The first time I visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, my immediate reaction was that it was a kind of accommodations paradise. At that time, my impression wasn't rooted so much in disability issues as in baby concerns! My daughter was six months old, and we were ecstatic to discover that each Disney theme park included a baby center—a facility filled with rocking chairs and changing tables, and supplies like diapers, baby food, and bottled juice.

When a staff member (Disney refers to them as Cast Members) pulled my family out of one long, hot line to bring us to the exit for quicker access because he didn't want my guide dog to melt in the heat, well, I thought it just couldn't get any better.

This was 20 years ago — before the internet and GPS devices, so the fact that Disney made available a braille guidebook was equally astonishing and wonderful. The book outlined the various attractions and provided a written description of park layout.

Over the years, the Disney parks have enhanced accessibility provisions for people with all disabilities. Disney has also made strides toward using technology to enhance theme park accessibility to people with sensory disabilities. Specifically, captioning, assistive listening devices, tactile maps, and audio description have been incorporated into many Disney World attractions.

During a recent impromptu visit to Disney World with a visually impaired friend, I recognized a perfect opportunity to explore exactly how these new accessibility features offered to guests who are blind or visually impaired measure up.

Entering Epcot

For readers who have not had the Disney World experience, a few words of explanation are in order. Florida's Disney World actually consists of four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. Each is packed with experiences and can easily occupy a full day. Having only one day, we chose to spend it in Epcot Center. En route to Disney World, we checked the website and phone line and learned that in each park's guest relations center, items that enhance accessibility for people who are blind can be obtained. When we entered Epcot Center, we went directly to Guest Relations for these items.

We were offered three options: A braille guidebook containing description of attractions and services; a book of tactile maps of the various areas of the park; and an audio device for listening to description at those sites where it was available. Each item requires a $25 deposit. Wanting to leave no avenue to access neglected, we deposited $100 and took away one guidebook, one book of maps, and two audio devices.

It warrants mentioning here that, unfortunately, the Cast Member working the counter in Guest Relations was only marginally informed. She could name the available items, fetch them for us, and run the credit card, but she was unable to answer many questions. Somewhat dismayed that the guidebook was so large, for example (11 by 11-inch pages held together with a plastic comb binding), I asked why it was double-spaced throughout and so much larger than the book the park offered a decade ago. Because my friend had low vision, we were all eventually able to conclude that the reason seemed to lie in the fact that braille and print were on every page.

When given the audio devices, I asked about the controls and was told we didn't need to touch anything.

"We plan to be here all day," I told her. "Is there a power button we should press to turn the units off for saving battery power?'

The batteries, she assured us, would last the day. For a sweet demeanor and general willingness to help, she would get high marks. Her lack of familiarity with the devices designed to make the experience richer for us, however, falls more than a little short of typical Disney World standards.

After exiting Guest Relations, I took a few minutes to acquaint myself with the tools we had been given. By using all three items — the braille guidebook, the tactile maps, and the audio device — I was able to glean a fair amount of information regarding our surroundings. Although our Cast Member had told us only that the device would deliver audio description, it turned out to be much more. Again, a less intrepid or experienced user of technology may never have realized what this device had to offer.

The (Somewhat) Amazing Audio Device

The device resembled a slightly old-style personal digital assistant, weighing probably close to a pound and measuring roughly 3 inches wide by 5 inches long by 1 inch thick. At the top was a standard headset jack to which a one-sided earpiece (that could fit comfortably on either ear) was attached. A single piece of molded plastic, the headphone was the type that has a curved half circle that goes behind the ear, and a flat disk, about the size of a quarter, that rests close to, but not in, the ear. It's exactly the right kind of earpiece for listening to a mobile device while also catching all ambient sounds.

The lanyard attached to the device was unfortunately not intentionally adjustable. As issued, it placed the device itself at about waist level for one of us and lower for the other. I say it was "not intentionally" adjustable because I did manage, by fiddling judiciously with the various velcro bits, to shorten it sufficiently to have the device at chest level, a much more manageable position for wearing over a long period of time.

Taking Control

Now, let's talk about the various controls on the device.

With the front of the unit facing you and the lanyard at the top, there is a single row of controls across the bottom. As indicated above, we were given no instructions, but this turned out to be one of those occasions in which having fiddled with countless pieces of electronic gadgets over decaes was a definite advantage.

The controls have a rubbery feel and each is distinctly shaped.

First is a diamond shaped button that wakes up the device. Next is a square button that delivers any GPS information currently available or repeats the most recent announcement. In the center is a circle of four arrow-shaped buttons around a center control, and finally, to the right of this circle of five controls are a pair of triangular-shaped left and right arrow keys that increase or decrease volume.

