How I’m learning to vacation better with my disability

Growing up, I went on vacations with my family. But my experience was different from my siblings because I was the only one who used a wheelchair.

When we visited Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, or Michigan’s Adventure in Muskegon, I spent more time watching people have fun going on rides than going on them myself. I was always stuck with my dad while everyone else rode the roller coasters, which I couldn’t ride because I wasn't tall enough.

But that was more than 30 years ago, when accessibility wasn’t on the radar of amusement parks. Fortunately, Disney World and Universal Studios are raising the bar for the industry. And I was able to see the shift up close during a trip over the summer to Orlando, where I attended the Disability:In conference but also made some time to visit Universal Studios for the first time. 

These parks are making their rides and other experiences accessible for people with disabilities, whether they use wheelchairs or have sensory issues. Universal has an online accessible guide that is over 100 pages. It allows you to go through every ride to see about accessibility for a range of disabilities, including mobility, visual, hearing and sensory. I could see if I would have to transfer to a group chair, or if my chair could go on a ride. I rode Hogwarts Express and Skull Island: Reign of Kong in my wheelchair.

Staff worked to create best experience

The staff was kind and very focused on giving me the best experience possible. Often, a supervisor came up to personally work with me to make sure my wheelchair was secured correctly. We bought Express Passes that let us skip the line, and that was nice.

In addition, Universal Orlando has developed an Attractions Assistance Pass for guests whose disability prevents them from waiting in a usual line for an attraction. Guests requesting such an accommodation must first obtain an IBCCES Individual Accessibility Card (IAC) by registering at before their visit to the park. The IAC registration consists of an online application that includes uploading necessary documentation.

Lucia Rios exploring Universal Studios. (Shandra Martinez)
What I appreciated most was that I was able to ride with my friends, which made the experience all the better. Next time, I plan to challenge myself to go on more rides – even if that means transferring out of my chair. 

I can’t overstate how much I appreciated the staff at Universal Studios making sure I was comfortable, whether I was on a ride or taking the boat from our hotel to the parks. They were very nice about making sure that I got on and off the boat without people rushing around me.

Insider’s view

Another highlight of my Universal visit was seeing the Jason Bourne Experience. Initially, I had to be talked into this ride because I hadn’t seen the Jason Bourne films with Matt Damon. I’m glad I went. My longtime friend, Pana Thitaram, an art director who lives in Orlando, has worked on projects at Universal and Disney. Having him as my guide made the trip extra-special because he shared stories about the behind-the-scenes work of the artists that create this magical experience for visitors. 

And I appreciate my friend and co-Disability Inclusion editor, Shandra Martinez, who planned the whole trip in collaboration with travel agent Brenda Seymour. Their goal was to make the entire trip accessible for me. 

Now, I’m making plans to go to Disney World in Orlando with my sister and her family. But this time, I won’t be watching everyone else having fun. I’ll be riding the rides.

This article is a part of the multi-year series Disability Inclusion, exploring the state of West Michigan’s growing disability community. The series is made possible through a partnership with Centers for Independent Living organizations across West Michigan.
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