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Universal Orlando for Guests with Special Needs

Like its competitors, Universal Orlando makes efforts to accommodate every visitor, in accordance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The resort offers a free Rider's Guide for Rider Safety & Guests with Disabilities describing each attraction's restrictions and requirements in detail at www.universalorlando.com/Resort-Information/Accessibility-Information.aspx. You can download the booklet in PDF format before your visit (which we highly recommend) or get a printed copy at guest services, at resort front desks, and at wheelchair-rental locations inside the parks. The limitations you will face at Universal Orlando, and the accommodations you can take advantage of, will vary according to the nature of your special needs.

Mobility Restrictions

Universal Orlando is fairly friendly for non-ambulatory guests to navigate, and the resort has repaved some bumpy streets (like the faux cobblestones along USF's New York waterfront) to be more comfortable for wheelchair users.

Universal provides close(er)-in parking for disabled visitors; ask for directions when you pay your parking fee. These spots are located on the main level of each parking garage, nearest to the central hub. You'll still have a substantial trip to CityWalk and the parks from even the best handicapped parking spot.

The entire Universal Orlando Resort transportation system is also disabled-accessible. Water taxis have roll-on ramps for easy boarding, and bus routes are served by vehicles with wheelchair lifts that can accommodate all but the largest motorized scooters.

All park shopping, dining, and restroom facilities at the theme parks, CityWalk, and hotels are generally ADA compliant for wheelchair access. Some fast-food queues and shop aisles (especially in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) are too narrow for wheelchairs. At these locations, ask a team member for assistance. All shows and performances (including parades) also have designated disability sections for guests in wheelchairs and their parties.

In addition, all attraction queues (with the exception of Pteranodon Flyers in IOA) are fully wheelchair accessible, so you can enjoy the full pre-show experience. Alternative routes (such as elevators to bypass stairs at Gringotts, Revenge of the Mummy, and MIB) and accessible boarding procedures (like the stationary loading station at Forbidden Journey) are provided wherever necessary; be sure to read the specific instructions posted outside each attraction, and bring your needs to the attention of the first attendant to greet you for further instructions.

Strollers are not normally permitted inside most attractions, so if your child's stroller doubles as their wheelchair, swing by Guest Services for a special pass that will allow you to roll it through queues.

None of Universal's ride vehicles are able to accommodate ECVs (electric convenience vehicles) or motorized wheelchairs, though a handful have special cars that can carry a manual wheelchair. At those rides, guests can transfer from their powered chair to a standard one that will be provided at each applicable attraction. Even if an attraction doesn’t accommodate wheelchairs of any kind, non-ambulatory guests may ride if they can transfer from their wheelchair to the ride’s vehicle. Universal's staff, however, aren’t trained or permitted to assist with transfers—guests must be able to board the ride unassisted or have a member of their party assist them. Either way, members of the non-ambulatory guest’s party will be permitted to ride with him or her.

Regarding Universal’s accessibility for the mobility impaired, a reader from upstate New York wrote:

While Disney gets a lot of deserved credit for being very accessible to people with disabilities, Universal was just as accommodating to us. My husband used a scooter throughout our trip because although he can walk short distances, he has leg weakness and balance problems from an incomplete spinal cord injury. Whenever we approached a ride or attraction at Universal, the employees were always very attentive and willing to help. When he was using the scooter they guided him to accessible areas, and when he chose to walk into attractions (with an obvious gait issue) they always very politely showed him the easiest route (avoiding stairs or steep ramps, opening the unused roped-off queuing areas to avoid having to walk around them) or offered wheelchair transport.

Wheelchair Rentals

Any guest may rent a wheelchair, with no proof of medical need required. Most rides, shows, attractions, restrooms, and restaurants accommodate the non-ambulatory disabled. If you’re in a park and need assistance, go to Guest Relations. Be aware that, as all attraction queues are wheelchair accessible, using one does not automatically allow you to skip the standby line or shorten your wait.

Wheelchairs rent for $12 per day (tax included) with a fully refundable $50 deposit (cash or credit card) required. Standard wheelchairs are available in central parking hub before you reach CityWalk, and inside both theme parks near the front gates.

A limited number of electric carts called ECVs (electric convenience vehicles) are available for rent. Easy to drive, they give non-ambulatory guests tremendous freedom and mobility. ECVs are $50 per day, plus the same $50 refundable deposit (prices do not include tax). An upgraded model with a canopy is an extra $65. ECVs are popular and tend to sell out by mid-morning on peak days, so call guest services (407-224-4233, option 3) at least a week in advance to reserve one. ECVs are only available inside the parks; you can rent a standard wheelchair in the parking hub, and upgrade to an ECV once you reach the park.

