Lucky for me, it seems you can take the occupational therapist out of the country but my friend Sue (OT) continues to see the world through an OT’s eyes. And on her return, she’s keen to share what to do in Orlando and the accessible activities she found. Thanks Sue, over to you.
Oh Orlando, we did love you! Theme parks, awe inspiring rockets to see, and getting up close to amazing animals – our family of 5 were full of smiles (and a tad too much sugar!).
Universal Studios, Walt Disney World and Kennedy Space Centre were massive and catered for all abilities. However, I thought I’d highlight the lesser known attractions of Orlando, Florida that we visited in our first week of staying at a SeaWorld-affiliated hotel. You can read more about the accessibility and great transport options here
WHAT TO DO IN ORLANDO – ACCESSIBLE ACTIVITIES
Swimming with rays and tropical fish, getting up close to sharks and kissing dolphins sounds like a dream come true doesn’t it? Throw in a beautiful tropical setting with all you can eat and drink, and Discovery Cove was all that and more.
We felt like we had stepped onto an exotic island walking through big cabanas and being greeted by friendly staff in Hawaiian print shirts. It was my son’s birthday so they provided him with a special lanyard and he was sung Happy Birthday.
The day starts with a huge breakfast, and then there is fitting of wetsuits and grabbing snorkelling gear (the mask needs to be returned but the snorkeling tube and mouthpiece was ours to keep). Discovery Cove provides sunscreen that is animal friendly, and there are free lockers to store belongings in (with a key attached to a lanyard for wearing in the water). Towels and life vests of various sizes are available to use throughout the Cove.
Discovery Cove has a number of flat entrances to their various reefs and pools.
There are ramps for wheelchair access and pool hoists. Staff are on hand to help when required. From Guest Services, Discovery Cove has beach wheelchairs that can be reserved beforehand by calling 407-513-4600.
These wheelchairs are not self-propelling so another person is needed to assist but the large wheels make it easy maneouvering in the water and on the sand. Large wheeled prams are also available for small children. Guests can check in their own wheelchairs/mobility equipment at reception. Discovery Cove also allows service animals, however there are restrictions within certain reefs, the aviary and animal enclosures. There are a number of wheelchair accessible restrooms including showers throughout the Cove.
The dolphin swim was a bucket-list item for us and can be included in your day for an additional fee. It is best to discuss exact requirements with the staff before booking, as they are able to accommodate guests with limited mobility or requiring a carer, but it is decided on an individual basis. There are a number of wading spots in the lagoons and swimmers can chose to stand in deep or shallow water, depending on ability.
During this 30 minute experience, we were able to hold onto the fin of the bottlenose dolphin (Lunar) and hitch a ride to shore. We also patted the dolphin, kissed Lunar’s nose, and fed him fish. The staff were informative and answered all of our questions. There are staff filming and taking photos of the experience and you can choose a photo package to purchase afterwards.
Dolphins aren’t the only animals on show at Discovery Cove. Serenity Bay is a long winding pool that includes birds flying overhead in an aviary with the option of hand feeding them, otters viewed behind a glass screen, and marmosets playing in the trees. We loved snorkeling in the Grand Reef which was flooded with tropical fish and rays swimming among colorful coral. I will never forget squealing when I swam around a bend only to come face to face with sharks (on double checking there was a glass screen between us, but it felt alarmingly close!) For those who would prefer to investigate the Grand Reef by an underwater walk, there are SeaVenture dive helmets available for hire.
If you are looking for more interaction with the animals, there are additional activities that can be booked including being a trainer for a day, swimming with sharks, and a behind-the-scenes animal trek. If you arrive early enough at the Grand Reef, you can help the Discovery Cove trainers feed the Rays by hand.
For a more relaxed time, Wind-Away River was very popular for just floating past waterfalls and even under caves.
Adjacent to one of the wheelchair ramps, there are a number of permanent seats within the water where more and more people were reclining as the afternoon wore on. Along the sandy beaches there also are several recliner sun-chairs, hammocks or private cabanas can be rented. In at least 4 locations there are refreshment markets to top up unlimited slushies, cocktails, pretzels, packaged snacks and more. Combined with a hearty breakfast and lunch where you are encouraged to go back for seconds and thirds, you certainly do not leave Discovery Cove hungry!
Admittedly, Discovery Cove was an expensive day, however we had beautiful encounters with sea-life, ate yummy food and drink, and had lots of fun doing other water activities as a family. An additional benefit for visiting Discovery Cove, is that it includes free unlimited admission to both SeaWorld and Aquatica in Orlando (currently the deal is within a 14 day period). There is a free shuttle bus that was wheelchair accessible to/from SeaWorld, but our driver was wonderful and dropped us back to Springhill Suites. We had chosen to take a taxi in the morning as the shuttle bus would not have picked us up in time for our early breakfast. It truly was a day to remember!
We visited SeaWorld on our first full day in Orlando, having travelled 25 hours to get there. To say we were tired was an understatement! However, we were really impressed with how well SeaWorld is laid out and the accessibility. As a result, we managed to see most of it without complaints that 3 little ones needed to go to bed!
Once inside the entrance to SeaWorld, there are manual wheelchairs available for hire at $15 per day or electric wheelchairs for $60. SeaWorld has a Ride Accessibility Program (RAP) for individuals and their families in circumstances where it is difficult for the person to stand in line for attractions. The RAP can be discussed and implemented by visiting Guest Services. The RAP works by approaching staff at the ride/attraction you wish to participate on, and receiving a return time to come back (acting like a virtual queue). SeaWorld also has a guide about physical requirements for each of its rides.
