by Cheryl Echevarria and Margo Downey
From the Editor: the NFB Travel and Tourism Division is not just about leisure travel. The division works to achieve equality, opportunity, and security for the blind in all things travel. They also work with people wanting to go into the travel industry as either travel agents or those wanting to work with places like Disney Corporation. The division has monthly teleconference meetings at 8:00 PM eastern time. Check out <http://www.nfbtravel.org> for more information. Here is what Cheryl and Margo have to say:
A little over a year ago the president of the Travel and Tourism Division got in touch with Mark Jones, manager of Domestic Services for Guests with Disabilities for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts. His job is all about accessibility at all Disney parks: Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida; Disneyland in Anaheim, California; the Disney Cruise Lines and their many international ports; the new Aulani Resort in Hawaii; and the international Disney parks in Japan, France, and soon China. Cheryl had Mark on the phone at one of our board meetings and interviewed him on her radio show on the WTOE Network, <http://www.thruoureyes.org>, which airs the first Wednesday of every month. Mark is a hearing child of deaf parents whose brother is also deaf. On July 1, 2013, he gave officers of the NFB Travel and Tourism Division an experience at Walt Disney World (WDW) that brought to life the magic of the Magic Kingdom and demonstrated the kind of respect for blind people that has too often been lacking in the amusement park experiences we have had to chronicle in the pages of the Braille Monitor.
The first thing we should explain is a few terms unique to Disney that shape the entire experience. The employees at Disney are called “cast members,” no matter whether they're playing a princess or a janitor. When you go to a Disney park, you are not a customer, you are a guest. The difference is significant because a customer is someone you have to deal with to make money, while a guest is someone you value and take care of. Backstage is an area of the park not usually seen by guests, where necessary tasks can be done without being visible, preserving the magic of the park experience.
On July 1, Cheryl and Nelson Echevarria, Milt and Jo Taylor, Margo Downey, and Anahit LaBarre headed out to experience a day of Disney magic. We were joined by Mark Jones and three members of his team for people with Disabilities: Greg, Nicole, and Maureen. These people are the ones who make the changes and listen to our advice on what we need, and we were happy to have them with us. After this day we are also happy to call them friends of the National Federation of the Blind.
At 7:00 that morning those of us leaving from the hotel took a town car from the Rosen Center to the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC), a transportation hub just across the Seven Seas Lagoon from the Magic Kingdom. As the town car took us onto Disney property, we passed many of the Disney resorts and other properties, such as the kennels, firehouse, medical emergency center, and ESPN Wide World of Sports resort. Walt Disney World is not just the four parks, it is a large community encompassing thirty-two resorts, two water parks, four theme parks, and more—which means that it has the support industries that you would find in any normal town. The TTC is the crossroads connecting many WDW journeys. You can take a boat across the lagoon to the Magic Kingdom or one of the four Disney resorts that also sit along its shores. The TTC is also where the two loops of the iconic monorail system connect. One loop of the monorail serves three resorts and the Magic Kingdom, while the other takes guests to EPCOT. There are large parking lots for those who drive in from off-property, and this is also the location of the lost and found office. We took a van from the TTC to the Magic Kingdom, disembarking in a backstage area. They set up and distributed the assistive technology devices (ATDs) we would use that day.
The ATD is slightly larger than an iPhone, with buttons at one end. The buttons are different shapes, similar to those one would find on an NLS player. There are two volume buttons, an audio menu with four arrows and a center select button, a repeat last update button, and a help button. While the ATD provides audio for the blind, the device also has a screen that can be set up to provide closed captioning for the deaf. The ATD has an outdoor feature and an attractions feature. The outdoor feature describes where one is located as she walks through the park and will be updated soon to give more specific information. The attractions feature describes the attractions one is addressing. The audio menu gives more detailed information. It can describe what foods the various restaurants serve, where bathrooms are located, and other important details. At the moment WGBH in Boston [a pioneer in descriptive video] has done the human-narrated descriptions on these devices, but Disney is working to make items on the audio menu use synthetic speech so that new text can be made available immediately. WGBH will still handle things that change less frequently or are less suited to synthetic speech. The ATD hangs around the neck on a lanyard, and one can request either a single-piece or double-piece earphone to use with it. Alternatively, you can bring your own earphone since the ATD has a universal headphone jack.
To get an ATD at any of the WDW parks, customers with tickets go to Guest Services, where a $25 deposit is collected and given back when the unit is returned. Make sure that you test it before you leave Guest Services to ensure it is programmed to provide the service required. Each of the Disney Parks has Braille guide books, and they are working on portable maps for visitors to take with them. For now each park has a large tactile map on display near the entrance. The guide books and ATD devices are park-specific, so, if you decide, for example, to leave Magic Kingdom and go to EPCOT, you must turn in the ATD at Magic Kingdom and get a new device at EPCOT. The Disney team is working on an option for guests staying on-property so that you can have one device for the duration of your stay, but there is currently no date when that option will become available.