If you need an ECV to travel around CityWalk or the resort hotels, consider renting one from a third-party company like Apple Scooter (☎ 321-726-6837; applescooter.com) or Scooter Vacations (☎ 855-939-7266; scootorlando.com). Both will deliver a scooter and all necessary accessories to your hotel (including Universal Orlando on-site resorts) for about $25-$40 per day. Finally, those who normally rent ECVs may want to forgo them in favor of manual wheelchairs during evening special events when the streets are especially dark and densely crowded, according to this Illinois reader:

Taking an ECV during HHN [Halloween Horror Nights] is not practical. It became more hassle than it helped. You cannot take the ECV inside the haunted houses. You have to park it at the entrance, sometimes way far away from the entrance of the house you just came out of, [and] had to backtrack to get your ECV and then back to where you exited. It was a pain in the posterior...You also don't get "picked on" as much when you are on an ECV.

Family Restrooms

If a member of your party needs assistance using the restroom, check the park map for designated ‘Family’ or ‘Companion’ Restrooms, which are large enough for two adults to access. Family Restrooms are located in USF near the front of the park near the Studio Audience Center, in Springfield outside Fast Food Boulevard, in San Francisco across from Richter’s Burger Co., at First Aid behind Louie’s Italian Restaurant in New York, and outside Mel’s Drive-In across from the Transformers gift shop. In IOA, the Family Restrooms are found at the Guest Services near the entrance and at First Aid in Lost Continent.

Service Animals

Service animals are welcome at the Universal Orlando Resort, all the Loews hotels except Cabana Bay even accommodate non-service pets. Working companion animals are allowed inside all of Universal restaurant and merchandise locations, attraction queues, and most other locations throughout the resort. Specific guidelines for each attraction are posted at the queue entrance, and listed in the Rider's Guide. For attractions where the service animal can not safely enter, portable kennels are provided.

When nature calls, service animal relief areas are marked on the park map. There are two designated walking areas in USF (Central Park across from Cafe La Bamba, World Expo between MEN IN BLACK and Fear Factor Live) and three in IOA (Marvel Super Hero Island between Spider-Man and Doctor Doom’s Fearfall, Jurassic Park behind Pizza Predatoria, Seuss Landing behind One Fish, Two Fish).

Dietary Restrictions

Universal Orlando restaurants work very hard to accommodate guests’ special dietary needs. If properly informed, Universal's chefs can prepare food that is vegetarian or vegan, kosher or halal, dairy-free, gluten-free, or nut-free. When you make a dining reservation, either online at Universal's dining reservations webpage or by phone (407-224-FOOD [3663] for restaurants in the parks and CityWalk; 407-503-DINE [3463] for hotel dining), you’ll be asked about food allergies and the like. The host or hostess and your server will also ask about this and send the chef out to discuss the menu; if you’re not asked, just talk to your server when you’re seated.

At counter-service restaurants, ask to see the menu book with ingredient and allergen info. Unfortunately, one place that does not get high marks for dietary accommodation is the Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley. There is virtually nothing on the menu that's vegan, and not much more for the gluten-free or lactose intolerant. In general, those on restricted diets will find many more options at Universal's table service eateries.

Be aware, also, that Universal Orlando does not have separate kitchen facilities in which to prepare allergen-free foods, so there is always slight possibility of inadvertent allergen contamination before or during preparation. You are welcome to bring your own food into the resort, as long as you follow the restrictions on items permitted inside the parks (no glass containers, or large or hard coolers). If you are staying on-site, a refrigerator can be rented in rooms that do not provide one as standard for $15 per day.

For more information, e-mail your specific dietary requests to FoodServiceCUF@universalorlando.com.

Hearing Impairment

Guest Services at the parks provides free assistive-technology devices to hearing-impaired guests with refundable deposit (depending on the device). Hearing-impaired guests can benefit from amplified audio on many attractions, and closed-captioning upon request for queue video monitors. Select shows offer reflective captioning as well. Guest services can also provide printed script to many of the attractions for you to peruse.

Universal also provides complimentary sign-language interpretations of live shows at the theme parks daily. Usually there is only one interpreted performance of each show per day, so check the show schedule in the park map as soon as you arrive and plan your visit accordingly. Even if you don't understand sign-language, it's well worth seeing for how animated and expressive the interpreters are – they truly steal the show.

Vision Impairment

Park information guides, restaurant menus, and attraction scripts are available at Guest Services in large-print and embossed Braille formats. Some rides can accommodate guests with white canes (a collapsible cane is recommended), while at others an attendant will hold the cane and return it to the guest immediately at the unload area.

Missing and Prosthetic Limbs

All guests must be able to hold themselves upright and continuously grasp a safety restraint with at least one extremity in order to experience most rides. Guests with prosthetic limbs may rides with them securely attached on most rides. Those with prosthetic arms or hands may need to demonstrate that they can grip the safety restraints. Those with prosthetic legs or feet will need to remove them before riding Dragon Challenge, Forbidden Journey, or Pteranodon Flyers. No prosthetic limbs may be worn on Hollywood Rip Ride Rocket. Consult the Rider's Guide for details.

Larger Guests

Thrill-seeking guests of size will discover that several of Universal's rides are unfriendly towards those of generous girth. The Harry Potter headliners are the most notorious for excluding plus-sized riders, though both have certain seats – the outside seats on Forbidden Journey, and rows 3 and 6 on Forbidden Journey – that are more accommodating to most body shapes. Likewise, the big roller coasters at Islands of Adventure have designated seats with double seat belts designed for bigger guests, and row 3 at Revenge of the Mummy offers extra legroom.

