Disneyland: An Abusive Boyfriend

I have always loved Disneyland. I have hordes of wonderful memories. Lately, not so much. Why?

Why is D-Land more like an abusive boyfriend? You know. The sort of lover who brings flowers and nuzzles your neck as you finish the touches on a delicious meal for two … but then punches you in the nose because you forgot to turn on the answering machine or something?

Yeah. That guy.

So, we recently visited Disneyland and California Adventure on two subsequent days: February 16 (Disneyland) and 17 (California Adventure). We were celebrating our 48th wedding anniversary. We were so very excited. Not only because we were going to D-land, but that we had survived nearly 50 years and are still speaking to each other.

I began planning far in advance after having a less than perfect time during my last visit to Disneyland. As a person consigned to the use of a wheelchair, I had some difficulties with accessibility and wanted to avoid the same issues. So this time, I planned to rent an Electrical Convenience Vehicle or as I like to say: geriatric go-cart, so I could actually propel myself along the way in case I got abandoned or stuck.

I phoned Disney help services no fewer than six (6) times. I also accessed information on the website. I was told that  I could request a wheelchair at the guest drop-off area in order to get to the ECV and Wheelchair rental location at the park entrance. We could not rent one outside the park because it would not fit into our vehicle.

“No problem,” said the helpful individuals, (who were answering from Florida). “It’s quite common to have a wheelchair requested at the drop-off.)

Super. I had our tickets and every detail of the trip in a nice envelope all labeled and handy. We were ready.

I had my husband drop me off at guest drop-off and quickly discovered that no wheelchair access was provided “because of Covid.”  Although I am fairly well-educated and also have some small medical background, I fail to make a connection between Covid and wheelchair access. I would be happy to wipe down my wheelchair following my use of it if I could just not have to walk all that extra distance. I am also stymied about the lack of correct information when I double (and even triple) checked to make sure I could get a wheelchair at the guest drop-off. Was there a time-space shift? Was there a parallel multiverse sequence taking place?

At any rate, I was then faced with walking that distance on my own. All eight of the ‘cast members’ huddled for their morning pep talk simply watched me struggle off on my own after assuring me that none of them could/would help me access a wheelchair. By the time I reached the rental location, I was exhausted (and in terrible pain). Not the best way to start the day. On the bright side, I did get to rent An ECV.

Then I did what I had been instructed to do. I went to the Chamber of Commerce in Disneyland to register for DAS. This allows a guest to use disabled access system to plan lines rather than hang out waiting. It allows one to rest or look at clouds or whatever without having to maneuver the tight and lengthy lines.

The fellow there said, “So is it just hard for you to wait in line? Is that why you have the ECV?” With a crowd of people around, I didn’t feel it was really polite to delve into my bevy of medical issues and problems, so I said yes. Well, then, I was told, just carry on. No DAS was necessary. 

I had no idea that I should have outlined my damaged vertebrae, advanced COPD, heart issues, covid related recovery problems, gastroparesis, osteoporosis, Hashimoto’s, hypoglycemia, various prolapses, etc. I thought that saying I had a difficult time standing in line should be sufficient to qualify for the DAS program. No dice.

So we went off and had an okay day although, after the first two rides, I could no longer negotiate the lines because my wrists could not do the steering of the repeated tight turns in long lines anymore. So we just went on the Fantasyland rides, Jungle Cruise and Pirates because they did have ‘come-back’ times available.

But that day, the clincher was at the end of the day. I had to turn in the ECV to the rental location and then walk all the way back out to the bus pickup spot. It was difficult and I was completely non-functional by the time we got back to our room.

Day two, We were prepared. We took the shuttle to the park entrance, and my husband walked with me, supporting me as necessary along the way.  There was very little seating around so I could not rest easily without his help. 

We made it to the rental place and headed off to California Adventure Park. We immediately reported to the information place where I made it more clear that I needed DAS. This allows a guest to use disabled access system to plan lines rather than hang out waiting. It allows one to rest or look at clouds or whatever without having to maneuver the tight and lengthy lines.

At first, when they asked to see our tickets, we were told that our tickets were the wrong ones because they were single-day use. They were single-day use because we had bought them from two different sources, having decided to spend two days at the park instead of one after we’d made initial plans. 

