Meet the Authors: Deb Wills and Debra Martin Koma Authors of PassPorter’s Walt Disney World for Your Special Needs
This article originally appeared in the November 8, 2005, Issue #320 of ALL EARS®
To give you an opportunity to get to know the authors behind the various Disney-related books that are on the market, ALL EARS® runs an occasional series called, originally enough, Meet the Authors. In addition to giving you a little background on the authors, we also solicit questions from our readers to pose to our subjects.
This edition of Meet the Authors lets you get up close and personal with two writers with whom we are already VERY familiar — ALL EARS® Editors Deb Wills and Debra Martin Koma. As you're probably aware, Deb and Deb's first book, PassPorter's Walt Disney World for Your Special Needs, was released on August 15. This book is much more than your ordinary Walt Disney World travel guide — it provides information on traveling to America's favorite vacation destination with special requirements. But more than focusing on travelers who have obvious physical special needs, such as mobility or size issues or vision impairments, Deb and Deb looked at how Walt Disney World can accommodate a variety of "invisible" needs that vacationers may have. For example, the book contains information for travelers with autism related disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, hearing impairments, special diets, allergies and asthma, heart health concerns, chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia, cognitive disabilities, motion sensitivity and fears. In addition, it offers tips and information for seniors, or for those traveling while pregnant or with an infant.
Here's a little bit about the two authors, along with their answers to your questions:
You're familiar with Deb Wills as the force behind AllEars.Net, a website that she began nearly 10 years ago as Deb's Disney Digest, and as editor-in-chief of ALL EARS®, a weekly electronic newsletter that goes to more than 66,000 subscribers. But did you know that Deb first fell under the spell of Disney magic as a little girl growing up in New Jersey? Like many her age, Deb was entranced with Walt Disney himself and his groundbreaking television shows, and had the chance to visit the 1964-65 World's Fair in New York, enjoying the original debut of It's a Small World and the GE Carousel of Progress. She made her first visit to the Magic Kingdom in 1972, and subsequently returned many times in her position as a rehabilitation assistant with a vacation travel program for special needs adults. Since then, Deb has paid countless visits to the "World" and has sailed on the Disney Cruise Line eight times.
Pittsburgh-born freelance writer and editor Debra Martin Koma came to love Walt Disney World at a much later age. Although she visited Disneyland as a toddler, and was a devoted Mouseketeer of the original Mickey Mouse Club, Deb didn't visit Walt Disney World until she was an adult with a child of her own. Though she was somewhat reluctant to make the journey to Orlando initially, five minutes into her first visit to the Magic Kingdom she knew she never wanted to leave. She's returned more than 30 times in the ensuing years despite the raised eyebrows and questioning looks from non-believing family and friends.
After meeting in cyberspace (through a Usenet newsgroup) in early 1997, the two eventually realized that they weren't that far apart from each other geographically, and they met "in real life" later that year. (We would say that the rest is history, but we don't think the story of the two Debs has been completely written yet.)
Working together for the past several years, Deb and Deb have enthusiastically shared their passion for Walt Disney World with others through AllEarsNet.com and ALL EARS®. Both have been peer reviewers of the PassPorter Walt Disney World Resort guidebooks for the past several years, while Deb Wills recently joined the review group for PassPorter's Field Guide to the Disney Cruise Line.
When PassPorter publishers Jennifer and Dave Marx approached Deb and Deb with the idea of co-authoring a book about traveling to Walt Disney World with special needs, they both jumped at the opportunity. A breast cancer survivor who is active in raising funds and awareness, as well as in other civic causes, Deb Wills realized that this project would be the perfect link between her past and present interests. Having grown up with siblings who had a variety of health issues, Deb Koma, too, was anxious to participate in this project, which has the potential to spread some "pixie dust" to those who face special challenges when traveling.
Researching and writing this book proved to be more of a challenge for the two than they initially thought it would be. But they are convinced that the resultant PassPorter's Walt Disney World for Your Special Needs, which they hope will help so many fully enjoy the Most Magical Place on Earth, was well worth the effort.
Q & A:
ALL EARS® asked readers to send in their questions about the new special needs book:
Linda M. from Florida: I really am only interested in certain parts of the book — I don't need to read about mobility and wheelchairs, for example. How do I know what information in the book is for me and my special need, or do I need to read through the whole thing?
THE DEBS: While we think that the entire book is informative and worth reading, we designed the book so you can easily find information that is pertinent to your specific interest. Each special need is assigned its own icon or symbol — for example, Pregnancy is represented by the letter [E] (for Expecting); [V] is for Vision Impairments. For information geared to individuals with certain special needs, you should be able to easily skim through the pages looking for the appropriate symbols.
Belle M. from Texas: I never thought of myself as having a special need, but when I look at the list on your book's cover, I see you include pregnancy and traveling with an infant, both of which could have applied to me. What type of information do you have on those subjects?
