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Have Wheelchair Will Travel - Part 2 England to USA

by Donna Goodacre

London - New York

In Part 1 (Asia to Europe), I covered the first half of our circumnavigation of the globe, with backpacks and wheelchair in tow. We began in Brisbane, and flew via Singapore, Bangkok and Helsinki to London. From there we ferried to France, then flew back to Heathrow, just in time to board our British airways jet to New York …

This was not the end of the day of course, as we went back in time as we flew, arriving in the Big Apple only 3 hours later by the clock. I was a little out of sorts, having eagerly consumed the three (small) bottles of wine the nice British Airways man gave me on the way over! However our journey through customs was not nearly as complicated as anticipated. We whizzed through after everyone except Chelsea were fingerprinted, and found a taxi big enough to take us to our hotel. It probably wasn't a legitimate taxi, as it had no ID displayed, and the driver got hopelessly lost, even though the motel was supposed to be at the airport! Admittedly it is a big airport, and we arrived unscathed, had a shower and hit the American hay.

Richie in New York at Madam Tussauds and Madison Square, and Chelsea on the harbour with Statue of Liberty in background.

From 27th December until New Years Day 2007 we stayed at the Grand Union Hotel at 34 East 32nd Street, Manhattan, just a stone's throw from Macey's and the Empire State Building. It cost us US$1500, but for this part of town, and the accessibility, it was worth it. It actually wasn't as accessible as it could have been as the ramp led to a locked door, behind which was a Xmas tree! When told about it, the person on duty moved the tree and unlocked the door when I was pushing the chair. Access to the room was by elevator, and the room itself was quite big, with a double bed and two singles. The bathroom was a good size, but had a bath instead of a shower, which could prove difficult for some.

Over the next 5 days we did the usual tourist things, which included a cruise around the Statue of Liberty using the New York Waterways, rather than the more congested Staten Island ferry. All transport catered for wheelchairs, but we used buses rather than the subway as we wanted to see the sights.

One of the things I would recommend doing is using the services of a "Greeter". These people are employed by the city on a voluntary basis to show people around. It is kept going through grants and donations, and is a wonderful service. Our Greeter, Leigh, took us by foot around parts of Manhattan you don't normally see. It is up to you what you do, and if you let them know before hand you have a wheelchair, they will tailor the tour to suit.

Another wheelchair friendly attraction is Central Park. We did not have time to cover it all, but we did visit John Lennon's "Imagine" memorial, and met some friends at the famous Tavern on the Green, where we had a beautiful (and expensive) lunch. That night being New Years Eve we had planned to be at Times Square for the midnight celebration, but after seeing the crowds milling around earlier on we decided to stay in. We ended up having a pleasant time in our hotel bar, which was closed to the general public, and saw the festivities on the television from the comfort of our barstools! New Years Eve in New York would be a nightmare for a wheelchair anywhere in the vicinity of Times Square.

Neil and Richie aboard the Amtrak train, passenger cabin and view of snow covered fields from dining car window.

The next day we walked the three blocks or so (all flat) to Penn Station to catch our Amtrak train to Chicago.

Chicago

For $US1935 the four of us travelled first class from New York to Flagstaff via Chicago. This I booked by phone, as the wheelchair booking could not be done on-line. I tried to do this through Flight Centre as it seemed complicated, but they quoted me twice as much! I find that unless you insist on the cheapest possible options, and point out that the booking needs to cater for wheelchairs, it is forgotten in the process and you can end up paying too much or not getting the disabled services (or both). The phone call was not without its problems, however, as the girl on the other end was Hispanic and we had trouble understanding each other. We did it in the end though, and the trip was both efficient and cost effective.

The Amtrak service employs people called "red caps" (the reason becomes obvious), who are there to look after elderly and disabled passengers. The service is wonderful, as they take your bags for you, find you in the first class lounge when the train is ready to depart, and get you safely seated in your carriage.

We had one disabled and one regular room, and swapped around (except for Richie of course) during the trip. The disabled room had its own shower and toilet and bunk beds, and the other had bunk beds and a toilet with a shower nearby. All meals were included in the price, and because Richie could not access the dining car as it was upstairs, he had his meals delivered to him. He had a good view and plenty of books and dvds. We hired a preloaded dvd machine for $20 at Chicago station and kept it till Flagstaff, which kept the kids happy.

