Topics Covered:

Transportation, Hotel, Miami Beach parking, Versace mansion, Mike Tyson, Holocaust Memorial, South Beach access, Bayside Marketplace, Shark Valley - Everglades National Park, SATH 9th World Congress, Parrot Jungle Island

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By James Glasbergen

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Miami for SATH's 9th World Congress for Travelers with Disabilities. The idea of spending a week in Miami in January was not hard to accept at all. Although much of the conference was spent in seminars indoors, we did have a couple days before the start of the conference to do some sightseeing.

Upon arrival at Ft. Lauderdale airport, we gathered our luggage and went outside to wait for our rental van to pull up. Since we needed to do some driving for the first few days, renting a wheelchair accessible van was far more convenient than relying on public transportation. It was a 30-minute drive from Ft. Lauderdale airport to our Miami hotel, plus we wanted to go to South Beach and the Everglades, 15-minute and 45-minute drives respectively from our hotel. There are accessible taxis in Miami (18 to be exact, growing to 28 by 2006), but taxis are never the most reliable, nor the cheapest when you have a lot of driving you want to do. Our van was great ()(). The front passenger seat was removable, so a wheelchair could sit in the front or back. There were tie-downs in the van, as well as an EZ-Lock for those who have the peg under their chair. Unfortunately, I'm pretty long and the EZ-Lock was situated too close to the front, so I had to use the tie-downs.

We stayed at a hotel close to Miami airport. Our room was great. We had a suite that included a king-sized bed in the bedroom ()() and a sofabed in the living room (). There was a small kitchen as well (). There was plenty of room to move around, and the bathroom ()() had a roll-in shower ()(). We rented a hoyer lift from a local medical company, and it was conveniently waiting for us when we arrived. The hotel had a continental breakfast each morning and a Manager's Reception Monday to Thursday evenings, which was basically a light dinner. There wasn't much selection in either case though. There was also free parking at the hotel.

On the first full day we made the short drive to Miami Beach. We found a convenient disabled parking spot in a parking garage on Collins Ave. between 10th and 11th streets. Parking was a $10 flat rate. We later realized that there were quite a few disabled parking spaces along the sides of the streets, and unlike the regular parking spaces, the disabled spaces did not have meters. Of course, they were usually all taken, but we did get one of them the next day.

From the parking garage we decided to take a quick stroll around the South Beach area. Located just around the block at the corner of 11th street and Ocean Drive is Gianni Versace's former mansion. There are still many people who stop by the mansion and pose for a picture in front of the steps where he was murdered.

Next, we started to walk north along Ocean Drive when we came across Mike Tyson eating breakfast with some friends at a sidewalk café. Of course, everyone was staring at him, but no one really approached him for autographs or pictures. Fortunately, they were in the process of paying the bill, so as soon as he got up and starting walking down the sidewalk, I went up and ask him for a picture. He happily obliged, and I'm thrilled to say that both of my ears are still intact! Actually, he was incredibly nice and was very approachable.

We continued north to the Holocaust Memorial, which is quite a piece of architecture. We were fortunate to arrive at the same time that a group of people were being given a tour of the memorial by an actual Holocaust survivor. We listened in for a while as he detailed some of his experiences in a concentration camp. Needless to say, he had some unbelievable stories to tell.

After a quick walk through the Lincoln Road Mall (street shopping, etc.), we made our way down to the beach. The most accessible entrance to the beach is located near the beach patrol station at 10th street. This is where the sand is packed down hard enough that going over it in a wheelchair is not difficult (). Beach wheelchairs are also available at the beach patrol station (). The beach itself is pretty good for wheelchairs. Unfortunately, the closer you get to the water, the softer the sand gets. It would be hard for a wheelchair to get far enough down the sand to see the shore (the lower part of the beach slopes down into the shoreline), but if you're content to stay a bit farther away from the water, it's fine (). In fact, the sand was hard enough at the back that I had no trouble taking a stroll along the beach from 15th street all the way down to 3rd.

We also made a stop at the Bayside Marketplace. There was plenty of accessible parking. We were just about to put some money in the meter when a man pointed out to us that payment was not required for people parking in disabled parking spaces. Score! That leads me to another reminder--when renting an accessible van, make sure you bring your disabled parking placard from home so you can park in disabled spaces on your trip! The rental vans don't come with them. Anyway, Bayside was pretty cool. There was a big marina there and a lot of shopping. There are also frequent street performers and nightly events.

Our final stop before the start of the conference was the Shark Valley Visitor Center, one of five visitor centers in Everglades National Park. Shark Valley offers a 2-hour tram tour around a 15-mile-long road through the marsh. The tram was accessible. There was a portable ramp that they brought out, although it was a really steep slope to get into the back part of the tram (). They helped me in, though. The unfortunate thing about the seating on the tram was that there was not enough space for a long guy like me to sit straight, so I had to sit diagonally. Of course, after I got settled, the guy told me that I should face the other way because most of the action was going to be on the left side of the tram. Too late now! He was right too. It's a good thing I have decent range in my neck. For future reference though, it's definitely better to face the left side. Anyway, there were tie-downs in the tram, but I didn't use them because of the way I was positioned. One other important note about the tram ride--they highly recommend that you make reservations for the tour at least a few days in advance to guarantee your place on the tour.

The tram ride itself was great. There were lots of colorful birds, and of course, plenty of alligators! Half way through the tram ride, we made a half hour stop at an observation tower. The circular ramp () to the top of the tower was completely accessible and easy to do in an electric wheelchair. People in manual wheelchairs would find it more difficult, but definitely doable (with help). From the top of the tower, we got a great view of the Everglades, which didn't look like much more than a big field. After the tram tour, we took a quick walk along an accessible boardwalk that goes through sawgrass slough and tropical hardwood forests.

Our last four days were spent at SATH's 9th annual World Congress for Travelers with Disabilities. It was a great opportunity to meet people from all areas of the travel industry and to learn about the progress being made in making travel more accessible to people with disabilities. The first three days consisted mostly of seminars and networking luncheons, dinners, and socials. On the last day we went to Port Everglades to inspect the Holland America ship Volendam. Accessible transportation to Ft. Lauderdale was provided by SATH. After a nice sit-down lunch on the ship, we were able to wander around on our own for a while to check out the accessibility of the ship. Next, we got back on our buses and made our way back to Miami for an inspection of Parrot Jungle Island. We only spent a couple hours there, but that was enough to take in most of the park, including the parrot show in the Parrot Bowl and the wild animal show in the Jungle Theater. Access in the park was very good. Overall, I found the World Congress to be a good learning experience and a great networking opportunity.


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