THE DEBS: We have quite a lot of information for pregnant women travelers, from tips on what to pack to make traveling a little more comfortable, to which rides are not appropriate. We also offer advice for traveling with the littlest of Disney fans, such as quiet spots for nursing, convenient places for diaper changes, and tips on the Rider Switch program (commonly known as "child swap"). In addition to input from many members of our peer review team, we were fortunate to have the added wisdom of our publisher Jennifer Marx, who traveled to Walt Disney World several times over the last few years as a pregnant woman, and subsequently with an infant.
disneyfreak: I was wondering how much info you allot for each "special need" in your new book. For example, a friend of mine has celiac and is somewhat concerned about dining in Disney. I know from reading your wonderful website that most of the Disney restaurants cater to celiac needs, and was curious if you've included the names of the restaurants and phone numbers who she can contact while she is there.
Sue R from St. Louis, MO: I'm interested to know if there is any information about gluten-free dining at the World in your Special Needs book? I've read the wonderful article on the ALL EARS® website, and I wondered if the book will quote that, or will there be any more or different information?
THE DEBS: We tried to be as thorough as possible for each of the special needs that we addressed in the book. If you pick it up, you'll see that we didn't skimp on the info — it's 400 pages long! As far as special dietary concerns, such as celiac disease, Disney really excels in this area. Most of their chefs at the table service restaurants are extremely accommodating. In fact, even the chefs at the resort food courts seem to enjoy the challenge of preparing special meals, as long as they have enough advance notice. Disney generally suggests that you alert the reservationist of your requirements at the time you make your reservations, and then call again about 72 hours in advance. We've also found that it doesn't hurt to mention your special requests as you're being seated at the restaurants. Quite often a chef will be sent out to speak to you to determine specifically what you can and cannot eat. While we don't include the phone numbers of every Disney restaurant, we do have some specific information on who to contact in the theme parks for special diet information and how to go about making sure the eating establishments are aware of your needs.
Lee Z.: I have some dietary issues — I'm trying to eat low-carb. Will the Disney chefs even try to help me out? Should I attempt to contact the restaurants in advance, or will most restaurants be able to accommodate me on the spot? Are there some restaurants that are more "friendly" about that than others?
THE DEBS: Disney does try to accommodate all special diets, even those that might be considered "lifestyle" choices, rather than allergy or health-related. We considered all manner of special dietary issues in the book: health-related diets, such as gluten-free; lifestyle choices, such as vegetarian or vegan; even religion-related diets, such as kosher. For instance, we evaluated all the table service and counter service eateries on Disney property and point out whenever we found any that specifically have gluten-free or kosher foods. As we said above, Disney advises you to contact 407-WDW-DINE with your special dining requests at least 72 hours in advance. That's primarily for the table service restaurants. If you want to make special requests at a counter service spot, we've found that the best thing to do is to visit the place early in the day, before the lunch rush. Ask to speak to a manager, who will often let you speak to a chef. If they can possibly meet your special requests, they will. This is also true at the resort food courts. We found that if you talk to the chefs early in the day, when they're not busy, they are more than happy to work with you, no matter whether your need is for a dairy-free meal, or for 15 kosher dinners for an evening family gathering.
Brian from DC: I'm a rather large guy, both tall and around. Your website's "At Large" pages have helped me in the past know which rides I might have trouble fitting into. What more could the book tell me?
THE DEBS: In the book we go into quite a bit of detail about which types of attraction seating will accommodate people of both larger, and, for that matter smaller, sizes. Not only do we evaluate each and every show and ride for its seating type, we also take into account the entrances, turnstiles and other areas where size might be an issue. We also discuss all the restaurants on Disney property, in many cases outlining the types of seating available at the various locations. We also take into account the Disney resort hotels, as they relate to issues of size. In fact, we evaluate all the resorts and restaurants on how they will affect most special needs. Finally, because a number of our peer reviewers have experience in dealing with size issues, we incorporate their tips and first-hand stories about how Disney accommodates people of size. We were able to do this for most special needs, as a matter of fact.
Nancy from New Brunswick, Canada: Can I take my wheelchair or scooter on the Disney boats?
THE DEBS: That question actually has a rather ambivalent answer — it depends. If you're talking about the boats used in many Disney attractions, such as Jungle Cruise or Living with the Land, sometimes you can, and sometimes you can't. Some attractions, like "it's a small world," have special boats that are wheelchair accessible — you can ride your wheelchair right onto the boat. Others require you to get out of your chair and sit in the attraction seat. If you're talking about the boats that Disney employs for transportation around the resort, that also depends — on the chair, on the boat, and on the water level. If your chair/ECV (Electric Convenience Vehicle or scooter) is a standard size, you can usually board the boat with it. If, however, your chair/ECV is oversized, or if the water level is too low or too high, you might not be able to board. In addition, some of the smaller launches Disney uses around the Magic Kingdom area resorts cannot accommodate wheelchairs/ECVs.
Beth from Rochester: I've heard that some people just get wheelchairs so they can go to the head of the line. Will I need a note from my doctor to prove that I need to rent a wheelchair or scooter?
