Tips & advice for Disney World and Universal Orlando trips when you have a disability
What you need to know & what you can do before you travel. Knowing what is available before or when you arrive to make your trip as easy as possible for you.
When researching this topic ahead of our recent trip, I found little to no information online surrounding the topic, and that I did find, I found out was super outdated whilst on the trip. I’ve been asked to make a post on this topic by many who are planning trips as a couple and as families. I've tried to include as much as I could, in the hope there will be some information here that helps you plan and enjoy your holiday.
I completely understand how not knowing about accessibility where you’re heading, can cause unnecessary anxiety, which of course we all want to minimise to have the most smooth, stress free trip possible.
Whether you or a family member (including children) have a physical disability; needing a wheelchair, walking aid or struggle to walk or stand for long periods of time in any way. Sensory or mental limitations due to overstimulation or becoming overwhelmed. There is much that can arranged to help you on your trip. This can make things like queuing, that can easily aggravate ANY kind of condition, physical or sensory, easier or minimal.
We took a family holiday to Florida during the U.K. summer holidays 2022 (End of July- Mid August 2022) spending the time visiting the various park locations at both Disney and Universal. I myself have physical limitations due to MS and EDS and spent all of the park days in a manual wheelchair due to not being able to walk much, so was pushed by another adult in our party. One of our children, who is 3, also has mobility and sensory issues because of conditions, she can walk small amounts, but next to no distance, so was in a stroller at all parks mostly. There’s a lot to be said about access arrangements available across both Disney and Universal, but also to make you aware of the areas that may be lacking, just so you’re prepared for these.
Jheeezz, driving in America, honestly.. every man for themselves, but that could have a whole post of its own. Firstly, before I jump to in the parks let’s talk about, parking. A big consideration for anyone, and an even bigger one for those with disabilities. Depite a lot of the information you will read online BOTH Disney and Universal car parks (all sites) DO accept and recognise the U.K. blue badges.
This means when you arrive at parking payment gates you pay your fee, the standard rate at all parks, $25 Disney & $27 Universal [accurate August 2022] and show them your blue badge and tell them you need accessible parking please. Generally this will be to the far right hand side after the gate at Disney, so maybe when approaching the toll like box, head closest to there for ease OR far left hand side generally at Universal. Disabled parking is closer than priory parking which for reference is nearly triple the price, yes,
t-r-i-p-l-e, at all the theme parks, so don’t be fooled into buying this instead.
Accessible parking is super close to the park entrances, the closest you can get to all park gates. But I’ll give this advise: Universal generally places you in a multi storey parking block, a lot better for keeping cars cool (bonus!) and this is the closest you can get, BUT it is still a super long walk to even City walk (shops and restaurants you pass through before entering either universal parks) and then an even further walk to parks. There are travelators for part of the walking, after the security checkpoint, though wheelchairs and pushchairs can’t use these, which is definitely worth knowing.
All Disney parks, when using a blue badge will see you able to park super close to the entrance gates—except from at the main Magical kingdom park site. It’s not as far as the walk at universal but even the disabled /medical car park at Magical Kingdom is a fair walk to the gate. After the gate you then have to climb steep ramps (or be pushed up if in a wheelchair), to board the monorail or boat ect to get you to the ticket gates. Don't worry the friendly staff place ramps so you don't have to get out of your chair and struggle on. You will have to show your blue badge a few times through checkpoints at all parks whilst being directed to the parking bays, so keep your badge in hand to hold up. Once parked, ALWAYS display your disabled badge in clear view on the dashboard. This is super important as the spots are checked to ensure no one has snuck into these areas and you will be towed away if not displaying a badge. Always remember your badge before travelling to Disney world or Universal if you have, as this would definitely be missed. If you don’t have a blue badge, but are entitled to one, try and obtain before your trip. The reason I say this is because normal parking at all of these parks, if not in priority parking areas (the very pricey ones I mentioned before) can be miles, and yes I mean M-I-L-E-S from even the park entrances.
In terms of parking outside of the theme parks, at supermarkets, shops and so forth, Florida DOES NOT accept the U.K. disabled badges! You can chance it of course, and will hear stories from people you know and online, who ‘managed’ to use them with no issues, BUT, the rules have changed on this recently and will likely be towed away if parked here and have to pay a hefty fee ($1000 quite often just for parking there) and then possibly more to retrieve your vehicle. For parking in bays as mentioned outside of parks, you would need to obtain a RED BADGE which is administered by the state of Florida themselves for visitors. You can apply for these online ahead of your trip.
But, Why do they not accept our blue badge? Its actually to do with how 'official' they are ---- makes no sense right? It's basically because although our badges display the international symbol of disability (you know the guy, the little stick person in wheelchair figure) which should mean its valid anywhere really, we use a very posh hologram on our plastic cards to show this. Holograms are used on most things to prove authenticity. BUT, Florida and many other places, officially doesn't recognise it because when displayed on a dashboard etc, they can't wiggle the badge to see the international symbol and therefore can't validate it is actually there. The red badge is a cardboard door hanger like piece you hang over your middle refacing mirror.