In all cases, these safety restrictions are based less on weight than torso circumference; some guests with large chests who would not otherwise be considered overweight may find the restraint harnesses challenging to lock properly. Before getting into line for any attraction, check out the sample ride vehicle at the entrance, and discuss your concerns with the attraction's greeter. If you wait to ride but are rejected because the restraints won't fit, the employees will be very polite but can't compensate your time.

Non-apparent Disabilities

We receive many letters from readers whose traveling companion or child requires special assistance but who, unlike a person in a wheelchair, is not visibly disabled. Autism, for example, makes it very difficult or impossible for someone with the disorder to wait in line for more than a few minutes or in queues surrounded by a crowd.

A trip to Universal Orlando can be nonetheless positive and rewarding for guests with autism and similar conditions. And while any theme park vacation requires planning, a little extra effort to accommodate the affected person will pay large dividends.

Our first suggestion is to visit the website AutismAtTheParks.com, and study their extensive information on visiting Universal Orlando. It's the best independent source we know for dealing with neurological or sensory issues at the attractions, and is filled with practical first-hand advice.

Next, you'll want to familiarize yourself with two programs Universal offers to make your visit a little smoother:

Universal's Attractions Assistance Pass (AAP)

For years, Universal has been offering assistance to impaired guests through their Attractions Assistance Pass (AAP), a program that's remarkably similar to the Disability Access Service (DAS) system Disney famously switched to in late 2013, following reports from the national media that its then-current Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program was being abused rampantly.

Universal's AAP is designed to accommodate guests who can’t wait in regular standby lines. You must first obtain an AAP card at the Guest Services of the first theme park you visit. AAP cards are good for parties of up to six people, but all members of your party who will use the service must have their admission tickets scanned at Guest Services. The same card is valid in both parks for the length of your vacation, or up to 14 days for annual passholders.

When you get to Guest Services, you’ll need to present identification and describe your or your family member’s limitations. You don’t need to disclose a disease or medical condition—by Federal privacy law, they are forbidden to ask. Rather than an attempt to have you “prove” your condition, the goal here is to get you the right level of assistance.

Be as detailed as possible in describing limitations. For instance, if your child is on the autism spectrum, has trouble waiting in long lines, and has sensory issues that make it difficult for him or her to stand or be subjected to loud noises, you need to let the cast member know each of these things. “He doesn’t wait in lines” isn’t enough to go on. A doctor's note explaining your limitations and requested accommodations can be very helpful.

AAP cards can be used at any ride or attraction, even if it doesn't have a Universal Express entrance. Present the card to a cast member at the attraction you want to ride. If the ride’s standby wait time is less than 30 minutes, you’ll usually be escorted through the Universal Express entrance, or an alternate queue in the case of non-Express rides like Hogwarts Express, Forbidden Journey, and Gringotts. If the standby time is higher than 30 minutes, the cast member will enter on the AAP card the attraction name, time of day, wait time, and a return time for you to come back to ride. The return time will be based on the current wait time, so if you get to Spider-Man at 12:20 p.m. and the standby time is 40 minutes, your return time will be 40 minutes later, at 1 p.m.

You may return at the specified time or at any time thereafter, but you can't get another AAP return time until you have used or forfeited the first. When you return, you’ll be given access to the Universal Express line, where you should face a wait of 15 minutes or less. The cardholder need not be present to obtain a return time but must be present with his or her party for anyone to gain admission.

Universal's Guest Assistance Pass (GAP) Entry Cards

If the AAP doesn't meet your family's needs, Universal makes a small number of Guest Assistance Pass (GAP) Entry cards available on a strictly limited basis. Basically, a GAP Entry is identical to a one-day/two-park unlimited Universal Express pass, and provides immediate entry to any attraction's Universal Express queue, regardless of the standby wait. Like the Universal Express pass, GAP Entry is only valid at attractions that offer Universal Express, which excludes the big Harry Potter rides, so you'll still want an AAP card for those attractions.

If you want a GAP because long standby lines are rendering the AAP unworkable for your party, be prepared to plead your case to a guest services supervisor and endure some time-consuming scrutiny. If you're turned down, or prefer not to deal with the hassle, you can always purchase Express passes (subject to availability).

Friends of Bill W.

The nearest Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to Universal Orlando are held daily (except Wednesday) in St. Luke Methodist Church (Room A113) at 4851 Apopka Vineland Rd; visit www.cflintergroup.org for additional information. For information on Al-Anon/Ala-Teen meetings in the area, visit alanon-orlando.com.

International Visitors

Universal Orlando provides park maps in a number of different languages, and maintains special websites designed for visitors from Brazil, Germany, Puerto Rico, and the UK. Visit https://www.universalorlando.com/General-Information/International-Page.aspx for further international information.

Last updated by Seth Kubersky on February 16, 2017

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