[nfbmi-talk] Mickey and Minnie Have the Magic Touch with Accessibility at Disney

Terry D. Eagle terrydeagle at yahoo.com
Sat Dec 27 20:08:29 UTC 2014

Walt Disney World Provides Accessibility for Blind Guests

by Deborah Kendrick

The first time I visited Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, my immediate


reaction was that it was a kind of accommodations paradise. At that time, my


impression wasn't rooted so much in disability issues as in baby concerns! 

My daughter was six months old, and we were ecstatic to discover that each 

Disney theme park included a baby center--a facility filled with rocking 

chairs and changing tables, and supplies like diapers, baby food, and 

bottled juice.

When a staff member (Disney refers to them as Cast Members) pulled my family


out of one long, hot line to bring us to the exit for quicker access because


he didn't want my guide dog to melt in the heat, well, I thought it just 

couldn't get any better.

This was 20 years ago -- before the Internet and GPS devices, so the fact 

that Disney made available a Braille guidebook was equally astonishing and 

wonderful. The book outlined the various attractions and provided a written 

description of park layout.

Over the years, the Disney parks have enhanced accessibility provisions for 

people with all disabilities. Disney has also made strides toward using 

technology to enhance theme park accessibility to people with sensory 

disabilities. Specifically, captioning, assistive listening devices, tactile


maps, and audio description have been incorporated into many Disney World 


During a recent impromptu visit to Disney World with a visually impaired 

friend, I recognized a perfect opportunity to explore exactly how these new 

accessibility features offered to guests who are blind or visually impaired 

measure up.

Entering Epcot

For readers who have not had the Disney World experience, a few words of 

explanation are in order. Florida's Disney World actually consists of four 

theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, Hollywood Studios, and Animal 

Kingdom. Each is packed with experiences and can easily occupy a full day. 

Having only one day, we chose to spend it in Epcot Center. En route to 

Disney World, we checked the website and phone line and learned that in each


park's guest relations center, items that enhance accessibility for people 

who are blind can be obtained. When we entered Epcot Center, we went 

directly to Guest Relations for these items.

We were offered three options: A Braille guidebook containing description of


attractions and services; a book of tactile maps of the various areas of the


park; and an audio device for listening to description at those sites where 

it was available. Each item requires a $25 deposit. Wanting to leave no 

avenue to access neglected, we deposited $100 and took away one guidebook, 

one book of maps, and two audio devices.

It warrants mentioning here that, unfortunately, the Cast Member working the


counter in Guest Relations was only marginally informed. She could name the 

available items, fetch them for us, and run the credit card, but she was 

unable to answer many questions. Somewhat dismayed that the guidebook was so


large, for example (11 by 11-inch pages held together with a plastic comb 

binding), I asked why it was double-spaced throughout and so much larger 

than the book the park offered a decade ago. Because my friend had low 

vision, we were all eventually able to conclude that the reason seemed to 

lie in the fact that Braille and print were on every page.

When given the audio devices, I asked about the controls and was told we 

didn't need to touch anything.

"We plan to be here all day," I told her. "Is there a power button we should


press to turn the units off for saving battery power?'

The batteries, she assured us, would last the day. For a sweet demeanor and 

general willingness to help, she would get high marks. Her lack of 

familiarity with the devices designed to make the experience richer for us, 

however, falls more than a little short of typical Disney World standards.

After exiting Guest Relations, I took a few minutes to acquaint myself with 

the tools we had been given. By using all three items -- the Braille 

guidebook, the tactile maps, and the audio device -- I was able to glean a 

fair amount of information regarding our surroundings. Although our Cast 

Member had told us only that the device would deliver audio description, it 

turned out to be much more. Again, a less intrepid or experienced user of 

technology may never have realized what this device had to offer.

The (Somewhat) Amazing Audio Device

The device resembled a slightly old-style personal digital assistant, 

weighing probably close to a pound and measuring roughly 3 inches wide by 5 

inches long by 1 inch thick. At the top was a standard headset jack to which


a one-sided earpiece (that could fit comfortably on either ear) was 

attached. A single piece of molded plastic, the headphone was the type that 

has a curved half circle that goes behind the ear, and a flat disk, about 

the size of a quarter, that rests close to, but not in, the ear. It's 

exactly the right kind of earpiece for listening to a mobile device while 

also catching all ambient sounds.

The lanyard attached to the device was unfortunately not intentionally 

adjustable. As issued, it placed the device itself at about waist level for 

one of us and lower for the other. I say it was "not intentionally" 

adjustable because I did manage, by fiddling judiciously with the various 

velcro bits, to shorten it sufficiently to have the device at chest level, a


much more manageable position for wearing over a long period of time.

Taking Control

Now, let's talk about the various controls on the device.

With the front of the unit facing you and the lanyard at the top, there is a


single row of controls across the bottom. As indicated above, we were given 

no instructions, but this turned out to be one of those occasions in which 

having fiddled with countless pieces of electronic gadgets over decaes was a


definite advantage.

The controls have a rubbery feel and each is distinctly shaped.

First is a diamond shaped button that wakes up the device. Next is a square 

button that delivers any GPS information currently available or repeats the 

most recent announcement. In the center is a circle of four arrow-shaped 

buttons around a center control, and finally, to the right of this circle of


five controls are a pair of triangular-shaped left and right arrow keys that


increase or decrease volume.

