Access for All

The wheelchair access queue line, the closed-captioning on a ride safety video, the legendarily long paragraphs of signage telling you ‘if you have any of these conditions don’t go on this ride’ – inclusion of all guests – regardless of disability –  in location-based experiences like theme parks, museums, amusement parks, immersive theater, and more often comes across as an afterthought. But it shouldn’t be: according to the World Health Organization there are over 1.3 billion people who have one or more disabilities1. They are a wellspring of humanity that our places, spaces, stories, and structures have historically excluded, ignored, or failed to serve. This community is far from a monolith, with varying wants, needs, and desires – just like any other group of potential employees, colleagues, collaborators, clients, or customers. And, like other historically marginalized groups, they have not only failed to see themselves meaningfully represented or welcomed into these places but also been subjected to laws, policies, and structural bias that have deprived them of agency and equal opportunity. 

Three Black and disabled folx cracking up while strolling down a sidewalk on a windy day. On the left, a non-binary person walks with a cane in one hand and a tangle stim toy in the other. In the middle, a non-binary person rolls along in their power wheelchair. On the right, a woman is walking with fabulously windswept hair. A street parking meter is in the background on the right.
Photo Credit: Disabled And Here

Historically, disability inclusion has focused on what’s necessary from a legal and safety standpoint. As with any global industry, location-based entertainment (LBE), and thus experience design, has to grapple with varying laws and regulations regarding inclusion of persons with disabilities. But it’s especially acute for experience design – the teams and clients we work with overseas are subject to different laws and regulations, and cultural sensibilities. The places we design and build must at the very least abide by local laws. It can feel overwhelming quickly.


But we can do so much better than the low bar of what’s legal. Philosophically we begin from two very simple suppositions.

  • First, we must partner with subject matter experts, just as with other areas which contribute to the overall success of the project, center the voices of expertise and lived experience, and be transparent in our discussions. 
  • Second, laws and regulations define minimums for compliance, not optimal or practical scenarios of diverse accessibility. Abiding by, for instance, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) means we can design an exhibit or ride that we won’t get sued for, but that doesn’t mean the resulting experience is welcoming, inclusive, or even good.

In a tight economy concerned with making up lost ground from the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact, it could be all too easy to do the minimum – that doesn’t just lead to an inferior product, it is also short-sighted, creates a poor user experience not only for the individual but also for the accompanying friends and family, and leaves significant money on the table. 

This is not a tiny demographic with a small financial impact: in 2018-19, more than 27 million travelers with disabilities took a total of 81 million trips, spending $58.7 billion on their own travel alone (up from $34.6 billion in 2015). Open Doors Organization (ODO) – a non-profit that strives to educate businesses on disability inclusion in the workplace – noted with speaker and ODO Executive Director Eric Lipp, that “the true economic impact is higher, potentially even double, since people with disabilities typically travel with one or more other adults.”2 In an effort to engage the disability community, it is not enough to simply have good intentions. “Nothing about us without us,” a mantra in disability activism that gained traction in the 1990s, isn’t just a snappy slogan: it is foundational to being successful. 

Even in the course of writing this article, Thinkwell and our friends at Ruh Global IMPACT – a leading consultant agency who amplify the impact of organizations’ disability inclusion strategies –  had a spirited discussion about person-first (“people with disabilities”) and identity-first (“disabled people”) language. It speaks to the importance of having a variety of empowered voices at the table from the very beginning – and in this case, of simply asking what language someone prefers, honoring that input, and realizing different people will have varying perspectives.3 Recently there’s been a movement in disability activism to use identity-first language, and Thinkwell tends to utilize a mix of identity-first and person-first as a result, depending on the context, situation, and the stated preference of those involved. Ruh Global’s inclusive team preferentially uses person-first. You’ll see in future articles, if we are quoting from or interviewing an individual, we will use their preferred terminology and we’ll be explicit about it – so there’s every possibility you’ll see multiple terminology choices in a single article, depending upon the people involved. Everyone has different wants and needs, and this isn’t one-size-fits-all.

