LAKE BUENA VISTA — With some technological aid, the blind now can ride Toy Story Midway Mania, listening to a narrator describe the action others see in the raucous animated Walt Disney World shoot-em-up.
"We're using technology to make the experience more inclusive," said Greg Hale, worldwide vice president of safety and accessibility for Disney World Parks and Resorts. "People come here in groups, so we don't want someone feeling they must sit outside while others have fun."
Disney spent the last year installing wireless headsets for the blind or deaf in 50 of the 100 rides, attractions and shows in all four of its four Florida parks. This summer Disney followed up by adding recorded narratives describing the immediate surroundings in every outdoor section of each park, including restaurant offerings, restrooms and visual features of the architecture.
It's part of a less-mentioned chapter in the legacy of Walt Disney and his brother Roy who built Epcot to be fully compliant with the American with Disabilities Act 12 years before it was law. Walt Disney Co. developed several patented aids for the disabled in its parks, including coaster seating, and helped write many of the benchmark requirements. Next month the company is getting a new product award for its wireless assistive technology from the National Society of Professional Engineers.
The company also knows it's smart business as marketers begin calling the disabled "the third minority" behind African Americans and Hispanics. About 19 percent of the population, or about 51 million people, is disabled in some way, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Half are younger than 65, and 46 percent are working.
Disney, which specializes in family vacations, knows the disabled seldom travel alone. Hence, Disney water parks stock free aquatic wheelchairs. The golf courses feature tricked-out golf carts with a pivoting seat suitable for those who use wheelchairs to swing a club. Closed captioning or amplified audio has long been available in most attractions.
"We do story telling so we look for ways to enhance it," said Hale, recalling a blind Epcot patron thanking him because "for the first time she found out Figment is a purple dinosaur."
Disney's new wireless system, which replaced clunky pre-recorded cassette tapes that had to be rewound, integrates multiple aids for the disabled into one handheld device about the size and weight of a wallet.
The device picks up signals from strategically deployed GPS, radio and infrared transmitters all over the parks.
Sounds simple. But it took a year to program the software, deploy the hardware out of sight and hire a Boston broadcasting company to write and record thousands of descriptions that can be easily understood by the blind.
"Technology like this is just huge," said Dan Mann, chief executive of Lighthouse of Pinellas, which provides services to the blind and sight-impaired.
Disney officials declined to say how many of the more than 100,000 who visit Disney World every day are disabled. That's because not all the disabled drop by guest relations to check out the free (with a $25 deposit) devices.
"But it's well into the thousands every day," said Hale.
Mark Albright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8252.