Last month we surprised our son with his first trip to Disney World. We carefully planned the trip for the week of Halloween, hoping to enjoy the special festivities, including Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, while avoiding the summertime crowds and heat. This was also our first visit to a theme park with Tyler, my husband’s service dog.
Tyler is an English Yellow Lab, known for their blocky heads and mellow demeanor. He was trained by The Guide Dog Foundation and America’s Vet DogsAmerica’s Vet Dogs to perform a variety of special skills. Each service dog is individually trained to perform specific tasks that cater to specific disabilities and needs; in this case, Tyler’s specialty is seizure detection. He went through 2 years of vigorous training before being assigned to and meeting my husband, who suffered a traumatic brain injury while deployed. The injury has caused a variety of issues, including seizures and balance issues. Tyler can detect and alert in the moments before my husband has a seizure, so that he can safely sit down (as opposed to violently falling down). As is the case with any service animal, Tyler is my husband’s lifeline, and he goes everywhere that we go.
Anyone with a service animal can attest that it comes with its own challenges. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) is federal law that ensures that all disabled citizens are granted the same rights and privileges as those without disabilities. This includes service animals, meaning that a person who has a qualified service animal can go anywhere that the general public can go, including restaurants, public restrooms, airplane cabins, and taxis. Unfortunately, much of the general public and many commercial establishments are not aware of the ADA, or the rights of those with service animals. This can sometimes result in uncomfortable situations where the disabled person may be denied access, entrance, or service. This can usually be resolved with a polite conversation and education on service animals and the ADA, but it can be an uncomfortable situation to be in.
Putting aside the challenges of the public not always welcoming service animals, there are also challenges with mobility and accessibility. Now, when I say there are challenges, I don’t mean to imply the challenge is the animal itself. The truth is, these animals are so well-trained that traveling by car, train, bus, boat and plane are non-issues. The challenges are often more complicated, and are more “people” problems than animal problems. How does one enjoy the thrills of an amusement park with a service dog in tow? I hope that sharing our experiences might help someone else plan for such a trip.
What to Pack?
We frantically packed for a week at Disney World. It was our first time traveling to Disney with our son, and our first amusement park with Tyler. We had no idea what to expect, on any level. We packed all the necessities, not just sunblock and bathing suits, but things like dog food and service dog credentials, too. The items we packed for our service dog included:
- Collapsible silicone food and water bowls – We have several of these squishy bowls which easily fold up and can be stuffed in the car, backpack, or even Tyler’s vest. At Disney, we used the bowl to provide Tyler with frequent water breaks.
- Full water bottle – Disney has water fountains all over the park. Be sure to take advantage of them and not only give yourself and your service animal a drink, but to refill your water bottles. Be sure to have a bottle for yourself and your animal. We just refilled the free water bottles that our hotel provided and carried them in our backpack.
- Treats – The amusement park can be a frightening place. It’s also one hell of a work out. Pack a few treats to reward your service animal for making it through a loud ride, or as a scooby snack for energy.
- Food – Be sure to include enough dog food for the duration of your trip, plus extra. You’ll likely be spending 12-14 hours in the park, so be prepared to feed the dog dinner at the park. We gave Tyler larger servings than we usually do, as the days were long and exhausting.
- Service Animal vest and credentials – We are sometimes asked to provide credentials or paperwork for Tyler, which is technically unlawful according to the ADA. That being said, we are happy to comply, as we realize there are a lot of people passing their pets off as service animals. The paperwork can be especially important at the airport, so make sure that you have it on your person at all times.
- Pooper scooper bags – the absolute only downside to traveling with a service animal is the poo. At home, we can choose to ignore dog poo duty for days on end, and use 10 foot poles to avoid coming in contact with petrified poo. When traveling, you lose that luxury. Be sure to carry plastic bags to clean up after your animal. Check your dignity at the door, because nothing is more EWW than a thin piece of plastic between you and warm, squishy poo (with thousands of spectators).
- Backpack – we brought our Osprey Kyte daypack along as a carry on, and also for use within the park. Tyler’s vest has pockets, which are great for small items and treats, but we needed something bigger to carry his food and water. If we got crafty, we could have squished a meal’s worth of food in his vest along with the collapsible bowl, but it wouldn’t be very comfortable when Tyler laid down. We preferred to carry a backpack so that we could also carry people snacks, water, and souvenirs. The Osprey backpack was a pain to carry for 16+ hours, so I would recommend bringing the smallest and lightest pack possible.
