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Access for disabled a growing theme in fun parks

The last time my husband and I tried to plan a vacation with our son, who must use a wheelchair, there was only one place we thought we could take him: Walt Disney World.

What a difference two years has made. This year, just on the East Coast, we can take him to Universal Studios Florida, Sea World, Busch Gardens, Paramount's Kings Dominion in Doswell, Va.; or Paramount's Carowinds in Charlotte, N.C.

Because these parks have special brochures for disabled guests, we can plan ahead and know that he will be able to remain in his wheelchair for some of the rides, see shows and be able to use the services of first-aid personnel. Most important of all, we can be fairly sure that park personnel at these locations are interested in seeing that he has as much fun as their other visitors.

For theme park thrills with a severely handicapped child, Universal Studios in Orlando is probably the best bet, as it has the most rides that accommodate wheelchairs. Earthquake _ The Big One, The E.T. Adventure, Kongfrontation and Jaws all have ride vehicles that accommodate wheelchairs.

Catherine Roth, director of business affairs for Universal Studios Florida, says, "Many children who use wheelchairs express delight at the feeling of riding a bicycle that is simulated on the E.T. Adventure."

Our son does not have enough body control for a thrill ride, but he is particularly fond of It's A Small World in Disney's Magic Kingdom. That ride has a special boat designed so guests in wheelchairs can roll onto the front part while their companions sit in the back. He can also stay in his wheelchair for Mission To Mars, the Carousel of Progress, the Liberty Square Riverboat, Hall of Presidents, the Walt Disney World Railroad and his other favorite, the Country Bear Jamboree.

The Old Dominion Line, a steam engine train at Kings Dominion in Virginia, is the only real ride on which guests can remain in their wheelchairs, at that park. One car has a ramp that can be lowered so a wheelchair can be rolled into the car.

Another popular ride at Kings Dominion is Days of Thunder, which synchronizes a film and motion of the seats to simulate being in a race car. For those who do not have enough body control to ride in the seats that move, there is an area where wheelchair guests can sit in their chairs and see the same movie that others view, without being jostled.

The symbol of the park, the Eiffel Tower, has an elevator, so wheelchair guests can ride to the top of this 300-foot scale model.

Also at Kings Dominion, the Hanna-Barbera and Star Trek costumed characters seem to take extra time with handicapped guests. One of the staff, wearing a Huckleberry Hound costume, danced, hopped and did everything he could to get our son to smile. That kind of attention makes a visit a memorable one.

Of course, less-challenged people, such as Ford Franklin of Richmond, Va., use wheelchairs only for mobility and can transfer to a regular ride seat. Franklin has visited Kings Dominion at least 20 times and enjoys the roller-coasters. He has found that the long ramps leading to the rides can be tiring. However, the installation of the park's newest roller-coaster, the Hurler, included a hydraulic lift to raise people in wheelchairs to the boarding area.

Universal Studios, Paramount's Carowinds and Kings Dominion also have first-aid centers that disabled visitors might find helpful.

We were delighted to find that a great deal of progress has been made to make theme parks more accessible to handicapped guests since the Americans With Disabilities Act was passed in 1990. As Roth of Universal states, "As more and more companies begin to address compliance with the Act, our common experiences may be shared (and) new technologies and procedures will be developed to enable us to enhance the entertainment experience of our guests with disabilities."

Freelance writer Sandra Waugaman lives in Richmond, Va.


For more information and to request a Guide for Guests With Disabilities, contact:

Busch Gardens, Tampa 987-5082.

Paramount's Carowinds, (704) 588-2600.

Paramount's Kings Dominion, (804) 876-5000.

Sea World, (407) 351-3600.

Universal Studios Florida, (407) 363-8000.

Walt Disney World Resort Reservations office, (407) W-DISNEY (934-7639). For general information call (407) 824-4500.