After searching for about ten minutes in every pocket, wallet, niche, and cranny the ‘cast member’ actually listened to our explanation of why we had one-day tickets and checked to see if they were, in fact, the correct tickets. So that was our first hiccup. Not bad. I could deal with that. She helped us get all hooked up on DAS and I was optimistic about the ‘magical’ day awaiting us. 

Right after that, the delightful Mayor of Buena Vista, Donna Linn De Larria, greeted us and I truly felt the day was off to an excellent start. We went on a lovely ride and had breakfast. All went along pretty well until my husband and I split up so he could take a more jolty-type ride (which I cannot ride) while I would take some more sedate rides. 

I made my way over to Silly Symphony Swings – a favorite of mine. The cast member below was lovely and kind. I got off the elevator and was shown where to leave the ECV for the ride. I got on the nearest swing (because I cannot walk – hence the reason I rented an ECV). I had an enormously excellent time on the ride. But that was the end of smiles. 

When the ride was over, my ECV was on the far side of the area, and it took me quite some time to get all the way over to it. Remember I CAN’T WALK VERY WELL which is why I rented the ECV. It shouldn’t be difficult to understand. So anyway, I finally made it to the ECV, and then I needed to know where to exit. I went out the nearest one and discovered that it led only to the stairs, and that wasn’t going to work, so I got back into the center where I looked again for the correct exit. The woman (AKA Cast Member) there Snapped at me (yelled) that the exit was “here” (she didn’t say ‘dummy’ but her inflection sure said it).

Once I got through the gate, I was in a walkway, and still a bit disoriented from the effort and the ride, and being yelled at. A gentleman came along who walked me to the elevator, pushed the button, and got me inside. I thought he was an employee due to his kindness and clarity and was very surprised to learn he was just a kind bystander who was aware of the situation and reached out to help me. I was upset. I was embarrassed, and in pain from the effort to walk. I was also on the high alert then, because this is when I may have a fracture: when my muscles are exhausted and unable to keep things together.

There were good parts too. We went to Carthay Circle for dinner. (pricey but worth it!) The meal was spectacular and the wait staff was splendid. It was worth 48 years of sticking together to get that meal.

Things muddled along with good and bad until the last ride of the evening. We decided to go on the Radiator Springs Car race thing. We got separated, and I ended up at the loading place by myself. I waited with the others in wheelchairs.

When it was finally my turn, there was a woman in a manual wheelchair and her husband and me. The cast member was extremely solicitous toward the other woman and beckoned to me that I should park my ECV over on the side and walk over to the ride. 

Hmm. I CAN do that, but … I parked it as directed but asked the cast member why she assumed that I could walk the distance, explaining that it was extremely difficult, painful, and may cause fractures. She denied asking me to park it on the side (which she clearly did) and said her only concern was that the other woman should board first. Well, I’d say “duh” but that would be rude. I was not racing to the front and pushing my way forward. In FACT, I hung back to see what she wanted me to do.

She muttered something under her breath but kept herself disciplined to not officially ‘cross the line.’ I had trouble doing my seat-belt because my body is twisted to the point that I can’t look over at the side of my body. She was miffed about that. Then I couldn’t find the yellow tab to pull on because – again – I can’t see it and it had gotten twisted in the loop. Said grumpy cast member was even more grumpy and snapped at me.

Arriving back at the base, the said cast member was waiting with the wheelchair for the other woman in the car (who would exit AFTER me) while my ECV was still about 10 feet away. With no assistance offered, I had to resort to CRAWLING and scrabbling my way out of the vehicle on the ground, clawing my way to a standing position using the rails of the sliding gate. By that time my husband had arrived to help me, and I dissolved into more tears. It was incredibly humiliating, not to mention painful. 

Is this really the best Disney can do? If that was their mother or grandmother, is that how they would want it handled? 

But wait, that’s not ALL.

As we left the park, we walked over to the exit (I rode on the ECV) and my husband left me there, telling me that he would meet me at the handicap loading zone. But I was told that I had to walk BACK OUTSIDE the barrier that was set up. They could have shifted one of the portable fence segments and let me through, but they would have none of that. “Those are the rules.”

So. I was abandoned. I had to walk with no support. The exit was literally TWO FEET from where I was standing, but the woman refused to let me go that way. She wouldn’t even listen. My legs were literally collapsing and shaking. I could barely lift my feet. 