Flying with a Service Dog
We had quite an adventurous trip to the airport. We opted to drive my car and leave it at BWI‘s self parking lot. The universe had other plans. My very reliable car broke down on the highway just before the airport exit and we missed our flight. The Maryland State Police Officers who stopped to check on and mark our disabled vehicle were also kind enough to give us a ride to the airport – so we are now also experienced in traveling with a service animal via State Trooper!
**It is important to note that not all airports have designated Service Animal Relief Areas within the airport, and especially beyond security screening. Be sure to allow your service animal ample time to relieve itself before passing through security. If your animal needs to go after you have gone through security, you may need to exit the secure area of the airport, and then go through security again.**
I always anticipate trouble at the airport, probably because I hate flying and would prefer to avoid airports altogether! We arrived several hours early, since we had to change flights at the last-minute (thankfully Southwest Airlines is awesome and pushing back our flight at the last-minute was a non-issue). Going through BWI‘s security was a breeze, but security always pays extra attention to Tyler. Instead of going through the full body scans, Tyler was sent through a normal metal detector. Tyler was then physically patted down and inspected. On our return flight, they even tested Tyler and my husband for explosives residue. All of that sounds quite invasive, but it was a non-issue. My husband and Tyler made it through security faster than my son and I did!
We always fly Southwest. Their airfare is always reasonable, their staff is incredibly friendly, and they are pros when it comes to serving customers with disabilities. When you book your flight, there is an option to note if you are handicapped or have special needs. Be sure to fill this out, and note if you are traveling with a service dog and/or assistant/companion. As soon as possible, head to your gate and check in with the service desk and request pre-boarding. This will allow you to board the airplane first and ensures that you will have access to the bulkhead seats, which have the most floor space for your service animal. You can pre-board with one companion / assistant, so if you are traveling with more than one family member you may not get to sit together.
Tyler wastes no time getting comfortable on the cabin floor. There is lots of floor space in the bulkhead, but he is large enough that he needs to spread out over the length of two seats. Occasionally, someone not in our party may sit next to us and Tyler may encroach on their space slightly. Anyone choosing to sit next to you in the bulkhead should know this risk going in, and anyone who isn’t an animal lover probably won’t sit next to you, so I wouldn’t worry about this too much.
Take off and landing are always nerve-racking, for Tyler and for me! Tyler gets a little clingy during the initial thrust and lift off, but I welcome having his head nestled on my lap while we both pant nervously. Once we reach cruising altitude, he assumes the nap position and enjoys the flight. Landing gives him a slight jolt, but never more than the momentary “what the hell was that” glance.
We stayed at the Gaylord Palms Resort in Kissimmee, Florida. We love Gaylord hotels, so the Palms was a no-brainer. In hindsight, I would not recommend the Palms for a family trip to Disney. The resort is gorgeous, and has fantastic amenities, but it is a bit further from the parks than I realized, and it can be extremely pricey to feed a family (or a teenage boy) there. They do offer shuttle services, but it just was not as convenient as some of the other options. For a couple’s vacation, I would highly recommend it, as well as the all three of the other Gaylord locations.
The Gaylord staff is always friendly and accommodating. We have never had a problem, or even a question, in regards to Tyler while staying at a Gaylord hotel. I don’t recall ever seeing a clearly marked service animal relief area on the hotel map, but, truth-be-told, the resort is so lush and so remote that my husband never looks for one. He takes Tyler out for a walk and looks for a private, secluded area off the beaten path to let Tyler do his thing. Be sure to clean up after your animal, even if no one is looking!
Attractions within the Parks
We actually visited both Disney World and Universal Studios on this trip. We almost skipped Universal Studios, thinking it wouldn’t hold a candle to Disney. Boy were we wrong! In hindsight, I wish we spent more time at Universal, and less time at Disney. The rides at Universal were fantastic, and the lines were non-existent. Disney is a blast, and a special experience, but the thrill ride experience pales in comparison to Universal.
The staff at both parks were very friendly, and extremely experienced in serving guests with disabilities. At times, it felt like we weren’t disabled guests at all, which was a refreshing and welcoming feeling. The employees didn’t stare at us, ask questions, or speak directly to Tyler, which can be exhausting when you experience it everywhere you go, with every person you encounter. Employees did directly interact with us when appropriate, though. As we approached rides and entertainment that was safe for Tyler, employees at both parks were quick to usher us into handicap accessible lines and loading areas, or to offer advice on how best to ride with Tyler.
