(writing 2/26/2021, updated 8/11/22) My very first plane ride with the wheelchair was from San Francisco to Disneyland. It started and ended with disaster, but we made it! I had been warned about how to prepare the chair for flight and it survived the trip there. More on flights and transit later in post.
When you book
Get your tickets as far ahead of time as you can, and then book your reservations for each park. You cannot go without a park reservation. If you do a park hopper, you reserve the first park and can park-hop after 1PM.
Make dining reservations up to 60 days out. Some reservations don’t open until closer to the time. Mousewatcher lets you watch for certain reservations for a price (and you have to be ready to jump on it in seconds). I find it worth it. Make sure if you are park-hopping to a lunch reservation that your lunch in park #2 is after 1PM.
Booking DAS ahead: DAS is for guests with disabilities (not mobility related) which may cause them to have trouble waiting in line. Neurological conditions that cause hypersensitivity, autism, bladder conditions, etc. If you think you qualify for DAS (perhaps in addition to being in a chair, like myself), you can register ahead 30-2 days before your trip. Here is a link to the information on doing that. You can also do it onsite (which I get into below).
At the Parks
Disneyland is magic. I have always loved it, but it was incredible for me at that moment because it was my first time being in a truly ADA compliant space since getting sick. They have all kinds of accommodations. The crowds are a bit overwhelming, and as a new wheelchair user the stress of constantly almost crashing into people was exhausting. Kids just run right in front of you! My big clown horn helped, but looking back I should have gone slower and been more patient. Now (three+ years later) I can navigate the same crowds with ease. If you are new to a power chair or scooter, please, keep in a slower speed for safety.
Rides In the original Disneyland park you enter most lines via the exit in the wheelchair (I highly recommend the Haunted Mansion because the elevator goes backwards on the way out). You need to get “return times” at the ride exits or at guest services/Information stations. The guest service/information stations have little umbrellas to mark them and people in plaid (one at the end of Main St on the right, one by the middle entrance to Star Wars Land, one across from the Matterhorn entrance, one just past the Haunted Mansion toward Hungry Bear, and one by the expo dome inTomorrowland). In DCA there is one across from Carthay Circle, One at the Entrance to Cars Land, and one across from the Incredicoaster. Sometimes they move them but they should be close to those locations. They can see you are in a chair (or scooter) so you don’t need a special pass. You can take up to 5 people with you (6 total) per wheelchair/scooter user (though sometimes they will fudge it to add one more). Just go to a cast member at each ride to check in. In the California Adventure Park, all rides are accessible by wheelchair. Pretty much every ride in both parks is accessible if you can transfer from your chair into the ride vehicle, but some even let you take your chair on. The level of accessibility of every ride is listed here. If you want to see a show or parade, ask cast members where the reserved wheelchair spaces are (there are some for parades, but not for fireworks or Fantasmic or World of Color) and go early. For Fantasmic and World of Color, I recommend getting a meal package that reserves you a seat and going early to sit in the back section of the front (where you can see but won’t be blocking seated people and kids).
Renting a chair
There are power scooters and push-wheelchairs for rental. See Disney site here. “ECV and manual wheelchair rentals are available outside the theme parks, just east of the Disneyland Park Main Entrance.” I have heard that they sell out, so go early. There are also various companies outside Disneyland that rent and some deliver to your hotel, which might be a better bet.
DAS PASS For me with ME/CFS, I’m not only in the wheelchair, but also have severe sensory issues and other things that make regular lines very difficult. This meant I qualified for a DAS (Disability Access Service) pass. Things like needing the bathroom very often qualify because you can’t get a wheelchair out of line and back into it if you need the restroom! You can take up to 5 people with you on a DAS pass. You get this at the guest services information umbrellas (avoid the Town Hall because the lines are brutal). It enables you to pick a ride and get a return time equivalent to the ride’s wait even for wheelchair accessible lines. Then you can rest or take your time getting to the ride and go through the faster line (or exit) when you get to it. This is a lifesaver for me and so many of us with qualifying conditions.
