In the last few months I have had somewhat new experiences to me: touring the parks with guests who had never been to Walt Disney World before. It was also a bit unique in that last month was with my mom and my 86 year old grandma and the following week was with a friend from school, her husband and their eight and a half month old son. Previously I had met up with friends with young kids and others with parents and grandparents, but had never really spent the entire day with people this far on either end of the age spectrum. With these ages there are certainly considerations that must be taken into account when planning.
Back in December I had what I consider to be a major coup: I was finally able to get my dad to go to WDW after 30+ years of resistance. I think the fact that I told him he wouldn’t need to pay to get in the parks and that I could get a discount on the rooms helped. This was the man who had never set foot on Disney property until January of 2011 when he came to visit while I was around for marathon weekend running the 5K. On that brief visit, he did not want to purchase a ticket, so he asked the front desk clerk at the Wilderness Lodge, where we were staying, if he could go in for a few hours and try it out for free. I left the front desk dragging him away and shaking my head in disbelief. He did take a trip around both monorail loops and claimed he technically went to Epcot since he was in their air space (okay, sure dad), but we mostly visited resorts.
So we planned a trip for my dad and his wife, Debbie, to come down and make a side trip to Disney World since they were coming to Florida for my brother’s college graduation anyways. Debbie had been to WDW, but it had been well over twenty years since her last visit, so it was all pretty much new to her. Trying to plan a trip for someone has never been before presents the challenge of how much do you want to and can you get done in one and a half days of park time. You don’t want to overwhelm them with every single bit of minutia, but you do want to give them a good taste of the parks and the magic they hold.
With my dad, he wanted to have nothing to do with planning other than he expressed a mild interest in visiting Epcot. Since we were traveling in December, we were able to experience the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Disney’s Hollywood Studios on our first evening. Both my dad and Debbie were visibly impressed with the presentation as we were fortunate enough to be there as the switch was flipped to turn the lights on for the evening. The only attractions we rode were Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, Toy Story Midway Mania and the Great Movie Ride. I think this gave them a nice overview of the park since we didn’t get there until around 5pm and the park was closing at eight that night. My dad appreciated the theming and neon luster of the Studios at night.
The next day was our most challenging as they hoped to fit in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot both. We first stopped for breakfast at Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian and then made our way to MK shortly after park opening at nine. We hit mostly classics between Dumbo, It’s a Small World, the Haunted Mansion, the Carousel of Progress, Tomorrowland Transit Authority Peoplemover, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Peter Pan, Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise. A lot was accomplished in a short period of time before we made the jaunt to Epcot. The afternoon was spent mostly exploring World Showcase and a bit of Future World with Soarin’, Test Track, Living with the Land and Spaceship Earth. The fact that they are both morning people and were up a bit earlier than I was, factored in to us not experiencing any fireworks or nighttime parades while they were here.
Overall, a good time was had by each individual. My dad was continually amazed by the sheer size of the WDW property and the inner workings and mechanics of how things were operated and went so smoothly. There is a ton that we didn’t do, but for the short period of time I had to work with, I think we accomplished what we set out to do, which was to introduce my dad to Disney World and to have a good time. My mission was a success insomuch as he admitted he really enjoyed himself and wants to come back. Score!
Fast forward a few months to March of this year and my trip with my mom and grandma. This was a bit different from the previous trip in that my grandma wanted to know what there was to do in each park, wanted to see maps and plan out for the most part what she wanted to see and do in each one. She had been to the Magic Kingdom many times over the past forty years, but it had been quite a while for her and she had only been to Epcot once or twice in the past twenty years or so. My mom is an annual passholder and typically makes it to the parks every three to four months. The impetus for this particular trip was the Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot.
