San Diego: An Eye on Accessibility

By | 2017-01-13T20:44:09+00:00 August 1st, 2000|
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By Alan Toy

For more than 10 years I drove straight through San Diego on my way to more rustic camping and fishing adventures in Baja. I wouldn’t even stop for gas, since it was always cheaper south of the border. Mexico was where the action was.

Then in 1990, my wife, Theresa, went to a conference in San Diego. She was quite pregnant with our son John Henry, and she invited me along to squeeze in some personal time as a couple before our priorities changed forever. As it turned out, my opinion of San Diego also changed forever. Since then, we’ve been back again and again, each time discovering new things we like about California’s second and America’s seventh largest city.

More recently, after John Henry told us his own getaway priorities, we all returned to visit Legoland, the newest attraction in the area. Since we had several days to spend, we decided to revisit some favorite haunts and make a concerted effort to find new ones, all with an eye on accessibility.

Vacations are supposed to be fun, not a struggle with barriers. So this review of things to do and see in San Diego will point out some of the good, a little of the bad and try to steer you away from the ugly.

For those who want to plan in advance, there is a terrific access guide called Access In San Diegopublished each year by Accessible San Diego (ASD). The guide–now in its ninth edition–gives brief descriptions of hotels, restaurants, amusement parks and the area’s many other tourist attractions, and has reliable information about their access features, locations and contact numbers. It also lists accessible public transportation providers, community service agencies and a host of other resources including wheelchair repair and independent living services. If every city had information like this available in one booklet, travel for people with disabilities would be a lot more fun.

On this trip we stayed at the Town and Country Resort Hotel in Mission Valley, which is 10 minutes out of downtown and close to SeaWorld and Old Town San Diego, the historic heart of the city. It’s an older, sprawling complex–not luxurious but certainly comfortable and accessible–with a staff trained (by ASD) to meet the needs of disabled visitors.

And San Diego has plenty of other accessible hotels. The new Hyatt Regency has no less than 25 rooms with roll-in showers. Access In San Diego lists more than a dozen hotels, with a wide range of prices and in different parts of the city, all with accessible accommodations. Downtown San Diego is currently experiencing a boom in new hotel construction, so finding fully ADA-compliant lodging is only going to get easier in the future.

San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System advertises that all its trolleys and buses are accessible. There’s also an MTS Access Service which provides point-to-point paratransit service for $3.50 each way, exact change required. To use it, you must be ADA-paratransit-certified in your hometown or in San Diego. MTS Access can make same-day pickups, but recommends making reservations two days in advance. The Old Town Trolley tour, which covers more than 100 points of interest, has one fully accessible vehicle, but reservations must be made 24 hours in advance and you may not be able to get off en route. If you can transfer in and out of the vehicle from your manual chair, the other trolleys can transport you.

Or you can turn to private enterprise. Lift-equipped Cloud 9 Shuttle vans serve the airport and many of the city’s hotels. They also serve all the major attractions and can even take visitors into Mexico. Make sure to call in advance for prices and reservations.

A good way to see some of San Diego’s beauty is by water. I was booked on the Lord Hornblower for a one-hour harbor tour, but it didn’t sail because of an electrical failure. The smaller Pacific Hornblower is not wheelchair accessible, so I switched to a 25-mile two-hour tour on the San Diego Harbor Excursion Tour boat Marietta, which accommodates wheelchairs on its main inside deck. This was a relaxing trip that featured close-up views of many of the billion-dollar warships in the busy Navy yards, and gorgeous views of the Coronado Bridge and the San Diego skyline. Harbor Excursion also runs ferries to Coronado Island, whale-watching tours in season (December to March), and dinner tours of the harbor.

The Harbor Excursion boats aren’t perfect. You can easily get to the bar onboard, but none of the boats have accessible bathrooms–a lethal combination! So use the restroom in the gift shop before you leave. And beware of the ramp down to the boats, which is very steep at certain tides.

While you’re in the Harbor Cruise area, check out the 1863 tall ship Star of India (from the shore–it isn’t accessible by chair) and the Maritime Museum, which is partially accessible, but also by way of a very steep ramp. The museum is a floating collection of three centuries of ship models and artifacts–a real find for anyone who likes maritime history.