Wheelchair access sign in theme park

Similarly, in our design processes, we cannot treat persons with disabilities as tokens or use a one-size-fits-all approach. A guest who is blind may have some accessibility needs and concerns that overlap with a wheelchair-user, but simply put, they fundamentally do not have all the same needs. Meeting the needs of one segment but shrugging and saying meeting the needs of other segments is too hard, expensive, or impinges on the work environment or designed experience is unacceptable.  In order to fully live up to “nothing about us without us”, companies must be willing to put in the work to examine their culture and policies for ways in which they are unwelcoming, exclusionary, and/or biased; redress those failings; re-evaluate and iterate. They must genuinely listen when team members with lived experiences or focus group participants from the persons with disabilities community give them negative feedback and incorporate that input into the work.  It’s not all negative – this is an opportunity for designers and teams to get creative and innovative. 

Universal design, which in our context means to craft environments and experiences that can be used by the greatest number of people, is our holy grail. Wheelchair access queues on rides are useful, but oftentimes they mean guests who utilize them miss out on the pre-show experience. Offering sign language interpretation of shows is helpful, but when it needs to be booked two weeks in advance it’s inconvenient and exclusionary. Universal design is better for everyone, whether it’s seating and rest opportunities in a queue making it easier and more comfortable for a kid who’s flagging by 3 pm or someone with a balance disorder to wait in line for a ride, or provide clear and easy means to increase font size on a touch screen for guests with low vision or emergent readers or the aging.  Just like moms with strollers, tourists with rolling luggage, and food cart vendors use the curb cuts originally designed for people who use wheelchairs, universal design in location-based entertainment makes a better experience for everyone.

Photo Credit: Disabled And Here

A Look Ahead: Thinkwell’s D&I Plans For 2021

Like many, we here at Thinkwell had more than a smidge of gladness to turn the page on 2020 and welcome the new year. With the promise of widespread vaccination in the not-too-distant future, there’s cause for optimism. At the same time, we are keenly aware of how much work there is to do this year in inclusion, diversity, equity, and access, as we continue our intertwined efforts of Thinkwell 3.0 and the work of our Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council

These represent profound organizational change: they both touch every aspect of how Thinkwell operates, the work we do, and our role in our industry. Part of that work is fulfilling our pledge to be open and honest about our work, our progress, and our shortcomings.

As we look to the future, we’ve implemented several key changes and have additional work in development. These include:

  • Our D&I Council has overseen and analyzed our first Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging survey, using our LA Studio team as the prototype, and the team is now in the process of defining, staffing, and empowering specific efforts to address some of the issues and opportunities that came out of that survey.
  • We have launched our Studio Team program, again with the LA Studio as the prototype. Studio Teams bring together small groups of Thinkwellians across disciplines for professional development, career guidance, and workplace culture initiatives.
  • We have worked with our HR software provider to expand terminology in our forms and documentation, to be more inclusive and welcoming.
  • We have partnered with an external organization to provide all of our Los Angeles staff with unconscious bias training.

These and other efforts touch every facet of Thinkwell, including content on Thinkwell’s blog and social media channels. Working with our D&I Council, we’re planning a year of content that leverages our platform, as leaders in the industry, to support education and awareness around the role, impact, and responsibility of experience design in diversity, equity, access, and inclusion. Rather than confine these posts to affinity months, we’re planning on addressing these subjects year-round. It’s also important to have a wide range of voices at all times, elevating them for their expertise and unique viewpoints, and we hope you’ll enjoy what we have to share over the coming months.


Identifying Thinkwell Group’s Diversity & Inclusion Council

As Thinkwell approaches its 20th anniversary, it was time, in many regards, to take stock. Like so many companies in our industry, we’ve grown and contracted over the years with the ebb and flow of projects and built ourselves organically into the company we are today. As we look towards our next twenty years, one thing that became clear was that no matter how good our intentions were, we need to ensure that our values are baked into our structures, policies, practices, and culture. As there was increasing awareness of and discourse around systemic racism and violence towards Black people, in particular, this work took on extra urgency.

Diversity & Inclusion work is a long arc which never ends: because we will always need to do the work of ensuring our work environments, processes, and creative products do not perpetuate inequity or harm. Because of this, it was crucial that we spend the time and effort putting in place a team and framework that will allow this work to be iterative, measurable, and enduring. This summer, we solicited interest from staff across every team in our LA Studio, and assembled our Diversity & Inclusion (D&I) Council. The members are drawn from every discipline and range from newcomers to the industry to seasoned veterans who represent a wide variety of traditionally underrepresented groups. 

Importantly, the Council is not charged with ‘fixing it’ – that’s a mistake all too many companies and institutions make when beginning this process. Rather, they identify, empower, and assess:

  • Through a combination of tools, including surveys, workshops, and interviews, identify areas both internally to Thinkwell and externally where inequity and racism lurk and must be addressed and define projects to address these. As an example, the Diversity and Inclusion Council reviewed and workshopped our revised Vision, Mission, and Values statements.
  • Assemble and empower D&I Project teams, drawing on the expertise and enthusiasm of other Thinkwellians, to take on projects specific to improving D&I. For example, many Thinkwellians faced educational barriers and a lack of support for their chosen careers when they were younger; a project team will develop a toolkit Thinkwellians can use in their communities to help engage traditionally underrepresented youth in the career opportunities Themed Entertainment represents.
  • Through studio- and company-wide surveys, the D&I council will assess where the internal Thinkwell culture sits with regards to these issues. In addition, the D&I Council will review and synthesize evaluation to assess the outcomes of the D&I projects, and report out on where we are succeeding and where we still have work to do.

This structure has two important features baked in: first, it does not put the burden of developing, implementing, and evolving solutions strictly on the Diversity & Inclusion Council, through the involvement of other Thinkwellians in those project teams. Secondly, by placing an emphasis on assessment, it allows us to both build on quantifiable success and report to the industry at large the impact and importance of our efforts. Ultimately, while our work is inward, we want to share our efforts widely, so that we can see real change take hold in the industry we’ve collectively dedicated our careers to and love so dearly.

To find out more about our work, please feel free to contact Nkenge Cameron, head of our D&I Council, or Cynthia Sharpe, executive advocate for the council.


Introducing Thinkwell’s New Diversity & Inclusion Council

Over the course of nearly two decades of Thinkwell’s operation, our awareness of issues of diversity, equity, inclusion, and access has evolved and grown. Our challenge is to ensure Thinkwell, as an organization and as a leader in the themed entertainment industry, reflects and embraces this understanding. One of the most important organizational changes we’ve made recently is the establishment of a Diversity & Inclusion Council. This is not a box to tick off, but one element in a commitment to this important, unending work. The Thinkwellians on the Council have come forward to help ensure their colleagues and the industry at large can hold honest conversations about the issues we all are facing and hopefully make our world—and industry—a better place.

Our Diversity & Inclusion Council is comprised of 20 employees across identities, teams, and seniority, in order to bring diverse perspectives to the table. The mission of the group is to track and manage three core areas: 

Assessment: Continually assessing the current state of Thinkwell, progress in achieving inclusion and impact of projects spearheaded by the D&I Council

Identification of Opportunities: Exploring the major needs or areas for improvement, forming internal teams to develop plans and methodologies to address these needs, and providing feedback to those internal teams.

Education and Support: Curate content for Thinkwellians to review and discuss in small groups internally, codify and disseminate best practices in our processes and work products, develop outreach tools for Thinkwellians to use in the industry, and share our thought leadership with the themed entertainment industry.

Change is not easy, but it is our responsibility to not only do this work, but share our process and outcomes so that others may benefit. By championing this work with empathy, humility, honesty, and understanding, we believe we can help advance the industry we’ve dedicated our careers to, ensuring the workplace we’ve built and the industry we serve is one that is safe, fair, and welcoming for all.