THE DEBS: First of all, one thing that we learned in researching this book is that many people have special needs that are invisible. Folks who have fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome, for example, find it impossible to be on their feet all day, especially in the hot Florida weather. So just because you see someone using a wheelchair who seems to be "normal," you shouldn't assume that they don't need it. Secondly, all wheelchair users don't automatically get sent to the front of the line any more. Most attraction queues have been widened so that they can accommodate wheelchairs and ECVs. If you're in a wheelchair or ECV, you may be directed to the FastPass line (for ride access), but that is not for every attraction. And finally, no, you don't need a doctor's note to rent a wheelchair or ECV.
Alex from Virginia: My child was just diagnosed with ADHD. I've heard that there is a special pass that some people with special needs can get that will get them special treatment, maybe even let them bypass the regular line. That would be great for us. How do I go about getting one?
THE DEBS: You're probably referring to what's known as the Guest Assistance Card, or GAC. Guest Assistance Cards are available on a case by case basis at Guest Relations for each of the four main theme parks. These cards are not for wheelchair users, but are for individuals who may require special accommodations for "invisible" conditions. If you are unable to stand or walk for long periods, Walt Disney World suggests you rent a wheelchair or ECV. To obtain a GAC, let the Cast Member at Guest Relations know what special accommodations are required, being as specific as possible. For example, you might explain that your child is unable to wait in noisy, crowded conditions due to becoming agitated and overstimulated, and that you require an alternative place to wait. A doctor's note is not required, but can sometimes be helpful, so you might want to bring one along. (We have a sample of an appropriate doctor's note in the book.) Again, your physician needs to explain what Disney can do that will help you, not merely tell what your condition or special need is. When you get a GAC, it is good at all four theme parks for the duration of your trip — you won't need to get one at each park. Simply show it to the Cast Member at the entrance to the attractions when you arrive.
Peggy Stevens: As the mother of an autistic 8-year-old boy, your website's information has been INVALUABLE for the past few years (and seven trips to WDW!). It truly is the Happiest Place on Earth for our little guy. Will your book have any info regarding the seasonal functions — specifically Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party — with autistic kids?
THE DEBS: We have a wealth of information on touring the parks with children who have autism spectrum disorders, from tips on waiting in line to strategies for dealing with melt-downs. We do have some information on the seasonal events, but nothing specific for the events as they pertain to autistic children. This is an area that we will need to expand on in the next edition of the book.
Donna S. from New York: Does Disney have any ride restrictions for guests who have casts on their arms or legs?
THE DEBS: There are no official guidelines for vacationers who have casts, just common sense rules. If you're going on water rides, you'll want to wrap the cast in a plastic bag, or maybe even a poncho, to help keep it dry. If you have a leg cast, you won't want to try climbing the Swiss Family Tree House or other attractions that require a lot of walking and climbing or uneven ground (Tom Sawyer Island springs to mind), and you may want to consider renting a wheelchair or ECV.
Linda from Maryland: Do you have anything about people with Albinism? They have no pigment in their skin and therefore have to protect their skin and eyes from the sun.
THE DEBS: We don't have anything specifically about Albinism in the book. Although we tried to make the book as inclusive as possible, we were not able to address every single special need that exists — if we tried, the book would be three times as long as it is now! (And, at 400 pages, it's already pretty hefty.) We do feel, though, that the needs that we addressed cross multiple lines, and that even if your specific special need does not have its own chapter in the book, there still may be quite a lot of information in it that would be applicable to you. For example, we don't specifically address Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, a disorder in which the individual has reactions to a wide range of chemicals. But we do have a chapter devoted to Allergies and Asthma, and believe that many of our suggestions and the information contained there would be relevant.
Laura: How long did it take you to research and write this book? Also, in writing the book, what do you feel are the most interesting things that you learned? What surprised you the most?
THE DEBS: We actually began talking about developing a book on traveling to Walt Disney World with special needs with PassPorter Travel Press's Jennifer and Dave Marx about two and a half years ago (over a friendly dinner at the California Grill). After developing a plan and a table of contents, we realized it was going to be a much bigger project than we had initially estimated, but we finally began writing and researching in earnest last August (2004). We pulled together a team of peer reviewers, made up of friends and acquaintances who themselves have experienced Walt Disney World with a variety of the special needs addressed in the book. After all the research, writing, and reviews, the book was officially released on August 15, 2005. One of the things that surprised us the most was how MANY different types of special needs people have to deal with. We thought we were sensitive to those around us, but as we learned about the variety of challenges that travelers with special needs have to overcome, we grew even more determined to make this book as all-encompassing and as useful as possible. Life is not "one size fits all." Everyone has special needs at one time or another, or has traveled with someone who has. We're happy to report that Walt Disney World seems to realize that and does its best to make sure that everyone who visits feels special. We hope with this book will allow readers to see that they, too, can enjoy Walt Disney World, confident that their dream vacations will be, as the commercials say, truly "magical."
Want to hear more about the book from the authors themselves? Listen to a podcast they recorded for WDW Today, podcast #19:
To read more about PassPorter's Walt Disney World for Your Special Needs, or to place an order, visit:
REMINDER: Deb Wills and Deb Koma will be at MouseFest 2005 at Walt Disney World in December. Be sure to visit them at the Mega Mouse Meet on December 3 — bring your copy of PassPorter's Walt Disney World for Your Special Needs to be autographed by the authors. For details on MouseFest 2005, visit: http://mousefest.org