for manual wheelchairs, not electric wheelchairs or scooters.)
When mapping out each day’s activities, allow at least an hour per ride or show that’s a “must do.” Some shows, such as Disney’s “Finding Nemo —The Musical” (a Broadway-style production), recommend arriving 45 minutes before the show. We did just that and had fantastic seats with an amazing view of the stage. However, in less than 15 minutes, all of the wheelchair seating area was full.
Every theme park provides guests with a map of the park; if wheelchair-accessible entrances and companion restrooms aren’t shown, stop by Guest Services and ask for assistance.
The time of year you visit Orlando can affect your enjoyment. Our two biggest concerns are the climate and the crowds. Standing in the hot Florida sun for hours is exhausting. Busiest times are spring break, Easter, Thanksgiving and the December holidays. Typically, the parks are open longer during peak times and close earlier during slower periods.
Our family prefers to book a five- or six-day vacation and leisurely enjoy the attractions, instead of trying to do it all in two or three days. The theme parks are exciting, and it’s easy to lose all sense of time and go until you’re exhausted. We like to balance intense theme park visits with quieter outings. Parents especially need to be mindful of how much sensory overload their children can handle.
Take a break from the rides and spend the day at the hotel pool or visit a calmer accessible attraction, such as the Orlando Science Center, the Pirated Dinner Adventure, Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Downtown Disney, Orlando Premium Outlets or the Orlando Museum of Art.
Many Disney World rides are wheelchair-accessible.
Whether you’re driving a vehicle to Orlando or renting one, be sure to bring your own disabled parking permit, as temporary permits aren’t available. Several rental companies (Avis, Dollar, Alamo Enterprise and Hertz) offer cars with hand controls. It’s a good idea to arrange for the rental well in advance of your trip.
Mears Transportation Group offers wheelchair-lift-equipped transportation between the Orlando International Airport, hotels and attractions; 24-hour advance reservation required (mearstransportation.com; 407-423-5566).
At the Orlando theme parks, wheelchair and electronic convenience vehicles (ECVs) are available for rent on a first-come, first-served basis. A rental fee and refundable deposit is required at the time of rental.
Orlando-area vendors who rent medical equipment include: Care Medical Equipment (caremedicalequipment.com, 407-856-2273); K&M Rentals (km-rentals.com, 407-363-7388); Randy’s Mobility (randysmobility.com, 407-855-6562); ScootArama (scootarama.com, 877-736-8328); Scootaround (scootaround.com; 888-441-7575); Travel Rite (407-647-4034); and Walker Medical & Mobility Products (walkermobility.com, 407-518-6000).
Where to stay
Choosing accommodations in Orlando depends upon your budget, the location of the attractions you plan to visit and your mode of transportation.
The 10-mile-long International Drive runs parallel to I-4, with Universal Orlando to the north and Walt Disney World to the south. More than 100 hotels are located on this congested thoroughfare. We recently stayed at the Westin Imagine Orlando, a new art deco hotel that’s in a less-developed area of what’s commonly called “Orlando’s Tourism Corridor.” Our two-bedroom suite included a full-size kitchen; one-bedrooms have kitchenettes.
I-Drive is an ideal location if you plan to visit all the major theme parks or want to spend some time shopping. Getting around is easily done by hopping aboard the I-Ride Trolley, which has wheelchair lifts. The low-cost trolleys run every 20 minutes between 8 a.m. and 10:30 p.m.
Walt Disney World Resort/Lake Buena Vista
This zero-entry swimming pool at Disney World allows people with appropriately equipped wheelchairs to join in the fun.
If you’re only visiting Disney World, then staying on the property might be the most convenient choice.
Guests can get to the four theme parks, Downtown Disney, two water parks and several golf courses by way of resort transportation which includes buses, the monorail and boats. One of our favorite hotels is the Animal Kingdom Lodge. The African-style lodge sits in a 33-acre wildlife preserve and offers special animal viewing areas throughout the property. Many of the pools at Disney hotels have zero-grade entry and aquatic wheelchairs (made of PVC pipe) are available for transferring into the water.
Complimentary airport service is available; ask about Disney’s Magical Express when you book a room. Another guest benefit is Extra Magic Hours, which allows extra time at the Disney theme parks beyond standard operating hours.
Adjacent to Walt Disney World is the Lake Buena Vista area with some 40 hotels. Two brand new hotels, the Hilton Garden Inn and Homewood Suites, are just off I-4 directly across from Orlando’s Prime Outlet Mall. The two properties share a zero-grade entry outdoor pool. The Garden Inn rooms have a fridge, microwave and coffee maker while the Homewood Suites rooms have fully-equipped kitchens.
Universal Orlando Resort
Universal Orlando Resort has three onsite hotels: Universal’s Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel and Loews Royal Pacific Resort. Each hotel has complimentary wheelchair-accessible water taxis that transport guests to the theme parks and Universal CityWalk. Your room key card gives you front-of-the-line access to rides and shows at the parks. Our favorite hotel is the Portofino. The concept for the hotel came from Steven Spielberg, and it’s modeled after the town of the same name in Italy.
Off-site accommodations include Universal Orlando Partner Hotels, which offer free transportation to Universal Orlando Resort and discounts on merchandise and food.
Barbara and Jim Twardowski, Mandeville, La., are frequent travelers and Quest contributors. Barbara has Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and uses a power wheelchair.