(Image shows just how close disabled parking is at Disney water park Typhoon Lagoon, straight outside entrance. As a side note parking is free at Disney waterparks and you can park at Universal for the city walk park, ie going to dinner at Restaurants for free if arrive after 6pm)
In the Disney parks
There is a service called DAS (Disability access service) at Disney World which exists to help anyone with any kind of disability that may affect them in the park environment. DAS is super useful to have for sure and although setting up may seem long winded, I would 100% recommend. There is two options when it comes to arranging your DAS.
1. Set up from 30 days to 2 days before your trip, you can do this online and will have a virtual meeting with a DAS cast member to talk through difficulties you have and be approved for your DAS. This is a great option, BUT, has many flaws. Alot people can't secure appointments or struggle with connection issues when the call actually happens and it ends up a lot of stress. Of course this service is incredibly busy and at peak times it can be difficult to secure a virtual call.
2. For me the more straight forward option. You can go directly to City Hall (Mickey Mouse city hall, not the actual city hall- I wondered too) This is is located just to the left of the ticket entrance in the Magical Kingdom park at the beginning of main street. You will have to queue briefly but I can assure you this will save ALOT of queuing during your trip.
Ideally you or whomever the person requiring DAS should be with you. If this is a child have them near by in the square so they can see the cast member when needed. I will say if the park reservation system is still in operation when you go [was still August 2022 due to covid] then you might want to book Magical Kingdom for your first park visit, to set this up.
What does DAS do for you exactly? Once DAS is allocated to you or whomever, the Disney world app will show this. You will now, one ride at a time, be able to get into a queue, without queuing basically. You can do this for all rides and attractions, ie. meeting cindarella at princess hall, Space mountain, Tower of terror. DAS can be used EVEN on top attractions. We personally had DAS and GENIE+ on our trip and I can honestly say at Disney we didn't queue for anything for more than 5-10 mins EVER. Genie+ is something you'd have to research separately, we were lucky to purchase this when was available in advance, its now a day to day thing you can add and is a completely different thing to fast tracking with lightening passes. IMPORTANT: You can get into say a 60 minute queue and then just go to that ride anytime after 60 mins to ride. You'll access the ride via the lightening lane, ALWAYS scan the person with DAS ticket or band first. Once you use one ride you can immediately then get in your next queue. DAS appiles to your whole party in app. Perhaps set the app up before your trip to save time when there. We however travelled as group of 9, and its worth noting DAS can be used for your DAS member and 5 others at a time ONLY. Even if the DAS member isn't riding, they have to be included in the 6 total and scanned onto ride (first).
I've seen people talk about being nervous for talking to DAS, but honestly its such a friendly chat, hopefully this helps..
Firstly enter and tell them you wish to set up DAS for your trip.
What do the cast members ask/do for DAS? They ask who requires DAS in your party, if there is more than one member, make sure they know this. They will have to see each member to take photo of them. They ask what issues you have (the condition doesn't matter, they're asking how it affects you). I of course explained I can't stand for a length of time or walk and would need to stay in wheelchair as much as possible. For our daughter who has mobility and sensory issues, I explained she was in a stroller and wouldn't be able to stand in queues or walk far. DAS then explained they would attach a RED TAG to her stroller which would mean the chair would be treated as a wheelchair, she wouldn't be made to get out at any point.
Your disability doesn't have to be physical to get DAS. I mentioned my child getting overstimulated easily and overwhelmed if too much is going on and this was received just as importantly as the physical side. I asked if she would have received the red sticker without mobility elements and they said they often give these for conditions such as autism too.
An important note here is that at both universal and Disney, children HAVE TO EXIT strollers to queue. You have to park up the stroller at parking stations, with NO exceptions unless the stroller HAS a red tag.
Universal offers a similar thing called a blue tag, but you don't really need this, as universal WILL recognise the red tag from Disney if you point out and allow you to use as their own. This could just avoid lots of time at different guest services for you.
In terms of strollers and electric vehicles (mobility scooters) you can hire these on site but they are fairly pricey for stays longer than a few days, ie. single stroller $15 daily or $13 daily for multiday purchases, double stroller just over double the rate [Accurate August 2022]. Even park hired strollers, children would be made to disembark these to queue for rides, with no red DAS tag attached. There are also various external places you can hire strollers and so forth from, a little search online you will find lots, even some that deliver to hotels and villas. As you may already be aware nearly all airlines allow you to take strollers and two pieces of mobility equipment on board (in hold) for free, including manual wheelchairs and mobility scooters. It's for sure cost effective to bring your own along if that's an option for you. Depending on how much ground you want to cover, electric vehicles can be a good option. But remember the scooters there are big, they make you transfer from their scooters or your own, to a manual wheelchair for most queues (Disney and Universal). Battery life is limited and you cover many more miles a day than you perhaps think when walking around parks, so this is an important consideration. If taking your own mobility scooter or alike remember you may need a voltage converter ASWELL as a an adapter because American outlets supply half the voltage that the UK plugs do, meaning everything charges and powers ALOT slower.
