Our daughter was in town for 3 days and asked about visiting an Orlando theme park for one of them. After looking at materials from Disney (Magic Kingdom or Epcot) and Universal (Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure), we agreed that Universal Islands of Adventure would be our choice this time. We had been to Universal and Disney before, but, with their many new rides and offerings, we didn’t know exactly what to expect. We knew that all of the theme parks in Orlando made a real effort to be handicap friendly. And on this trip Universal did not disappoint!
Several days before we went I called Universal to speak with someone about handicapped access. Interestingly, the people with whom I spoke were very nice but gave fairly vague direction about what we needed to know. Fortunately they said that most rides would be accessible for me and they were correct. After our trip I found that Universal does have a brochure addressing accessibility issues, however, it too, gives only general information.
There is no substitute for evaluating each ride in person, seeing what accommodations are in place and deciding what we can individually handle.
When we arrived, we found that they had a special lane taking us directly to very accessible parking spaces. It would have been quite a long walk from the car to the entrance but since I’m in a power chair that was not an issue. Fortunately, they also had moving walkways (just as in airports) to make the walk a little more convenient for anyone who does walk, but may have difficulty with distance.
Popular wisdom has it that being in a wheelchair leads you to the front of the lines. That is no longer completely true, but it does offer certain advantages in terms of line waiting. My family first went on The Incredible Hulk Coaster. I opted out. But they did say that, had I joined them, the ride was accessible. My family also reported that, while the ride looks terrifying, it was exhilarating and a lot of fun.
The first ride that I took part in was The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. In that case we did move ahead of the standing line to get to a specific location that allowed me to board the ride safely I was able to stand-pivot into the seat. My wheelchair was kept safely to the side until we returned at the end of the ride. The seats were very comfortable and the ride was exciting and enjoyable!
Our next stop was the Jurassic Park River Adventure. Here we were warned that we might get wet, but seeing the relative dryness of people coming from the ride convinced us that it “wouldn’t be too bad.” – and the line was very short. They had me transfer from my power wheelchair to a manual chair at the entrance of the ride probably to reduce the risk of water damage to electronic equipment. To get into the ride they did have to use a special location for me. One of their cars has a seat elevator and we had to wait for that to be brought around. They brought out a special transfer unit next to the ride which allowed me to move from the wheelchair to the transfer unit and then slide over to the elevating seat in the ride. Then they lowered the elevated seat down into the ride so that I experienced the ride in the same way as anyone else. Their park staff was very helpful in making this accommodation work smoothly. The ride itself was fun. The dinosaurs didn’t look all that believable, but the decor was interesting. The ride was not as jostling as a roller coaster would be. But near the end the chair starts to ride up and you know that a fall is imminent. The 85 foot drop of the log flume into the water was exhilarating and, yes, we did get quite a shot of water. Fortunately, it was a warm, sunny day, so we dried off quickly.
After Jurassic Park we moved into The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I loved it. I felt as though I was really in Hogsmeade, this wonderful mythical town. Our first stop was at the stand selling “Butterbeer”. Delicious! Tasted like a combination of cream ale and butterscotch. We only bought two – one for my husband and me, and one for our daughter and son-in-law – and that was plenty! The sugar high and appetite suppression held us for many hours.
Our next stop was Hogwarts Castle. The Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey ride gave me the choice of whether to go directly to the ride or go through the castle as the line does. We opted to go through the castle. It was lovely how they created a situation where, although there was a line, it didn’t feel like one since we were moving through a steady stream of new parts of the castle. Filled with wizardry relics and talking picture frames When we reached a point where I needed to get into the ride they did pull us away and take us to a special landing platform that allowed us to take our time getting me into the ride. The normal entry point would have required me to move too quickly in transferring from my chair to the ride. We were told that disabled riders beginning at that point do not miss much of the ride – only a short section where Hermione tells people that she’s casting a spell making them able to fly. I personally found this ride to be fabulous. I could fly! On this ride, you live an imagined experience of playing quidditch and flying all around the castle, while escaping threats like dementors and dragons. It felt so real. In fact it felt so real that my husband, who is prone to motion sickness, had to close his eyes for the majority of the ride and came off it in a cold sweat. He later pointed out the reality that on that ride he had a greater disability than I. I was able to fully enjoy this ride as though I had no disability!
