All those who would prefer traveling with wheelchair users rather than the joy of traveling with teenagers, raise your hand. All those who prefer traveling with teenagers IN wheelchairs, now raise your hand. What, no takers? Where's your sense of adventure? Once you figure out that they're going to appear to be having a barely tolerable time until they get home and tell their friends about all the great stuff they did on vacation, it goes much better for you.
One of the best decisions my husband and I made was to become Disney Vacation Club members. It's sort of a timeshare. It entitles a family to spend time at vacation property owned by Disney, but also at a wide variety of other properties that have an agreement with Disney. You can even use it toward a cruise on the Disney Magic, Disney Wonder, and for some cruises with Holland America. Disney properties are extremely handicapped accessible and we always feel catered to while we're "on property". We found, though, however great our Disney-themed vacations are, that activities like "Tea with Wendy Darling" don't have the same attraction for a fifteen-year old girl as a six-year old. I don't even want to talk about suggesting a "Tea" to a fifteen-year old boy. If he can't blow it up in a video game, it's really low on his list of things to do. Disney does have teen activities, but we were looking for something different on which to spend our vacation "points".
Hello, London! Getting there from our neck of the woods involves a 10-11 hour flight from Los Angeles. We contacted Undiscovered Britain, a travel agency in Philadelphia that frequently makes trips with disabled clients to Great Britain. The owner, Ann Litt, knows her stuff and has written, or been consulted for, articles about traveling with not one wheelchair, but quite a number of them in large groups! She was a wealth of information and she arranged three days of touring for us with a wonderful company.
I was very happy to learn that the American Airlines plane, on which we were taking our trip, had an accessible bathroom. However, not having seen the facilities and warned that last minute plane substitutions can occur, I looked into something called an External Continence Device (ECD). The ECD is marketed by the BioDerm company (12320 73rd Court North, Largo, FL 33773, 1-800-373-7006, www.BioDerm-Inc.com) and I had seen their advertisement in the Muscular Dystrophy Association's Quest Magazine. The ECD deals with the delicate issue of bathroom needs, without access to a restroom, for long time intervals. This can be a real problem for those physically challenged and can be the difference between going on a trip or staying home. Ann, of Undiscovered Britain, advises her clients to reduce their fluid intake and visit the restroom before boarding the plane, but the flight time from Philadelphia (where she is located) to London is about half that from Los Angeles to London. We tried another non-invasive catheter, recommended by our urologist, but Greg hated it and catherization was out of the question. I highly recommend BioDerm's ECD. After all, it's what the astronauts use in space. We conducted a couple of trial runs to test it and found it very satisfactory. BioDerm's customer support is excellent and can answer any questions you may have or help solve any problems that you may encounter. They told me that many young men use the ECD on a regular basis at school, especially when a male aide is not available. In any case, the bathroom on the plane was deep, but someone would have to get inside it to transfer the wheelchair user from the aisle chair at the doorway onto the toilet seat inside. Tight, but much more doable than a regular plane bathroom.
July 1, 2003
Many Black Cabs are accessible, but cannot fit five people. The newer cabs are Tx-1's and have fold-out ramps. Two or three people can fit, although legroom will be tight with a wheelchair passenger. There is only one seat up front, on the right for the driver, and the luggage is stowed in the empty spot on the left. We had arranged for two cabs to pick us up at the London airport (The London Black Cab Taxi Service, www.londonblackcab.com, +44(0) 7834 000283). In an accessible cab, the power wheelchair user will have to sit sideways and lean out of the way so that his mother can have a chatty conversation with the personable and knowledgeable cabby. The teenager will view this as an unnecessary familiarity.
The Royal Garden is a five-star hotel, located next to Kensington Gardens and Hyde Park, with all the amenities you would expect. Like many older buildings in and about London, handicapped accessibility wasn't foremost in the architect's mind. However, the hotel has done a bang-up job modifying inaccessible features and the hotel personnel were extremely attentive to all our needs. There is a lift to the right of the front steps, manned by the doorman. There is a wide door to enter the lobby, but the revolving door can also be stopped and opened for entrance. The floor elevators are a little tight, but all five of us fit. The Park Terrace Restaurant, where we waited for our rooms to be readied and where we frequently dined, has two floors, separated by several steps. We were always seated on the lower floor. When there was a buffet, it was set up on the second floor and the hostess would offer to make a plate up for our son with his choice of the selections. Ever charming, Greg would look at her as if she'd taken leave of her senses, but politely decline her offer. His little, big sister kept him company at the table while my husband, Greg's oldest sister, and I visited the buffet for ourselves and for them. While his little, big sister is usually very kind to her brother, this had something to do with mortification about walking around in front of English strangers. (If you have teenagers, you know what I'm talking about.)
