By Mark Bookman
Entering the PARK
Getting to Tokyo Disneyland by train was relatively easy. The entrance to the park is only a few minutes rolling distance away from Maihama Station by wheelchair. The path is paved and smooth, although there is a gradual incline that may prove difficult for some persons with mobility impairments. Upon arriving at the gate, I was asked to hand my bag to a security officer to check that I was not smuggling any contraband into the park (I wasn’t). Then, I was fast-tracked through the extremely long line of guests waiting to enter the park and allowed through a modified doorway. Before crossing the threshold into the park proper, I took the opportunity to walk around several buildings on the outskirts of facility. Among them, the guest services and wheelchair rental centers.
At the guest services center, I met with a park liaison and discussed my physical limitations. After showing the liaison my government-issued disability identification booklet from Japan, she issued me a guest assistance card, which allowed me to request numerous accommodations from park employees. For instance, I could ask park employees to assist me in securing wheelchair-accessible seating or reserving a set time to enter an attraction so that I needn’t tire myself out by waiting in line. On occasion, I could use the guest assistance card to skip lines entirely if too many people weren’t waiting for a given attraction. In speaking with the park liaison, I learned that other accommodations were also available for individuals with hearing and visual impairments, as well as those with intellectual and developmental disorders. To obtain such accommodations, I would have to present proof of having those kinds of conditions. And herein lies the problem for many foreign visitors with disabilities: Tokyo Disneyland is not required to assist anyone who does not possess a Japanese disability identification booklet. This is not to say that they will not provide assistance. On the contrary, their website seems to indicate that anyone can apply for assistance if they contact the park (and they are encouraged to do so ahead of time). But the success rate of such applications is somewhat suspect, as no additional information is provided on Disney’s website.
While I emerged unscathed from Tokyo Disneyland’s guest services building, I could not say the same for its wheelchair rental center. The center offers multiple kinds of rental wheelchairs to its guests, including manual (500-yen), motor-assisted manual (1,000-yen), and electric (2,000-yen) chairs. After speaking with the staff, I learned that I would need to rent one of their chairs as opposed to riding my own into the park if I wanted to board the attractions. The logic behind the park’s decision to restrict chair usage was explained as follows: “in the event of an earthquake or other natural disaster, the park can only guarantee the safety of people in park-issued wheelchairs.” While I appreciated the park’s concern for my safety, I’d rather have signed a waiver and remained in my own powerchair. Alas, that was not an option, so I went to request an electric wheelchair. Here, I encountered another barrier. While the park was able to rent me an electric wheelchair, they were unable (or at least unwilling) to assist me in transferring out of my powerchair. Therefore, I had to remain in my powerchair for the rest of the day and could not ride many of the attractions that I’d paid for. Or so I thought would be the case, anyway. As it turns out, it was not necessary for me to rent a chair at all: staff at each attraction are instructed to provide persons with disabilities with park-issued wheelchairs at no cost in the event that they need one for the attraction. Sometimes (but not always), they are even willing to offer persons with disabilities assistance in transferring to those chairs.
In the next installment of this five-article series, I continue exploring how differential understanding of park policies by staff can create hardships for persons with disabilities. Drawing on my own experiences inside the park, I reveal a need for greater transparency and communication.
Takeaways and Travel Tips
If there is anything to be learned from my attempts to secure accommodations and enter Tokyo Disneyland, it is the importance of specificity when describing various kinds of access. While the park claimed that many of its attractions were ‘wheelchair accessible,’ I discovered that their definition of accessibility was restricted to a very narrow subset of chairs that I could not use. To resolve this issue, the park could have adopted any number of strategies. For instance, they could have included information about the kinds of wheelchairs that can be used on their attractions on their website. Alternatively (or additionally), they could have created a forum for park guests to discuss their experiences using park wheelchairs and any barriers they encountered along the way. While the adoption of such strategies might cost Disney an investment of time and money up front, their potential gains in terms of diversity and inclusion would be substantial. Indeed, Disney (and other enterprises) should not ignore the economic incentives of creating better accessibility. People with disabilities often travel with companions: family, friends, caregivers, and others. By creating better access for those persons, Disney (and other enterprises) stand to make a tidy profit.
Mark Bookman received his B.A. in Global Interdisciplinary Studies from Villanova University in 2014 prior to researching Buddhist Philosophy in Japan as a Fulbright Fellow. He earned his M.A. in East Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Pennsylvania in 2016, where he currently studies the history of disability in Japan as a PhD Candidate. At present, Mark is working with experts on disability and barrier-removal at the University of Tokyo’s Research Center for Advanced Science and technology as a Japan Foundation Research Fellow.
Even though Mark keeps himself busy (VERY busy!) he has agreed to take on a role at Accessible Japan as a researcher and consultant.
You can read more about Mark on his website https://bookmanresearch.com/