When planning a visit to Walt Disney World, two important considerations are: How do I get there and how will I get around?
When I was a child, my parents drove the family for many hours (18? 24?) Only once to visit them. My husband remembers his family taking the long drive once when he was young and then taking the plane on other trips. Enduring a long drive may be worth it for the epic thrill of visiting WDW, but many visitors (who are not local) tend to fly out and then use the on-site transportation options.
In this article, I review the accessibility of Walt Disney World transportation for people with reduced mobility to consider when planning their visits.
Getting to Walt Disney World
I don’t have the physical stamina for the long drive to WDW, but I admire the people who do. Having your own vehicle would be useful for offsite shopping, going to parks, and just having a comfortable transportation option that you can use at any time.
For the rest of us non-locals, flying is usually the option for traveling to Orlando and visiting WDW. This turns a two-day (or more) trip into a flight of a few hours. Although I find the flight stressful and exhausting, WDW’s reward is well worth it!
As a wheelchair user flying is scary because I have to trust the airlines with my powered wheelchair. It’s tailor-made for me and it’s my mobility. But I have had a lot of bad flying experiences damaging (or even totaling) my wheelchairs. To try to minimize problems, we arrive at the airport early to get special labels for my wheelchair and attach handling instructions to them (like, for example, do not disconnect or unscrew items). I board first with help, then my wheelchair is loaded (hopefully smoothly) into the baggage hold. When we arrived, I was the last to disembark because I had to wait for my wheelchair to be unloaded (after the luggage) and then brought to the door of the plane. If all goes well, I go back in and head off to my magical Disney World vacation.
For those with their own car, they never have to worry about the airport and have their own local transport. Because we fly, we’ve been using Magical Express to transport us to our Disney resort for over a decade. We always chose ME because he was reliable (never had a long wait or no-show) and approachable. As you can guess, accessible transportation can be hard to find. I lost count of the number of accessible taxis that were booked weeks in advance and never showed up. (Don’t get me started on ridesharing services which have virtually no accessible vehicles, if at all.) Hopefully the new service launched by Mears on January 22 (or the continuation of buses under previous contract operators) will be just as affordable and reliable.
We never considered renting an accessible van as my other travel experiences have shown it to be prohibitively expensive. Like in hundreds of dollars. With that in mind, the paid shuttle will be our go-to option starting next year.
Travel on site
Without our own vehicle (owned or rented) and the hassle of using a motorized wheelchair, we were happy to rely on the many accessible transportation options offered by WDW. Not only are they free for guests, but they are plentiful and accessible for a variety of wheelchairs.
When we think of transportation to Walt Disney World, many of us think of the monorail, the gold standard of fast travel between Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and several of the luxury resorts around the lake.
While the list of destinations may be short, journeys between them are quick and comfortable on the monorail. However, boarding with a wheelchair involves a little extra effort. An accompanying person must install a ramp and find a space to board. The space in the train cars can be a bit tight, so the use of the monorail may be better recommended for people with very maneuverable wheelchairs.
Buses are Disney World’s circulatory system. They go everywhere! They cordon off major resorts, then transport guests to each park (including water parks), as well as to Disney Springs. We have come to depend on buses as they are always accessible and have regular routes which make planning easier.
Each bus kneels (lowers on the boarding side) and has a motorized ramp for easy boarding with a wheelchair. They all have at least two parking spaces (where the seats fold up to make room for a wheelchair) and tethers to secure the wheelchair during travel. Some buses even have three or four seats. In my experience, the bus drivers have all been well trained to board and secure wheelchair passengers safely for travel.
The downsides of buses are unpredictable waiting times. On some routes, the buses run regularly and we have no problems. But usually we have a time or two when the wait is incredibly long. Last year, during a visit, there was a communication problem at the depot and no bus showed up to take us (and a hundred new friends of the line) back to our station from EPCOT for over an hour. None of the staff was managing the buses on site, so we were finding phone numbers and making calls from our dwindling cell phones.
Likewise, when the wheelchair spaces on the buses are full, we have to wait for the next bus. It may seem like a long wait! Often times, drivers will call the depot and let them know that a visitor in a wheelchair is waiting for transport, which helps speed things up.
One of my favorite ways to travel around WDW is by boat. Boats can be the most direct route between locations, so they can be surprisingly efficient. But what I really love is being on the water and enjoying the views and perspectives of different parks and resorts.
If we can handle it, I enjoy shopping and dining at the Polynesian Resort on our Disney tours. It’s a beautiful place and they always have fun with tropical shirts. (My husband has the whole collection of tours over the years!) We leave the Magic Kingdom a little early and take a boat to the resort across the lake. It’s a great way to relax and get into the Polynesian vibe.
A few years ago we took a different boat to the Wilderness Resort. It was so much fun! It was a smaller boat and crossed a winding path to dock. Such a great view and then we took a look around the beautiful resort before an amazing dinner with Snow White and her friends.
Perhaps my favorite boat discovery was the ones that connect EPCOT and Hollywood Studios to the Swan and Dolphin Resorts (as well as other resorts). They ran frequently and offered an easy transportation option. These friendship boats have multiple wheelchair locations and can be boarded using a portable ramp. Best of all, the Ferry Boats have a smooth transition ramp for boarding.
The downside to driving on boats is that sometimes the wheelchair spaces can fill up and you may have to wait awhile for the next boat. However, I found it to be rare. On larger boats there are a lot of spaces, so it is more common for smaller ones. Of course, they don’t go everywhere either and therefore can only be used for certain trips.
The Skyliner is the latest and greatest form of transportation in Walt Disney World. It’s a gondola in the sky that connects EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and several resorts (like the grand Caribbean Beach Resort). It’s quick and efficient to travel between these places, but it can include a long queue that leaves you wondering if the bus would have been just as fast.
A huge advantage is the accessibility of the cable cars. It is enough to roll and an attendant places a pause behind the wheels before taking off. The accessible boarding area is separate, so vehicles stop (whereas normal boarding means they are constantly on the move). When you arrive, the station attendant pulls the brake and helps guide the wheelchair straight back. It’s simple and doesn’t require a special gondola or tedious tie-down.
Until recently, we never had the pleasure of riding (or walking) to a park from the resort we were staying at. What a wonderful thing!
Since my wheelchair runs on batteries, I can go on for a long time (as long as the charge holds), but I regularly check with my husband to see how he is doing with the walking. We have covered a lot of miles riding in the parks, so I am sensitive to the fatigue in his feet and legs. Lucky for us, he has a great tolerance for walking, so we never had a problem, as long as we give him a few breaks so he can rest a bit (and of course refuel with a Mickey Mouse. Bar!).
When we stayed at the Dolphin Resort, I was delighted to try and walk to two of the parks (Hollywood Studios and Epcot). I like the freedom to be able to ride and to get there at our own pace. We ended up deciding to ride / walk in the morning and take the boat back in the evening to give my husband’s feet a break. It turned out to be a nice combination as we arrived at the parks pleasantly and early on our own while sipping coffee and taking in the beautiful morning view. In the evening, when we were all in bed, we could relax and watch the boat coast.
At Walt Disney World, there is a plethora of accessible travel options. This is perhaps the only place I have ever visited where all the options are accessible and open to wheelchairs, without much effort or stress. If only other places embraced that kind of Disney magic!