Visiting Walt Disney World with a Vision Impairment

by Tim Sullivan, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist

Feature Article

This article appeared in the January 23, 2007, Issue #383 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)

I consider myself a fairly experienced traveler to Walt Disney World, visiting nearly every year with my family, but it was only after a recent trip to Europe, and the very in-depth research I did for that trip, that I finally realized that I've never really done any research into Walt Disney World traveling, especially regarding anything special that I should know regarding my being a visually impaired traveler... I've always just relied on my wife and the "kindness of strangers" to get by.

Knowing all the great hints and tips I gleaned before my Europe trip, I did my research to find out what I might have been missing at Walt Disney World. I got great tips on dining, hotel accommodation, what attractions to see where and when, but in all the great guide books, websites and other places for tips that I read, none of them answered my biggest question. What should I know as a visually impaired traveler?

Here is a little background into my visual impairment -- I have Retinitis Pigmentosa, which is basically tunnel vision, coupled with no low-light vision. Straight ahead I'm fine, but to the sides, and in dark attractions/at night I have difficulty. This gives me the most problems in crowds, where I simply do not see all the people, especially when they are moving across my visual field, and more importantly, crowds seem to confuse my vision. There is so much to look at I almost get sensory overload and have a hard time finding what I am looking for. Also, when a ride is dark, I see little to none of it -- my eyes just will not process everything.

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WHAT DISNEY DOES...
AND DOESN'T DO
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By and large, Walt Disney World tries hard to do the best they can to accommodate visually impaired, as well as other guests with disabilities, but they do have some work to do. The biggest problem is with consistency. Not everyone is familiar with, or can recognize blindness as a disability like they can a person in a wheelchair. Not everyone will understand what a white cane means, and guests as well as Disney Cast Members can sometimes be insensitive or unresponsive to the special needs of a visually impaired person.

I have encountered some fabulous Cast Members, and even park guests, who have taken the initiative to go out of their way to come up to me, ask if my family and I need any help finding the entrance to an attraction or help getting on the attraction, or if we need general information about the park. These types of Cast Members really help you feel that Walt Disney World is the "Most Magical Place on Earth."

Unfortunately, I have found that you also have to be prepared to do A LOT of digging and legwork to get a straight answer out of Walt Disney World regarding what exactly they offer for guests with visual impairments. First off, if you are unsure or have a question about anything, ask one of the Cast Members. They are usually a great source of information about everything park-related. If they can't give you an answer, politely escalate it to a higher level. Eventually someone will be able to answer your questions.

Your first stop on your first day in the parks should be Guest Relations. When you are there the most important thing to do is to make sure you get an official WDW document called the Guest Assistance Card. It is approximately 3x5 in size and is good for your entire visit to Walt Disney World. The card outlines any assistance you may need while visiting the park, but more importantly, identifies that you in fact have some special needs that require attention. The card is not mentioned on Disney's website designed for people with disabilities, but know that it is there.

I believe the card was originally intended for guests who could not use the regular queue lines (such as people in wheelchairs), and outlined the special assistance they may need. Speaking from experience, a visual impairment is a mobility concern that requires just as much special attention from Cast Members as someone in a wheelchair, so make sure you get this card!

While there also make sure you pick up the "Guide for Guests with Disabilities," which is filled with information aimed at disabled travelers. There are also several guides available to visually impaired travelers, including Braille guides and audiotape guides to the parks. At Guest Relations you can also find a large Braille map of the park you're in. As I only have a visual impairment, rather than complete blindness, I have not used any of these guides, but on my next trip to the parks I am traveling with my brother-in-law who is completely blind, so I'll get him to take them for a spin and will update accordingly.

WDW also provides a website for guests with disabilities at http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/wdwi/en_CA/common/Plain?id=PlainHomePage, but to be honest with you I didn't find the information very helpful. But it does outline the official Disney guidelines and policies, and does seem to be formatted for screen reader, low vision etc., so it is easy for those with visual impairments to use.

