Great Wolf Lodge: Part One: Room Accessibility Features

Front entrance during check-in rush.
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Clap. Clap. Stomp. Stomp. Aaaaaaoooooooo! (Hands cupped around mouth while sweeping head in a sideways and up motion.)

We quickly learned the correct way to howl upon our recent visit to the Great Wolf Lodge in Concord, NC. In fact, even after returning home, we have continued to practice our howls with parents being more guilty than children. Our first trip to the family indoor waterpark resort brought laughter, exhaustion, and togetherness. The trip also enhanced my insight into the travel industry’s approach to accommodating guests with disabilities; an area of study that is increasingly fascinating to me. It is my belief that a profitable reward is ripe for the taking for companies that market themselves as disability friendly rather than just disability compliant.

Wolf den sleeping area for kids.

Wolf den sleeping area for kids.

Branding itself as a family resort, Great Wolf Lodge offers multiple non-standard room arrangements to accommodate families of all sizes. From the usual two queen beds, to suites with camp-themed, private bunk bed sleeping quarters for the kids, a wide range of room floorplans is available. Most, but not all of the room arrangements also offer a comparable accessible option. However, the sleeper sofa in the standard rooms is swapped out for a plush chair in the accessible version due to square footage limitations. Room rates vary depending upon the number of occupants since waterpark entry is “free” for overnight guests.

Bunk beds in wolf den.

Bunk beds.

We chose an Accessible Wolf Den Suite. Our children were thrilled with their private nook that contained bunk beds, their very own TV, and cave themed wall decor. My youngest even stated that Great Wolf Lodge was better than Disney World simply because she and her sister had their “own” room. (Let’s ignore the fact that they have their own bedrooms at home, and I consider it sacrilege for anyone to claim any entertainment venue is better than Disney!)

Queen size bed and chair.

Queen size bed and chair.

The flow of the room offered clear maneuverability for the wheelchair; including the spaces in the Wolf Den nook and bathroom. The window curtains even had a circular plastic handle at the bottom of the drapery pull rod that lessened the amount of grip strength required to manipulate the curtains. However, accessibility onto the balcony was quite disappointing. The sliding doorway was wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, but the threshold between the balcony and room was high enough to be a significant barrier, and the patio furniture used every inch of space. I suppose you could ask the front desk to remove the furniture for your stay if you desired to spend time on your balcony, but the space appeared to be more for exterior aesthetics than functional use. If useful exterior space is a priority for you, consider reserving a first floor (waterpark level) room. Many units on the first floor had patios that offered larger outdoor spaces.

Balcony and sliding glass door.

Balcony and sliding glass door. Limited wheelchair space on balcony.

I always recommend traveling with a power strip and multiple extension cords just to be certain you can plug in any medical devices (as well as fun technologies) you require. Wow was I grateful I heeded my own advice on this trip! While there were plenty of outlets in our suite closely situated to almost every space, the only outlet in the Wolf Den was at the top of the wall behind the hanging TV in the corner opposite of the bunk beds. My daughter requires Bipap therapy at night, and access to electricity near her bed is critical. Without our extension cord, she would’ve needed to sleep on the queen bed in the main area of the suite. Thank goodness we had extra electrical extensions and avoided the likely tantrum of the six year old unable to sleep in the Wolf Den and the displaced 39 year old forced onto the bottom bunk of the cave! Crisis averted!!

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Toilet grab bars and shower chair.

The bathroom was well appointed for wheelchair and handicapped accessibility in most of its features. A large turning radius was available among the floor space, and the addition of levered doorknobs made for easy latching and unlatching of the door. Our bathroom included a shower chair and handheld shower head as well mounted shower head options in our accessible bathtub. Ample grab bars were also present as well as a lowered retractable clothesline across the bathtub and lowered towel hooks on the bathroom door. Adequate space for drying wet bathing suits is key after a long day in the waterpark!

Shower grab bars.

Shower grab bars and roll under sink.

My only complaint with the bathroom was that I was unable to find a way to book a room with a roll in shower using the resort’s website. Roll in showers are available in the two queen suite and kid cabin floorplans. However, I had to really dig to find that information, and it appears you cannot reserve these options online.  If you require a roll in feature for bathing, you will want to call the resort to ensure your needs can be met. Roll in showers exist in the first floor locker room in the waterpark if times get desperate, but I imagine most guests would much prefer to have a bathing option within their own guest room. It should also be taken into consideration that the waterpark hours are typically around 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM and may not be convenient to your desired bathing schedule.

