As many of you know, my son has a genetic eye condition known as Nystagmus. Those of you who have met him, will notice his involuntary eye movement, like a pendulum from side to side. You may know from me that he is partially sighted, as it would never be obvious to look at him, he is fiercely capable in almost every situation.
But when we booked to take him, age 3 and a half to EuroDisney in Paris, I can’t pretend I wasn’t nervous. The noise, the crowds, the simple newness of it all can be a recipe for disaster for even a fully sighted child, let alone one who struggles when we move his coat along a peg without sharing the info first. So when the Nystagmus Network, a fabulous charity working to provide support and information for us all, asked me to write a blog on what turned out to be an incredible trip for all of us, how could I refuse?
EuroDisney has an excellent accessibility policy which covers a wide number of disabilities, and the staff are happy to answer any questions you might have about the parks suitability. As a disclaimer, this blog can only comment on visual impairment, and even then only specifically on Nystagmus… And even then, really on my particular little boy. Hello? Any readers left? … Oh hi Husband.
The first thing you need to know before you book, is that you’ll need clear medical evidence of your child’s condition. We used his sight impairment card, and also took a couple of recent hospital reports which detailed Nystagmus and his difficulties with bright lights, crowds, loud noises, and the like. Truthfully they were happy with just the card, and seemed familiar with it too. Go straight to city hall, on the left once you enter the main Disneyland park, and present this evidence, and they will give you a green card, ticked with visual impairment on the back. On the front it will detail how many people the card admits to an attraction. There were three of us, and the card can admit up to six depending on the individual circumstances of the card holder. Note: this counts for all rides and attractions, but not for parades and shows. (See below.)
Once you have the card, you will not have to queue for any ride in either park. Just look for the disabled sign at each ride, (no mean feat for a sight impaired child and his sight impaired mother!) which is usually by the exit, and a staff member will be along to help you. You will need to show your card for each ride, so keep it handy, and try not to lose or destroy it. One extremely capable parent had somehow managed to have hers laminated, a feat which will keep me puzzling for years to come. Does she carry a pocket laminator around with her?
Nystagmus parents will know, that simply the passage of time itself, as well as any new environment is truly exhausting for our wobbly eyed little ones. Standing in queues, waiting in crowds, sometimes for up to an hour, all for a two minute flash of a ride, is either impossible, or not maintainable for longer than a ride at a time. The card meant that we could get on average three times as much done as those without it, meaning that although we would still need to take a long break for him to sleep or rest every two or three hours, it would be after 10 rides rather than 3. There was still waiting, for rides to begin and behind others with a disabled card, but it was usually in an emptier space, often with seating, and never for longer than five minutes at a time.
The other amazing plus was that we could get off and on the same ride sometimes 3 or more times in a row, using the first time round as a ‘getting used to the feelings/sounds’ and then subsequently pointing out what we thought he could see the next time(s) round. The staff were really helpful and lovely about this. Just remember to get off at the end of the ride, and ask the staff where the best place to wait to go on the ride again would be.
One further note on the rides, which we didn’t think of before we left. An unexpected discovery for us was how much our little man enjoyed the roller-coaster kind of rides. Where he was tall enough to go on, these were by far his favourite. Debriefing in the hotel, we think we can understand why. On those rides, it is a purely sensory experience where he can stop working hard to see and just let go and enjoy. Dark tunnels, light outside, fast movement in every direction, no one on the ride knows what’s coming next, and no one can see anything at all, in fact- there is nothing to see! If your LOs are of the brave variety, I would really recommend being courageous yourself and taking them on Thunder Mountain. I rarely see my son that freely enjoying himself, with no hard work on his part whatsoever. Just wait an hour or two after lunch.
A word on the shows and parades. Disney is known for its productions, and there are various shows running all day long. The staff will be as helpful as they can be, but the disabled areas are not close to the stage in all the theatres we tried, (being more set up for wheelchair access etc) and parents do not stop to look at your disability card before elbowing you out of the way with an Elsa wand so that they have the best view for their hyped up candy floss filled youngsters. Once people are seated, they will not move anyone to make space for a visually impaired child.
You may decide that all the shows are just therefore entirely unsuitable, and you will still have plenty to do at the parks. but where you can, present your green card, and bat your eyelashes, and ask at the door whether you can reserve a seat for a later showing,. This also has the benefit of being able to ask for something specific. (For example our son sees far better on the left than right.) Make sure they write the request down, as staff changes often on the admissions desks.
In terms of parades, it’s a little more complicated. The disabled areas give the best views, ensuring no one will be standing directly in your line of vision, but at the end of the day, it’s a parade! It’s fast moving, lots of colour, lots of music and no way to prepare for each new float ahead of time. The characters were brilliant, coming right up to the barriers to shake hands and wave at the kids in the disabled area, which made the parade worthwhile for us, even though I don’t think our LO got a great deal more than that out of it. Coupled with the fact that the card only admits one carer at a time with the child, meaning we had to separate, after that one try on the first day, we skipped the parades and used the time to get food and drinks where the queues were shortest. The night time Disney Dreams show in particular is late at night, full of loud noises, fast changing pictures, confusing colours and large crowds. Just to make things even easier, you can not stand anywhere remotely close due to the fireworks. Our son immediately asked us to “turn it off” and spent the remainder of the show in a frightened cuddle.
The Disney hotels, Cafe Mickey, and various ‘character meets’ around the parks meant that I personally didn’t feel like he was missing out by not seeing the parades, but it’s definitely something to bear in mind when planning your trip, especially with fully sighted siblings in tow.
I was incredibly impressed with both Disneyland Paris itself, and the accessibility policies they had in place. A number of decades ago, children like my son would not have been able to walk through the park gates without a meltdown of epic proportions. We would have managed maybe two rides a day, and certainly no shows or parades. The whole experience would have been miserable. We are extremely lucky to live in a time where disabilities of all kinds are recognised and worked around. and EuroDisney are certainly to be commended for their work to provide equal opportunities for all visitors.
As with any experience in life, there were elements of our stay which were out of our son’s reach, but these largely went unnoticed. Thanks to a little organisation on our part, and incredible effort and thought from the magic of Disney, the wobble in his eyes was far outweighed by the wonder.