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California is famous for many things, including Disneyland. Our state is particularly famous for trend-setting changes in society such as respect for minorities' rights. For most people, the term "minorities" makes them think in terms of racial, religious, or ethnic minorities. But handicapped or physically disabled people are a minority whose rights we've only recently come to truly acknowledge, even though the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed by Congress in 1990. Our lives have been significantly changed in the past year since Maggie Ramirez, our senior editor, has had a combination of health problems - asthma and arthritis - become acute enough to severely limit her mobility. This has meant using a wheelchair when we go to shopping malls where the distances are too great for her to handle with just a cane or a walker. It's also meant using a wheelchair in the new Disneyland Resort. We were naturally anxious to insure that Maggie would be able to fully enjoy our visit despite her physical limitations.

There are three levels of disability access for the rides and attractions in Disneyland and California Adventure - (1) those where you can stay in your chair to go use the attraction, (2) those where you have to get out of your chair and into a ride vehicle, and (3) those where you must be ambulatory. Fortunately, there are very few attractions that fall into category #3, like Goofy's Bounce House in ToonTown and Tarzan's Treehouse in Adventureland. So far, there are no attractions in California Adventure that fall into this category. Many of the attractions allow guests in wheelchairs to avoid a long wait in line. The actual accomodation seems to vary a bit from ride to ride.

We've used a wheelchair for 3 or 4 visits to Disneyland now, and our experience there has been mixed. The park has many special accomodations for wheelchairs, but so much of the architecture of the park dates from 1955 through 1970 which has obviously limited the sheer amount of space available to allow better access. It's easy to move from one section of the park to another. There are ramps on all of the paths, and breaks at major junctions with the curbing on Main Street. Anyplace you find steps, you'll also find a rampway (although you may have to search a bit). You only run into trouble when you try to go indoors.

Our primary complaint about access impediments in the Disneyland Resort is the same one the disabled have leveled at retailers all over the country. The aisles in the shops are simply too narrow to navigate comfortably in a simple wheelchair. You always feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop. And if you happen to have one of the larger motorized chairs, you might as well resign yourself to life on the sidewalks. You can wind your way through most shops if you stay on the main pathways, but you'll have to go through some major contortions to actually examine the merchandise. And you really have to be a dedicated Disney fan in order to get to the (now-closed) Disney Gallery over Pirates of the Carribean because you have to take a tiny elevator upstairs and then squeeze through a kitchen that serves the Blue Bayou and Club 33. Fortunately, the Gallery staff are always very prompt and cheerful as they escort you both on the way up and back down again. And while Disneyland can be partially excused for this problem due to its age, there's no excuse for the shops in Downtown Disney which are less than a year old to be so hostile to the disabled. Starbilia was almost completely impassible for us, and several of the other shops were uncomfortably tight as well.

The restaurants and cafes in the Resort have very good wheelchair access by comparison. If you can transfer out of your wheelchair, a Cast Member will help you out and store your chair until you're ready to leave. And if you need to stay in your chair, they'll make room at your table and seat you as comfortably as possible. Our best experience in this regard was at our favorite restaurant in Disneyland, the Blue Bayou, where the Cast Members never gave even the slightest impression that we were an unwelcome burden because of the wheelchair. The worst restaurant in this regard is the Golden Horseshoe Stage in Disneyland where just getting to the door is a challenge because the raised wooden walkway only has one ramp for wheelchair access around the corner from the entrance at each end of the building. Rarely is there a Cast Member available to help you with seating at the Golden Horseshoe, and you're completely on your own if you want to order food from the bar (which is amazing, since - from Disney's standpoint, at least - selling the food is the object of the exercise).

If you choose to use an attraction that requires you to get out of your wheelchair, you'll have to either get up on your own or have a member of your party help you. Apparently Disney Cast Members are not allowed to help you with this process. Does the term "Risk Management" ring a bell? Yes, it's got to be that they don't want Disney to be legally responsible if you fall when you're getting into or out of your chair with their assistance. Sad, but regrettably understandable.

We stayed at the Disneyland Hotel during our last visit and had few accessibility problems despite the fact that our room was not dedicated to handicapped guests. We took the guided tour of the new Grand Californian Hotel and had to visit there frequently during our trip. We had no problems there at all except for my minor complaint that the lush carpeting often made pushing the wheelchair more difficult. The Grand Californian is built to attract large meetings and conventions, so there are cavernous corridors to navigate in moving between the meeting rooms and other locations within the hotel, but there are long, easily navigable low-angle wheelchair ramps to get you from one level to the next. The last time we stayed at what is now the Paradise Pier (nee' "Pan Pacific" and "Disneyland Pacific") Hotel was several years ago - back before Disney bought it. So we can't comment directly on the current situation there. The really nice part about the evolution of Disneyland into the new Disneyland Resort is that all three areas - Disneyland, California Adventure, and Downtown Disney are now within easy walking distance from the three hotels. And speaking as the chair pusher, it is an unexpectedly enjoyable little trip. Fresh air, no traffic noises, places to stop and visit along the way. It couldn't be more pleasant. Oh, you could always walk into Disneyland since the park was built, but it meant walking through the desolation of the legendary Disneyland Parking Lot - Bleah!


Maggie Ramirez, our late founder and senior editor, and the person who had to actually deal with being in a wheelchair in the parks, adds these comments:

At this point, you might want to know that the Disney folks have made just about everything in their park available to the guest with a disability. There are plenty of low telephones and drinking fountains. All the stores are accessible to wheelchairs, although they are very cramped. You can rent a chair at the entrance if you need one.. The bathrooms at California Adventure are comfortable and also accessible for wheelchairs. Best of all they are CLEAN. Rides are open to those in a wheelchair. If the ride doesn't have a built in space in the vehicle, you must be able to get onto the seat by yourself or with the assistance of your companion. Disney employees are not allowed to assist you, but they are always helpful and friendly. There is a very interesting guidebook that details the parks' services for the disabled that can be had by requesting it at the "Information Center" in either park.