Most motion based rides require transfer from a wheelchair into the seat, however Wild Arctic allow those unable to do so to experience the theater from a non-motion section.
Wild Arctic and Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin end their rides at aquariums where you can see the actual animals up close, and there is always the non-rider option to bypass the ride and go straight to the animals.
Observing sea-life was the main focus for our family, however hubby also rated the roller coasters, and we all went on Journey to Atlantis twice. Although schedules change seasonally, there were a number of animal shows on offer. Orcas were in Shamu Stadium, dolphins had separate theatres to sea lions and otters, and there was even a Pets Ahoy show. Each stadium had several spots available for wheelchairs with companion seating alongside, and the views were fantastic. Ramp or flat access was available to the theaters.
There are a number of walk-through exhibits with wall to ceiling glass showing off rays, sharks, and loads of tropical fish. Included is Turtle Trek and Manatees, which are all wheelchair accessible. To view Shark Encounter, there is a moving walkway where an assistant would be required to help push the wheelchair on/off, however there is often staff on hand to help. At various times of the days, there are opportunities to have animal encounters, and help feed the marine life. See Guest Relations for schedules.
Throughout the park, there were cooling stations with water being sprayed to help escape the heat, and also cabanas to charge devices and use wi-fi. There were several disabled restrooms available. The children’s section called Happy Harbor was closed at the time of our visit due to major refurbishments preparing for Sesame Street in 2019.
Given that we were at Orlando at a time of high humidity and warm temperatures, our ‘rest day’ at Aquatica was ideal for cooling off and recharging the batteries. There were a variety of pools and experiences, dependent on whether we wanted to go on thrill slides, jump waves, float down rivers, or have water dumped over our heads from oversized buckets. With various eating locations and sun-recliner lounges to sit on, we also could choose to sit and re-energise after busy days walking through Orlando’s theme parks.
We arrived at Aquatica using the free shuttle bus from our hotel, however similar to SeaWorld, complimentary wheelchairs are available in the carpark should you need help mobilising from the carpark to the front entrance. Once inside the park entrance, electric wheelchairs can be hired for $60 (for 18 years and older) or manual wheelchairs for $15 with a $30 refundable deposit. There were accessible and companion assist restrooms available throughout the park. Lockers, family dryers (with one step access) and towels are available to use for a small fee.
Aquatica has an in-depth Ride Accessibility Program (RAP) that details exactly what physical and mental attributes must be met to safely be able to enter pools or use slides. Check at Guest Services for updated versions at the time of you visiting, however this the current one for October 2018:
Roa’s Rapids has a pool hoist to assist with entry into the pool, otherwise there is a flat entrance to the pool area. The 2 wave pools have flat entry into the pool, otherwise there is ramp access with handrails. Our kids loved Loggerhead Lane where they floated on pool rings past an aquarium of fish. Keep in mind that Aquatica does not allow wheelchairs to be used within the water – individuals need to transfer out of their wheelchair/pool hoist once in the water. Most of the rides have steps to access, and the Walkabout Waters kids section has several steps to negotiate. There are life vests of various sizes freely available for use.
Out of the water, there were Commerson Dolphins to watch from an underwater viewing area. Various viewing areas and bridges overlooking the rapids and waterways had accessible ramps and handrails. Be prepared for occasional sprays of water at ankle height as you wander along the pathways – a welcome relief from the hot ground! There are festivals at various times of the year, and on the day we were visiting, guests were encouraged to do Latin dancing.
A fun activity that would be possible from sitting or standing, was the Big Squirt water game. After purchasing the Big Squirt tube at one of their gift shops, there are a number of water refill stations throughout the park. Once the tube is filled with water and clamped, find a Big Squirt Water Game board and the goal is to squirt the water at targets.
A FUN NIGHT OUT
As mentioned in my previous blog, we were staying at Springhill Suites and had access to the I-Ride trolleys on International Drive. This made it easy to put on unseasonably warm clothes and jackets, and head to Orlando’s Ice Bar. With the walls, bar, chairs, tables and carvings all made of -5.5’C ice (22F), this was as close to the Arctic our kids have ever been! They took a liking to cuddling the fluffy penguins and polar bear, but maybe that was an attempt to stay warm!
Children 8 years and older are allowed to visit the Ice Bar between 5pm and 9pm however it is strictly adults after 9 o’clock. There is a discount when booking online, and the cost includes provision of a coat and some gloves (you can choose to upgrade to a warmer coat for an extra fee). Once inside the Ice Bar, there is a drinks menu, and even the cocktails/soft drinks are served in cups made entirely of ice. When the cold becomes unbearable there is a ‘fire lounge’ bar with more normal temperatures to help with defrosting. The access to the main entrance is flat, and the Ice Bar area has ramp access.
With teeth chattering and camera lenses fogged over, it was then only a 5 minute walk down to Pointe Orlando. There were other restaurants, however we wanted to take a trip down memory lane and introduce the kids to Johnny Rockets. The benches, juke boxes and flavoured milkshakes still exist, and of course their staple hamburgers. The access was flat and there were disabled restrooms. We couldn’t help but laugh at the posters for the expectations of waiters/waitresses in years gone by including that the tie shouldn’t be frayed and dirty, and surely no body odour/bad breath is a given today as well!