In 1993, when I was 11 years old, my family went to Disney World. We piled into our station wagon -- my mother and father in front, my little sister and I in the back -- and set out from our home in rural Pennsylvania, driving two full days until we reached the town that Mickey built. By the time we arrived at our resort, the anticipation was unbearable. But it was the afternoon, and not worth paying full ticket price for a half day of rides. So instead, we went to the pool at our resort.
The first thing I did was run to the deep end and jump in, toes pointed, trying to touch the bottom. The pool wasn't as deep as I'd hoped, and I crushed my foot against the rough concrete. I came up, choking and wailing; hours later, my big toe was more swollen than I'd ever seen on anybody. I couldn't walk on it at all. I was certain it was broken.
So the next day, we marched ourselves up to the guest services desk at Magic Kingdom, and requested a wheelchair for me. That was when I learned the tantalizing truth about Disney World's special disabled lines: Anybody can use them. And anybody -- not just "rich Manhattan moms" who can afford disabled guides -- can scam the system.
My parents didn't have to provide any proof of my injury to rent a wheelchair at Disney. No doctor's note required, no cast -- no one even asked me to take off my sneaker to show them the bruise. I don't remember if my parents had to pay a fee for the wheelchair; today, wheelchair renters at Disney World pay between $10 and $12 per day.
But I do remember getting in that first line. It was Splash Mountain, and on that hot summer day in Orlando, it seemed like the entire park was waiting to splash down and cool off. My dad pushed me toward the end of the public line, but a park employee redirected us around the side of the mountain. There, we found a much shorter line, with maybe three other families with wheelchair-bound members waiting.
They put us on the ride first, before any of the other guests in the other queue snaking back out to the entrance. I was a kid who'd spent two days fighting carsickness to get to this place, and I thought this was awesome.
Throughout my family's stay at Disney, we found a special line for guests in wheelchairs at every ride we went to, and a guest services kiosk offering wheelchairs in every park. At each ride, my dad would half-carry me as I limped to my seat on the coaster, while a Disney employee collected my wheelchair and made sure it was waiting for me at the exit. We blew through those parks at least three times faster than your average guest. Privately, my parents joked that breaking my toe was the best thing that could've happened to us on vacation.
But here's the thing: my toe wasn't broken. It was just really badly bruised, and it healed fast. By day three of our five day stay in Orlando, the swelling was down, and I could put pressure on my foot without wincing. By day four, I could walk without a limp -- it was still painful, but I could do it. And by day five, our last day at Disney, I didn't really need the wheelchair at all.
But I wanted that wheelchair, and the access to which I'd become accustomed. I think we all wanted it, my parents and sister too, but their greed went unspoken. I was the one who pretended my toe was more than just a little stiff in order to get the wheelchair for that last day.
My family spent our last day at Disney the same way we'd spent the first: at Magic Kingdom, the place I'd first discovered how easily anybody can get a wheelchair at Disney World. And yes, I'll admit it: that day, my 11-year-old self scammed the system. I pretended to be injured in order to get that wheelchair.
At first, it seemed like just a tiny lie, and with such an epic payoff; the lines for rule-abiding vacationers with two working legs that day were as long as I'd seen them all week. But then, we arrived at the Haunted Mansion. Maybe it's different now, but back then, the Disney employee took my wheelchair at the entrance to the front room of the ride. In order to get to the car, I had to make it down a long corridor on my own two legs. And I had to look convincingly broken while doing it.
As usual, my dad helped me out of the chair. I leaned on him, trying to replicate the hobbling movements I'd made a few days earlier, when I really did need his support to get around. But I also realized how silly this whole situation was, and like the kid I was, I couldn't stop giggling about it.
My dad was the first to realize the scene we were making, and barked at me under his breath with a harsh "Lean on me more." That shut me up, and I pulled it together enough to look up and see an entire line of people -- tourists and Disney employees alike -- looking at us with disgust.
I don't know if I can put into words exactly how ashamed I was at that moment. Two decades later, that scene is vivid in my memory. I think I was too young to fully appreciate how awful it was to pretend to need a wheelchair when you don't -- to understand, as much as any able person can, the difficulties of a life spent in a wheelchair and the way my behavior had disrespected those difficulties. I just remember feeling so embarrassed, so truly awful, and sorry to have dragged my father into the whole mess. When I think about it now, it feels almost like watching a particularly cringe-worthy episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, except it's starring my family, and also it's real, which makes it way, way less funny. To this day, my father and I have not spoken about it since. It was that bad.
So when I read these recent reports of wealthy families who use disabled guides to get themselves into the short lines, I'm not shocked. I'm not outraged -- how hypocritical would that be? It's not like I don't get the impulse.
But most importantly, I'm not jealous at all. These "Manhattan moms" who buy their way into the disabled line, if they really do exist, might have tons of money. But it can't buy them out of the shame of using a disability (real or fake) to cut in front of other families in line. And that shame stays with you, believe me.
Rent a wheelchair at Disney again? Without a legitimate injury, you couldn't pay me to take one.
Follow Ciara LaVelle on Twitter @ciaralavelle.
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