Another pleasant way to get around San Diego is on the city’s many accessible paths, especially on those sunny Mediterranean days that Southern California has so often. The Harbor Promenade is one of the best, but in nearby La Jolla, there’s a sunset stroll along the coastal bluffs that is absolutely gorgeous and quite accessible as long as you’re not interested in going down to the beach. While you’re in La Jolla, visit the Birch Aquarium at Scripps. This small jewel of a museum is a stunning display of Pacific coast underwater habitats.

Theme Parks and Zoos
San Diego’s best known attractions are its three major animal parks–the San Diego Zoo, the Wild Animal Park and SeaWorld San Diego Adventure Park.

The San Diego Zoo is world-famous, one of the finest urban zoos in the country. Here you’ll find the first baby giant panda born in the Western Hemisphere since 1990. Another baby lives in the hippo tank, where you can watch the hippos both above and below water. The sight of a two-ton hippo and her calf gracefully swimming together is worth the price of admission in itself.

The zoo has a few ways for visitors with mobility limitations to enjoy themselves without pushing or being pushed. The guided bus tours provide a broad overview of the park and let you pick areas and exhibits you want to return to. Wheelchair users can roll right on, but not more than a couple at a time.

The Skyfari is an aerial tram that crisscrosses the zoo. It’s relaxing and fun, but requires transferring out of your chair to board. The attendants will hold onto your equipment and give you a round-trip pass for the 10-minute ride. There is also a shuttle serving some of the steepest hills. Ignoring all kinds of warning signs, I stupidly took my chair onto one of the Speedramps–these are escalator-like conveyances up the canyons–and found the second section wasn’t turned on. So I had to really puff up that section with Theresa, John Henry and a hefty stranger all chipping in to get me to the top. We called the shuttle after that!

The zoo has good restroom facilities, including family rooms with plenty of space for those needing help. Service animals, of course, are allowed, but bring your vet or training records. Attendants or caregivers are admitted free and chairs and electric scooters can be rented at the entrance.

A companion zoo, the Wild Animal Park, is 30 miles out of San Diego. It is known for its Center for the Reproduction of Endangered Species, which has brought the California Condor, among other wildlife, back from the brink of extinction. The Condor Ridge exhibit is a great place to see several of the condors hatched in the park’s breeding program. Again, the hills are often steep. This is one of the few places I have totally lost control of my chair. By the time I got the wheels to stop, hands smoking, I was still sliding past pedestrians who were scattering in the wake of this wild paraplegic animal on the loose. But I loved the fact that the animals’ cages are so large they give an illusion of freedom in natural settings. We also took a 50-minute monorail tour of the grounds that is well worth the price. It’s best to visit the Wild Animal Park early in the day to catch the animals while they’re still active in the cooler temperatures.

SeaWorld San Diego Adventure Park is probably most famous for its killer whales and they do give spectacular performances. But some of the best aquarium exhibits I’ve ever seen are scattered throughout the park. There are rides for the kids and lots of hands-on opportunities to feel the backs of exotic creatures like bat rays. Our favorite animal was a huge walrus, which seemed more excited to see than to be seen. It was hysterical listening to moms and dads trying to explain its extremely obvious tumescence to their kids who couldn’t control their giggles. We went back twice at John Henry’s insistence.

SeaWorld has good access features, including unisex bathrooms and wheelchair rentals. And, thankfully, this park is set on a far flatter piece of real estate than the other two.

More Attractions
You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen the landmarks of New York, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, New Orleans and Los Angeles constructed out of more than 20 million Lego bricks. The Miniland section of Legoland is an awesome sight, with presidential caravans, marching bands, sinking ships and even little people in wheelchairs.

But that’s where the magic ended for me. The Legoland rides all require transferring and, in some cases, riding lifts that the young operators aren’t trained to use. They publish a nice brochure on park access, but it wasn’t given to us at the gate. The one ride we did decide to take broke down moments before we boarded. But if you just want to watch the kids frolicking through a brilliantly conceived fantasyland of Legomania, Legoland is your place. John Henry and Theresa thoroughly enjoyed their visits, while I tried to get the ride supervisors to explain why their access designs were so lacking in the creativity evident everywhere else. They were patiently defensive, but I don’t think they “got it.”

Balboa Park, home of the zoo, also has 14 museums, art galleries and performing arts centers–including the famous Old Globe Theatre–clustered together on 1,200 acres of beautifully landscaped gardens and pathways. Half of the trolleys that carry visitors around the park are lift-equipped, and there are accessible bathrooms in the middle of the park and in the art museum. Our favorite spot was the model train museum in the basement of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.

Old Town is San Diego’s version of colonial Williamsburg, with a Spanish plaza, restored shops and period residences that give a genuine feel of the first European town on the western coast of North America. The adjacent Bazaar Del Mundo carries the Mexican-Spanish theme into small inter-connected shops, restaurants and galleries. Access to some places there is challenging, but you can get lost for hours browsing through a variety of fascinating, though mostly useless, things to buy. It’s a great place to shop for people who have everything.

If you like eating as much as I do, you’re going to pig out in San Diego. Old Town’s Casa De Bandini, in a beautifully restored early-1800s residence, is truly memorable. Great food, great service, great margaritas too. It’s quite popular, so make reservations. One morning I had huevos rancheros in a smaller Old Town eatery, Rancho El Nopal. Once again I felt I had rolled back in time to a slower, more gentle land of shy señoritas and dashing caballeros.

No foodie should leave San Diego without visiting the Gaslamp quarter. This formerly sleazy area downtown is now home to the nightlife scene and intricately restored Victorian buildings. The specialties of most restaurants in this area seem to be variations on Italian–unforgettable seafood paellas, life-altering porcini mushroom pastas, delicate gnocchis, you name it. If it was ever cooked in Italy, it’s done well somewhere in the Gaslamp, too. I recommend taking the time to cruise several blocks of Fifth Avenue looking at menus before deciding where to eat.

Accessible San Diego
Before leaving, I wanted to get an idea who was behind San Diego’s improving access and attitudes toward visitors with disabilities. Much of it can be attributed to Accessible San Diego, the brainchild and life work of Wes Johnson and Mike Buse. They got together 11 years ago and envisioned a city where visitors could “assume accessibility in advance.” They haven’t quite met that goal yet, but as Johnson says, “When ASD began, the only way someone in a chair could get around San Diego was in an ambulance.”

ASD began to have a greater influence when it began partnering with the Port of San Diego and the Convention and Visitors Bureau for funding and outreach to tourism industry leaders. Several Title II and Title III ADA lawsuits haven’t hurt, either. At an ASD workshop, I met City Council member Byron Wear, who represents the most hotel-rich district in the city.

“We’ve made mistakes,” says Wear, “but we’re on a learning curve and we’re committed to working with ASD to make the right public policy choices.”

Still, many local disability advocates will argue that San Diego has more than its share of barriers left to overcome. It was refreshing to find that a national sales manager at the Convention Bureau, Elliot Lawrence–well informed by ASD–sees eye to eye with such sentiments.

“San Diego is one of the most accessible cities in the U.S.,” Lawrence says. “But we have a long way to go, a lot to learn.” It seemed to this fan of San Diego that the lessons are beginning to take hold.



  • Accessible San Diego, access guide ($5) and information, 858/279-0704;
  • Birch Aquarium, 858/534-3474
  • Casa De Bandini, 619/297-8211
  • Cloud 9 Shuttle, 800/974-8885;
  • Harbor Excursion Tours, 800/442-7847;
  • Hornblower Cruises, 619/686-8715
  • Legoland, 760/918-5346;
  • Metropolitan Transit System, 619/233-3004 (fixed route); 619/266-9000 (MTS Access Service); 877/232-7433 (MTS certification)
  • Old Town State Park, 619/220-5422
  • Old Town Trolley, 800/868-7482;
  • Rancho El Nopal, 619/295-0584
  • San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau, 619/232-3101;
  • San Diego Maritime Museum, 619/234-9153;
  • San Diego Wild Animal Park, 619/234-6541;
  • San Diego Zoo, 619/234-3153;
  • SeaWorld San Diego Adventure Park, 619/226-3901;
  • Town and Country Resort Hotel, 800/772-8527 or 619/291-7131