Guide dogs are allowed at all the parks and resorts, as long as they are on leash or harness at all times. Guests with service animals should follow the same attraction entrance procedures as those with wheelchairs, and, due to the nature of certain attractions, dogs may not be permitted to ride. A member of the guest's party must remain with the dog or must ask a cast member to put it in the portable kennel. This may take a few minutes to arrange, and other riders may go ahead until the needed accommodations are set up, but the intent is that guests with dog guides not be separated from family and friends who have come to Disney to enjoy the experience together. This is a new offering by the Disney parks for people with service animals. While service animals are allowed in all areas, there are issues a dog owner might wish to be aware of, such as cautions about roller coasters or those where there are no straps or restraints that can be used to secure a dog guide.
Dog relief areas are inside the parks, and Disney personnel will gladly assist in finding them. They are boxes, much like the ones we have at our national convention. Use common courtesy and follow normal procedures for pickup; trash receptacles are located near the relief areas. Disney policy also allows for dog relief in grassy areas of the parks.
So, after all this lovely information about the park and the new technology, you may wonder what we actually did at Magic Kingdom. We walked from the backstage area into Tomorrowland. This was impressive. We were in a quiet area, then there was a wall, and all of a sudden we heard the music and sounds of Tomorrowland. It was amazing. The ATD first said "Tomorrowland," then it gave us the option of listening to what is in that area—Space Mountain, the Astro Orbiter, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Monster’s Inc. Laugh Floor, Stitch’s Great Escape, Tomorrowland Speedway, Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, or the Carousel of Progress ride. The ATD also listed bathrooms, restaurants, and souvenir shops—quite wonderful to hear it all.
From Tomorrowland we moved into Fantasyland, and again the ATD was right on point. It said, "You have now entered Fantasyland." Fantasyland is undergoing a major renovation that will double its size. Part of Fantasyland reopened in early 2013, while other rides are still being worked on and will open in 2014. We rode the new Ariel Under the Sea ride, which tells the Little Mermaid story from the movie. Maxx (Cheryl's dog) and Arrow (Margo's dog) rode all the rides with us. The description was great, and we could hear it as well as the music and the sounds around us. The dogs didn't mind the ride, even the slide backward under the sea and the slide back upward to the surface again. There is no water, just the description and feeling of being underwater, then back on top again.
We also rode the Hundred Acre Wood Adventures of Winnie the Pooh ride, which is part of the original Fantasyland. The description was even more detailed on this ride, and it was Maxx and Arrow's favorite. The ride has a locking T-bar mechanism, and Disney wanted to test whether the dogs would still fit comfortably on the floor after the bar was down to lock us onto the ride. The dogs fit fine, and they didn't mind when we went bouncing through the woods after Tigger. Arrow and Maxx were reluctant to get out of the car; I think they wanted another round of that one.
We had our pictures taken with two of Cinderella's court and had several photos taken of us by Cinderella's castle. We also met a very nice princess, Tiana from The Princess and the Frog. Nelson Echevarria was our photographer for the day, and these pictures will be available on our website <http://nfbtravel.org> and our Facebook page, NFB Travel and Tourism.
We then walked to Liberty Square to ride the Haunted Mansion. It's worth mentioning that at Disney there are music and other auditory clues that you can use as great landmarks for orientation. Liberty Square was interesting because on one side you could hear the screams and ominous music from the Haunted Mansion, and on the other side you heard the lively, happy-go-lucky music of the riverboat ride in Frontierland. It was quite a contrast.
The description on the ATDs varied quite a bit for the Haunted Mansion. Some people got the whole description, some got most of it, and some were a long way into the ride before they got any information from it. Greg and the staff promise to get this figured out and fixed. It was still a lot of fun, and the dogs didn't get scared at all, even when the hitchhiking ghosts sat with us hoping for a ride out. Of course this is the Disney version of scary: it is for families, and it tells a story with some laughs as well. We don't want to scare off any of those little ones that want to go to Disney World in the future.
At the end of our adventure we watched part of a Main Street USA parade and talked about our tour with the cast members. We were asked whether an app would be better than the device so that people could bring their own devices to use. We told the Disney folks that we think both are good. Some people don't use iDevices, and some don't want to take the time to learn to use an app but would rather use the ATD.
We thoroughly enjoyed our trip to Disney World's Magic Kingdom and felt welcomed and valued by Mark Jones and the other cast members. We thank them for their efforts and for their eagerness to listen to our opinions. Those thinking about traveling to any Disney park should check out <http://allears.net>, an independent, unauthorized site that has lots of information about the parks, including details about Disney resorts, park hours, restaurant menus with prices, and much more.