Florida! by Suzanne Bacal
First, a bit about me. Born and raised in Philadelphia, I received my undergraduate degree from Hofstra University in NY and my graduate degree from the University of Miami in Florida. Since 1986, I have worked for Liberty Resources, Philadelphia's Independent Living Center. My position is Coordinator of Community Education and Outreach. I am proud to consider myself an advocate. My disability is known as Spinal Muscular Atrophy (SMA), I use a power chair when I work, a manual chair when at home, and a ventilator at night.
Having close relatives living in the Fort Lauderdale area, I have visited yearly since graduate school, so I am not a tourist when I go there. I can go alone: all I have to do is get to the airport in Philadelphia, and my relatives take care of the rest: my transportation, my lodging, my meals, my entertainment, my attendant care. Pretty good deal, huh? Cheap, too.
Well, last year, one of my cousins was to be married and I was to attend the wedding. I would not ask the family to be responsible for me. They had enough to do. My sister from Connecticut agreed to go with me and would assist me while there. I offered to plan the trip. Everything would go on my credit card and we'd settle up when we returned.
As you probably know, people with disabilities (and most everyone else) do best when we plan ahead. That's what I did with this trip and it was easy, fun and anxiety free.
First, I called my travel agent to book the flights and seat assignments. Be sure they know your specific needs. Once I used a different agent who obviously had not been listening. When I got to the plane, my assigned seat was in the 19th row, by the window and I need help transferring!
Next, I called the hotel, questioned them about accessibility, and reserved an accessible room.
Third, I called Wheelchair Getaways and reserved an accessible van. The best feature of this company is that they will meet you at the airport with your van when you arrive, and then again when you get to the airport to depart.
Fourth, I called to reserve a ride to the airport in Philadelphia, as well as a return ride.
Fifth, I even purchased the gift and had it sent. My sister thanked me for all my preparation so she did not have to worry about anything. But to me, we were both doing what we could to make the other person's trip possible.
My sister arrived forty-five minutes before our ride was due. The van arrived on time and check-in at the airport was quick and simple. Glad I decided to get my non-driver�s license because they wouldn�t have let me through airport security without it.
Due to weather, our flight was delayed and we arrived late. Since I needed assistance, I was deplaned last, making us even later. We went down to baggage claim and a man came up to us, introduced himself as 'Vinnie from Wheelchair Getaways� and proceeded to assist us to the van with our bags. He instructed us on the operation of the vehicle, the tie-downs, gave us directions to the hotel and told us he'd see us in five days.
It was December. We had just left cold, ice, wind and grumbling people, What we were met with were smiling, friendly people, 75 degrees, light breezes, the moon was shining brightly and all around us, up and down the highway were palm trees decorated for the holidays!
The hotel was nice and large and accessible. We called the family to let them know we had arrived and ended up meeting my cousin and her intended for dinner. I realized that I had not gotten directions from the hotel to the synagogue so I got them at dinner.
DAY 1. Wedding day. We had breakfast at the hotel buffet and agreed to meet cousins (with three small children) for a Christmas parade along Hallandale beach. Imagine people in shorts wearing antlers, bathing suits and Santa hats A giant Grenache balloon being towed by a dune buggy. Marching bands playing Yuletide songs. A 21-gun salute. People lined up along the road in lawn chairs in shorts, sandals and sunglasses, taking photos and sipping cold drinks. Right about that time, the heavens opened up and it began to pour. As fast as you could say "Twilight Zone," everyone and everything disappeared. We headed back to the hotel, took naps and then got ready for the wedding.
The wedding was called for 7:30. We left the hotel at 6:30 even though the synagogue was only ten minutes away. After about twenty minutes on the road, we had no idea where we were and where we should be. Let's ask! We asked a woman if she knew where Temple Sinai was. She asked "You want cyanide?" She had no idea. Desperately seeking the synagogue, we stopped at a gas station to look up the address in the yellow pages so we could get better directions. Two pieces of advise: always know the name, address, and phone number of where you are going, and NEVER get directions to a wedding from the bride-to-be.
We got there at 7:35 and they had held up the ceremony for us.
DAY 2. What to do? I happen to be very short and when I sit in a car, can barely see out. Since we had a van and I was able to stay in my chair, I had a great view. We decided to take a ride along Collins Avenue to see South Beach. It was cloudy, but who cared? We were inside the van. As we drove along, the wind began to pick up and the rain poured down in buckets. Listening to the radio, we discovered we were driving through a hurricane! By the time we got to South Beach, the rain had stopped, so we parked and took a walk along the beach. We found a cute little open-air caf�, where I had grilled mahi-mahi and my sister had conch fritters. We drove back to the hotel, stopping along the way to buy T-shirts for the niece and nephew (There is a T-shirt shop every three feet in South Florida).
Although my sister and I had never traveled together, we did very well. However, we needed a breather so we planned to take two days apart. Around dinner time, my sister dropped me off at my cousin's and she went to stay with some friends living on a houseboat at the beach.
DAY 3. Spent the day eating leftovers from the wedding, talking, and watching videos. We had a huge storm the entire time I was there.
DAY4. Our flight was due at noon. My sister came to pick me up at about 10:00. The airport was not far. We still got to the plane late. Vinnie from Wheelchair Getaways was there waiting for us. Our seats had been given away so, alas, we had to sit in first class. Too bad I don't drink!
Back home, my sister could not wait to get back in her car and go home. We agreed to do this again some time. But not too soon.
By the way, throughout the four days in Florida, the sun never came out!
Florida Division of Tourism
Wheelchairs on the Go: Accessible Fun in Florida
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