The Problems With Accessibility at My Local Theme Park
A disclaimer: I reached out to Busch Gardens and not only asked for a response to my issues with their disability access program, I also offered to test out the park in a wheelchair. They didn’t respond.
It is a right of passage. Anyone that lives within an hour of a major theme park knows that once you get to be a teenager with a season pass, your life is about to change. As a youth, I spent my summers at the local theme parks. Even as an adult, the close proximity and mixture of food and fun has made it a popular social outing. However, as my mobility has changed over the years, I am no longer able to visit the park without the use of my SideStix crutches or, the more frequent reality lately, a wheelchair. This is a huge adjustment for me and my friends but we are making the best of it and it is better than not going.
I have a genetic condition that makes my joints dislocate and causes widespread pain. Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, as it is known, also comes with some fun comorbidities such as postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome, which makes it hard for me to stand for long periods of time without blacking out.
Because my circle is awesome, my friends have adjusted well. Perhaps better than I have, because each visit we have to go through the same…total… bullshit. When you’re able-bodied, you can just walk into your local theme park and you don’t have to think about things. You don’t have to allow extra time, ask for help or have others wait on you. But not if you have a disability. Now, I do want to be clear. This blog post is not about those theme parks that are doing it right.
Disney, for example, has one of the best ride accessibility programs I have ever seen. And that came for them at a heavy cost. Up until the last few years the Disney theme parks were plagued with guide services using disabled guides so rich families could get front-of-the-line access – all while piggybacking on someone’s disability and basically cutting the line. They had to draw a hard line in the sand and find a creative solution to this issue while still protecting the program for those visitors who needed access.
Their solution was twofold: Those guests who are ambulatory, even with the use of a walking aid, visit guest relations and request an accessibility passport. The representative talks to the patron about the need and how best to serve them. Those guests who utilize a wheelchair, scooter or stroller for medical needs do not have to register or visit anyone. They simply roll to the alternative entrance (usually the exit) and a cast member helps them on the ride. In addition to that, the Disney program is digital, so there is no paper to get, bracelet to wear or need to revisit the window every visit as the pass is good for the length of the stay or season.
Enter my local theme park. Busch Gardens. A park I very much enjoy, where I spend a lot of money and where I think I should feel at home. Here, regardless of your disability, ambulatory or not, the patron must visit guest services every single time they come to the park. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, this is also the line where folks renew or get passes, fix issues, make payments, etc. So, on a busy day, the line can be an hour.
This is the first mistake Busch Gardens makes in their accessibility. They further segregate the disabled from the mainstream population by forcing them to wait in line every time they come to the park. Even if the last visit was yesterday. I’m rather fortunate my friends are patient, but could you imagine this on a date? And typically, because I don’t want to be “that guy,” I go to the park early and alone so I can make this transaction without my group being inconvenienced.
Once at the window, I do have to say my experience getting the pass has been better than Disney in that it is quicker. Busch Gardens seems less concerned about the reason why you are requesting the pass – a good nod to them in that all disabilities aren’t visible. However, once you get the paper document, you also get a beautiful blue wristband with the disability logo. Now, I can see this being helpful for staff when interacting with those patrons who have a disability, but isn’t that what the paper is for? Why can’t patrons visit the ride and speak to the attendant in privacy? No adult or child needs to be “branded” disabled with this tacky and insensitive bracelet. It is pointless and serves no other function than to humiliate the patron. It is also completely void of sensitivity when dealing with those guests who may be on the autism spectrum and may not feel comfortable with a band around their wrist. While most of the time I have an invisible disability, if I use a wheelchair at the park, it is pretty hard to miss the 25-inch chrome rims strapped to my butt.
The use of the pass inside the park is great, and my only minor criticism is that some rides are poorly designed, with the newest coaster, Invader, having no less than six to code ramps for a wheelchair user or someone with a mobility issue to navigate, only to get to the top and find out they have to come back in an hour. It would make more sense to have someone at the ride height check station and alert the patron to the return time.
In short, it is completely impossible to understand the world of disabled navigation and access unless you yourself utilize this access. Things that worked for me while ambulatory no longer work the same when seated. I would personally like to spend my free time working with the park management to redo their access program so it is more sensitive and truly accessible, so I hope I hear back from them.
In the meantime, if you enjoyed my article I’d appreciate it if you would sign my petition to get Busch Gardens to change their accessibly policy.
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Thinkstock photo via tucko019.