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  • Writer's pictureErin Schoen Marsh

Universal Orlando: Accessibility Card and Deaf-Friendly Theme Park 




Visiting Disney or Universal is a childhood rite of passage in America, but it was an experience I never had growing up in a single parent household. My mom struggled to make ends meet, and our only vacations out of Ohio were the ones my grandparents paid for. 


My husband fondly recalls his own trip to Disney, and since we are both frugal and by no means rich, we decided Disney/Universal would be a “one and done” vacation. We wanted the children to be ideal ages – old enough to remember and appreciate the trip but young enough to feel the awe – and eleven and eight seemed to be the magic combo. 


We opted for one day at Disney, focusing on Star Wars since we aren’t really a Magic Kingdom family (you can read details here), and then bought a “buy two days, get two days free” special at Universal. We only planned to visit the park for two days, but this gave us leniency and the option to return should we want it. 


The buildings of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
The Wizarding World of Harry Potter

IBCCES Accessibility Card 

Originally, we applied for the IBCCES Accessibility Card (IAC) at Universal for my daughter’s and my deafness. The application requires that you upload pertinent documentation – we uploaded our audiograms – as well as your doctor’s contact information in order to be approved. You can do this whenever; you just have to complete it at least 48 hours before you arrive at the park. They replied via email that we had been approved and to see the front desk upon our arrival for more information. 


Shortly after that, we discovered my husband had a heart condition, so I added him to our IBCCES accessibility family card. Someone called my husband to discuss accommodations with him prior to his arrival at the park, which was super helpful, and they let him know he qualified for a shortened line. I’m not sure if they didn’t call me because I’m Deaf or because we didn't qualify for the shortened line, but I would have appreciated prior communication from Universal Orlando accessibility as well. 


8-year-old girl rides Hagrid's motorbike with mom behind her and her 10-year-old brother in the passenger chair next to her

How does IAC work at Universal 

While Universal beats out Disney for accessibility in many ways, the actual process for using the IAC (the accessibility card for the shortened line) is not as streamlined as Disney. 


The IAC is a paper card, first of all. You go up to the ride you want, the person writes down what time you should return based on how long the ride wait time is at that moment, and then off you go to meander until it’s time to return to that ride and use the Express Pass lane. Because the process is not technology-based, sometimes you wait longer than 30 minutes. If this was programmed in an app as it is with Disney, then I imagine the app could spread folks out so they don’t wait in line as long. I don’t think we waited more than 15 minutes for any ride at Disney. 


However, because it is a paper card, you avoid technology issues – which we ran into at Disney. Pros and cons! 


Deaf-friendly accommodations at Universal 

I found Universal significantly more Deaf-friendly than Disney. Captions were prevalent throughout Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. They weren’t on every single screen, but they were on a lot. I found that they were on most of the screens in restaurants and waiting lines but not once you entered the ride/experience (don’t ask me why). We also missed all of the dialogue on the 3D rides. 


For The Bourne Stuntactular, they offered caption glasses. They were very techy and cool-looking, but they didn’t quite hit the mark as far as practicality. I had to hold them the entire time to get them in my field of vision, and my daughter couldn’t see the captions at all while wearing them, so she didn’t use them. A for effort, but they just need some fine-tuning to make them workable. 


We also learned (too late, unfortunately) that you can request an ASL interpreter for no charge for some live shows. You just have to do so with a minimum of 14 days prior to your arrival. Again, had someone contacted us after we applied for the IAC – which we did months ahead of our arrival date – they could have shared these options with us ahead of time.  


A bald dad with sunglasses, a mom with sunglasses and her hair pulled back, and two kids -- a boy and a girl under 10 -- smile with Hogwarts in the background.

Waiting lines: Dark + loud 

I am hard of hearing, read lips and use ASL. I also have moderate to severe optic nerve atrophy, which means I am low vision in low light and nearly blind in darkness. Many of the waiting lines at Universal are indoors, dark and loud. This means that I was extremely limited in my ability to both see and communicate. 


While our hearing loss is substantial, we both do fairly well one-on-one understanding people up close and in quiet situations. However, the indoor echo and background noise of the waiting line made it a challenge, so we were both essentially deaf, rather than hard of hearing. This made waiting in line an overwhelming experience for both of us as we were unable to communicate with the hearing people around us, who did not know ASL. While I often sign with my daughter, she typically responds with her voice, which didn’t work in this situation as I couldn’t hear or see to read lips – and I doubt I would have been able to see her hands anyway – so we both just stood silently. 


I didn't bother to wear my hearing aids to the park because I knew it would be loud. Our hearing loss is unusual and hearing aids only benefit us in very specific situations. In loud environments, they do us more harm than good. My daughter has grown up wearing her hearing aids (I did not), so she wore hers the first couple days out of habit/comfort, but after a frustrated couple days, she took them out and did much better without them. So I encourage you to consider whether your devices are helping or hurting you in each situation -- they are not always a boon.


So if you struggle in loud or dark situations, be warned that many of the lines at Universal will be a challenge. It’s a welcome respite from the hot Florida sun, so I understand why they did it, but for some disabilities, it can be tough.  


General Tips for Disney World Orlando

  1. Download the Universal Orlando Resort app

  2. Download IBCCES Accessibility Card app (you will need it to get your paper card)

  3. Order food ahead of time (you can order hours ahead of time and choose your pickup window) 

  4. Make a dinner reservation if you have the time/energy (we didn’t)

  5. Bring a small book bag/fanny pack for travel-sized sunscreen, hats and sunglasses. Small lockers are free; larger lockers cost money, so pack small.  

  6. Don’t bring cash – Universal is cashless. If you have Apple Pay, you don't need a card. 

  7. Consider bringing noise-canceling headphones if your child has sensory-avoiding habits. The park is loud everywhere.

  8. Consider leaving your HA/BAHA/CI device at home if they do not help in loud environments.

 



Family Favorites: 

Dad

  1. Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts

  2. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure 

  3. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey 

Mom

  1. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey 

  2. Jurassic World VelociCoaster 

  3. Revenge of the Mummy

11-year-old boy

  1. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure 

  2. Revenge of the Mummy

  3. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey 

8-year-old girl

  1. Jurassic World VelociCoaster 

  2. Revenge of the Mummy

  3. Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure 

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