Early at the Magic Kingdom entrance, it’s another day of fun about to begin as “Yo Ho, Yo Ho, A Pirate’s Life For Me!” blasts on the speakers and the first electric scooters are lined up to go.
But by the time the park officially opens at 9 a.m., half of the scooters available for the day are rented to anyone at least 18 willing to pay $50 a day. Other park-goers roll in through the turnstiles on motorized scooters they’ve rented outside the parks or own themselves.
“Will the scooters run out?” asks a woman who looks worried. They are usually gone by 11 a.m., a Disney employee tells her with an apologetic smile.
Scooters are as visible at Disney parks as Mickey Mouse ears and turkey legs, and they provide a lifeline for people, some with hidden disabilities, who can’t walk the massive grounds. But amid rapidly growing Disney crowds, the vehicles have brought on a rise of civil lawsuits filed by people complaining about being run over or drivers saying they were injured in accidents.
Disney recently banned oversized strollers, but when it comes to scooters, the theme park is limited in how it can regulate them because of federal law governing rights for people with disabilities.
Scooters receive the same protections under the law as wheelchairs, said Kenneth Shiotani, a senior staff attorney at the National Disability Rights Network.
That means Disney — or any other business — can’t ban them outright, although theme parks could potentially add rules like a speed limit or forbid them on a particularly narrow path, if there’s documented danger, Shiotani said.
He added any such rule would likely require the U.S. Department of Justice’s approval.
“People need to realize ‘disability’ is broadly defined,” Shiotani said, adding that anyone who can walk only a few steps or even a few blocks is protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
“People are using (scooters) because they need them,” he said about the parks, like Epcot.
Disney rents them, and outside companies cater to tourists by dropping rentable ones at their hotels. The devices, which have three and four wheels, typically travel a few miles per hour.
The scooters’ popularity comes as baby boomers — Americans born between 1946 and 1964 — are aging fast and enduring health problems that can come with being older. By 2029, more than 20% of the total U.S. population will be older than 65, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It’s a generation that has “been raised going to the Disney theme parks. They’re not going to give it up,” said theme park blogger and historian Jim Hill. “They are the ones who are renting these things because they don’t want to slow down.”
How can scooters exist more harmoniously amid the growing crowds at Disney?
Attorney David Heil argues scooter drivers need more instruction before they are “turned loose” in the parks.
A Disney spokeswoman said park employees give instructions to scooter drivers, and the four outside scooter vendors that work closely with Disney provide written instructions for drivers.
Hill, the Disney historian, dismisses the idea of scooter lanes, saying it would open up Disney to bad publicity and more lawsuits over separate but equal access.
Hill said Disney is taking steps to alleviate the situation to free up space.
At Epcot, Disney plans to relocate the tiles of guests’ faces that are posted on granite monoliths, which will widen the paths at the front of the park, Hill said.
Disney spreads out attendance throughout the year by charging more for the busiest days during holidays and school breaks, a company spokeswoman said about the company’s attempts to ease congestion.
Still, the situation has no easy answers, said George Pugliese, 56, a Disney devotee who bought a scooter after having surgery on both knees.
People like him will always need scooters. Others will always complain about them — until the day they become unable to walk and need to rent one themselves, he said.
“It’s going to be a never-ending battle,” Pugliese said. “There is no solution.”