5 jul. 2016

Discovering the (Mostly) Accessible Atlantis Resort

Somewhere under the deep blue sea, the mythic lost city of Atlantis may lie in wait, holding secrets beyond our imagination. But when it came time to plan my family’s trip last summer, my husband, daughter and I were happy to settle for the more real — and much more commercial — Atlantis Resort, a gigantic tourist wonderland just off the coast of Nassau in the Bahamas.
Ellen Stohl
Ellen Stohl

Since its inception in 1998, Atlantis Resort has spread to cover almost every inch of the aptly named Paradise Island’s 1.1 square miles with every conceivable tourist draw, from Broadway-caliber theater to turquoise lagoons where you can swim with dolphins, to nearly 20 water slides and beautiful beaches where you can sop up the sun. The tourist map you receive when booking a trip is so dense with attractions, restaurants and shops as to be almost overwhelming.

Trying to wrap my head around the resort’s accessibility and the best ways to maximize our four nights and five days considering my needs as a manual wheelchair user proved daunting. Luckily the resort has published an extensive access guide with answers to many of the common questions about accessible rooms, attractions and more. It’s important to note that the Bahamas are not part of the United States and are not required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Unsure of the implications of this reality, I touched base with John Sage, a T4 incomplete para who has spent considerable time in the region running his accessible travel services, Sage Traveling and Accessible Caribbean Vacations.
“In the Caribbean there is not always ideal accessibility, but there is the right attitude,” he said. “Most people are eager to please and will often come up with creative solutions to help someone with a disability get where they need to go or do what they want to do.” He finds Nassau and Paradise Island to be more accessible than many other Caribbean destinations, but warned that “the main island and Paradise Island have hills. Also, in addition to the steepness of natural features, the bridge from the cruise terminal to Paradise Island is long and high and too difficult for a manual wheelchair user to push over by themselves.”
Ellen Stohl, her husband, David, and her daughter, Zoe, enjoyed their Atlantis stay.
Ellen Stohl, her husband, David, and her daughter, Zoe, enjoyed their Atlantis stay.
Finding Paradise
Choosing the right accommodations is always important, but even more so at Atlantis. Why? Because the island is huge (for a wheeler) and there are no accessible shuttles to help you get from place to place. Routes are paved and there are accessible paths of travel to all exhibits, but some exhibits require a specific route for accessibility, and they are not always clearly marked. Most guests use the resort shuttle to cover the mile-long island’s many routes, but wheelchair users are out of luck. As Sage says, “Getting around in a manual chair can be tiresome and time consuming.” We often found ourselves running late for reservations and questioning our decision not to stay in the centrally located Royal Towers.
Of the resort’s hundreds, if not thousands, of rooms to choose from, only 30 are deemed “accessible,” with safety bars, lowered sinks and roll-in showers — 12 housed in the Royal Towers. We chose to stay at The Reef, one of the two luxury towers at the west end of the island. The suites at The Reef offer full kitchens. After reading many travel reviews about the high cost of food at the resort, I figured getting groceries from town and cooking our own food would save us money and balance out the higher-end accommodations. Staying at the luxury level hotels, The Reef or The Cove, also gets you access to a private beach and pools. My husband is not a big fan of crowds and neither am I. Navigating through hordes of tourists in a wheelchair can get tiresome, so having an option to relax away from the hustle of the bustling Aquaventure Park was on our “must have” list.
Our suite at The Reef was experiencing electrical problems, so we were upgraded to a room at The Cove. I was offered an accessible room, but it was on the first floor and I didn’t want to give up the view. So we stayed on the 19th floor and had a spectacular view. The room was not labeled as accessible, but it was very roomy. With only a shower bench from housekeeping, I was easily able to complete my activities of daily living with minimal assistance from my family. With a few more adaptations and pieces of adaptive equipment, the room could become fully accessible to all guests except those with the highest level of mobility issues.
John Sage
John Sage
So Much to Do, So Little Time
To plan our agenda we revisited our “must have” list. Swimming with dolphins was a must for me and my daughter, while my husband insisted we find time to snorkel and relax — beach or pool side. All of us wanted to experience the wild water slides and amazing marine life and see the iconic Tony Bennett with Lady Gaga on the Atlantis Live stage. There were so many possibilities that my head was spinning each time I tried to execute the perfect vacation plan and maintain a realistic budget.
This resort has something for everyone. A Vegas-esque casino, 11 swimming pools, gorgeous beaches, gourmet restaurants and awe-inspiring water experiences for every age and ability. The resort is also home to the world’s largest open-air marine habitat, which includes 14 lagoons with more than 250 species and 50,000 aquatic animals, including giant rays, sawfish, piranha, barracuda, tropical fish and more.
There is also a marina village filled with shops, 40 different restaurants, bars and lounges, and Aquaventure, a 141-acre lushly landscaped area full of thrilling water experiences and slides.
Aquaventure is home to Dolphin Cay, a state-of-the-art dolphin education center and interaction habitat. Dolphin Cay offers a number of options for guests who want to get up close and personal with the dolphins. We chose the Deep Water Swim based on the Access Guide’s clear indication that it was open to guests with special needs so long as they inform the staff in advance of their booking.
It was as if the dolphin knew Stohl needed extra support to swim across the lagoon.
It was as if the dolphin knew Stohl needed extra support to swim across the lagoon.
When we showed up, the staff was incredibly helpful and open to suggestions. We got to touch, kiss, feed and swim with the dolphins in their habitat. The final thrill was Dolphin Cay’s signature “foot push,” where a powerful dolphin propels you across the lagoon for an amazing rush. The “foot push” requires guests to straighten their legs and hold them stiff, something I cannot do. That didn’t deter me or the trainers. They tried locking my knees with a life vest, and when that did not work, one of the trainers had me ride piggyback so the dolphin had a strong set of limbs to push. It was a magical experience, communing with such intelligent creatures and gliding across the lagoon. The dolphins were so in tune with my needs that as I was being propelled, another dolphin swam beside me. It was as if they knew I needed extra support.