Also in Hogsmeade there was an outdoor roller coaster Flight of the Hippogriff. I opted out of that one because it looked to be just a lot of getting jostled around. My daughter and husband did go on that ride and ultimately that was their conclusion too. Had I chosen to go on the ride there was apparently easy access for disabled riders to transfer onto that one as well.
We were able to watch a delightful small show featuring students of Hogwarts singing songs. And we went to some of the lovely shops along the way. Unfortunately for those to be authentic-looking, they are very small and tight. Not easy in a wheelchair. But I was able to get some guidance from a woman at an open-air kiosk who recommended a specific product for me in one of the shops. I was then able to go into the front of “Ollivanders™, Makers of Fine Wands since 382 B.C.” and request the specific item I needed. If I had tried to shop around in that store it would have been nearly impossible.
At this point we decided that it was time for a late lunch. And we went over to the Lost Continent section to award-winning restaurant Mythos. We found that there was a one-hour waiting list. My husband and I took that time just to sit comfortably on an outside patio while our daughter and son-in-law went to one other ride. They went to Poseidon’s Fury which, it turns out, is not really a ride but rather just an interesting series of rooms with a storyline and series of simulations. From their description, it would have been very easy for me in my wheelchair, but possibly difficult for anyone with difficulties walking and standing. They reported that it was very well done and enjoyable.
Lunch at Mythos was very good. The building was fully handicapped accessible, although it didn’t look like it would be. But in my wheelchair we really did have to use a whole series of ramps to get to our table. It was a similar ramped pathway to get to the restroom. The food was excellent and not much more expensive than food of that type would be outside a theme park.
The day was now getting late, but we had hoped to add one more ride – Skull Island: Reign of Kong. Throughout the day there had been times when we had been told by employees and ride status signs, that this ride was not running. By the time that we were thinking of leaving, it was running but had a 90-minute wait. We opted out, which was unfortunate because my daughter had very much been looking forward to that ride. If I have one criticism of Universal it would be at they need to ensure that all their rides are running all the time. We heard from more than one park employee that problems with that ride apparently occur frequently.
Our final stops before leaving were for ice cream cones and souvenirs. Actually, the souvenirs were so pricey that we didn’t buy any. Our mementos would have to be our photos! Having arrived there close to their 9am opening, we made it to 5:30 pm. My chair’s power had gone down to a single green bar or only yellows. Not too bad. But I had been careful to turn it off whenever we were sitting, in order to conserve power.
Two park employees had given this advice for any future trips – they recommended that we load the park’s app into our phones which would allow us to look at the wait times on various rides. Upon arriving at the park, they suggested that we try to go to the ones that typically have the longest waiting lines, first. Unfortunately, we received this advice late in the day when most lines were already quite long. And I don’t think my chair would have been very tolerant of going back and forth between many rides. In the end, I believe that for a power wheelchair user, the best plan may be to accept whatever lines are, and just start from one end of the park and loop around, back to the beginning. to avoid covering additional ground unnecessarily.
All of the restrooms had very acceptable handicapped accessible stalls. Unfortunately, some of the entrances were very tight and the bathrooms were crowded, so required some jostling.
As with any travel, when one is in a wheelchair, planning is very important. We were grateful that we got there early and identified which rides were must-dos for us. Everything was accessible to me as a wheelchair user. I know that it was helpful that I can stand-pivot in terms of getting into the rides. I’m not sure how do-able it would have been if I would have had to slide or be lifted.
My conclusions? Universal Islands of Adventure has a lot to offer visitors with disabilities. It can be a long day for anyone but, by choosing carefully, a lot can be experienced!
And, they showed me that, if you aren’t prone to motion sickness, at Universal Islands of Adventure, you can fly!