Accessible Maui
The Beauty and Cultural Riches of Maui 
are Easily Accessible to Wheelchair Users
by Terri Mandell © 2002

Terri Mandel took her son, Danny, on a unforgettable holiday to Maui and discovered the challenges and delights of traveling with a disabled child. Terri's article is scheduled to appear in "Exceptional Parent" in the April '03 issue. We appreciate her sharing its debut with Global Access readers.

Danny & Terri on Maui
Danny & Terri on Maui

As a professional travel writer for the past 20 years, I've been wined and dined by some of the most elegant and entertaining travel destinations in the world. After my son Danny was born in 1990, it wasn't the least bit unusual for us to take 2-3 family vacations each year, with plenty of weekend getaways, road trips and other adventures thrown into the mix. Danny could swim, run and play back then, and enjoyed all the usual vacation activities… hiking, snorkeling, horseback riding, boat rides, train rides… even art museums. 

But that all changed when he became disabled with a degenerative illness at age 9, and for a while it seemed that travel would no longer be an option for us. Yet something miraculous happens when one becomes the parent of a handicapped child…. you learn how to work the system, and you become an expert at fighting for your child's rights and privileges. Because Danny had been my number one travel buddy for so many years, and because our travel experiences had been so positive, I was determined to keep this part of our lives intact for as long as possible. 

And so we began yet another new phase of our life -- disabled travel -- with a trip to Maui last June. I would be dishonest if I said it was easy. Getting through airports is hard enough in today's political climate, and doing it with a child in a wheelchair is ten times harder. If there are other physical considerations, such as feeding or breathing apparatus (in our case it's incontinence… Danny wears diapers), it requires the patience of a saint and the disposition of Mary Poppins. Most of our friends thought I was crazy to take Danny so far away from his home, his caregivers and his daily routine. But I'm the adventurous type, and Danny's always been a great traveling companion, so I knew we'd do just fine. As a single mom, I also knew that I couldn't manage it on my own. So I brought along one of Danny's aides.

Air Travel

Dan Price

Dan Price

The airlines can be very supportive if you know what to ask for and how to ask for it. They are required by FAA laws (a separate set of regulations not related to ADA) to accommodate people with special needs, but the fine details are not always immediately apparent. When you call to make a reservation, the odds are that the operator won't be very well informed about the options available. Ask to speak to a supervisor or somebody who's familiar with accessibility issues (ask for a 'guest services' or 'special services' office). Once you're connected with the right person, the rest will be relatively easy. 

We flew to Maui on American Airlines, and everything went remarkably well. Danny was able to stay in his own wheelchair all the way up to the gate. At that point, his chair was stowed in an on-board closet, and he was moved to a narrow, specially-designed "aisle wheelchair" (all airlines have them), which rolled easily to his seat. This chair was also used to get him to the bathroom when needed. Other airlines may have different procedures, for example, we're planning a trip to Florida on United Airlines next month, and they require us to request an airport wheelchair in advance when making our reservation. In this case, we'll have to check Danny's chair as baggage. 

Bathrooms on airplanes, despite the accessibility icon pasted on their doors, are not very accessible at all. They have hand rails of course, but they're so tiny that a disabled adult with an adult caregiver couldn't possibly fit in there together. Fortunately, Danny is still able to stand if he's holding on to something, so I was able to change his diaper by sitting on the toilet myself, with him standing up, facing me, holding handrails on either side of him. But for a large child, or an adult who can't stand up at all, or someone who needs diaper changes while lying down, air travel is pretty much out of the question. The same is true for public restrooms anywhere… there are changing stations for babies, but what if your baby is five feet tall? I have friends who've changed their severely disabled daughter's diapers (she's 12) on the floor of an airport terminal, in front of everybody, because there were no other options. 

The airlines do the best they can with what they have to work with, but there is plenty of room for improvement, and I'd like to see all of us in the disability community get a little more vocal about campaigning for a few simple changes that would make a huge difference.

Accessible Accommodations

The Maui Tourist Bureau has assembled an excellent list of the ADA-compliant rooms in the island's major hotels (sidebar). For the sake of researching this story, we stayed in 3 different hotels, each with its own unique personality and price range. 

In the mid-range, the Kaanapali Beach Hotel had a wonderful roll-in shower with a pull down bench and adjustable-height hand sprayer. The room was very large and easy to maneuver in (the hotel recently renovated several of its rooms to make them more accessible). Extras such as TTD/TTY machines, toilet seat risers, closed captioning, and Alert Plus units are available by request. 

One of our greatest discoveries was a little enclave of guest cottages in the mountain town of Makawao. The natural and native Banyan Tree House has rooms and cottages for as low as $100 per night (unheard of on Maui!) and offers a restful alternative to the chaos of the commercial tourist areas. It's on flat land with no stairs, and selected rooms are wheelchair accessible. Highly recommended and very affordable.

On the high end, The Four Seasons at Wailea has 16 ADA room and 1 ADA suite, and it's the only place we found that offered beach wheelchairs which could actually be taken into the surf.. The property is located along a beachfront path that's flat and easy to manage for a sunset stroll, and the staff was extremely attentive to our needs. There's even a day care program for children, and kids with special needs are welcome if they're accompanied by an attendant.

Most hotels are happy to accommodate special requests, and if they don't have it, they'll go out of their way to get it. They want your business. It's just a matter of doing a little research to find out what's available. 

Accessible Activities

There were so many accessible tours, attractions and activities to choose from that we kept ourselves busy nearly every hour of the day and night. On our first night in Maui, we attended The Old Lahaina Luau, known worldwide as the best Luau on Maui. And it was indeed spectacular, with traditional Hawaiian foods, a native craft market and a high-energy hula show. Danny loved the hula girls and the sarong-clad waitresses, and they loved him too. Seating is by reservation at the luau, so securing a wheelchair space at one of the many long feasting tables is quite easy.

