Outdoor Audio Description Technology for Guests with Disabilities

Beginning on June 27, guests with visual disabilities will be able to explore Walt Disney World theme parks in a whole new way. Using a Disney-designed Assistive Technology Device guests will now be able to explore the parks accompanied with an audio description of all the sights.

Assistive Technology Device

This easy-to-use device is obtained at any theme park guest relations window. It is offered at no cost with a refundable deposit. It comes with a headset and strap so you can hang it around your neck. Disney conducted a number of focus groups with organizations for the blind to help them create an easy to understand machine that can be mastered in a few minutes.

Jack with ATD

I spent an hour today with an Assistive Technology Device (ATD) at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As I walked from area to area, the ATD would come alive and vibrate as I passed hidden sensors. Then it would provide me with a fairly accurate description of my location. For example, it would announce, “You are on Pixar Place near the restrooms” or “You are in Animation Courtyard between Voyage of the Little Mermaid and Playhouse Disney.” If at any time I needed a reminder of where I was at, I could push a button and the ATD would repeat the last announced location.

Another button provided me with a general description of my surroundings. When the recording finished, I was given the option to hear more information in six categories. These were (1) a more detailed description of the area, (2) nearby attractions (3) nearby restrooms, (4) nearby restaurants, (5) entertainment, and (6) shopping. From these, I could drill down for even more detailed information.

Another automatic feature of the ATD is Attraction Descriptions. When I boarded Toy Story Mania, the ATD started automatically and provided me with a detailed commentary of all the sights along the way. I never had to push any button.

To give you an idea of what I’m talking about, I’ve included a short audio clip from the Haunted Mansion. The first voice you hear is that of the Ghost Host. Following our disembodied spirit is the ATD voice describing a few of the sights.

Download and LISTEN HERE

The ATD can also be used by the hearing impaired. Although I did not get to try this feature, I was told it works in all attractions and the ride or show’s dialog is automatically displayed on the screen. Check out the picture below for a general idea.

ATD for Hearing Impaired

I spoke with Bob Minnick, Manager – Facility Safety and Accessibility. I asked him if the ATD could be easily updated as things are constantly changing at WDW. He told me that Disney partnered with Softeq who developed the software and the handheld device and WGBH who did work creating the descriptive audio and captioning text. I was assured that all Disney needed to do was provide a new script and an updated recording could be made an uploaded in very little time. When I asked if these devices would be available at the resorts, Bob told me that Disney’s objective at the moment is to bring Disneyland online with the ATD. After that, they will assess the demand and need for further expansion.

Disney has patented and licensed this new technology and is eager to make it available beyond the theme parks. To that end, it’s already being used at the Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta, The Hall at Patriot Place, and the Dallas Cowboys Stadium.

Walt wanted Disneyland to be enjoyed by everyone. Through the years, his company has strived to bring magic to all. Here are a few examples of how the Imagineers are constantly looking for ways to improve the guest experience.

Walt with Girl in Wheelchair

In making a drinking fountain wheelchair accessible, it also makes them “kid friendly.” And Braille maps can be found in all four theme parks.

Drinking Fountain and Braille Map

All Walt Disney World transportation is wheelchair accessible – all buses have hydraulic lifts and the docks all “float” so they are always level with the watercraft. The buses also have closed captioning, announcing destinations and other pertinent information.

WDW Transportation

A number of guest rooms are available with height appropriate vanities and easy access tubs and showers. Text telephones are obtainable for the deaf.

Special Guest Rooms

Swimming pools have sloped entrances so that aquatic wheelchairs can easily roll into the water. This shallow area also provides toddlers with an area to splash with safety.

At the golf courses, specially designed carts are available to allow just about anyone the ability to play a round.

Zero Entrance Swimming Pools and Special Golf Cart

At Blizzard Beach, a special gondola can accommodate a wheelchair for a ride to the top of Mount Gushmore.

Blizzard Beach Gondola

Special viewing areas have been set aside on a first come, first served basis along the parade routes. Even the Grand Marshal vehicles can accommodate a wheelchair so just about anyone can be included in the festivities.

Parade Route and Grand Marshal Vehicle

Disney is always looking for new ways to retrofit older attractions. A special Jungle Cruise boat was updated with a lift for wheelchairs. And newer attractions are also getting into the act. Since loading and unloading can take longer in these cases, Toy Story Mania was designed with an auxiliary loading area so folks can take all the time they need to get situated.

Jungle Cruise

Toy Story Mania

Many of the live shows offer sign language interpreters. These are presented on certain days and at certain hours. You need to check with Guest Relations for exact days and times.

Sign Language Interpreters

I have to admit, when I attended today’s press event, my eyes became a little misty when I saw all that Disney is doing to bring the magic to everyone. I take so many things for granted and I was moved that Disney does not. They strive to include everyone they can.

For more information about touring the parks with special needs, check out the AllEars.Net section for guests with special needs:


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24 Replies to “Outdoor Audio Description Technology for Guests with Disabilities”

  1. Fabulous report!

    It’s so wonderful to see so many services/features available for those who need special assistance. Walt Disney and all the Imagineers have done a great job to bring the magic to everyone! Kudos! Just one more reason I love Disney!