There were several rides within Disney World that were safe to ride with Tyler, and nearly all rides were handicap accessible. Universal did not seem to have any rides that were safe for Tyler, but they do have an excellent information chart at each ride that describes all of the necessary precautions as well as accessibility information. Some of the rides that we took Tyler on were:
- The Haunted Mansion – a dark, slow-moving conveyor belt ride that did not have any sharp movement, loud noises, or pyrotechnics. The cart is private, with a safety bar/wall that slowly lowers to enclose the cart. Be aware of your animal’s positioning so that this wall can safely enclose them. This was Tyler and my husband’s favorite ride, and they rode it at least 5 times!
- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin – a slow-moving conveyor belt ride, with a private, enclosed cart that is can be controlled by you. This ride also has a safety bar/wall that slowly lowers to enclose the cart, be aware of your animal’s positioning. The cart is able to swivel in place, allowing you to “shoot” a laser beam at various targets along the ride. This can be as mild or as jerky as you make it, since you are the driver.
- Toy Story Mania! – this ride is very similar to Buzz Lightyear’s, except that it is a bit faster and jerkier. It is still safe for your service animal, in the same enclosed cart, but be sure to be aware of their positioning and leash to ensure they don’t try to move around.
- The Hall of Presidents – this is a dark, comfy theatre with animatronics. Nothing loud, scary, or shaky here. It was a welcome break from all of the walking. There is handicap accessible seating, which includes open space for wheelchairs and service animals.
- Frontierland Shootin’ Arcade – this is not a ride, even though Disney lists it as one. This is a walk-up shooting arcade, very similar to what you may find at a carnival or Bass Pro Shops. There is a small fee for each round you play.
- It’s a Small World – I’d be lying if I said that this ride wasn’t terrifying for all of us. The song will haunt your dreams, and it is now stuck in my head just thinking about it. That being said, it’s a totally safe and slow boat ride. Be aware that you must step onto the boat, which may require a little coordination for you and your service animal. I am not sure if there is a wheel chair option for this ride.
- Liberty Square Riverboat – this is a nice, slow steamboat ride that takes you around Tom Sawyer Island and a small “river” within the park. There is not much seating, but it is wheel chair accessible. Nothing scary for your service animal other than the initial horn blow. Tyler welcomed the opportunity to sprawl out and take a nap.
- It’s Tough to be a Bug! – this was a small theatre with handicapped seating. There are a few scary parts for your service animal, so hold onto their leash and give them a reassuring pet. The room gets dark, there are a few loud noises, and very brief foggy part where they “sprinkle” a few drops of water on you (which Tyler HATES). Nothing a well-trained service dog can’t handle, but they will definitely give you that “what the hell was that” look again.
- Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor – another small theatre with handicap seating. Nothing loud or scary here. I expected it to be very juvenile humor, but it was a pretty fun(ny) show!
- Pirates of the Caribbean – we expected this to be more exciting than it was. It was a pretty slow, calm boat ride. I don’t recall if there were any pyrotechnics on this one.
- Walt Disney World Railroad – a nice, relaxing train ride around the park. Nothing loud or scary here, aside from the occasional whistle blow.
- The Great Movie Ride – I would avoid this for more reasons than one! First of all, this ride was safe, but terrifying for a service animal. The staff warned us in advance that there would be some loud noises and pyrotechnics. There is a loud gun fight and pyrotechnic explosion during the ride which terrified Tyler, so much so that he buried his head in my son’s chest while trembling with fear. Aside from scaring the living shit out of Tyler, the ride was also really lame.
- Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular! – this was an open theatre with plenty of handicap seating. There is quite a bit of pyrotechnics, gun fights, and loud explosions. We sat in the very back row, quite far from the action, but the theatre has surround sound, so the sound effects can be scary. Tyler was not a fan, but handled it like a champ.
- Conservation Station – not really a ride, more of a zoo / museum exhibit. You do take a very short train ride to get here.
- Kilimanjaro Safaris – Tyler had some special safety precautions here. You board a real safari vehicle that drives through a small animal sanctuary. My husband and Tyler sat in a separate area at the front of the vehicle that was reserved for guests with service animals and wheelchairs, only. There, they attached their own leash to Tyler, and secured the leash to the center of the vehicle’s floor. This was to ensure that Tyler did not get spooked, or more likely, give chase to any of the animals. There are numerous apex predators that are loose within this park, which does not have fenced off areas, and a loose service animal within the sanctuary could end tragically. That being said, the ride was safe, calm, and quiet. Tyler didn’t mind the extra security, or the nap!
- Affection Section – Ok, technically Tyler didn’t enter the petting zoo area of the Affection Section, but he was quite the celebrity there. Tyler and my husband stood on the other side of the fence while my son and I shamelessly threw ourselves at the goats. No amount of back scratching or baby talk could help us, though, because ALL of the animals ditched us and ran to the fence to check out the funny looking goat (Tyler). It was really funny, and Tyler loved them!