Danny and helper  at the Maui Ocean Center.

Danny and helper  at the Maui Ocean Center.

Since scuba diving or snorkeling wasn't possible for Danny, the next best thing in terms of getting up close and personal with the undersea world was The Maui Ocean Center, one of the best public aquariums/ocean parks we've ever seen (and we've seen them all over the country). The tanks and exhibits were at easy eye-level for Danny in his wheelchair, and even the "touch pools" were within reach. I give this place an A+ for accessibility.

Another highly-rated attraction in terms of handicapped access is the Sugar Cane Train. It's an old 1890s-style train that once carried workers to the cane fields, but is now used to carry tourists to an outdoor barbecue and live music performance. The train's been fitted with a wheelchair lift, and while the 30-minute ride isn't exactly scenic (the tracks run alongside the main highway in Lahaina and not through the back roads and sugar plantations as I imagined it would), the barbecue and entertainment is well worth the ticket price.

Depending on one's ability, opportunities for water sports are everywhere. Danny can't swim, and because of the spasticity in his limbs he's difficult to manage in the water. But we found a place called Snorkel Bob's (franchised all over Hawaii) that rents boogie boards with masks built into them. This way Danny could lie down on his stomach with his face pressed into the mask and see the fishes and sea life underneath him. We were able to do this in waist-deep water, with one adult on either side of Danny to secure him in place (and of course, a life jacket is a must). If floating on a boogie board isn't possible, there are several accessible glass bottom boat tours available. 

Danny on the beach.

Danny on the beach

While exploring Maui by land and sea is lovely, the best way by far to see the islands is from the front seat of a helicopter. The view from the air is staggeringly beautiful, and the tours are entertaining and informative. We did the complete island tour with Blue Hawaiian Helicopters. The tour was 65 minutes long and a bit lengthy for Danny's limited attention span, but he loved it nonetheless. And he was able to cruise right up to the helicopter in his wheelchair and be lifted easily into his seat. 

Overall, our trip to Maui was a phenomenal success. It boosted our confidence to the point where we're now making plans for future trips with a lot less apprehension. We've learned how to plan ahead for things like hygiene and the possibility of running out of supplies and/or medicines (locate medical supply stores, pharmacies, hospitals etc. before you go, and be sure to confirm your insurance coverage for emergencies). 

Traveling with a disabled child is not impossible. It just takes a lot of hard work, meticulous planning, a sense of adventure and an unlimited supply of love. 

Where to Call

Banyan Tree House 808-572-9021
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters 800-745-BLUE
Four Seasons, Wailea 808-874-8000
Kaanapali Beach Hotel 800-262-8450
Maui Ocean Center 808-270-7000
Maui Tourist Bureau 808-244-3530
Old Lahaina Luau 800-248-5828
Sugar Cane Train 800-499-2307


Hotel Name Guest Room Features Property Features
Four Seasons
Resorts Maui
ADA rooms in 92-series
 of rooms on the 4th-7th floors.
Beach wheelchairs allow entry
 into the ocean
Offers mountain, partial 
and ocean views
Check-in at desk in hotel lobby
Guardian required for "Kids 
For All Seasons" Program
All areas on resort are 
ADA certified
Concierge's can assist with wheelchair 
accessible activity reservations
Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa Offers terrace, golf/mountain, partial ocean, and ocean views Resort pool is handicapped accessible
Offered in Regency Club Ocean and Ocean Suite 
Offers smoking and non-smoking rooms 
Roll-in showers, in selected rooms 
1 Wider doorways, in all rooms 
Lowered sink/vanity, in all rooms 
Grab bars, in all rooms 
Closed caption television, in all rooms 
Lowered view holes and climate controls, in all rooms 
Flashing door knockers, upon request 
Vibrating alarm clock, upon request 
TDD machine, upon request 
Flashing phone light, upon request 
Flashing light on each rooms smoke detector 
Kaanapali Beach Hotel  ADA complaint doors, sink and toilet  All areas on resort is wheelchair accessible
Roll-in shower with fold down shower bench, in selected rooms Four parking stalls in parking structure, fully accessible
Tub rails or grab bars, in all rooms 
Hand held shower, in all rooms
Full-sized tub, in selected rooms 
Easy access to lanai and front doors, in all rooms 
Lowered security peephole, in all rooms 
Furniture engineered to be compliant with ADA standards 
Toilet seat risers, available upon request 
Additional tub/shower stool, available upon request 
Closed-captioning, available in selected rooms 
Telecaption VR-100 caption decoder, available in selected rooms  ``
Portaview TTD/TTY machine, available upon request 
Alert Plus units, available upon request 
Maui Coast Hotel Roll-in showers, in all rooms  Special area for check-in
Outrigger Wailea Resort Roll-in showers, in selected rooms  All public areas are ADA approved
Tub transfer benches, in selected rooms  Special area for check-in, in the lobby
Specially designed hearing impaired rooms, in selected areas
Special fire alert strobe light system for bed, bath and adjacent hallways 
TDD and in-room alert system available, upon request 
Renaissance Wailea Beach Resort All areas on resort accessible by a wheelchair
Sheraton Maui Hotel Braille room numbers for all rooms  Pool lift
TDD phone/alarm clock in all rooms  ADA beach wheelchair
ADA guest rooms in most room categories 
Roll-in showers, in selected rooms 
Closet in bathroom, in selected rooms 
Shower bench, in selected rooms

Top of Page

Global Access News Index
Back to Travel Archives

Copyright © Global Access News 1995-2011 "All Rights Reserved"