Wiley delivering cookies at bedtime.

Wiley delivering cookies at bedtime.

Another common but helpful and safe accessibility feature in our Wolf Den suite was a lowered height peep hole to view the hallway. I always enjoy locating the various accessible room locations in a facility while wandering the hallways by looking for doors with both standing as well as sitting height peep holes. Being a sucker for a gimmick, I ordered milk and cookies to be delivered to our room by a Great Wolf character. (Ignore the fact that being first time visitors to Great Wolf Lodge, we had zero emotional attachment to these characters.) My daughter utilized the lowered peep hole while waiting for Wiley Wolf to stop by for his yummy bedtime visit. She was thrilled when she saw his incredibly large form coming down the hall, and despite the fact that he awkwardly stepped on my oldest child’s foot, we enjoyed our special visit.

Lowered hanging bar and roll under bar counter.

Lowered hanging bar and roll under bar counter.

We found our room to be a comfortable resting spot at the end of a day of waterpark and MagiQuest entertainment adventures. Overall, our room illustrated that Great Wolf Lodge is making strides to go above and beyond simple ADA requirements in order to grow its marketshare of the disability travel industry.

ACCESSIBILITY WINS: Multiple disability friendly features including lowered hanging rods, easy grip drapery rod pull, and lowered clothesline in bathroom

ROOM TO IMPROVE: Easier booking of roll in shower rooms, larger balcony spaces for accessible rooms

Next in this series: Great Wolf Lodge: Part Two: Waterpark, MagiQuest, and More!

Planning for Airline Travel: Booking Considerations

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In college football, Steve Spurrier has been credited with coining the term “Talking Season”: the months prior to the actual competition where every team is in practice mode and fans are preparing for this to be “the year”. Similar to college football’s Talking Season, each of our major vacations has a Planning Season. When traveling with a power wheelchair, you want every check-in, every transportation leg, every event to be seamless. No surprises! For this reason, we typically plan for over a year before we actually take a trip. 

Planning is heavily on my mind as I’ve recently booked flights for our upcoming Spring Disney Cruise. In addition to the standard considerations of price and arrival times, I also attempt to develop a traveling strategy that will make flying with a power wheelchair as hassle free as possible.

Before flying with a wheelchair, prepare yourself that every phase of the airport will take much longer. For instance, on our last flight, we had to wait for three shuttles before a wheelchair compatible bus arrived that could transport us from long term parking to the terminal. Moving through security was also slower with the wheelchair as my daughter received a full pat down with a thorough inspection of her chair. Fortunately, the TSA agents working with her were fantastic and very age appropriate in the way they approached her and interacted with her. A outline of what to expect depending upon your condition and equipment can be located on the TSA website.

Extra time is also necessary at the gate; you do not want to be racing to make a connection! It is recommended you disassemble and remove as many loose wheelchair accessories as possible; arm rests, joysticks, and footrests are highly likely to be broken in the jostling of the baggage area of the plane. Carry the loose items onto the plane with you. Most airlines do not count medical equipment in your total of allotted carry-ons. We took a Bi-pap device and small suitcase full of wheelchair accessories in addition to our carry on and personal item. We even had practice sessions for disassembling the wheelchair prior to leaving our home. My husband wanted to make sure he knew the best packing strategy for collecting all the extra pieces in our small suitcase.

For our upcoming cruise, we had the option of an 11:20 AM or a 2:25 PM return flight. Although I am confident we would be off the boat and at the airport in time for the 11:20, I chose the afternoon flight to lessen the clock watching anxiety. We also frequently choose to drive to a larger airport if nonstop flights are not available from our local airport. It was a sad day in my household when I realized Southwest airlines had ceased offering nonstop flights from our airport to Orlando. Why???? Our family feels it is worth a bit of hassle on the front end to avoid having to disassemble the chair, fly, disembark as the last people off the plane, re-assemble the chair, relocate to connecting gate, disassemble accessories, repack wheelchair accessories, and wait for boarding. Also, on every flight you must hope that the porter loading the chair under the plane is gentle and appreciates how essential it is that your equipment be in working condition upon your arrival. My stress level can only endure this once in a traveling day.