The first day of our trip the first order of business was Epcot. If we had any additional time we determined we would try to made it to the Studios as well, but there wasn’t much there of interest to my grandma, so Epcot was definitely the priority. Unlike the relatively slow time I had visited with my dad and Debbie in the beginning of December, the middle of March was smack dab in the middle of peak season and spring break. This was very evident when we arrived at Epcot and it literally took 30 minutes from the time we arrived at the line for security to the time we entered the park. The time was pretty much evenly split in waiting between the security and entrance lines.
While my grandma is generally in good health, she does have some mobility issues having had hip replacement surgery a little over a year ago. So, we thought it in everyone’s best interest for her to have a wheelchair for her park touring at least. When we arrived at Pop Century to pre-register for their room (I arrived the night before), we inquired at the front desk about a wheelchair to use while on property. They directed us to bell services who kindly provided us with one to use free of charge for the duration of our stay. We were even advised we were able to take it to the parks. This was great as it saved us $10.+ per day for wheelchair rentals. The only caveat to this is it can be kind of a pain hauling the chair around and having to lift it in and out of your car everywhere you go if you are driving yourself. I became quite a pro at it after two full days.
Now being the klutz that I am, I have experienced several of the parks in wheelchairs, with ECVs and on crutches, but have never accompanied anyone for days in the theme parks who was using any of them. Let me tell you, it is a totally different experience. You have to take into consideration not only energy to push someone up hills (okay inclines) and ramps, but also to be able to hold them back to keep them from careening down them and running over unsuspecting guests. Very quickly you learn the turning radius of wheelchairs and that you do need extra clearance from the guests in front of you as they do tend to stop abruptly to study that park map you may have memorized. I honestly think the wheelchair is more work for those traveling with the guest in the chair than for the mobility challenged guest themselves, but I didn’t really realize this until we were well into the day.
I have to say that Norma, my grandma, was a trooper. We were in Epcot around 9:30am, didn’t leave to go to the Studios just see give her the old Hollywood feel and ambiance until around 7pm. After an hour of wheeling her around DHS, we went to get dinner at Downtown Disney at Wolfgang Puck Express. We didn’t get back to the room to eat dinner until after 11pm and they had been up since before 6am to drive up from Bradenton.
The next day we were back up and at it and heading to the Magic Kingdom before 8am, arriving there by way of sightseeing at the Polynesian shortly after 9. Again, there are things that I really didn’t think of ahead of time. Very simple things like the path I usually take from the parking lot to the lobby of the Polynesian has a large pole in the middle of it, making it inaccessible for wheelchairs (lesson learned). I also tend to favor taking the boat over the monorail, but it is much easier to travel the highway in the sky with a wheelchair and ramp as opposed to stepping several feet down (and subsequently back up) to get in and out of the boat, also having to fold and carry the wheelchair.
We had a great time once we got to the MK and stayed until late afternoon before making a last minute decision to make a side trip to the Animal Kingdom before returning to MK for Main Street Electrical Parade and Wishes. The only two things we were trying to do were Kilimanjaro Safaris and then the Festival of the Lion King. Based on the lateness of the day, we knew there was a chance that we wouldn’t be able to do both as there was only one more Lion King show by the time we arrived and you never know with the animals. We went straight back to the safari and were in for a treat. We had the best safari experience ever! The animals were all out, even both the male and female lions. As soon as we disembarked the vehicle, my mom started off for the Lion King, leaving me to push my grandma, making a mad dash for Camp Minnie – Mickey from the outskirts of Harambe. I thought I was going to die, but you can actually push someone in a wheelchair from the safari exit to the entrance of the Lion King in seven minutes!
I got to do some things that I hadn’t before over the two days with my mom and grandma. I learned there are boats for
Gran Fiesta Tour and It’s a Small World where you can just drive the wheelchair on and you basically have a private boat for your party as long as you are willing to wait. There is some great seating for guests with wheelchairs in many of the shows like American Adventure, the Hall of Presidents, Impressions de France, Mickey’s Philharmagic, the Carousel of Progress, etc. Some attractions are more challenging with constant loading via conveyor belts and speedramps that can’t be stopped like the Peoplemover. All throughout though, I have to say the Cast Members were great. They were very understanding and patient and helped us in loading Norma in and out of ride vehicles as necessary.