I've read somewhere that someone suggested a person with a visual impairment should leave his or her cane at home, but for me that is the LAST thing I'd want to do (and I don't always use my cane while at home). I think it's a matter of personal preference. I do not have an obvious visual impairment -- my eyesight, in normal everyday conditions, appears "normal" to anyone who is not paying close attention, so often the only warning someone will get that I do have a visual impairment is the big white stick that I carry wherever I go. Not only that, it can also help your relations with other park guests. I'm fond of using the analogy that with my cane when I run into someone, instead of thinking I'm a jerk, they'll think I'm a blind jerk! Not only that, but having the cane is also an identifier that there is something "special" about you, which, as much as I hate to admit it, can get some of the assistance required moving before even having to ask for it, and also saves some explanation once you do talk to a Cast Member. They can immediately see that you have some sort of disability so will move a bit faster to help.

Most importantly, know that with a visual impairment you will be slowed down more than an able-bodied person, so please do not expect to "see" as much, nor do as much. Pick what is most important to you, and make sure you enjoy those things. Take your time moving around the parks and stop and smell the roses. I've had better days at the parks when I've taken my time getting around and spending quality time at various attractions, rather than running around like a chicken with my head cut off trying to get as much in as I can. Definitely go for quality over quantity.

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HOW TO ENJOY THE PARKS
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It is not hard to enjoy yourself while spending the day at one of the theme parks at Walt Disney World, so here are a few hints and tips I can give to hopefully make your visit as a visually-impaired park guest easier:

One of the things that Disney does so fabulously with their attractions is the general setting of their rides, so rather than waiting in a regular old queue line, Disney starts to immerse you in the experience to help build the excitement. Make sure that you take your time to "look" at as much as you can while you are waiting. Cast Members usually don't mind visually impaired people touching and feeling various aspects of the "set dressings" for rides, and I know from experience that my blind brother-in-law gets the biggest kick out of some of that stuff. With anything though, be sure to check with a Cast Member before fondling everything... there might be something they do not want you to touch, so better safe than sorry.

Most every live show, movie or other entertainment attraction (including the parades) have special seating areas set aside for disabled travelers and their guests. Once again they are oriented toward people in wheelchairs, but are also available to a visually impaired guest and their travelling party.

Also, if you are choosing to go to any of the shows, arrive a little early and ask the Cast Members present if you can be pre-seated prior to the general admission of the rest of the crowd. This will help alleviate some of the craziness that ensues when the masses stampede to get the best seats, but will also ensure that you get the best seating that you will need to suit your visual impairment. I have had the pleasure of this service at shows across WDW, including PhilharMagic at the Magic Kingdom, the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular at Disney-MGM Studios, not to mention the Biergarten Restaurant in the Germany Pavilion, which has a great live show.

One other note about show-type attractions, make sure you inquire about any movie-type performances, as there are several that use more than just your sense of sight, but also touch and smell. Two of the greatest are Mickey's PhilharMagic (which should not be missed) in the Magic Kingdom, but also It's Tough to be a Bug at Animal Kingdom. They are both 3-D movies (whose effect is mostly lost on me), but also include the other senses, so of course make sure you do not miss a movie just because you don't think there will be enough to entertain because of a lack of vision.

Some people suggest taking the afternoon off to go back to your hotel to rest and relax, which can be a decent tip for some. But for the amount of trouble it is for me to head out of the park and all the way back to the hotel to relax, a trip of at least a half hour just to get to the hotel, I don't really think it's worth it. For the hour wasted in travel time, time you are NOT relaxing, I find it easier to just sit and relax in a quiet neck of the parks. They ALL have some nice spots for you to relax. Half the fun of the parks is exploring them to find these quiet areas. If you cannot find anything to your liking, ask a Cast Member where you can find a quiet spot, and I'm sure they can direct you to a perfect area.

I have lots more to share, but that should give you a good overview of touring Walt Disney World with a vision impairment.

For more indepth information, visit: http://allears.net/pl/vision2.htm


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Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.