Note: this article originally appeared in my ‘Faces in the Queue’ column on WDW Fan Zone.
The lift groaned softly as it hoisted its precious cargo higher and higher into the air. Three hundred-plus pounds of man and machine (mostly machine) locked into position with a shudder and a snap. With mounting excitement, Bill prepared to board the Magical Express bus while seated in his power chair. He chuckled to himself as he looked down… w-a-a-y down… at his nervous fiancé staring up at him from the pavement below.
Tracy caught sight of Bill’s face, saw the twinkle in his eyes, and realized she had been holding her breath. She exhaled deeply, willing herself to relax. “I have to stop worrying so much,” she thought as she smiled up at her Prince Charming. Bill could always make her feel as though everything would be all right. “But I will never get used to seeing him hanging off the side of the bus like that!” she thought. Once he was safely inside, she boarded the bus that would take them to the Pop Century resort. But instead of sitting next to Bill, she pulled out her camera and slid into the front seat! She just had to get that perfect shot of the sign welcoming guests to Walt Disney World!
Bill watched her making her preparations and smiled. Then his smile grew to an all-out grin as he anticipated her reaction to the flower arrangement that would greet her as she entered their room at Pop. This romantic gesture had become a tradition for him and every trip it produced a satisfying flood of happy tears from his sentimental fiancé.
Bill had introduced Tracy to WDW in 2006, just a little over a year after they had begun dating. Although he had visited the World several times previously, she had been a bit apprehensive before their trip and had thrown herself into a flurry of research. Thirty-six years of living with the effects of Cerebral Palsy had strengthened Bill both mentally and emotionally, but Tracy wasn’t entirely sure he would be up to it physically.
Cerebral Palsy is caused by a brain injury that affects the way the brain controls muscle movements. Not everyone who has CP shares the same number or severity of symptoms, but all have problems with mobility and balance. Bill’s CP affects his muscles to such a degree that he is unable to walk and must be physically transferred in and out of his wheelchair. He has muscle spasms hundreds of times each day and constant pain in his right ankle. He only has the use of his left hand because his right hand stays closed and that arm is prone to sudden, involuntary movements… he calls it “Wild Thing!”
Every single activity of daily living is a challenge for Bill. Yet here he was, asking his girlfriend… a self-proclaimed worry-wart… to go on what she thought would be a grueling theme park vacation! He used his best powers of persuasion and eventually Tracy decided it was useless trying to resist. “I look into those deep blue eyes and I just melt!” On that vacation she fell in love with Walt Disney World almost as quickly as she had fallen in love with him. Four years later they took their eighth trip to Disney together.
I caught up with Bill recently and asked him about his passion for Walt Disney World and what his thoughts were on Disney’s extraordinary ability to accommodate guests with special needs.
KATHY: Bill, you recently visited WDW for the thirteenth time; I suppose you could say you’re a big fan!
BILL: Yes I am a big WDW fan. My first time was my 10th birthday and enjoyed every minute of it.
KATHY: I’d like to talk about how and why you’ve developed a passion for the World.
BILL: The main reason is it is very wheelchair accessible. When Disney creates a new ride they always try to design it so users can stay in our chairs.
KATHY: You have multiple physical challenges because of your CP: muscle spasms, balance & mobility issues, and speech that can be difficult to understand for those who don’t know your speech pattern. How do you manage all that and still have such boundless energy and enthusiasm for WDW?
BILL: I don’t let my disability get the best of me. I try to live my life to the fullest, there is always a way to make the muscle spasms not as severe. When I get to WDW I forget about the pain, there is so much going on my mind doesn’t focus on it. As for having enthusiasm for WDW, I feel normal there. Most CM’s [Cast Members] go out of the way to make me feel special but not because of my disability.
KATHY: Tracy has said that you two love Disney because you are accepted for what you are and not what you look like. Tell me more!
BILL: People don’t talk down to me there, like I have a mental disability as well as a physical. That happens a lot in the “real world”. Many people in our town shy away from people with disabilities; they don’t know what to say so they don’t say anything. At WDW people, both guests and CM’s, talk to each other. No one knows a stranger, people say hi, if you have a button on you are congratulated. People talk to me about my pins, if I am having a good day in the park, and ask me questions about accessibility. I have even been mistaken for a CM 3 times in one day and that made me feel wonderful. It let me see that people were more accepting of CM’s in wheelchairs.
KATHY: Do you see yourself working as a Cast Member one day?
BILL: That is a dream of mine. I would love to work in special events, coordinating the accessiblity of things. It would be wonderful to work in the department that deals with accessiblity in the parks. If we ever move to Florida Tracy and I really want to volunteer for Give Kids the World too.
Kathy: That’s an amazing organization.
[Give Kids The World is a non-profit organization that exists only to fulfill the wishes of all children with life-threatening illnesses and their families from around the world to experience a memorable, joyful, cost-free visit to the Central Florida attractions, and to enjoy the magic of Give Kids The World Village for as long as there is a need.]