After that trip, I needed a break and wasn’t planning on visiting the parks for a couple weeks at least. That was until I got a message from a friend from elementary school, Laura, whom I hadn’t seen in 20+ years. She was going to be in Celebration visiting her mom and was down for a few days with her husband and son. We decided we would get together last minute on a Thursday since I had the day off and I offered to get them into the parks. Laura had not been planning to visit any of the parks since her son Riley was so young, she said she couldn’t justify the expenditure of tickets for the day for her and her husband Matt of almost $200. I totally understood, but told her I would take care of that if they wanted to go.
We met at the Polynesian mid morning since Laura and Matt decided they wanted to go to the Magic Kingdom. Matt had never been to WDW before, other than to run the half marathon earlier this year. So he had never experienced any attractions in any of the parks, nor had their eight and a half month old son Riley. The length and schedule of the day was going to be dictated by the boys since we had no idea how long Riley was going to last and what Matt was going to want to do. Laura had been a CM years ago and I’m in the parks practically weekly, so we had no problem ceding control to them.
Matt’s first ride ever was Space Mountain, and it is probably good we got that out of the way first since everything else was tame in comparison. Laura waited with Riley while I took Matt on what is admittedly my least favorite of the mountains. I tried to help assuage Matt’s fear of the unknown by pointing out the numerous kids in line and even striking up a conversation with the eight year old girl in line in front of us. I think she convinced him to ride more so than I did as his anxiety level was increasing as we neared the ride vehicles and could hear screams.
After Space, Matt decided the tamer Dumbo was something he could definitely handle. It was very cool seeing the park through his eyes for the first time. He appreciated the theming and attention to detail on rides like Winnie the Pooh. The only rides Laura and Riley got to experience with us, partly due to timing and choice, were Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise. He did really well on Pirates until the drop when he got a little wet. We had discussed the drop and they were comfortable with his security on it, but we failed to consider how he would react to getting wet. After just a momentary break in composure, he returned to his wonderful smiling self and was fine. He did great on the Jungle Cruise as well. Boat rides tend to be soothing for young children, so I think JC was a good choice to end the day with.
Riley was a champ throughout the day. Aside from the getting wet on Pirates thing, he did not let out a single cry in the almost eight hours we were in the park. He did well waiting with his mom and people watching and even got to ride a couple rides. Later in the day, thanks to Riley, I was introduced to the Baby Care Center at the Magic Kingdom. It is tucked away in the corner by First Aid between Casey’s and Crystal Palace. There are small private rooms for parents to take their children to for changing or just for a quiet place to get away from the noise and sometimes crowds of the parks. My friends found this to be a great refuge even though it was only needed as a place to change Riley’s diaper.
These three different groups of newbies of different sorts taught me many things. One thing is I don’t tour the parks like I do when I’ve got others with me who haven’t been before. By this I mean, I tend to go through the parks at a relatively leisurely pace when by myself or with my friends who are annual passholders. Since we go often, we are rarely compelled to have to do anything. If we don’t get to do something, it will be there next week or the week after. With guests from out of town who have never been, you want them to be able to soak in as much of the magic as possible. I certainly don’t force people to go at breakneck speed, but if they want to keep going, I’m not going to be the one to quit either (see the stupidity of me staying up for the entire 24+ hours of Leap Day in the Magic Kingdom). You live and learn. Next time with each group, things will be different. Everyone will be a little older, a little wiser, and have some more experience under their belts. We can go back and hit favorites or focus on the things they missed last time. I don’t know anyone who has done it all. Things are constantly changing in the parks, and I wholeheartedly believe that the experiences are made just as much, if not more so, by those you are with as opposed to just the parks themselves.Follow us for more updates: