Welcome to part 3 of the blog Have Wheelchair Will Travel, written by Donna Goodacre. It’s a chronicle of her families trip around the world. No big deal you might say, plenty of families travel. Well, when one member of the family uses a wheelchair, it actually is a pretty big deal. However, their motto is Have Wheelchair Will Travel – and so they did.
We pick up their story again with them in London, bound for 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.
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.
The next day we walked the three blocks or so (all flat) to Penn Station to catch our Amtrak train to 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.
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)…… To Be Continued…….