The Disney theme parks are known for removing you from the stresses of life and allowing you to, “Enter a World of Yesterday, Tomorrow, and Fantasy.”
For some, this means not attending school, work, or performing your same daily routine.
However, for others, going to a Disney Park means much more.
In the United States, it is reported that 19% of Americans have some sort of disability. This could be a physical disability, an intellectual disability, or a social disability.
Many individuals with disabilities have found solace in Disney.
Through the characters, movies, and songs, Disney motivates individuals to reach for their dreams, despite their challenges. It is no wonder then that so many families who have children or adults with disability flock to the Disney Parks.
Though many are aware of the strong connection between the disabled community and Disney, few realize this community is greatly impacting the design and construction of attractions, lands, and entire parks.
As a former cast member, I’ve heard a story of a child with autism who had never spoken a word in their life speaks to Goofy. Even recently, there was a viral video of Winnie the Pooh spending 10 minutes with a child with a disability. This demonstrated the power these characters and stories have for those children and individuals with disabilities.
When the first couple Disney theme parks were built, the requirements and restrictions of accommodating guests with disabilities were nonexistent.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) wasn’t passed until 1991. This law requires public and commercial facilities to provide accommodations for those with physical disabilities. Therefore, Disneyland Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s MGM Studios (now Disney’s Hollywood Studios) were all built prior to 1991, so there was no requirement to obtain structural accommodations for those using wheelchairs, canes, crutches, or who couldn’t walk that well.
You can recognize the evidence of this in many early attractions.
In Fantasyland at Disneyland, the queue line for many attractions are too narrow for a wheelchair to fit through. For example, those who wish to ride Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, must enter through the exit. Another example is Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain. These queues at both Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom have guests climb upstairs and walk down some inclines. This prohibits anyone who can’t walk to use the normal queue, so they use the exit.
These four parks additionally have many narrow walkways and areas outside of the attractions. One example is New Orleans Square at Disneyland. By the exit of Pirates of the Caribbean and the Blue Bayou entrance, it is exceedingly narrow, and the wheelchair line for Pirates sometimes extends into this area.
This can cause high congestion and can block guests from using the back streets of New Orleans Square.
Compare these examples to the parks built after the passage of 1991: Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Disney’s California Adventure. These two parks include large walkways and almost every attraction queue can be fully accessed by a wheelchair or ECV. Disney, in addition, offers some attractions like Toy Story Mania and Radiator Springs Racers have separate loading areas for those in wheelchairs. Other attractions, like It’s A Small World and Journey into Imagination, have ride vehicles that allow guests using wheelchairs and ECVs to bring those mobility devices on the ride.
Disney has other accommodations for experiencing the parks and the various attractions. However, if we are looking solely at accommodations for wheelchairs and ECVs, we can see the way Disney builds parks and attractions have been significantly impacted. Many new lands and attractions include larger walkways and queues that enhance the size of the new space.
There have been clear examples of this.
First, many planters around Disneyland, are being removed to allow a larger walkway for passing guests and those guests using mobility devices. Furthermore, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room at Disneyland has seen the addition of a ramp for wheelchairs and ECVs. Before this, to get into the Tiki Room you had to ride a small lift to get into the theater space.
As we look forward to Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland and Disney’s Hollywood Studios next year, we are in awe of the scope of this new land. Galaxy Edge is the single largest expansion for either park, and some believe this is because of the tremendous crowds that are expected to attend. This is true, but we also must factor in the ADA structural requirements; how Disney might adapt the two attractions to load and unload guests with physical limitations; and how wide the walkways will be.
As Disney goes forward building new attractions, lands, and theme parks, the design of it will be impacted by ADA Law. However, and most importantly, when Disney develops something new they will always try to make sure everyone can experience it.