Even with the economy in the doldrums, some people are still planning vacations this year, and it’s likely that many of them are thinking of visiting a theme park. With their varied activities and attractions, theme parks tend to appeal to a broad range of people. But people with diabetes who are considering such a vacation may have some questions and concerns about how they will manage their diabetes while enjoying the rides, shows, and other activities. For example, will I be allowed to carry my supplies with me? What effect will the increased exercise have on my blood glucose readings? How can I find out the carbohydrate content of foods I might want to try? Additional health concerns, such as vision impairment or difficulty walking long distances, can bring even more questions.
While each theme park has its own set of policies for guests with special needs, basic procedures tend to be similar from park to park. This article provides a general guide to navigating the extensive assistance available at these resorts, drawing from my experience with the Central Florida Big Three: Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld Orlando.
Planning your trip
Today’s major theme park destinations are immense resorts, each consisting of multiple gated parks that provide a wide range of recreation options. These include the expected rides but also exhibition halls and shows, many of which feature spectacular singing, dancing, and acrobatics. Some parks offer attractions outside their actual gates that may include golf, boating, and nightclubs. Most parks offer on-site hotels, and nearby off-site hotels generally provide shuttle transportation to and from the park. (There is also parking available for a fee if you have your own vehicle.) The options for both activities and lodging make planning vital to the success of a theme park vacation.
Before making any reservations, do some research. Each of the major theme parks has an official Web site with information on shops, restaurants, hotels, and other attractions, as well as some information for guests with disabilities. Decide which activities you’d like to try and what accommodations will make it easiest to enjoy them.
For tips and comments from other guests, or to ask specific questions about theme parks, hundreds of fan forums exist online and can be found through a simple Internet search. (Click here for some examples.) First, read some posts to evaluate and familiarize yourself with the community; then post your questions. Many forum participants are experienced at navigating theme parks with disabilities or conditions such as diabetes, making them potentially a good source of advice.
It’s also a good idea to talk with your doctor ahead of time about managing your diabetes during your trip. He may be able to advise you on the suitability of individual attractions — such as rides and other activities — based on what you learn about them in your research.
Once you have done enough research to be familiar with your options, you are ready to call your chosen theme park’s reservation line. Most resorts let you book lodging and admission at the same time. It is usually better to call than to make reservations online so that you can ask questions and specify your needs.
In general, you can make special requests concerning virtually anything that a hotel can reasonably provide: Extra pillows, special cleaning for allergies, a nonsmoking room, a room near the elevators or on the ground floor, and a wheelchair-accessible room are all common requests. Some hotels have sharps disposal containers available, but be sure to confirm this ahead of time. You can also ask for a refrigerator in your room. Most hotels will waive the daily fee for a refrigerator if it is medically necessary, so be sure to specify this.
There may also be things that a hotel can’t provide. For example, if you need special equipment such as an air purifier, you will most likely need to bring it from home. While some hotels may be able to provide items such as a water bowl for service animals, it is usually a good idea to bring everything your animal needs with you. Ultimately, you are responsible for making sure you have what you need, so if you haven’t asked for something specifically, don’t assume the hotel will have it.
Renting a wheelchair or scooter
It is estimated on online forums that the average number of miles walked per day at Walt Disney World is 5–7. If you visit multiple Disney parks in a day, this could easily increase to 10 or more. The numbers are just as staggering at other major theme parks.
If you are at all unsure about your ability to walk this far — or to stand in line for possibly an hour or more — it is highly recommended that you rent a wheelchair or a mobility scooter. Scooters are more expensive, but they allow you to remain independent.
It is usually best to rent your wheelchair or scooter from an outside company (unless you will be bringing your own). This is generally less expensive than renting from a park each day, especially if you rent for a week or longer. It will also allow you to use the equipment when traveling to and from the park, as well as for other excursions such as shopping trips. A simple Internet search can help you find a place to rent a wheelchair or scooter; you can also ask the information desk at your hotel for assistance, preferably by phone ahead of time. Park-specific fan forums or disability-oriented message boards on the Internet may be able to provide advice on the best place to rent.
Theme park accessibility
If you use a wheelchair or scooter, you will find that major theme parks are among the best destinations in the world for accessibility. Virtually all attractions, shops, and entertainment venues are designed to provide equal accommodation to people who use chairs. The few exceptions to this trend were built well before the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, such as Walt Disney World’s Swiss Family Treehouse. Most attractions have since been remodeled, however, and inaccessibility is quite rare.
The exact procedures for guests with disabilities and mobility impairment vary by location. For example, at Walt Disney World’s It’s a Small World, wheelchairs load from the ride exit, while mobile guests with disabilities join the regular line. At SeaWorld’s Kraken coaster, all guests with visible disabilities are directed to enter through the ride exit.
It is important to know that some attractions will require you to transfer from your chair to the ride vehicle. Scooters and electric wheelchairs are generally not permitted on ride vehicles at all, although you may be given the option to transfer to a manual wheelchair. It is always a good idea to approach an employee at the front of each attraction to ask about specific procedures.
If you plan to use a scooter or electric wheelchair, bring the charger into the park with you. There are power outlets throughout most parks in both outdoor and indoor locations, which should let you top off the charge throughout the day as needed. Charging your scooter while dining can help ensure that it lasts the whole day.