Sage, a veteran of many dolphin attractions, was not surprised. “You can swim with dolphins at a variety of locations throughout the Caribbean, but when I was there, the Atlantis staff was willing to accommodate and work with people who have disabilities,” he said. “Not all places are open or comfortable doing that.”
On top of all the water and beach-related options, Atlantis has a theater, a nightclub, a comedy club and a larger event space, called Atlantis Live. It just so happened that Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga were playing at Atlantis Live during our stay. Tickets were about the same as they were for the Hollywood Bowl, and they were actually still available at the Atlantis venue.
Ellen and her daughter Zoe.
Ellen and her daughter Zoe.
Wanting to ensure accessible seating, I contacted the box office, only to be told that the Silver seating area isn’t wheelchair accessible, so I was limited to two seats in the accessible Gold area at the Silver price. I let them know that I appreciated the price accommodation, but I calmly explained that there were four of us traveling and we’d like to enjoy the show together. In the end it all worked out as we got the needed companion tickets and enjoyed a memorable night.
We almost missed out on another of our favorite attractions, The Dig, because we could not find the accessible entry point. Thankfully, we persevered. The Dig is a maze of underground passageways and tunnels offering underwater vistas into the boulevards and streets of the ruins of the lost city, and it is where the myth of Atlantis truly comes alive. We got to explore the ancient laboratories of the legendary Atlanteans and marvel at their inventions of electricity, flying machines and submarines.
The Dig also features an interactive touch tank aquarium, as well as over 100 venomous lionfish, 500 piranhas, iridescent jellyfish and six-foot moray eels. There are also special environments that hold nine species of enormous groupers.
Beyond these three attractions, my family and I divided our time between hanging out at the beach, snorkeling, swimming and relaxing, and the Aquaventure park.
Water, Water Everywhere
I absolutely loved the beaches and the ease of obtaining a beach wheelchair. The ocean breeze along the shore countered any trace of humidity and the weather consistently hovered in the high 70s and low 80s. The water was a comfortable 80 degrees, so I could spend hours snorkeling along the shallow shoreline. Covered lounge chairs, lined up in rows only a few feet from the water’s edge, made going from the sea to sunbathing an easy jaunt, especially since there was always a staff member around to help out. Unlike many American theme parks and resorts, staff is not restricted from assisting guests.
Inspired by the can-do mentality, we decided to add the Snorkel the Ruins experience to our agenda even though the Access Guide indicated that “Participants must be able to stand up; step down into the exhibit; walk along a sandy, rocky floor; and snorkel in 15 feet of water with sharks, rays and schooling fish.” I didn’t think anyone would actually be walking in 15 feet of water, they’d be swimming; so we decided to press our luck. I was right — the tour guides had no problem helping my husband transfer me to the ground and navigate me down the two steps into the Ruins Lagoon. Everyone wore life vests as we were led through the unique underwater vistas swimming alongside sleek sharks, spotted rays and brilliantly colored tropical fish.
Aquaventure park boasts 20 water slides, two river rides, 11 pools, three unique beaches, and a seven-acre snorkeling lagoon. Several pools have zero access entry points, and water wheelchairs are available on request. The chairs are designed to help transport guests into the water where they can transfer into the pool or onto a raft.
The “Snorkel the Ruins” attraction was listed as inaccessible, but Stohl made it work.
The “Snorkel the Ruins” attraction was listed as inaccessible, but Stohl made it work.
Our favorite attraction was The Current, a mile-long rapid river that propelled our inner tubes through churning rapids, lazy stretches and three and four-foot waves. This attraction also allowed easy access to the Power Tower conveyor belts that lead to four of the featured water attractions: The Fall, The Drop, The Abyss and The Surge. Most of the water slides require the ability to climb stairs, but guests can access both The Falls and The Drop tube rides via a conveyer belt. This means that once you’ve had help transferring into the raft, you can be conveyed up four-stories without walking at all. This can NOT be done alone and should only be attempted if you have good upper body strength and the ability to sit upright and hold on tight.
Water levels were low our first few days on the rapids, so the conveyer belts were closed. They finally opened on our last day, giving me a chance to ride. From four stories up, the view was amazing. I could see the entire Atlantic Ocean stretched out before me for miles. The conveyer belt dropped our two-person tube into a small stretch of free flowing water that led to the slide. Many guests disembarked to move their tubes along more quickly. This wasn’t an option for us; I couldn’t walk and if my husband got off, we risked flipping. Once the ride staff knew I couldn’t walk, they provided the assistance we needed by pulling us along. My heart raced, I had not been on a waterslide since before my injury over 30 years ago. The gate opened and SWOOSH, down we went at an exhilarating speed that ended with a gigantic splash.
The wide grin on my face at the end of the ride is a fair representation of my overall experience at Atlantis. Other than the lack of accessible shuttles, I was extremely surprised by the level of access. Public restrooms, restaurants and room amenities (if not numbers of accessible rooms) at Atlantis were on par with ADA designs in the United States, and other resort venues were quick to provide access and additional support if need be. Based on my experience, while the resort may not comply with the letter of the ADA, I would say it does a good job of following the spirit of the law.
• Atlantis Resort, 800/Atlantis;  www.atlantisbahamas.com (call 242/363-3000 for disability-related needs)
• Accessible Caribbean Vacations, 888/490-1280; www.accessiblecaribbeanvacations.com
• Sage Traveling, 888/645-7920; www.sagetraveling.com

