Sunday, June 10, 2007

Accessible Subs

When the "Submarine Voyage" ride reopens Monday at Disneyland, it will have a new story line, shiny new coral reefs and something not envisioned when it debuted in 1959—an alternate experience for disabled visitors.

The "Imagineers" at The Walt Disney Co. couldn't retrofit the hatches and spiral staircases of the original 52-foot submarines to accommodate wheelchairs.

So they did the next best thing. The undersea voyage has been photographed with state-of-the-art equipment, and the high-definition images will be displayed on a 61-inch plasma screen in a theater designed to resemble an observation outpost.

The viewing site is also intended to accommodate people who are claustrophobic.
I'm of two feelings about this.

The first is -- well, that's cool. It's nice that they're thinking not only of their guests with physical disabilities but also those who have difficulties in enclosed (or, in Patrick's case, dark) spaces. It seems like a reasonable solution to a difficult problem.

The second, though, is this: for all the money they spent on the subs -- from the first test drainings of the submarine lagoon, the (rumored) retrofits of the Matterhorn that said draining required, to the retrofits of the subs (which, apparently, was extensive, and included adding seats and switching the motors from diesel to electric), to the new underwater painting techniques -- for all of that money, they couldn't have enlarged one hatch on, say, two subs, an installed a telescoping platform of some type? Perhaps the same type that the Jungle Cruise now has?

Over the years, I've watched as Disneyland has gradually become more accessible -- and, perhaps as a result, or perhaps just because of the increasing presence of people with disabilities out in the world, or, perhaps, just because I've grown more aware of what I was seeing, I also saw an increasing presence of people with disabilities.

Where once it was notable if I saw one other person in the park with Down syndrome, it's now notable if I don't.

The trains were given large back compartments that can be accessed from all stations except Main Street. It's a Small World now has a boat with a platform that can be raised or lowered so that a person does not have to transfer out of their wheelchair. (Patrick got to ride on that once.) Space Mountain now has this nifty new loading feature where they can move a whole train to the side so that someone who moves slowly or has to transfer out of a wheelchair can take all the time they need.

In my experience, too, the cast members are uniformly trained to be respectful without being overly helpful. If Patrick is first in line at an attraction, they ask him how many people are in the party. (If we're in a particularly noisy spot, I usually gesture myself above his head, so he doesn't see.) When he goes out and about in the park on his own, he's never reported being questioned or treated as though he was lost (though a cast member did talk him through a scary experience with the fireworks once when he was stuck waiting to get back to us).

While preparing for Disney World, I picked up this book which talks about all sorts of special needs, including intellectual disabilities, visual impairments, hearing impairments, and so forth.

The article continues:
"The law doesn't apply to everything," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services Inc., a global consulting firm.

"If something is too challenging, then it just can't be done and they don't have to allow a physically or mentally challenged person on the ride," Speigel said.

Disney declined to disclose the cost of the renovations.
But here's my problem with that.

Speaking solely as someone without an engineering could have been done. We've all seen those telescoping platforms that extend up (cherry pickers?)...I don't buy that they couldn't have taken, say, two subs, and have installed that.

But maybe I'm being unreasonable.

And...since when does claustrophobia count as "mentally challenged"?!

Patrick's issues with the dark have very little to do with having Down syndrome and a whole lot to do with living through the Northridge earthquake at the age of six and forever associating the deep dark that ascended as all the power went out as going with earthquakes.

To be honest, if the subs truly went underwater, I might have issues with them -- I tend to overthink things and dislike driving through tunnels (driving through a gorgeous mountainous area on the way to Denver was sheer torture) or riding subways such as BART underwater.

"It's such a phenomenal world we've built down there, and at the same time it's such a beloved attraction that it's really not an option for us" to exclude any guests, said Kathy Mangum, a vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering.
Okay, I like the philosophy, but it shouldn't be an option to exclude guests if it wasn't a beloved attraction.

The whole idea of Disneyland, as Walt Disney says, was to provide an inclusive place. He was tired of taking kids to the merry-go-round and not being able to ride with them. He was tired of being the guy on the bench watching everyone else have fun because he couldn't ride the merry-go-round. So he built a place where parents and children could have fun together.

If the Disney company truly wants to live up to that legacy, exclusion shouldn't be an option, no matter how beautiful or how beloved the attraction or experience is.

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