I just got back from an awesome trip to Orlando, and thought I would write about my experience with Amtrak and Mears Transportation. My previous wheelchair was damaged by the airlines, so I have decided not to travel by myself on an airplane until Mobility Air begins flying. My current wheelchair has greatly increased my freedom and independence, so I began researching alternatives to the commercial airlines. Amtrak looked like a very possible option. I researched Amtrak for a year, and made a couple of local practice trips to visit friends in the next city. After the short trips were successful, I began saving my money to make a solo trip to Walt Disney World. In September, the University of Central Florida contacted me and said that it was time for me to start the “Direct Connect” transfer process from Brevard Community College to UCF’s Rosen School. My parents and I discussed making an appointment for December, but I knew that I’d be nervous about meeting an UCF advisor for the first time. I wanted to get the school stuff out of the way, so I could relax and have fun at DIS-A-Palooza…..Soooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo, I contacted Amtrak and Dreams Unlimited Travel to book the adventure to UCF and Disney.
Amtrak does not allow booking wheelchair space online. Disabled people must call the 800 number to book. The reservation agent was extremely nice, and even offered to provide an assistant on board the train to help me get to the restroom. There was no additional charge for the assistant. After Kathy and I worked out the Disney stuff, I called Mears for shuttle information. Mears explained that the Amtrak shuttle would be the same as the airport shuttle, but you cannot make reservations in advance. I had to call Mears when the train arrived and then wait until the wheelchair accessible shuttle bus was available.
My good friends (who live in Orlando) advised me that Winter Park or Kissimmee would be safer areas for me to be in just in case I had to wait a long time. Winter Park is a beautiful area of central Florida, but there is not a wheelchair lift at the train stop. I called Amtrak to see if they would change my ticket to Kissimmee. Amtrak made the change without a problem, and there was only a $2 increase in the train fare. I was also told that Mears was available in Kissimmee. When I arrived at the Raleigh, NC train station, the ticket agent said, “You must be Skip. We are expecting you.” The check-in and baggage check processing were very quick and painless. They used a Mobi-Lift to load me on the train. . This video was shot in North Carolina, but it shows Amtrak’s procedure for boarding in a wheelchair:
At stations where the train platform is level with the train, Amtrak uses portable wheelchair ramps that are similar to the ramps used for boarding the Walt Disney World Monorail System.
The wheelchair space is in the back of Coach Class, with the carry-on luggage. It is also very close to the wheelchair accessible restroom. This was nice when I had to go, but not so nice when everyone else had to go. Overnight, people in and out of the restroom constantly…slamming the door, and then clicking the door lock into place. I got no sleep at all. The restroom was a snug fit, but there was enough room for my chair. The staff on board was very kind and helpful. They came to check on me once or twice every hour. The track on the way down was very rough, and vibrated my chair. It reminded me of the “Mission to Mars” attraction from years back.
After a 14 hour train ride, I arrived in Kissimmee, and went in to use the restroom before calling Mears. The station is very small, and my chair barely fit through the front door. I got to the restroom, and am shocked at what I see. This was a “gas station” style restroom with one toilet and a sink. It is actually smaller than the restroom on board the train. There were no grab bars or anything for someone in a wheelchair. Next, I asked the ticket agent about the shuttle and he told me that I could not wait inside for the shuttle, and opens the front door like he wanted me to leave.
I went out to the parking lot, and called Mears to request the shuttle. The guy informs me that Mears only provides attraction shuttle service in Kissimmee. The Amtrak shuttle is only available in Orlando. He goes on to explain that Mears Taxi Service is available. I asked how much the Taxi would cost, and he told me that it would be approximately $55. This was a bit over my transportation budget, but I didn’t want to carry my luggage on two LYNX buses.
The cab comes rather quickly, but I saw what I thought would be a major problem. The cab was a station wagon type of vehicle. The driver got out and put my luggage in the front passenger seat of the cab. I explained that my chair does not fold, and I cannot transfer out of the chair. The driver smiled and said, “No problem…follow me.” We went to the back of the cab, and he opened the tailgate. To my surprise, the bottom half of the tailgate folds out to form a ramp, and I roll into the luggage compartment. The cab had been customized with a lowered floor in the back, to accommodate a single wheelchair. I have never seen a wheelchair accessible vehicle of this small size. It was cool! The cab was also very clean.