Flying with a wheelchair or other medical equipment is intimidating, but it does not have to be avoided. Review your airline’s disability policies, allow plenty of extra time, and travel should be seamless.

Up next in this series: Planning for Airline Travel: Ground Transportation

 

Toes in the Water

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Beach wheelchair profile The repetitive turning of the tides and the roll of the waves is therapeutic for my soul. The untamed scene humbles me and reminds me of the greatness of God and nature. Our most recent family excursion was in search of sand, waves, and blue skies, and we found ourselves on the Isle of Palms, SC.

As our daughter is unable to walk or stand, taking her to the beach proves to be more difficult with each passing year. I’ve researched sand wheelchairs in the past, but this was our first summer where we decided it was time to be proactive. Unfortunately, unlike many coastal cities in SC, the Isle of Palms does not provide complimentary beach wheelchairs for its visitors. Complimentary chairs are provided at county beach parks, but you are not allowed to leave the park with the wheelchair. However, I did locate a wonderful durable medical equipment vendor who rents everything a visitor to the Charleston area beaches may need including shower equipment, scooters, and walkers. On Call Hospitality was very professional and did a great job setting and fulfilling expectations of their service.

Sunrise over Dewees Creek

Sunrise over Dewees Creek

I rented the beach wheelchair from Wednesday through Saturday at a rate of $60 a day. An additional tax of 8.5% was added. Weekly rates of $350 are also available. Nate with On Call Hospitality was quick to return my phone call when I ordered the chair, and I immediately received an email invoice of the order. Payment was due upon delivery, and credit cards were accepted. The wheelchair was delivered to our Wild Dunes condo at 8:00 am on Wednesday and picked up at 7:00 pm Saturday, so we had four full days of use for the time we ordered.

Comfortably fits a 6'2" man

Comfortably fits a 6’2″ man

The addition of the beach wheelchair added a ton of entertainment to our vacation, and we all agreed it was well worth the added expense. It rolled smoothly across the sand even when the adults in our family took a turn riding along the beach. The tires easily handled a few inches of surf, making it possible for an adult user to enjoy sitting in the splash of the water. It also is manufactured in a way that quickly washes off when your beach day is finished. Because we had the wheelchair, we were able to take family walks up and down the beach for seashell searching and awesome people watching. We especially enjoyed strolling to the end of the island and watching all of the wildlife navigating Dewees Creek.

Cup holder accessory

Cup holder accessory

Some of the features included with the chair are a cup holder; better known as a shell holder in our family, swing away arm rests, brakes, chest and lap belts, footrest, and padded push bar. Since my daughter’s legs barely reached the edge of the seat, we used the footrest as a platform for hauling our towels and snacks. In hindsight, it would have been helpful to have a few bungee cords or rope to tie additional beach chairs to the push handle. Also, next time we will brainstorm better ways to build a smaller seat out of towels. Our daughter’s endurance for the beach day could have been much greater if she had better lateral trunk support.

The wheelchair worked wonderfully and fit through all ADA compliant doorways. The most difficult area to navigate was the elevator due to the long footprint of the chair, but we made it work. I highly recommend working with On Call Hospitality if you are visiting a Charleston area beach, and we look forward to doing business with them again in the future.

Arm rests swing away or can be removed for a sliding board or stand pivot transfer

Arm rests swing away or can be removed for a sliding board or stand pivot transfer

Chest and lap belts adjust

Chest and lap belts adjust

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACCESSIBILITY WINS: Full beach access without having to risk saltwater damage to power equipment

ROOM TO IMPROVE: Lack of complimentary beach wheelchair availability for visitors to Isle of Palms, SC

Nashville: Part Two/Downtown

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Ask the average tourist what Nashville is known for and you will get terms like Opry, Country Music, and Honky Tonks. So, how did I spend my time in downtown Nashville? Visiting the historical venue of the Grand Ole Opry, observing line dance lessons at the Wildhorse Saloon, and popping into a few historic listening rooms near the intersection of Broadway and 2nd Avenue. My touring style tends to gravitate toward the ultra cliche and overcrowded as I enjoy experiencing the spots that make a location famous. I may not be a trendy traveler always finding authentic and less traveled local hot spots, but I do have fun and enjoy laughing at myself in the process.