The Curious Case of Accessible Caribbean Transportation

Between cruises and flights, getting to Atlantis and other Caribbean resorts is relatively easy and cheap. Getting around on the islands once you’re there? Well, that’s a whole other matter.
What trip to the Caribbean would be complete without swimming with dolphins?
What trip to the Caribbean would be complete without swimming with dolphins?
Like many resorts, The Atlantis offers a variety of shuttle services to the main island, including an accessible van. However, it costs $288 roundtrip for the accessible van shuttle. It does include transport for up to eight adults. Compare that with the $33 cost of an individual roundtrip on a bus. If you have a large party, maybe you can justify the $288 — maybe — but if there are less than eight passengers, the cost of the short ride feels a bit unfair. Limos, town cars, and SUVs are also a choice, but they are as spendy as the accessible van and require the ability to transfer.
After speaking with John Sage, the founder of Accessible Caribbean Vacations, about his experience, I learned that accessible vehicles anywhere in the Caribbean are hard to come by due to the high import tax on vehicles. “There are only three wheelchair accessible vans between Nassau and Paradise Island, and rarely are all of them operational at the same time. Additionally, the demand for accessible vans can be huge when cruise ships arrive. If you need a wheelchair accessible van in Nassau, be sure to book it weeks or months in advance.” Accessible Caribbean Vacations offers several shore excursions to Atlantis if you’re visiting Nassau as part of a cruise destination, and all of them include fully accessible van transportation.

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