I soon discovered that pressing the center button launched a menu of eight 

items that could be navigated by pressing the up/down or left/right arrows 

around the center and then pressing the center control to make a selection. 

Consistently, these menus included:

area description


rest room locations

food and beverage available


service animal relief areas

exit menu

Pressing the center of the scrolling circle announces the beginning of the 

current menu with "1. Area Description." By using either up/down or 

left/right arrow keys, you can move through the menus. When you hear the 

menu you want, pressing the center button again selects the choice and 

prompts that particular recording to play.

Maintaining the Magic

If there is a single quality that permeates all four theme parks at Disney 

World, it is undoubtedly magic. Not dark magic and not even the magic of 

magic tricks, but the connotation of that word that indicates some 

other-worldliness, better-than-ordinary, unmarred delight.

So does the access device for blind and visually impaired guests live up to 

the high standard for magical experiences the compay sets for itself in 

every realm?

It is clear that such a level was certainly the intention. The reality of 

that attempt is, well, a bit less magical.

The access device has three primary functions: 1) to provide audio 

information regarding immediate surroundings in a structured-menu manner, 2)


to provide general GPS information, and 3) to sync with and play available 

pre-recorded audio description for several attractions.

As we approached the Spaceship Earth attraction in the Future World section 

of Epcot, the unit vibrated and announced "Near Spaceship Earth."

This particular attraction is an entertaining journey through history, with 

a focus on technology and communication. A professionally narrated 

descriptive track has been synchronized with the sights and sounds of the 

attraction itself, so that I heard a constant commentary describing words 

and images throughout the experience. Although the description sometimes 

lags behind or leaps ahead of the actual image appearing, it was thrilling 

to have the visual description so readily available.

Upon exiting the attraction, the device remains silent until either the 

information menus are activated (to seek information regarding nearby food, 

entertainment, etc.) or until the unit's GPS detects that you are 

approaching another landmarked point. In the latter case, when it works, the


device will vibrate and announce "Land Pavilion" or "Near Soarin" (as it did


the entire 105 minutes that we stood in the line for this particular 

attraction) or some other point of interest, repeating it only if the square


button is pressed for this purpose.

As we entered another entertainment venue, the "Circle of Life" film 

starring Timon and Pumba from Disney's "The Lion King," the device 

automatically began playing the pre-recorded descriptive track which was 

smoothly synchronized with the production.

Missing the Mark

I spent a few minutes with my braille guidebook, tactile maps, and audio 

access device to acquaint myself with the topography of Epcot Center in 

general and the immediately surrounding envionment of Future World in 

particular. For me, having the combination of tools was essential, although 

some guests with visual impairment might find the braille alone or audio 

alone to be sufficient.

When that first audio description automatically began playing to describe 

the scenes of Spaceship Earth, it was a genuine moment of accommodation 

exhilaration. Unfortunately, the rest of the experience was something of a 

downhill ride.

When you take a break in one area, the device will not allow you to access 

or review the information in another area. Say, for instance, you're taking 

a snack break in Future World and you want to plan ahead for World Showcase.


Electronically, you "can't get there from here." The device only makes 

available the information for the area in which you are currently situated.

When we needed guidance information most--navigating from Future World to 

World Showcase, for instance--the device announced that we were near Land 

Pavilion long after we'd left it behind and only announced any change when 

we were standing directly in front of Canadian Pavilion (the first country 

attraction encountered when approaching World Showcase from the right.)

When it works--as when the device did indeed confirm that we were at the 

Canadian Pavilion--it is a real equalizer. Once there, I could access the 

menus containing information regarding the attractions, food, entertainment,


etc. for that particular area. As we moved past Canadian Pavilion, I soon 

heard "United Kingdom Pavilion" announced and its pre-recorded information 

regarding the pub, the shops, and the entertainment became available. There 

are ten countries in the World Showcase and information, presumably, has 

been pre-recorded for each, as well as descriptive audio synchronized with 

attractions there. I say "presumably" because, despite assurances received 

earlier, my friend's device completely died before we left Future World and 

mine lost power just past the United Kingdom. We had picked up the devices 

at 10:30 am, and their batteries were depleted at 1:30 and 3:30 


Final Impressions

Developing a single device that contains recorded guidebook information, GPS


info for navigation, and audio description synchronized with visual 

attractions is a brilliant and commendable approach to providing 

accessibility for blind and visually impaired guests. Staff who distribute 

these devices, however, should be familiar enough with them to provide basic


demonstrations to guests, and batteries should certainly be able to last a 

full day. With technology advancing as rapidly as it does, current devices 

could undoubtedly be updated to be smaller and lighter and to pinpoint GPS 

location with more accuracy. Since all guests, with and without 

disabilities, are certainly sometimes interested in looking ahead to read 

about attractions around the corner or across the lagoon, the device should 

include the capability to listen to information about attractions beyond 

one's immediate location.

The braille and tactile maps were extremely useful. Combining braille and 

print in one book makes little practical sense, however, and if the two had 

been separated into individual booklets, each could have been done in a 

smaller, more manageable format.

But did we "Have a magical day," as Disney World Cast Members like to say? 

Of course we did. Disney World is still on my list of favorite places and I 

can't wait for the opportunity to test drive the tools for accessibiity in 

the other three theme parks.


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