I soon discovered that pressing the center button launched a menu of eight items that could be navigated by pressing the up/down or left/right arrows around the center and then pressing the center control to make a selection. Consistently, these menus included:

  • area description
  • attractions
  • rest room locations
  • food and beverage available
  • entertainment
  • service animal relief areas
  • exit menu

Pressing the center of the scrolling circle announces the beginning of the current menu with "1. Area Description." By using either up/down or left/right arrow keys, you can move through the menus. When you hear the menu you want, pressing the center button again selects the choice and prompts that particular recording to play.

Maintaining the Magic

If there is a single quality that permeates all four theme parks at Disney World, it is undoubtedly magic. Not dark magic and not even the magic of magic tricks, but the connotation of that word that indicates some other-worldliness, better-than-ordinary, unmarred delight.

So does the access device for blind and visually impaired guests live up to the high standard for magical experiences the compay sets for itself in every realm?

It is clear that such a level was certainly the intention. The reality of that attempt is, well, a bit less magical.

The access device has three primary functions: 1) to provide audio information regarding immediate surroundings in a structured-menu manner, 2) to provide general GPS information, and 3) to sync with and play available pre-recorded audio description for several attractions.

As we approached the Spaceship Earth attraction in the Future World section of Epcot, the unit vibrated and announced "Near Spaceship Earth."

This particular attraction is an entertaining journey through history, with a focus on technology and communication. A professionally narrated descriptive track has been synchronized with the sights and sounds of the attraction itself, so that I heard a constant commentary describing words and images throughout the experience. Although the description sometimes lags behind or leaps ahead of the actual image appearing, it was thrilling to have the visual description so readily available.

Upon exiting the attraction, the device remains silent until either the information menus are activated (to seek information regarding nearby food, entertainment, etc.) or until the unit's GPS detects that you are approaching another landmarked point. In the latter case, when it works, the device will vibrate and announce "Land Pavilion" or "Near Soarin" (as it did the entire 105 minutes that we stood in the line for this particular attraction) or some other point of interest, repeating it only if the square button is pressed for this purpose.

As we entered another entertainment venue, the "Circle of Life" film starring Timon and Pumba from Disney's "The Lion King," the device automatically began playing the pre-recorded descriptive track which was smoothly synchronized with the production.

Missing the Mark

I spent a few minutes with my braille guidebook, tactile maps, and audio access device to acquaint myself with the topography of Epcot Center in general and the immediately surrounding envionment of Future World in particular. For me, having the combination of tools was essential, although some guests with visual impairment might find the braille alone or audio alone to be sufficient.

When that first audio description automatically began playing to describe the scenes of Spaceship Earth, it was a genuine moment of accommodation exhilaration. Unfortunately, the rest of the experience was something of a downhill ride.

When you take a break in one area, the device will not allow you to access or review the information in another area. Say, for instance, you're taking a snack break in Future World and you want to plan ahead for World Showcase. Electronically, you "can't get there from here." The device only makes available the information for the area in which you are currently situated.

When we needed guidance information most—navigating from Future World to World Showcase, for instance—the device announced that we were near Land Pavilion long after we'd left it behind and only announced any change when we were standing directly in front of Canadian Pavilion (the first country attraction encountered when approaching World Showcase from the right.)

When it works—as when the device did indeed confirm that we were at the Canadian Pavilion—it is a real equalizer. Once there, I could access the menus containing information regarding the attractions, food, entertainment, etc. for that particular area. As we moved past Canadian Pavilion, I soon heard "United Kingdom Pavilion" announced and its pre-recorded information regarding the pub, the shops, and the entertainment became available. There are ten countries in the World Showcase and information, presumably, has been pre-recorded for each, as well as descriptive audio synchronized with attractions there. I say "presumably" because, despite assurances received earlier, my friend's device completely died before we left Future World and mine lost power just past the United Kingdom. We had picked up the devices at 10:30 am, and their batteries were depleted at 1:30 and 3:30 respectively.

Final Impressions

Developing a single device that contains recorded guidebook information, GPS info for navigation, and audio description synchronized with visual attractions is a brilliant and commendable approach to providing accessibility for blind and visually impaired guests. Staff who distribute these devices, however, should be familiar enough with them to provide basic demonstrations to guests, and batteries should certainly be able to last a full day. With technology advancing as rapidly as it does, current devices could undoubtedly be updated to be smaller and lighter and to pinpoint GPS location with more accuracy. Since all guests, with and without disabilities, are certainly sometimes interested in looking ahead to read about attractions around the corner or across the lagoon, the device should include the capability to listen to information about attractions beyond one's immediate location.

The braille and tactile maps were extremely useful. Combining braille and print in one book makes little practical sense, however, and if the two had been separated into individual booklets, each could have been done in a smaller, more manageable format.

But did we "Have a magical day," as Disney World Cast Members like to say? Of course we did. Disney World is still on my list of favorite places and I can't wait for the opportunity to test drive the tools for accessibiity in the other three theme parks.

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Access to Travel