Kathy: Another thing that I find amazing is that you’ve earned not one but three college degrees and recently completed you Master’s in rehabilitation management. Whew!
BILL: I did get burned out at times, but I wanted to complete my degrees. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the support of my family and Tracy. I am hoping with all my schooling a potential employer will look past my disability and see my mind, my personality, and that I go after what I want.
KATHY: You’re a big, big Star Wars fan… and a fan of Yoda in particular. He’s known to have said, “Try? There is no try… do! Do you think that describes your personality?
BILL: I have that tee shirt, yes it describes my personality. I don’t take no for an answer. If there is one way I am not able to do something, I find other ways of getting it done. A teacher once told our class “if you want something you have to go to it, it won’t come to you” and I always remembered that.
KATHY: I’m sure that this kind of attitude is born from a lifetime of overcoming so many obstacles that able-bodied people don’t have to contend with.
BILL: I was very lucky, my parents always supported what I wanted to do and helped me overcome things that got in my way. I want to summer camps with persons with disabilities and it helped me see I could do things. The object of the camp was to help me grow as a person and not be shy. They helped me to see I could do many things if I worked hard enough.
KATHY: Yet our differences seem to blur at Walt Disney World… why do you think that’s so?
BILL: There is a common bond, our love for Disney. They make it where able bodied and persons with disabilities can enjoy experiences together.
KATHY: And that’s why you’ve been back thirteen times! Tell me, how was your last trip compared to that first one way back when you were ten years old?
BILL: The parks are a lot more accessible. When I went there when I was 10 there was only Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Magic Kingdom wasn’t very accessible; the ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] wasn’t in effect yet. I transferred out of my chair so much more back then. I am more comfortable now since I can stay in my own wheelchair. I feel a lot more independent now, I could go to the parks by myself if I wanted and ride many things.
KATHY: I think that’s the way Walt would’ve wanted it! Tell me about one special memory of Disney magic.
BILL: Tracy’s birthday special this trip, so I enlisted our friends Toni and Terry who were in WDW at the same time as us to help me. Terry went with me to the Boardwalk area and I got Mickey head earrings and a necklace for Tracy. Toni helped by arranging with the manager of `Ohana to let [me] have flowers delivered there. I picked out the arrangement, gave Toni my [credit card] number and she made it happen. I didn’t want Tracy seeing me ordering from the Disney Florist. The day Toni and Terry left they had breakfast at `Ohana and dropped off the jewelry to be ready for Tracy’s surprise. When the host took us to be seated, the flower arrangement was on the table with the two jewelry boxes opened. We had a table with a great view of Holiday Wishes and had a wonderful evening. It was perfect.
KATHY: How romantic! And to think, you met Toni and Terry online at a Disney fan site! How do you think the social network… Discussion Forums, Twitter, Facebook, etc… has affected the way we approach our Disney vacations?
BILL: For us it has added to our vacations. Tracy is the one that goes on the DISboards, Be Our Guest, etc., and formed friendships there that evolved into wanting to meet people in the parks. Our first DISmeet was with you and your wonderful family and showed us how you really could form a bond with someone over a common love for something such as WDW. We have been blessed to meet amazing people that we would love to see again and again.
KATHY: Well, Bill, I know the Special Mouse readers will enjoy meeting you! Okay, let’s finish with some rapid-fire Q&A about your WDW favorites, all right?
KATHY: Okay…. your favorite park?
BILL: Disney’s Hollywood Studios
KATHY: Favorite thing to do at the Studios?
BILL: Toy Story Mania is my favorite ride for all the parks. We also have to see Beauty and the Beast.
KATHY: Okay! Now… your favorite resort?
BILL: Port Orleans French Quarter.
KATHY: Favorite non-park activity?
BILL: Eating, LOL! (Just kidding) Resort hopping and buying pins in DTD [Downtown Disney.]
KATHY: I think I already know the answer to this next one… favorite Disney restaurant?
BILL: `Ohana. [The Polynesian Resort]
KATHY: Ha! I was right! How about counter service eats?
BILL: Sunshine Seasons. [The Land Pavilion in Epcot]
KATHY: Tough one, now… favorite Disney character?
BILL: Buzz Lightyear.
KATHY: And finally… you’ve visited WDW at many different times of the year. What’s your favorite time to visit and why?
BILL: After the Christmas decorations are put up. There is nothing like going through the parks seeing the beautiful decorations and hearing the happy Christmas music. The lights on the Castle are just amazing, it is beautiful.
KATHY: Thanks so much for giving up so much of your Sunday night to talk with me! Would you like to add anything else?
BILL: In my opinion, no theme park compares to WDW in accessibility and customer service.
KATHY: I agree, completely!
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The next time you visit Walt Disney World, keep a sharp eye open for Bill. It should be easy to spot him… he’ll be wearing a lanyard full of pins on his chest and a huge grin on his face as he zips along in his Quickie P-222. Go ahead… say hello! Take some time to talk a little Disney with him. Just like you, Bill is one Special Mouse!