The times they are a changin’

Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen cultural touchstones undergo earthshaking change. From the announcement—quickly followed by the unveiling at Disneyland Paris — that the Pirates of the Caribbean ride would no longer feature the “Bride Auction” scene to the undeniable diversity in the A Wrinkle in Time trailer to the announcement of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Dr Who, we’ve seen all manner of assumptions get toppled. And as is de rigueur these days for announcements of this type, we’ve seen an onslaught of reaction, both positive and negative, online. Much of the negative reaction, in all three cases, goes back to remarkably similar foundations: that it’s not how a given creative work was originally envisioned and that this is yet another example of political correctness taken too far.

At Thinkwell, we say: bring it on. We’re delighted to see more mindful and better representation in creative works. Storytelling, in our minds, is better when it’s not exclusionary or needlessly hurtful. Culture changes. Mindsets evolve. This isn’t a matter of being politically correct; it’s a matter of us, as a society, being more mindful, inclusive, and welcoming than we were when an intellectual property was initially developed decades prior. And thus, the things we have grown to love with the warm fuzzy halo of nostalgia may not look as fantastic in the clear light of day when we actually take a step back and think deeply about what these creative works tell people about our values and what’s acceptable.

It’s not how it was created to be, it’s not what Walt made. We get it. We love what we love, we cling to the good ol’ days, the touchstones of our youth. Some of us are still bitter about the removal of Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride from the Magic Kingdom in Florida, for instance. Pirates, however, is a great example of needing to change. It’s not a historical treatise on piracy in the Caribbean (if it were, it’s doing a really poor, whitewashed job of it), so the complaints that it’s somehow historically “accurate” to have a bride auction fall flat. It’s meant as escapism, as a created world, not a historical diorama. With the heightened unreality and stylization of the feature films—which prominently have female pirates in them—it’s a created world that Disney is inviting guests to be a part of. We see this beyond the ride and movies, too, from “Pirates in the Caribbean” on the cruise ships to the Pirates League makeover experience at Magic Kingdom to the Jake and the Never Land Pirates TV series. Disney wants guests to envision themselves as part of this world.

By that logic, of course the bride auction is overdue for reinvention. It’s emblematic of violence against women, a moment that many a parent has cringed at and distracted their children away from as, societally, we become more aware of just what this scene is telegraphing. There’s fat shaming, loss of agency, abuse, enslavement, all things that, again, we didn’t think twice about a couple of decades ago. Those things don’t belong in a creative world Disney is inviting everyone to be a part of. We know better now. And so, our experiences need to also be better.
We already see this push to “be better” in action in a variety of ways in other attractions and events at both Disney and Universal.

Disney has increased diversity and representation in its IP, from the casting choices in A Wrinkle in Time to the mixed ethnicity in Miles From Tomorrowland, Doc McStuffins embracing of a middle class African American family to the Latina Elena of Avalor. While the Harry Potter movies featured a white lead trio, the “world” of Harry Potter itself is diverse by design; Universal upholds this sense of being welcoming to all, “you can be a part of this world” strategy in its Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Both park empires have become more forward thinking in their marketing and events, too: Universal particularly excels at appealing to the large Latinx market in southern California (even incorporating a maze based on the La Llorona legend into its Hollywood Horror Nights) and Disney has gone from appeasing offended heterosexual men who happened to be in the park on the unofficial “Gay Days” and distancing themselves from the event to embracing it entirely (down to rainbow-themed merch in the stores, of course). These are all great things, which continually expand the worlds of Universal and Disney to let more and more people be right there in the heart of the story, not just on the fringes. And we’re eager to see how this continues to play out, from Universal’s Nintendoland to the potential for full-on immersion in the Star Wars universe at various Disney Parks (especially given the increasing prominence of women and people of color in the IP).

So we see the upgrades—and let us be clear, we see these as upgrades, not changes—to Pirates of the Caribbean as the next step in this march toward being better and doing better. In a world where Disney is encouraging little girls to dream of being a princess, like Elena, or a pediatrician, like Doc McStuffins, or even dress up as a pirate themselves at the Pirates League experience, it only stands to reason that they’d elevate the representation of women from victim to victor, from princess to general. Long live the Redheaded Pirate, long may she reign.
Image courtesy of HarshLight on Flickr