Chair and scooter users should also consider bringing a cushion, since some of the pathways in parks are a bit bumpy. For example, at Universal Orlando, the streets of “San Francisco” are made of cobblestone. A rain poncho or other cover can help protect your chair in case of rain, although in an emergency a couple of empty shopping bags can work wonders!
Whether or not you use a chair, your first stop at each park you visit should be Guest Relations/Guest Services. Located at the front of the park, this one-stop service center can assist you with any special needs or requests. Stop by and describe your unique requirements to ensure that you receive appropriate accommodations throughout the park.
Theme parks are usually terrific at accommodating virtually any special dietary need. Low-carbohydrate and sugar-free choices are generally well marked on menus at both table-service and counter-service locations. For additional nutrition details, ask for a chef or manager.
If your diet is more restrictive, such as gluten-free or low-sodium, it is best to discuss this with the park ahead of time. Whether it is the chef at a particular restaurant or a dietitian who can help you plan your entire trip, you will be able to speak with someone who can meet your needs. Call the park at least 72 hours in advance if your diet is complicated.
In general, small meals and snacks can be purchased throughout the day in many locations at any major park. Consuming these items is allowed while waiting in line and at most outdoor shows and other attractions.
Planning your day
Many people find that their energy level fluctuates throughout the day. Staying in tune with your body’s rhythms can go a long way toward ensuring a successful theme park vacation. Trying to pack too much activity into each day can lead to exhaustion, irritability, and even difficulty managing your diabetes, so plan your days based on what you know about yourself.
If you are a naturally early riser, take advantage of the early morning hours. Theme parks often open an hour early for guests who are staying on-property. Speak with your hotel’s front desk to find out if this perk is available during your visit. Even if the park does not open early, crowds tend to be smaller in the morning. This is a great time to visit popular rides that often have long lines by noon.
If you are a night owl, do the reverse and visit popular rides in the evening, just before they close. Crowds often thin out by this time, resulting in shorter lines. Walt Disney World sometimes offers extended evening hours for guests staying on-property; ask at your hotel about this, as well.
Afternoons are generally hot and crowded at theme parks. This is a great time to see shows, which are often indoors and tend to have ample seating at this time. If you need to rest during the day, you can either return to your hotel or join other guests napping in the shade on one of the beautifully manicured lawns.
First aid and medical emergencies
Each theme park has at least one first-aid station, which can easily be found on the park map. The first-aid station staff can treat most minor ailments free of charge. In addition, the stations can store medicine that must be refrigerated, as well as oxygen tanks. They also provide a quiet, semiprivate place to lie down, rehydrate, check your blood glucose level (using your own meter), or perform other self-care tasks.
If you have a medical emergency while visiting a park, do not call 911 on your cell phone. These calls route outside the park and can result in significant delays in treatment. Instead, flag down an employee — anyone from a custodian to a manager — and ask him to call Medical Services. An emergency response team will be immediately dispatched from within the park, and outside backup will be called if needed. This process greatly reduces response time.
If you need help dealing with hypoglycemia (low blood glucose), there are several options for seeking it. One is to go to a snack stand. Snack stands are plentiful, and employees are used to dealing with such issues. Do not be afraid to politely excuse yourself past the line.
Another option is to let the nearest employee know what is happening. Theme park employees are empowered to make small purchases such as snacks or drinks on guests’ behalf, and one of them can bring something to you. Just make sure to say exactly what to bring, since employees can only respond to your requests, not make decisions that require any judgments about your health.
You can also ask a park employee to call Medical Services if you need help. The response team can provide you with a source of carbohydrate and offer other treatment, as needed.
Each attraction in a theme park has a list of health restrictions posted outside its entrance. For example, the sign may say that only people free of high blood pressure, motion sickness, and heart, back, or neck problems should get on the ride. However, such “one size fits all” recommendations are not necessarily correct for everyone. Some people with a back condition may be cleared by a doctor to ride all rides. Other people find that they are sensitive to a particular ride’s movements despite their condition not being listed in the ride restrictions. Having a detailed conversation with your doctor before your visit may help you to better understand which recommendations apply to you.
If you are at all unsure about a particular attraction, it is best to err on the side of caution. Either send someone familiar with your condition to experience the ride first, or skip it altogether. No thrill is worth risking your health or safety — or your enjoyment of the rest of your trip.
Vision or hearing impairments
The major theme parks provide numerous options for guests with vision or hearing impairments. Braille materials, assistive listening devices, and other alternatives are available at Guest Relations/Guest Services. Most shows offer sign language interpretation at designated times. Service animals are permitted at most attractions (but not on certain rides), and areas for walking animals are available.
Paths in theme parks are generally wide and easy to navigate, although keep in mind that some walkways are made of stone or brick. It is always advisable to travel with a companion, although if you are generally comfortable navigating crowds, there is no reason you should have particular trouble at a theme park. Just remember to take an easy pace and allow yourself plenty of time to reach your destination.
Theme parks are among the most accessible destinations in the world for guests with almost any medical condition. However, taking advantage of their services requires some advance planning. Take the time to learn about your particular destination ahead of time. Consider your alternatives, and then create a master plan for your trip that takes all your needs into account.
At the same time, stay flexible! Don’t be a slave to your schedule. Pay attention to the signals your body provides. Rest when you need to rest, eat when you need to eat, drink plenty of water, and never be afraid to ask for whatever you need. With preparation and flexibility, no medical condition will stand in the way of having the theme park vacation of your dreams.