Other things I do are bring earplugs (AirPod pros are magic at noise cancelation), wear a hat and sunglasses, carry a water bottle I can add electrolyte mix to, and pace carefully with rests. Also a blanket and hot water bottle for nighttime.
Battery and Charging on Power Chairs:
Watch your battery life and make sure you are fully charged when you enter the park! At Disney I keep my battery charger with me in a bag hanging off the back of the chair. There are no regular plugs anywhere accessible in the park, only high amp ones that could damage your chair (like the one by the bathroom under the Hungry Bear). If you need to plug in you have to ask a cast member to take you to medical and hope you get there. I accidentally didn’t plug in properly for the day once so I got to find out. Obviously you can also go to medical if you are in medical distress.
I have also heard, but not confirmed that the scooter rental place will let you charge. I found one place to charge in DCA- if you are seated downstairs near a wall with a plug (you can request and hope) in the Carthay Circle for dinner you can charge there.
Getting There with a big chair or scooter:
If you can get a direct flight to Orange County’s John Wayne Airport I highly recommend that. It’s closer and you’ll get your chair way faster (unless for example they leave it somewhere weird and don’t tell you and you have to send people to go hunting around the airport for it, which happened to me). If it isn’t direct, save yourself the insanity and risk of damaging the chair of a second flight and get a direct flight to LAX instead, though you have to weigh that against the cost of a cab to the parks.
Disneyland used to have shuttles with wheelchair lifts, but no more.
On the ground: LA has 24 hour wheelchair cabs that will take a power wheelchair in the regular cab companies. Depending on the time of day though, getting one could take hours (something to remember when you are going back to the airport). This is especially true during rush hours. Because of this I highly recommend staying at a hotel that is right next to the park.
Hotels There are nice, reasonably priced hotels like the Hyatt farther out that have shuttles to Disneyland, but the accessibility of them is hit and miss. Not all shuttles have wheelchair lifts, sometimes the lift is broken, sometimes the driver doesn’t know how to work it, etc. I suggest the Disneyland Hotel, the Grand Californian or one of several less expensive hotels across the street from Disneyland to the East. For me, Disney’s Paradise Pier Hotel is not worth the cost compared to the closer non-Disney hotels across the street. Needing transport to and from your hotel can be a nightmare and cause hours of delay so to make your vacation smoother I suggest staying close if you have a large power chair that needs a lift in a shuttle or a special vehicle to transport you (or if you need to remain in your chair during transport).
We stayed at the Grand Californian. It is more restful than the Disneyland hotel (less flying children, mellow tone) so it is better for people with sensory issues. It is the closest hotel to Disneyland park and it has its own entrance to California Adventure Park, but it is also more expensive. You used to get a few extra perks like an extra “magic hour” for staying in a Disney hotel, but lately not (hopefully it will return). You don’t really get a discount for booking a parks plus hotel package, but you get a few discounts on things and free pins and little things. Still, very worth it if you can manage the crazy price hike it, especially if you need to go back to rest.
On a personal note: We were there for Halloween and my daughter’s birthday and dressed up as the Addams Family. In a later year we added on another family and did a costume for the chair and it came out even better!
On arrival: My chair arrived broken after the flight back. On my second ever wheelchair flight! It was actually bent like they had dropped it from a height and various parts were falling off of it when they rolled it up to me (and then they literally ran away). United Airlines fixed it free of charge within a couple days, and after I made a big stink on Twitter they comped me some tickets as well. Thankfully we were home. It would have been a nightmare if it had happened going the other way!
After several trips both flown and driven we have since decided that for SF to Disneyland, DRIVING is the way to go now that we have a wheelchair van. With the extra time-padding you have to do to make sure the chair makes it to the airport and the time getting your chair back from the airline it is exactly the same amount of travel time, and less stress.