  2. I LOVE the blog Jack did about the new handheld device for the visually impaired. I heard about this technology through my supervisor a few months ago and I’m crazy excited about how Disney continues to lead the pack in accomodations for those who navigate the World in their own special way. I work with 2 teenagers who are VI and a few months ago, one of them asked me if I thought they would be able to enjoy WDW. I told them they would if they were with me 🙂 but it is wonderful to know they would be able to navigate the Disney parks with very little trouble for when they finally get to go with their family. Thanks for the great review and the wonderful information regarding the new technology!

  3. Being disabled myself, I appreciate the lengths that the Disney parks go to to make me feel comfortable. My husband and I return to these parks because of the efforts. We fell at home here and we feel that we are never a bother if we happen to ask for assistance. Usually we don’t have to ask, as the cast members always seem to anticipate my needs. Thank you Disney for always making our visits a memorable experience!!!

  4. After reading this article, I wish my parents were still alive to experience this. My parents were deaf, and any time my father would see any organization or company doing what it could to assist people with disabilities, he would get so excited. I can see him smiling now.
    Unfortunately, my parents NEVER got to experience any of the Disney Parks. But my husband and I will not pass up opportunities to take our daughter.

    Thank You to ALL Disney Workers, for everything you do to make our vacations very special and memorable.

  5. What an awesome article! So touched by all Disney does to bring their magic alive to everyone.

    My daughter (16) dreams of working at WDW in some capacity. She is currently learning sign language. Although we have no deaf friends or family members, she still finds it fascinating and hopes to be able to put the skill to good use when she is a Cast Member one day!

  6. Another great article, Jack. This is great news!

    A little background: My parents are both deaf. We have been visiting Disney since my sisters and I were small children. I remember taking turns interpreting for our parents at specific attractions or at the very least “summing it up” after the attractions. This was in the mid/late 70’s to early 80’s before accomodations for the Deaf/Hard of Hearing really began to take root.

    ADA laws did not really go into effect until 1990, and closed captioning did not become a requirement until 1994 for TVs and videos. Yet, I remember going to Disney and certain accommodations were beginning to take hold long before then. I remember the Disney VHS videos in the 80’s having closed caption long before most other filmmakers began offering closed captioning. Back when VCRs were gaining popularity, choosing a Disney movie for our family to watch was a no-brainer seeing as how it satisfied everyone.

    As the years have passed, reflective captioning has been made available in certain attractions such as Philharmagic and the Country Bears, and we’ve seen interpreters for the Festival of the Lion King and Beauty and the Beast. But there was always limitations.

    It would have been easier for Disney to sit back and rest on what they’ve made already. I know plenty of Deaf/Hard of Hearing people who were more than satisfied with the existing accomodations. But once again, Disney isn’t satisfied with just doing the bare minimum (by the way, Disney’s “minimum” accomodations far exceed most other people’s “maximum”).

    I read this article and I found myself deeply touched on a personal level. My experiences as a child has led me into a career where I work with Deaf/Hard of Hearing clients daily. Too often we see instances of their needs not being met adequately. It’s good to see someone take the next step and remove additional barriers.

  7. Kudos to the Imagineers and “thank you” for the excellent coverage of the newest addition to the assistive devices available to guests at WDW. My family and I have long been Disney enthusiasts and have marveled at the attention to quality detail and that is part of the Disney signature. As mother to a child with special needs, wife to a hearing impaired spouse, and daughter to an aged parent, I am equally impressed by, and appreciative of, the efforts made to create an environment where all guests are able to experience the wonder and magic in the World of Disney!

  8. As an audiologist, YAY for Disney making the parks even more accessible! In my trips to the parks, I’ve always experienced Disney making special efforts to help those in need.
    If you’re hearing impaired, there is a mark on the maps (a black ear with white lines through it, I think) for rides/attractions equipped with assistive listening devices.

  9. This is just another one of Disneys “MAGICAL TOUCHES” that help all guests enjoy the parks. As parents of a child with Autism, we can dearly appreciate all the help we have gotten with our daughter and how it has made our stay even more magical! Disney has always been a place to go and let your gaurd down, this is one place you are not judged and looked upon as a burden. May Disney continue to enhance the lives of those who are less fortunate than others and continue to provide the most magical stays!!!!!!!!!! What a wonderful article!

  10. I got a little sniffly reading this too! I love how Disney makes every person’s visit more enjoyable. If only everyone place could be as happy as Disney.

  11. What a great article and wonderful innovation by Disney World ~~ a leader in making parks available and enjoyable to all. My mother is blind (93 yrs old now), but she and my dad never missed taking us places such as Disneyland, Grand Canyon, professional ball games, etc. We enjoyed describing everything to her, but as kids, I’m sure she misssed a lot since we were enjoying the sights ourselves. This would have been a great device for her. She continues to keep up with us through digital voice recorders which she can play over and over again. I can’t wait to see visually impaired guests in the parks using this technology.

  12. Jack,

    Is this technology also available at Disneyland? I’m planning a trip there this summer with my mother who could really benefit from this device.