We had 6 hours to kill at Chicago so we explored the city on foot, walking through the city to Lake Michigan. It was a pleasant walk, and not difficult for wheelchairs. You could probably do a bus tour if you wanted to, but it wasn't too cold out for the middle of winter, so we took advantage of it.

All too soon it was time to return to Union Station for the second leg of our trip, south-west to Flagstaff. Once again we were escorted to the train by a red cap, our bags carried for us.

Chicago-Flagstaff

The Southwest Chief is a double-decker train with a viewing lounge, so the rooms are a little smaller to compensate. However the extra comfort and outlook from the glass-surrounded viewing deck made it well worth it for the able-bodied passengers. Luckily, as mentioned earlier, Richie had the use of the DVD player to keep him amused.

The trip itself was really interesting as there had been a major dumping of snow over much of the northern part of the country the night before and as a result we had to detour onto a track previously unused by Amtrak. The original route was from Chicago via Kansas City, Topeka, Dodge City, Raton, Santa Fe, Albuquerque to Flagstaff, but about half way through we picked up a "pilot" to navigate the train through uncharted territory. Despite having to go slower than usual in places, we actually arrived in Flagstaff early (around 9.30pm).

Flagstaff

After waiting for our luggage to be released to us we phoned a taxi and stuffed all of our bags and wheelchair into his too small car and drove the short distance to our motel - the Radisson Woodlands on West Route 66. The room was nice and the hotel completely accessible. It was nice to sleep in a proper bed again and it cost only $75 for the four of us.

The next morning we picked up our rental car, which originally was going to be a sedan, but we were talked into on Explorer RV with GPS. It was a good move as it turned out, as we had lots of room for the wheelchair, and the GPS was a godsend.

The nice Hertz man also persuaded us to take the Grand Canyon detour to our next destination, Las Vegas, and this was another good decision.

The Grand Canyon

Chelsea at the Grand Canyon lookout.

Only an hour from Flagstaff, the Canyon is well worth a look, even a short one. To enter the park costs $25, which gives you a 7-day re-entry. I had thought that being winter we would not be able to access everywhere, but all we really needed was the view, and we certainly got that. Even Richie could appreciate the enormity of it all from the path outside the perimeter fence. You can get on a tour which caters for wheelchairs if you book ahead, but we didn't really need it. What an amazing hole in the ground.

Las Vegas

The drive to Las Vegas from the Grand Canyon was easy, being on the highway. As darkness set in we drove over the Hoover Dam - really spooky and quite awesome in size. You can do a Hoover Dam/Grand Canyon tour, which sounds like a worthwhile daytime trip.

Coming into Las Vegas from the east at night is also awe-inspiring because of its size. I did not realize just how big a city it is. Apparently it is the fastest growing city outside of LA.

We checked in at Circus Circus (completely accessible, like all of the major hotels in the US), and decided to stay an extra night since we did the unplanned trip to the Canyon, and at $50 a night it didn't break the bank. All of the hotels there of course depend on you spending at the casinos, so the accommodation can be quite reasonable. Circus Circus is family oriented so it has an indoor theme park, which both kids enjoyed. We walked along the Strip of course, which is always interesting, except Chelsea got some grit in her eye from a building site, and she ended up at the doctor's with a scratched cornea. Fortunately it was treatable, and at $200 for a doctor's visit and $50 for a prescription we were glad it was only minor! We were able to claim most of that back on our travel insurance (which we did on-line through Webjet at a very reasonable price) when we got home.

Indio (near Palm Springs)

The next morning at around 10am we said goodbye to the gambling mecca and headed south-west again towards Palm Springs. We had another Timeshare unit booked for a week at Indio, in the Coachella Valley, which incorporates a number of towns, including Palm Springs, Cathedral City, Desert Hot Springs, Sky Valley, Rancho Mirage, Palm Desert, Indian Wells, Bermuda Dunes, La Quinta, Indio and Coachella.

It took about four hours with stopping at a factory outlet on the way to reach Indian Palms Vacation Club. It sounds exotic and rather exclusive, but in fact it was quite basic, being situated in a largely Hispanic neighbourhood. That was interesting in itself, however, and for our needs it was adequate, as we were there to explore the area, not stay in the room. Our unit was two storeys like the one in England, but Richie once again slid down the stairs on his behind. (He took a bit longer to get up, however, so we kept it to once a day).