There are many rides that may be a bit too dangerous or scary for service animals, but both Disney and Universal Studios offered numerous options to ensure that everyone was able to enjoy the rides. Both parks offered kennel services at most rides. Prior to boarding a ride, you can place your service animal in a portable kennel in a private area near the line, and retrieve them after exiting the ride. We chose not to use this option, as there were three of us, and one of us (cough – me) is a total sissy who avoids overly tall/fast/dark/scary/spiny/upside-down rides. One of us always stayed behind if a ride was too much for Tyler. It was a welcome break for everyone. Thankfully, the lines were not too long in October, so it would only be 30 minutes or less of waiting – again, a welcome break! Aside from that, we did not feel comfortable putting Tyler in a kennel. He gets quite sad and anxious when left behind, and we felt that leaving him alone in an unfamiliar place, where there can be lots of noise and activity might be a bit too much for him.
Another option is called Rider Switch, where everyone can wait in (the handicap accessible) line together, but upon boarding, one person stays behind with the service animal. When the first rider(s) within your group exit the ride, the person who stayed behind with the service animal can then hop on and ride without needing to wait in line all over again. We did not use this option, as we welcomed the opportunity to sit out and rest. If we weren’t so exhausted, this would have been the option that we used with Tyler.
Universal Studios offered another option, where a “cast member” (employee) would actually hold your service animal by the leash while you boarded and rode their rides. This eliminated the scary/lonely factor of the kennel. Again, we did not feel comfortable leaving Tyler, so we continued to take turns, but this was another excellent option.
Service Animal Relief Areas
Be sure to pick up a map when you enter the park – Disney offers a separate map for guests with disabilities, whereas Universal Studios includes accessibility information on their general map. Service Animal Relief Areas are available at several locations within each park, and they are usually clearly marked on the park maps. We found the Service Animal Relief Areas to be difficult to find at Disney. It seems that they were intentionally designed to blend in, or be hidden, which makes actually finding them a bit challenging in a crowded park. There were a few relief areas that we never did find, and even staff members had difficulty locating them. I found the relief areas within Universal to be much easier to find, and much more comfortable. At one point, Tyler and I took an extended break at the relief area next to the Men In Black ride at Universal. There was a wooden fence that separated the relief area from the park, and there was a small wooded area for Tyler to relieve himself. It was nothing spectacular, but it was secluded, shady, and quiet. The most quiet we had found outside of our hotel room… so we laid down on the cool ground to enjoy a half hour of peace.
All of the parks had beautiful, lush landscaping. Some of the landscaping was down right heavenly. Tyler thought so, too, and he was thoroughly confused by the ample amounts of trees, but the inability to pee on any of them. We had three “accidents,” where I think that we either mistook Tyler’s bathroom cues as just the general desire to mark a tree, or where Tyler did not cue us at all. I think that having so much forest and fauna around was a bit confusing for Tyler, and once he realized that he can’t pee on any ol’ tree, he was hesitant to let us know he had to go. I felt horribly guilty, as Tyler had a look of shame on his face when he stopped in the middle of the park and peed on the cement. Thankfully, we were carrying several bottles of water with us, which we used to wash away any evidence of urine. After that, we made it a point to stop at every relief area, every time we passed one, whether Tyler had to go or not.
My son isn’t very interested in princesses, well, he’s interested alright, just not in getting their autographs. Since it was his first Disney visit, however, he made a few exceptions and collected a few autographs, and posed for a few pictures with Mickey and his pals. Tyler posed for a few photos, as well. He even shared a dog treat with Pluto! There are lots of opportunities to interact with characters at both parks, and all are accessible to those with service animals. Tyler was not phased at all by the curious costumes, and was very happy to meet a few canine stars. Disney and Universal staff are all over the park, ready and willing to snap a few pictures for you, with either their fancy photographers, your own camera, or both.
Overall, we found our trip to Disney World and Universal Studios to be relatively easy, compared to some of our other adventures with our service animal. I attribute that to the wonderful staff at the parks, and their overall accessibility options. Don’t forget to pick up your park maps, which will give you much-needed information on rides and relief areas. You can also find quite a bit of information on Disney World’s website, including information on relief areas, what rides are safe or prohibited for service animals, and ride options. Universal Studios also has a comprehensive information section of their website for guests with disabilities.
I hope that you have found this information useful for planning future endeavours, or for learning a bit about service animals. We have found so much helpful information on the internet from fellow travelers which helped us prepare for this trip, and I have enjoyed sharing our experience with you.