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Before we hit the highlights, let’s discuss the practical. Parking in an unfamiliar metro area stresses me out! We are currently driving a Braun Ability van that has a retractable passenger side ramp for loading and unloading the wheelchair. Therefore we must parallel park against a sidewalk (torture to watch for all in the vicinity), hit the jackpot and score a van accessible parking space (there really is a reason they paint those blue stripes across an entire space), or double park. On this particular day, the Lord provided a van accessible spot in the lower dungeon of a public parking garage off of 3rd Avenue. It took a bit of effort to locate the ramp access to street level from the garage elevator, but we managed. If only the entire world labeled wheelchair accessible paths as obviously as Disney World life would be grand, but that is a discussion for another day.

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Finally we were ready for the fun! After a brief pose with an Elvis statue and tossing a dollar into the guitar case of a street performer, we wandered down to Wildhorse Saloon for a quick lunch. The food was average, but the Wildhorse is one venue that cannot be skipped if you want to see classic tourist Nashville. Open to sight seers of all ages (as long as accompanied by a parent if under 18), the Wildhorse offers food, dancing, live music, and billiards. Also, the ability to navigate this destination from a wheelchair is quite simple. Door opening plates are present at the bathroom entrances, plenty of space is available to complete a transfer in the toilet stalls, and an elevator allows you to tour all 3 levels that surround the stage and dance floor. During the lunch hour, we were entertained with ongoing line dance lessons. One child (not one of my daughters) from our party was courageous enough to join the dancing crew, and she was a pro by the end. I attended several concerts at the Wildhorse before having children, but at the time I did not pay attention to the quality of wheelchair accessible viewing. Since the most popular shows are standing room only, you will likely have the best view from the second floor balcony railing.  If you are planning to see your favorite up and coming country artist at this venue, I’d recommend arriving early to find the best vantage.

800px-Rymanauditorium1Next stop was the Ryman Auditorium. You simply must include this historic destination into your touring plan. Renovated in 1993-94 to include modern technology, amenities such as elevators, and air conditioning (whew) it still maintains the original pews, stained glass windows, and architectural intent. When inside, you feel as if you are entering hallowed ground and the awe and respect for the legends that have preceded you cannot be ignored. Completed in 1893 as the vision of Captain Tom Ryman, the Union Gospel Tabernacle was originally intended to be a meeting house for Christian revivals; specifically the evangelist Reverend Sam Jones. Over the years, its use evolved to include musical performances and variety shows and became the home of the Grand Ole Opry from 1943-1974. Self guided tours run from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm each day for $15 for adults/ $10 for children, but you should definitely try to catch a show instead of just a tour if you are able to snag tickets. The venue itself adds a thrill and energy to any performance.

We were seated in the Confederate Gallery; known in other parts of the country as a balcony. Wheelchair accessible seating lines the back of the balcony area, and folding chairs are available for party 20140618_164828members. The venue is small enough that a view from this area would be adequate unless audience members are standing. The elevators are located conveniently near the entrance and exit so that you do not have to cross the flow of traffic to access the balcony. The seating chart for the auditorium shows wheelchair and companion seating available on the lower level as well. However, I did not have the opportunity to observe the view from these seats.

View of the stage from wheelchair seating.

View of the stage from wheelchair seating.

At the close of our evening, we abandoned the children and popped in to a few of Nashville’s classic Honky Tonks. Local and tourist favorites include Tootsies, Legends Corner, and Roberts Western World. Roberts is a boot store by day and live music venue for traditional country music music by night. You really can’t get much more Nashvillian than that! While each location is easily accessible through the entry for guests using wheelchairs, bathroom access is limited in these old facilities. You may want to plan bathroom stops prior to your visits.

Our time in Nashville was a great mix of friends, history, and culture. It is a lively city experiencing a revival of tourism and activity. I truly hope we can return in the very near future.

