As an able-bodied kid, I was addicted to roller coasters. My love affair started in 1997, when I rode Desperado in Primm, Nevada, a hypercoaster with a 225-foot drop that was listed as the world's tallest in the 1996 Guinness Book of World Records. In looking back on all my years visiting amusement parks, I can't remember seeing a single wheelchair user attempting to ride one. And, naturally, I assumed they were off-limits to people with disabilities.
When I was refused entry to The Roller Coaster at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, I felt defeated. But, after doing a bit of research into the accessibility of amusement rides, I realized that an inverted roller coaster (where your legs and feet dangle from the ride) might be the most comfortable and accessible to me, a triple amputee.
My first roller coaster ride (with a disability)
This weekend, I had an opportunity to test that theory on a fairly pedestrian roller coaster at Fun Spot America in Orlando, Florida. The Freedom Flyer reaches a height of 64.3 feet and a top speed of 34.2 mph. Despite the slow speed, the ride still produces a force of 2.5 G's. While it didn't challenge the height or speed of my favorite rides (of the past), it was a nice way to whet my appetite and experience a thrill without injuring myself.
The elevated cement platform under the Freedom Flyer, pictured above, wasn't really conducive to access for wheelchair users. Fortunately, the front end of the platform was ramped, and I rolled my wheelchair directly up to the forward car. Staff helped me with the transfer between the coaster and my wheelchair, with my Quantum Q6 Edge 2.0's iLevel elevation feature making it easier on everyone.
I rode the coaster twice in a row, with the rides lasting just over a minute each. At $10 per ride, it wasn't cheap, but it was an experience I needed to have. With this confidence boost, I'll be better equipped to take on some of the larger and faster roller coasters at Walt Disney World, Seaworld, Busch Gardens and Six Flags.
Here are a few tips for planning your own roller coaster experience.
Research Roller Coaster Designs
After my experience with the coaster in Las Vegas, I spent a lot of time on the internet researching roller coasters, their boarding platforms and seating designs.
I was looking for roller coasters that I could roll my wheelchair up to and that would allow for a relatively unobstructed transfer. As a bilateral below-knee amputee with residual limbs that are especially vulnerable to skin breakdown, there are risks associated with traditional coasters. I wouldn't want to leave a ride with my knees battered and bloodied, so I decided that the inverted coasters were best for me. Depending on the nature of your disability, you may reach a different conclusion.
The video above, from Coaster Studios, allowed me to take a look at the Freedom Flyer's design, as well as its boarding platform layout. A couple of other great YouTube channels worth checking are CoasterForce and Theme Park Review.
Ask Lots of Questions
Every rider, disabled or not, is entitled to ask questions before visiting a theme park or riding roller coaster. If you can't find enough information on the park's website or through other internet sources, call the park's guest services department with your accessibility questions.
Once you've arrived at the park, if you're still unsure or have second thoughts, ask for the advice of ride operators. It's possible they've assisted a wheelchair user before and, if not, they will at least know a lot about the roller coaster. If you'll need assistance with your transfer, ask! And, be sure to provide instructions on how to operate your wheelchair after you've boarded the roller coaster. For safety, it will need to be moved off the boarding platform while you enjoy the ride.
Start Small and Travel with a Friend
Although I went solo to Fun Spot America, I think I'll take a friend with me to the larger parks. Having someone along who knows me and who I trust will surely make the experience better.
If you're uneasy about the theme park experience, start small like I did. The Freedom Flyer was a good introduction to riding a theme park ride, and has left me with the confidence to take on bigger and faster roller coasters. I look forward to reporting back once I've done that. While I know theme park tickets are expensive, perhaps you spend your first day at the park scoping out the possibilities. You could also send your able-bodied friend to test out the ride first, and hear their report on whether it might be suited for you. The main thing is to be comfortable in your choice to ride, after assessing all of the variables.
Having lived the majority of my life as ab able-bodied person, I've been determined to regain the freedoms I lost as a result of my disability. From riding a camel in Egypt to soaring on a zip line, I've been pretty successful in reopening my world. The Freedom Flyer is the latest example of that. Living up to its name, it proved that I still have the freedom and ability to ride roller coasters. And to my readers who have never had these experiences, I hope my blog is encouraging you to test the waters and Open Your World!
Have you ridden a roller coaster?
If so, how was your experience? Fun? Scary? Accessible?
If not, are you encouraged to try?
Let me know in the comments below!