After the COVID-19 pandemic postponed her family trip to Universal Orlando Resort, Jennifer Bertrand was excited to visit with her husband and three of their kids in late April.
But a visit to the Volcano Bay water park ended in tears after Bertrand, a tourist from New Hampshire born with one hand, was turned away from the Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides because she could not grip both of the raft’s handles.
Volcano Bay’s accessibility guide says the attraction requires riders to have “two arms with two functioning hands,” but one hand or arm can be a prosthetic.
A mother of four and an active athlete who has rappelled down waterfalls and completed high ropes courses, 51-year-old Bertrand offered to sign a waiver or show ride attendants she could grip the second handle with her elbow joint.
She said park supervisors told her the rule came from the ride’s manufacturer, ProSlide, and was firm. Under Florida law, theme parks have to follow manufacturers’ operating guidelines.
“It’s very dejecting to have people tell you, when you know you’re fully capable of doing something, that you can’t be allowed,” Bertrand said.
She works at Community Crossroads, a nonprofit serving kids and adults with disabilities, and said policies like Universal’s assume people who have disabilities cannot make their own safety decisions or have to be protected.
Bertrand is joining voices with Dylan Campbell, a man who sued Universal under the Americans with Disabilities Act in May 2020, to allege Volcano Bay’s ride requirements are discriminatory under the federal law.
The U.S. District Court in Orlando ruled in Universal’s favor in Campbell’s case in February, but the 31-year-old Florida resident is appealing. Bertrand is working with advocacy groups to support the case and encourage Universal to adopt more inclusive ride requirements.
After Bertrand’s trip, a Universal safety official reached out and told her the company is discussing updating its safety policies with ProSlide but did not provide details, Bertrand said.
A ProSlide representative said the company occasionally talks with Universal about “ride performance and innovation of water rides” at the park but declined to comment further.
Universal spokesman Tom Schroder would not say if the company is attempting to update its ride policies. He said in a statement that Universal works closely with manufacturers to build rides that can be enjoyed by “as many people as possible.”
“We know these guidelines can sometimes disappoint our guests and we try our best to clearly communicate them and offer alternative experiences, when possible,” he wrote. “We also post ride-specific guidelines on our website so that our guests can view them in advance of their arrival.”
During her April 26 visit to Volcano Bay, Bertrand and her husband headed to the Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides first as their children, ages 15, 18 and 25, ran to another attraction.
Other water parks have never made an issue of her limb difference, Bertrand said, but at Volcano Bay an attendant and supervisor stopped her at the top of the slide to tell her she could not ride.
Bertrand said she immediately felt embarrassed by being singled out.
“There are a lot of conditions that are listed on the boards posted at the entrance of their rides,” she said. “And most of those conditions, you can’t see from the outside. … But because you can see my disability from the outside, people are making assumptions about what I can or can’t do.”
She talked to a series of supervisors and a park manager as her son captured a couple of the conversations on video, but all gave the same answer.
A manager apologized and offered to give the family passes to skip the line at other accessible attractions, but they decided to leave the park shortly after arriving. Universal refunded their towel rental fee but not their park tickets, Bertrand said.
The experience dampened the rest of her vacation, even though she had no issues riding other attractions at Universal Studios or Islands of Adventure.
When a senior manager later called and told her about Universal’s discussions with ProSlide, Bertrand said she volunteered to participate in the talks as a park-goer with a disability. She is waiting to hear back from Universal.
Bertrand said she thinks the current requirements are more about protecting Universal from litigation than guest safety.
Since it opened in May 2017, Volcano Bay has been cited in dozens of injury claims, some of which resulted in lawsuits asserting visitors were seriously injured on the park’s attractions. A New York man sued Universal in October 2019 after he hit his head on the Punga Racers slide and became paralyzed. The case was settled the following year under undisclosed terms.
“There have been injuries on different slides at this park, but everybody else gets to decide for themselves,” Bertrand said. “They have that dignity of risk. Don’t deny it to me.”
Volcano Bay also has been the subject of disability discrimination claims in the past.
In 2019, the parents of a 12-year-old boy with a disability filed a public accommodations discrimination claim against the park through the Florida Commission on Human Relations. Universal denied any discrimination and settled the case with the family for VIP park tickets, attorney’s fees and a total of $27,000 paid to the family, records show.
Universal also agreed to train Volcano Bay’s employees about accommodating people with disabilities.
Campbell, the man who is appealing his ADA lawsuit, said he was turned away from the Krakatau Aqua Coaster for not having “two natural functioning hands.” His lawsuit alleges the ride requirements are not based on risk to people with disabilities, but on assumptions about their capabilities.
Court documents show Universal denied any discrimination in his case. The company argued it initially pushed ProSlide to make the attraction’s rider requirements more inclusive by allowing people with one arm or a prosthetic arm to ride, but ProSlide rejected the suggestions over safety concerns.
Emails between the companies showed ProSlide Research Director Andreas Tanzer wrote there were no ADA Standards requirements for waterslides at the time and ProSlide “was not prepared to take on [the] risks” of allowing people with limb differences to ride but would “work to change the restrictions over time,” court records showed.
Matthew Dietz, Campbell’s attorney, said the lawsuit speaks to a larger issue of state standards trying to supersede federal law.
“It’s more than rides. It’s access to any program or service,” Dietz said.
Bertrand said she is sharing her story not to embarrass or shame Universal, but to encourage it to adopt new policies.
“I want them to understand my perspective and how hurtful and damaging it was to be turned away and to be denied access because of how I look,” she said.
At Dietz’s urging, she filed a complaint with federal authorities about the ADA violation and is asking advocacy organizations in Florida and New Hampshire to write briefs to the court hearing Campbell’s appeal.
Disability Rights Florida, one of the organizations Bertrand contacted, cited federal privacy laws and declined to say if it was involved. Spokeswoman Robin Kocher said it has received two complaints involving Volcano Bay in the past five years, both from people with limb differences.
Lisa Beaudoin, executive director of advocacy organization ABLE NH, said the organization supports Bertrand.
“At this point, Universal is demonstrating a pattern of aligning itself with discriminatory practices, and that’s very alarming for disability advocates,” Beaudoin said.
Bertrand also plans to keep checking in on Universal’s discussions with ProSlide.
“Unless you’ve been touched by a disability, and you’ve personally experienced being denied access, and you’ve bumped up against these types of structural and attitudinal barriers, you’re not going to know,” Bertrand said. “And this is why it’s so important for a company like Universal to include people with disabilities when they are creating their policies, and when they’re designing their parks.”
Staff writer Kate Santich contributed to this report.
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