Alex, a security guard there, took time to give me a stool to rest on and also offered to help me find my husband for help. He was VERY kind and thoughtful, and the type of employee who deserves recognition for going above and beyond duty. 

The handicap loading zone had been moved from the closest location to the furthest “because it was too crowded.” Again, I’m not a genius, but I do have some education, and this makes no sense.

The handicap loading zone was now the FURTHEST from the line forcing those like me who had rented ECV or whatever for the day to somehow navigate the appalling distance. A very thoughtful fellow named Chris helped us get to the area, with my husband hauling me along. By the time we got there to the area, I collapsed onto the ground as there was no seating. 

In a way, it was a good thing because it gave me the opportunity to see the kindness of strangers who reached out in kindness even though it wasn’t part of their ‘job description.’ I was offered a seat on a bench (I turned it down because I didn’t want to move again, fearing a fracture), a bottle of water, and more. From other guests. Staff did offer to call a medic, but they wouldn’t have done anything for me. There would have been no need for anything at all if there had actually been an intelligent plan. 

In summation, I would say that my experience at Disneyland/California Adventure was like an abusive relationship. When some of the staff are kind and thoughtful, while others seem bent on making sure you are miserable. 

Does the ADA know about these situations?

To quote Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times and the worst of times,  it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

The worst of times: a cast member barking at me – but then being saved by a kind gentleman (a visitor like me) who helped me in the lack of ‘cast member’ assistance.

The age of wisdom: when a cast member at Web-Slinger was savvy enough, kind enough, patient enough, to resolve an issue with creativity and gentleness. 

The age of foolishness: having a lack of flexibility to even make a show of trying to assist a disabled person if it’s not convenient or may need to shave the edge off existing protocol.

The epoch of belief: Allowing disabled visitors to have a shot at some conveniences to make their visit more comfortable.

The age of incredulity: Cast members who, although clearly observing that I am using an ECV, decide that I don’t really need it to get around and ask me to park it far off, or would not help me back to its location following a ride, and who also snarl or bark when I was unable to comply with their directions immediately due to my physical limitations. 

The season of light: Being aware of ADA requirements and implementing accommodations for those who require help.

The season of darkness: suspending some very important facets of those accommodations due to flimsy excuses (covid and overcrowding). In this particular case, I refer to the problem of accessing the park from the transport (shuttle) to the location to rent ECV, and then the return trip. ‘Normally’ there is wheelchair assistance from staff from that area, but that service has been suspended due to covid – which makes no sense at all. They will not even make it possible for a family member to use a borrowed/rented conveyance to assist the disabled individual. Thursday night, they did not have a handicap access loading zone and required everyone to WALK to the furthest end of the loading zone. This meant my husband nearly had to carry me. I was in agony by this point, embarrassed and far from the cheers and smiles of the morning. 

The spring of hope: extremely thoughtful cast members helping me access a ride.

The winter of despair: I literally had to CRAWL off the Radiator Springs ride and drag myself upright using the rails beside the ride. Meanwhile, the cast member clutched another wheelchair to assist the woman who had been seated next to me in the vehicle. For some reason, even though I had told that same cast member when I entered the ride that walking wasn’t really on my dance card, I was confused about why she assumed I could just hop, skip and jump over to the ride from where she told me to park the ECV when I was very nearly incapable of self-ambulating – which is why I bothered to rent the ECV in the first place.

Just like that abusive boyfriend, I sit back to calculate the value of it. Is it worth the risk? The balance of good times with the humiliation, embarrassment, and pain? Will the kindness overcome the rudeness? Or even just the ambivalence of ‘cast members?’

I don’t feel I should have to bring a complete medical synopsis of my limitations in order to receive what I consider to be polite and helpful interaction with those whose job it is to help others. This is my third trip to the Disneyland franchise (different parks, different years) and each time has left me with tears and pain. This time, I’m not sure the good times balanced out with the bad. 

I realize that I am not the ideal prize as a customer. Pretty soon I won’t even be around to cause problems, so maybe some cast members feel it’s a poor investment to waste time trying to appease some old dirtbag. But really, that’s how I felt: like an old dirtbag. A used-up hag, taking up space meant for younger people whose right to happiness and fun far superseded my own.

On the other hand, if ‘grandma’ (me) isn’t thrilled with the Disney experience, and others like me are also disenchanted, all of our spending on those season passes for the grandchildren will go somewhere that will be kinder to disabled folks.