    Thanks so much for this important information!

    Jack’s Answer:

    At the moment, this new technology is not available at Disneyland. It was decided to roll it out first at Walt Disney World. However, now that it’s available in Orlando, Disney is concentrating on Anaheim and hopes to have it up and running sometime next year.

  13. Closed captioning is available at many of the DisneyWorld shows. In front of you, they put what sort of looks like a music stand, but with a clear plastic panel where the music would go. You can adjust this to your height. It reflects the illuminated script from behind the audience. Many shows have this, including Fantasmic! Simply ask any cast member as you enter, and they will help you. I have also sometimes just used a small mirror to see the writing. I am very excited about this newest technology, though, so I can “hear” all the words on rides as well as shows!

  14. Great article, Jack! I did want to correct one thing, however. Softeq developed the software and handheld device with Disney, not WGBH. However, WGBH did work on creating the descriptive audio and captioning text.

    Softeq has had the pleasure of partnering with Disney for over 5 years, first on the Ears to the World headset (I’m sure you’ve seen them in the parks…the red audio headset that translates audio to multiple languages), and later on the ATD handheld (which we sell as the Durateq ATV) and GPS module.

    Congrats to Disney on the award as well as their continued commitment toward ensuring all guests can experience the Disney Magic!

    Jack’s Comment:

    Thank you for correction. The fact sheet that Disney provided me only mentioned that Softeq was licensed to make the technology available beyond the parks. It said nothing about your company creating the software and handheld devices. I can assure you, my omission was not intentional. I have corrected my article to credit both Softeq and WGBH.

  15. This is very interesting as I have been going to Disney the last 18 years because of the accessibilities for wheelchairs. I have a spinal cord injury and this is one place I know I can go without too many obstacles. I know what rides I can and cannot ride without help. I love Disney because people don’t stare at you because you’re disabled…I’m just like any other guest. I have never gone swimming there though because my chair cannot go into water. Do you know if these are available at resorts with zero entry? I would hope as a DVC member and AP holder that would be something they offer.

    Jack’s Answer:

    It’s my belief that Disney makes aqua-wheelchairs available, but I’m not 100% certain of this. Sorry.

    Here are some phone numbers where I’m sure you can get an answer:

    General Information
    Voice: (407) 824-4321
    TTY: (407) 827-5141

    Resort Reservations
    Voice: (407) 939-7807
    TTY: (407) 939-7670

  16. The Assistive Technology Device is very, very cool. The recorded description of the Haunted Mansion is just perfect! I can’t imagine how much more enjoyable an attraction would be for a visually impaired person using the ATD. Like others, I also got a little misty-eyed reading of all the accommodations. Things like this are why I enjoy the Disney Parks so much.

  17. Jack,
    You did not mention if you personally a/an have visual/auditory disability(ies)? If not what have you heard by way of review from someone who has either/or/both of these disabilities in terms of the A.T. device?

    Jack’s Answer:

    Last Tuesday, Disney held a press event to kickoff these new devices. Besides the press, leaders from various organizations for the hearing impaired and blind were invited to attend. We were all given an ATD to test for several hours. I myself do not have any disabilities so my opinion really isn’t as meaningful as someone who does — but I was very impressed. And to my knowledge, none of the organizational leaders in attendance have any disabilities. But these individuals, who are far more attuned to the challenges faced by those that do, were most impressed.

    I know that Disney worked with the blind and deaf to make sure their needs were met. And I know that “tests” were conducted in the parks with some individuals with disabilities. I’m assuming that all of their concerns were met as the devices will be available starting on June 27. But I have not heard or read any reviews other than what Disney shared with the press.

  18. I am 31 and also have personal experience at WDW with the accessibility options as I am in a wheelchair. WDW goes way above and beyone what is required of them and always has. I remember WDW pre-ADA and I don’t ever recall not being able to do somemthing that I wanted to do.

  19. I can tell you from personal experience that Disney goes above and beyond when it comes to their guests with special needs. Our 15-year-old son is wheelchair-bound and non-verbal, but none of that gets in the way of him having the time of his life at WDW! At our local theme park, there are three attractions that he can ride while staying in his chair. At Disney, his options are numerous, and he is never treated as a second-class citizen; in fact, he often experiences VIP treatment! The special care that Disney takes in including their differently-abled guests is the reason we come back as often as we can, and will continue to return! (Thanks for the shots of TSM! It’s new since our son’s last trip, and we can’t wait to get him on it!)

  20. hey jack
    once again disney has provided a way to make every guest feel more welcome and better enjoy the park. disney has always looked out for everyone and this just makes it so much metter. can’t wait for your next blog and as always, keep up the great work.

  21. Jack,
    Thank you so much for sharing this. So often all of this is lost to those of us without disabilities. I too got misty eyed when you wrote about all the things Disney does to include all guests.

  22. And I have to admit that I got a little misty reading your blog about all the things Disney does for those who need extra help to enjoy the magic. Whenever we are there and see the lengths that Disney goes to to make sure that as many people as possible can enjoy the show they have put on it makes me smile even bigger.