The driver was very nice and very talkative. We had a fun chat on the way to Pop Century. He asked what I planned to do while in Orlando. I told him that I was there to apply to college at UCF. He asked me if I knew about the “UCF Safe Ride” program. I replied “No, what’s that?” He explained that UCF students can sign up for a voucher program where the college would pay the first $35 of the student’s Mears Cab fare. The student is then responsible for paying the rest of any fare that exceeds $35. As we pass the Gaylord Palms, he raved about the resort itself, and described the “ICE!” exhibit in great detail.
We arrived at Pop Century, and the final fare came out to be $34. The driver helped me out of the cab, and gave my luggage to the bellman. He then gave me his cell phone number and told me to call him if another driver didn’t know the shortcuts that he knew. He did not want me to pay any more than I had to pay. I thanked him and tipped him a little bit extra for being so nice and explaining Safe Ride. I have heard and read some bad things about the Taxi service that Mears provides, but I had a really nice experience.
On the morning of my last day in Orlando, my friend contacted me with another great piece of Amtrak advice. She suggested that I call Amtrak to request a departure from Orlando, so I could take the Mears shuttle instead of the Taxi. When I called Amtrak, the agent made the change without any questions or problems. She didn’t even charge me a change fee.
So, I called Mears for a shuttle appointment. My friends in Orlando have taught me to budget extra time to get somewhere in town, just in case of traffic. I requested a 5:00 pm appointment, and the Mears agent told me that 5:00 was not available, but they had an opening at 4:55 pm. I accept the 4:55 slot, and then went to the parks for lunch.
As my appointment time approached, I realized that I would be just a few minutes late for the shuttle. Why? Well, it’s a long story that I will cover in my next blog. I called Mears at 4:15pm, to tell them that I would be five or ten minutes late for the shuttle. The agent was very nice, and offered to change my appointment to 5:25pm. I thanked her, and she informed the dispatcher. The dispatcher was very rude and told me to get to the shuttle by 4:55pm or take a cab. She said that she would not allow the shuttle to wait for me at all. I had enough money for cab fare, but the dispatcher’s tone was rude, in my opinion.
I got to the shuttle at 4:58 pm (three minutes late), but the driver did wait for me. I apologized for being late, and he said that they are allowed to wait up to five minutes past the appointment time. The shuttle driver was just as nice as the cab driver that I had on my arrival day. The dispatchers had also changed shifts. I paid him the $20 shuttle fee, and off we went. He asked me how my vacation was, and I told him about all the things I did. When we arrived at the train station, the driver unloaded me, and helped situate my luggage on my wheelchair tray. I handed him a generous tip for waiting for me to arrive. He pushed the tip away, and said “Keep it. I’m just glad you had a good time here in Orlando.” I was shocked! I shook his hand, and thanked him.
The Orlando station is much bigger than the Kissimmee station. It is also more wheelchair accessible. The waiting areas outside of the station are not well lit, so I waited for the train inside the station. I went up to the window to check in, and the agent said, “Oh, you’re the guy from Kissimmee. We are all ready for you.” I asked to check one bag, and the agent told me to put the bag on the floor beside me. Then, he climbed through a trap door under the ticket window to get my bag. This was a funny sight, and I had to giggle.
The train arrived about one hour late, but the boarding process was as flawless as it had been on my other trips. The return trip to Raleigh was much quieter than the trip down to Kissimmee. Everyone pretty much stayed in their seats and slept. The northbound track was smoother too. I was able to get some sleep on this trip. The staff did come to check on me from time to time, just like before. They were very nice. I have been impressed with the service on all the Amtrak trips I have taken.
When I arrived in Raleigh, my parents were waiting on the train platform, along with my Greyhound, “Cliffy.” I was off the train and in the car within 15 minutes of arrival. This was a great travel experience. I will definitely be taking more Amtrak trips to Florida in the future.
My next blog will cover my adventures while at Walt Disney World. This includes reviews of Pop Century and the Disney Transportation System.