The accessible suite worked well for us. It was a bit tight in the bathroom, but Greg's needs were well met. The staff made sure that everything worked for us, including changing shower seats to one that gave us the best fit. They asked us if we needed a converter for our appliances as Europe operates on a 220V line and a converter is needed to step down the power for our 110V appliances, including the wheelchair charger. We were sold one in the States by a company I shall not name. Hence, we were surprised when our eldest told us that Greg's charger was smoking when it was hooked up! We called housekeeping and asked for one of their converters, but the same thing happened. What to do? We were scheduled to be picked up the next morning for our first day of touring. Due to the time difference, we caught Ann from Undiscovered Britain before she left and she told us to put ourselves in the tour operator's hands. Sure enough, Trevor, of Wheelchair Travel, Ltd. (www.wheelchair-travel.co.uk, 1 Johnston Green, Guildford, Surrey, UK GU2 9XS, +44(0) 1483 237668), got us the name of a company in London that rents wheelchairs and chargers. We also called our wheelchair company in the States and arranged for them to ship us a replacement charger to get Greg's chair back home.
July 2, 2003
We were extremely jet-lagged during our tour of London and, since Greg's
chair was rapidly losing power, we were content for Trevor to thoroughly
entertain us with a star-quality monologue of information, history, and
funny, funny stories. He took us all over the city and it was a good thing
that we had him because we wouldn't have known what half was of what we
saw, or we would have spent our time trying to read about everything, dodging
in and out of traffic while driving on the left. Just love Trevor!
July 3, 2003
After a late breakfast, the loaner chair arrived. It was shorter and more narrow than Greg's own chair, but we subsequently found that to be a great asset. It fit in spaces like cabs, between chairs in restaurants, and in converted vans much better. It also had a unique device attached to the top of the footrests, whose function perplexed us until we went outside. It's function is to pick up the front of the chair at an elevation, like a curb, to aid the chair in surmounting these minor obstructions. Very clever!
On our own and about town. Just couldn't help singing show tunes from "Mary Poppins" and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang", including "Me Old Bamboo" and "It's a Jolly 'Oliday With Mary". Accompanied by a little dancing, it was amusing enough for the teenagers to smile while Dad was taking their picture in the rain. This turned out to be the only really rainy day we experienced. Expecting rain, we donned our raincoats, carried our umbrellas (also useful as a prop for "Me Old Bamboo"), and didn't miss any sightseeing opportunities. The architecture is magnificent! Particularly noteworthy for photo ops are the Royal Albert Hall, Science Museum, and Harrod's, to name just a few. Curb cuts were plentiful. We ate lunch at Mo's, located in Harrod's, which reminded us of Johnny Rocket's here in the States. We traveled a different route back to the hotel, so as to see as much as we could. Two out of three teenagers were simply too tired to go any further, so we dropped them off while we stopped by the local Italian restaurant, "Il Blue" at 32 Kennsington Church St., for some "take away" for dinner. Early to bed to be awake and ready for our second day of touring with Trevor.
July 4, 2003
The hotel, recognizing that American guests, away from home on the Fourth of July, might miss a little celebration, they held a special dinner. How do you like that for manners? Helping Americans celebrate the declaration of independence, from whom? However, these Americans had planned a long day in Oxford and the Cotswolds. It was so much fun driving with Trevor! We heard about the towns we passed through, their histories, English customs, and accessible information along the way.
Trevor dropped us off in the center of Oxford so we could walk around and do what we wanted. We found curb cuts, accessible toilets, and the shops we visited were also accessible. Even the indoor market, where we snagged some Cornish pasties and drinks for lunch, was accessible. There is so much to do in all of these places, so we just sampled what we could and met back up with Trevor for the next leg of our journey.
It was so nice to get out into the country, but we also seemed to be going back in time. The Cotswolds is an area of lovely villages, set in an idyllic landscape, where one can imagine a very different time and existence. Some of the shops were a little tight, but the only problem we had was that strollers and pushcarts (and by extension, wheelchairs) weren't allowed in the miniature village display, due to the narrow paths.
This was an exhausting, but very fulfilling, day. We decided to at least eat something American on the 4th, so we went to Pizza Hut. There was only one accessible table, so we had to wait a while. However, the server gave us menus and took our order while we were waiting so that our meal would be timed to arrive as we were seated. She also spoke to the manager about our wait and he gave us 25% off our bill. We had the best of intentions of taking a stroll through Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park, located right next to our hotel and where Kensington Palace is located, but our days were so full that it was dark and we were exhausted by the time we had a moment free.