Scooters at packed Disney World parks spawn accidents

Gabrielle Russon
Orlando Sentinel
Disney has 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.

Orlando — 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 four-wheel mobility 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.

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.

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.”

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 2014-17.

In 2019, at least four lawsuits mentioning Disney scooters have 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 backward 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.

How can scooters exist more harmoniously amid the growing crowds at Disney?

Heil, the attorney, 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.