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Scooters at packed Disney World parks spawn accidents, lawsuits and glares

Missoulian - 5/15/2019

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 already 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 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 real, 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, which is big enough to host a 5K around it.

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.

"We expect guests to operate (scooters) with safety and courtesy in mind by being responsible and respectful of other guests while enjoying our parks," said Disney spokeswoman Erica Ettori.

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 percent of the total U.S. population will be over the age of 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."

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The Mouse goes to court

In 2018, at least 11 lawsuits were filed that allege injuries caused by scooters at Disney, the most in the past five years, according to an Orlando Sentinel analysis of Orange Circuit litigation. Typically, there were about two to three lawsuits filed every year from 2014 to 2017.

So far in 2019, at least four lawsuits mentioning Disney scooters have already been filed in Orange County.

Disney declined to comment but said the number of lawsuits is small compared with the millions of people who visit the theme parks every year.

Zachery Corn, a tourist from Tennessee, says he was clipped by a scooter from behind while at Epcot's Food and Wine Festival in 2017, according to one of the suits filed in 2018 and scheduled for trial in March 2020.

"He never saw the guy coming," said his attorney, David Heil, who has noticed more calls coming into his law firm dealing with scooters since around mid-2017 and into 2018.

Other times, scooter drivers are the ones suing.

Eugene Teto, 62, said he felt like he was driving his scooter blind as he went backwards down the ramp to get off the Monorail. Still, he was following proper Disney protocol as theme park workers directed him, the Connecticut man said in court documents. The lawsuit called the policy "harebrained."

"Eugene felt his (scooter) begin to tip backwards, then - suddenly - it flipped violently backwards, slamming Eugene's head onto the concrete platform and twisting his neck in a way that nature never intended," said the lawsuit he filed in 2018 after his surgery to repair his spine.

Susan Purcell, who has asthma, sat on her scooter she'd brought from home while on a Disney bus. The bus driver hit the accelerator at a yellow light and made a sharp turn, which tipped over her scooter and slammed her onto the bus floor, her lawsuit says.

"As soon as the driver brought the bus to a stop, passengers jumped up to try to assist Mrs. Purcell," according to the lawsuit filed in March. "But Mrs. Purcell was stuck in the seat of her (scooter), and no one could free her or lift the (scooter) upright. Mrs. Purcell lay on the floor of the bus, helpless and stuck, until fire rescue finally arrived."

The other major theme parks aren't immune to similar litigation, either.

SeaWorld Orlando was sued last month by a mother who says her son was run over by a scooter while walking in the park last year.

However, neither Universal or SeaWorld appears to have faced growing litigation like Disney had in 2018.

Out of the new lawsuits filed in 2018 and 2019, the majority are still pending, including Teto's and Purcell's. But not all.

One woman who sued last year after she said she was run over by a scooter at Hollywood Studios voluntarily dismissed her lawsuit in December. The woman and Disney were required to pay their own attorney fees, according to court documents.

Other cases have ended in settlements over the years, including a man who settled with Disney in October after he said he broke his femur when a scooter crashed into him and pinned him against the large stones inside the Splash Mountain queue in 2013. Settlement amounts are not disclosed in court documents.

The cases have mounted as Disney's attendance keeps rising and likely isn't going to drop off anytime soon with Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge opening this year and Walt Disney World's 50th celebration approaching in 2021.

After Pandora opened at Animal Kingdom in May 2017, attendance at the park jumped nearly 15 percent to an estimated 12.5 million that year. Nearly 20.5 million people walked through Magic Kingdom in 2017, too, according to the latest estimates available from a Themed Entertainment Association/AECOM report.

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How trouble starts

What annoys Craig Belke is the Disney darters who jump in front of him as he carefully edges his scooter along, trying to keep a gap between himself and the person ahead of him.

Then the insult worsens. The person who cut him off turns around and lectures him about being more careful.

"It's like, are you kidding me? She ran in front of me, and then she's yelling at me?" Belke said.

Run-ins with scooters often happen because pedestrians are in full vacation mode and sucked into the bustling atmosphere of a theme park. They just aren't paying attention, Belke said.

He calls himself a good driver, although he's witnessed some not-so-good ones, too.

"Some people have no idea what they're doing with the scooters," Belke said.

One New York woman said "two very young children" were at the wheel of a scooter that ran over her foot at the Magic Kingdom, according to a 2016 lawsuit that was later voluntarily dismissed in August 2017.

For Belke, his scooter is a godsend.

He used to be "in terrible agony" from his back pain by the third day of his family Disney vacation.

Belke, 64, has worked physical jobs for decades on a volunteer fire department and with machinery at a school district in New Jersey.

He hated the idea of using a wheelchair, forcing his wife to push him around, making him feel helpless.

He gave in. He rented a scooter. That was three years ago. Now, he won't go to a theme park without one.

"It turned out to be one of the best trips I've ever had. I wasn't in pain anymore," Belke said.

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Judgment zone

Amanda Koolis noticed the dirty looks when she visited Disneyland in February.

"I can't tell you how many glares I get," said Koolis, 31.

But the people judging her don't know she has multiple sclerosis. The autoimmune disease is making her body essentially attacking itself, causing sharp shooting pains and even partial paralysis.

Just like anything in life, there are people who may abuse the system and rent scooters simply because they don't feel like walking around, Koolis admits.

On the other hand, what about others like her? Her disability isn't visible to the outside world and without scooters, the theme parks would be off limits.

Koolis feels the Disney magic of being in a fantasy world, away from the stress of her health problems even if it's just for a few hours.

"Having access to something like Disney is huge," Koolis said.

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A never-ending battle

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" at the wheel 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.

Already, 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 also 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. He said he felt trapped one night after the fireworks and had to pull his scooter to the side and wait for the crowds to thin.

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."

Visit The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.) at www.OrlandoSentinel.com

 
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