Knotts Berry Farm - Donna and Richie

Our first day trip was to Knotts Berry Farm, having already seen Disneyland in Paris. This was the first day back at school for the American kids (January 8th), so there were no queues, and most of the tourists were Aussies and Kiwis. Getting in, however, was pricey, as we had to buy four adult tickets - no discount for wheelchairs or carers. The US is up to date with disabled accommodation and transport, but not with entertainment discounts, as compared to Britain, Europe and Australasia it seems. Altogether it cost nearly $200. We just missed out on tickets to Six Flags, north of LA, as it closed the day before, but it was probably a good thing because it took us a good couple of hours to get to Knotts from Indio. Six Flags franchise is the roller coaster capital, but Knotts was still a good day out.

The next day we explored the local area, including Palm Springs and Rancho Mirage. The average age of the residents I would say was 65, although it's hard to tell with all that botox! We probably stood our like sore thumbs there, amongst the pristine shrubberies and cascading fountains - it's the desert, but there's no shortage of underground water.

Mexico

A perfect example of the Palm Springs "look" was Gayle from "Tours by Gayle", based in Palm Springs. She recruits tourists from the resorts and hotels and takes them on a bus tour down to Rosarito Beach, just over the Mexican border. We did a similar tour to Tijuana ten years or so ago, but that is off the list now due to the daily drug-related shootings. Pity. Rosarito is a good substitute though.

After not having to wake early in over a month, it was a shock to the system to be on the road by 5am! We arrived in Palm Springs just in time to see the sun rise over Frank Sinatra's house. After a mini tour of houses of the rich and famous, mostly from yesteryear, we headed south through San Diego to the Mexican border.

The coach was not wheelchair friendly, but there were plenty of people to help out. This would not have been possible with an electric wheelchair. There are probably tours that do accommodate them, however.

Neil and Richie (in wheelchair) queued at the Mexican border crossing

Crossing the border was no problem, and we made it to Rosarito Beach by 10am, just in time for another breakfast - a full cooked English-style fry-up at the Rosarito Beach Hotel. This was followed by shopping at the nearby markets, where the store owners had been alerted as to our arrival. This visit was good in that it showed the kids a different culture and an experience of poverty. It was hard for them to comprehend that people live so close to affluence but are still shot trying to reach it.

Before meeting back at the bus we took a walk along the pier - a really long boardwalk, and surprisingly wheelchair accessible. The hotel, while not new or flash, did have an elevator, and posed no problems for us as regards the chair.

On the way back to the US we went past the sites where Titanic, Pearl Harbour and Master and Commander were filmed, and shortly after the turn-off to Tijuana arrived back at the border where we all had to get off the bus so it could be inspected for whatever they inspect it for. This was a hassle for us because of Richie, but we made it, walking across the border and joining the bus on the other side.

Our final stop was in San Diego for an early tea and a brief look around the waterfront before driving back to the Marriott at Palm Desert where we had boarded the bus that morning.

Los Angeles

After a lazy day visiting the factory outlets at Cabazon, the next morning we checked out of Indian Palms and drove to LA in preparation for the fourteen hour flight home at midnight. We got to Hollywood after lunch, took a photo of the sign then ended up in Universal Studios around 2pm. We didn't have to leave till late to get to the airport, so we almost got our money's worth, but once again we got no discount to speak of, paying over $200 plus parking.

We did the Backlot Tour on the little train, which wasn't difficult for Richie to get into, then went down to the rides by bus. Able-bodied people use a couple of elevators with a fair bit of walking between them.

Home

We eventually made it to LAX, which turned out to be the only airport where we had a problem. We did not realise that after queuing up in the usual fashion you then take your bags down to the other end and get them scanned again while you watch. They are then taken by a porter back to the first check-in. I was unaware of what was happening and chased the perplexed Hispanic employee, thinking he was pinching our bags!

Anyway, it was amazing that this was the only really frustrating incident we encountered at all of the airports on our trip.

At 7.45am after five weeks away and fourteen hours of not much sleep we landed in Brisbane, glad to be home, but loaded with many happy memories of our adventure. If our experience is anything to go by, I would encourage anybody who is thinking of doing an overseas trip with someone with a disability to go for it. Don't let travel agents or red tape or fear of the unknown get in your way. It can be done, and you won't regret it.

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