"The feeling was awesome as I slid into my seat in the silver DeLorean. . . . It was in a garage with the doors closed. But instantly the doors opened, and our vehicle blasted into the night skies. The ride was filled with bumps, gyrations and a total sense of flying at the speed of light. We even crashed into the Town Hall clock."
This is how Bryan Tabler described the Back to the Future ride at Universal Studios Florida in Orlando. Wild. Fast. Free.
That he enjoyed the ride isn't surprising. What is surprising is that until about two months ago, Mr. Tabler couldn't even get on Back to the Future. He and others like him waited outside.
Mr. Tabler, 28, is a double amputee from Orlando who lost both legs in a car accident 20 years ago. Today he is a professional photographer. Last week, he accompanied me on a return trip to Universal to see the accessibility transformation that has taken place there during the past few months. What we found was phenomenal.
In 60 days, Universal changed from a theme park inaccessible to many disabled visitors to a place where the needs of all guests, including those with disabilities, are accommodated.
The first stop on our tour was the ticket counter, where signs clearly read "Discounts available for physically challenged guests and members of AARP (American Association of Retired Persons)." In addition to regular discounts, those with disabilities so significant that they are unable to experience most Universal attractions may get additional discounts on a case-by-case basis. This is a big improvement. Before the changes, disabled guests -- including myself -- paid full fare, even if we could not participate fully at the park.
As we entered the park, a young employee in a wheelchair handed us literature that explained the thrill rides and suggested minimum physical abilities that guests need to safely ride them. Most impressive is that while Universal makes recommendations, it allows disabled guests to make the decision on what to do.
Mr. Tabler, a strong, wild and crazy guy, chose to ride the newly renovated attractions of Kongfrontation, Earthquake and Back to the Future. I chose not to ride these because my upper body strength is limited and my respirator sits on the back of my motorized wheelchair.
Mr. Tabler had a great time on Kongfrontation and Earthquake where specially designed cars accommodate wheelchairs and are equipped with restraints that prevent wheelchairs from rolling during the action. But his favorite ride clearly was Back to the Future. On this attraction, a disabled rider must transfer -- independently or with assistance -- from the wheelchair into the DeLorean time machine. Universal doesn't help lift people, so I suggest that disabled guests bring a big, strong friend.
People with disabilities were always able to enter theater attractions such as Murder, She Wrote and Alfred Hitchcock Presents, which explain how movies are made. But the disabled were restricted to sitting alone in one part of the theater, a practice called corral seating. That is always frustrating because it means we cannot sit with our friends or family members. But now, all theaters have integrated seating.
Universal also has several outside shows, including Beetlejuice and the Fievel Goes West Show, which now have reserved sections with unblocked viewing for wheelchair guests and their parties.
The physical changes at Universal are most impressive, but even more impressive were the respectful attitudes of all the staff we encountered. Whenever special instructions for attractions were given, staff members made eye contact with us, speaking directly to us and not our able-bodied companions.