ACCESSIBILITY WINS: Easy entry to popular tourist destinations, ample handicapped seating in the Ryman, and simply a fun destination for all people regardless of ability

ROOM TO IMPROVE: Parking, especially handicapped, is limited

Previous post in this series: Nashville: Part One/Hillsboro and West End Areas

 

Nashville: Part One/Hillsboro and West End Areas

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MInnie Pearl, Johnny Cash, Tim and Faith, Laura Worthy. Nashville, Tennessee has been home to many famous and not-so-famous people through the years. I spent two years in Nashville in the late 1990’s while attending Vanderbilt University for my degree in Speech-Language Pathology. My years in Nashville established a foundation and a love for serving individuals with disabilities, so I was excited to revisit the city during a reunion with college friends.

They say getting there is half the fun. (Who is this They?) Our 350 mile drive from South Carolina to Middle Tennessee was definitely half the fun. Actually, the drive was smooth and incident free. It is my experience that wheelchair accessibility is easier on the road when you stick to well known businesses and save the adventures for the destination. We tend to take our restroom breaks at state-run rest stops, fast food chains, and Cracker Barrels. All three have very predictable access to large turning-radius bathroom stalls, easily navigated dining areas, and ample van accessible parking spaces. Fortunately this trip was no exception, and we easily found pit stops that accommodated our needs. Sadly, I did not take any actual bathroom photos, so this post is woefully lacking visual toilet ambiance. I did, however, notice this gem of disability access at the Cumberland Rest Area near mile marker 326 on I-40 West.

IMG_1184Sometimes you just have to enjoy the absurdity of the situation. This beautiful ramp access allows both the physically and visually impaired clear access to the traffic lanes of the cross-country freeway. Before slamming me in the comments; pun actually intended; I realize that this cutout was designed to provide access to a dog walk area. And, hey, my ideal world would be 100% flat and paved, so I applaud the construction of all ramps; both the necessary and the absurd.

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Replica of ancient Greece’s Parthenon

As I said earlier, the majority of our trip was visiting with old friends rather than exploring the town. However, we did hit a few highlights of Music City. Our first stop included the Parthenon in Centennial Park, located off of West End Avenue across from Vanderbilt University. The structure is an exact replica of the original Parthenon in ancient Greece and was constructed for the 1897 Centennial Exposition to celebrate Tennessee’s 100 year anniversary of admission to the Union.

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Note the scale of the Parthenon compared to my daughters sitting at the base of the columns.

IMG_1197It is a beautiful and awe inspiring sight to behold but no ramp access exists from the grounds to climb onto the grand staircases and base of the structure. The grounds and exterior are open and free to the public, but a small fee is charged to enter and view the Athena Parthenos statue as well as the other art museum exhibits inside the Parthenon. Therefore, if you are unable to leave your wheelchair to climb the steps, you must pay and enter via the art museum in order to maneuver the base of the monument.                                      IMG_1199 IMG_1200Ample handicapped parking was present, but the ramps from the parking lot to the sidewalks were super narrow. If anyone with low vision or limited steering coordination is attempting to maneuver a wheelchair up the small ramps, I would recommend a caregiver be close at hand.

After our Parthenon tour, we headed for lunch at Nashville’s iconic Pancake Pantry, near the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. Sweet potato pancakes. Need I say more?

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Diners line up outside the establishment. Morning shade is plentiful in the waiting area during the summer months.

The accessibility of Pancake Pantry was flawless. Easy maneuverability between tables and ample space in the bathroom facilities were present. In fact, during our meal I noticed four other diners seated in wheelchairs in the dining room. Four! It is my personal philosophy that economics will drive accessibility progress far more than legislation, so I am thrilled when I see other patrons reinforcing the need for facilities that can accommodate customers of all abilities.

Our final destination in the Hillsboro/West End area was Fannie Mae Dees Park at 2400 Blakemore Avenue; better known to locals as Dragon Park. This park offered multiple delightful ADA compliant play structures and was the perfect ending to my daughters’ introduction to Nashville.

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ACCESSIBILITY WINS: Ramp access to multiple playground features at Dragon Park; Easy to maneuver dining room at Pancake Pantry

ROOM TO IMPROVE: Multiple broken sidewalks in the Hillsboro area; Lack of free wheelchair access to the exterior of the Parthenon

Coming Soon: Nashville: Part Two/Downtown