At Disney there are quite a few rides where the lines are not wheelchair accessible, this means they take you through a different entrance OR you will ride from the ride exit. It NEVER means you can not ride a ride. At Universal ALL lines are accessible in a wheelchair, though some have stairs and they will take you to the ride exit to ride.
I will note in both parks you often should prompt them on the queue entrance with something like 'Is this a queue we can go in with the wheelchair?' just to be sure, as some staff that don't know, will let you pass them when you could have basically not queued by going to the exit. This happened to us on the HULK ride at Universal, Islands of adventure. The longest queue of our whole trip I would say, about 80 minutes, we got all the way to boarding and then they said no, and we had to be taken all the way down again, walk/roll around whole ride, go up in a lift, to the exit side of the ride to board. We basically didn't need to queue at all and could have saved that 80 mis, but lesson learnt. This same approach applied on a fair few rides at Universal meaning we didn't queue, at all for some big rides with 60 minute+ queues, a little perk.
Is there any issues with the accessibility systems?
Yes, a niché one maybe at Disney in particular.
I'll give the scenario incase applies to you too. On a few occasions we attended the park as a 4. Me (In a wheelchair), 3 year old on my lap as no-one was present to push the stroller, my husband pushing me and our 8 year old. We'd book our ride time and gone along to ride, then the issue arrives. This happened on multiple rides but for this example ill say we're trying to ride The Seven Drawfs mine train (Magical Kingdom). We scan in our tickets, everythings been done correctly on our end. Staff members say Darcy, our 3 year old, is too small in height to ride. We know this, it was the case on many rides, but of course, there is no way we can all ride and have her watched. Universal is much more ahead with this they have swap room for parents with little kids on ALL rides basically so this issue isn't a thing. But weirdly Disney doesn’t, only on a few rides. The staff tell us Darcy is too small and can't even be in queue, she can't get near ride. We explain I am in the wheelchair and need to be pushed by my partner to the ride. For ages there's back and forth talk between staff and they agree to let us go to the exit and ride. It happened that many times at Disney, it kind of makes you feel awkward like you should say, “No i’ll wait here with the smaller one” and let my partner go ahead with Rosie who's 8 . There was a few occasions when we almost had to argue to be allowed through, it was abit strange and for sure, unnecessary.
Some rides at Disney ie. Its a Small world, Princes carousel have disabled entrances, you can easily spot these as have the blue disabled sign. These entrances are basically different lines, where you skip the main line itself. This is good to know so you don't waste a DAS on it maybe, as you wouldn't need to stand in line for these anyway so no need to book ahead.
On other rides when with the larger group, Disney literally made the parent swap happen before the queue, which meant those who waited then had to rejoin the whole line lightening lane, which ain’t always short, to swap. This meant more often or not, they would just not ride to avoid everyone waiting, which was a real shame. When at universal as mentioned little kids can go all the way to the ride more or less and parents/family/carers can swap in a room without the need to re-queue, at all which is amazing.
One big flaw at Universal (all parks) is that staff are sparse on many rides, you can't find one even if trying on many until ends of queue. Disney has staff everywhere near rides so its a lot easier there. This lack of staff and staff knowledge of the ones who are there don't always know the procedure for someone in a wheelchair or with mobility issues. 100% I’d advise, always, as you join a line, ask a member of staff, 'Is this the line for me? I have to stay in my wheelchair' Often they will consult someone who does know and they will take you to a different line or access point, BUT if you don't, you will possibly end up in the wrong line as no staff seem to just notice if you don’t prompt them .
Universal is big against bags anywhere near rides on most part and have you put everything in paid lockers. TIP IF A WHEELCHAIR USER OR HAVE ANY DISABILITY: Put all of your days stuff including the items inc phones of who ever is with you in ONE bag. If you have, hang over wheelchair. I also have Kidney failure so applies to me massively but could apply to many situations. You can keep your bag on rides and through all queues by saying 'It’s a medical bag' they don't ask questions if in a chair about this really. Mine was classed as medical bag as it had drinks in, because of my kidneys I must drink if I need one. This could apply to anything though, access to a phone that controls or monitors medical devices like heart devices, insulin pumps or even if the bag contains medicines you need to hand. This will save you time and money in the parks.
I think that's about it, lots of information, hopefully there's at least something in there you find usual on your trip. I understand how difficult it is planning and taking trips when you have a disability or someone in your party with a disability. As a whole Disney World and Universal have to be some of the best places at catering for those with ANY kind of disability I would say and are very considerate and compassionate. I hope this has helped and you have the most amazing time on your holiday!
If you have anything you would like to ask further that I didn't cover about accessibility at the parks or so forth, drop me a message on instagram @withtherobbins and ill get back you,