LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - A WAVE 3 News investigation discovered people in wheelchairs were being denied access to some of Kentucky Kingdom's most popular rides. Weeks after the park reopened, 16 of 30 rides at Kentucky Kingdom were off limits to people in wheelchairs.
Jon Newman, 36, said the operator of the Mile High Falls attraction, on which riders need only to climb onto a bench inside a boat, told him he couldn't board because he was in a wheelchair.
"[Jon] goes, 'I told them I could get in,'" his mother Sheila said, "and they still refused. And they said it's policy. And that's when I got angry."
Newman said the operator wouldn't let him ride even though he has full use of his arms and the ability to lift himself in and out of the ride with ease.
"I used to be really afraid of roller coasters," Newman said. "Now, I love them."
The neurological disease that affects Newman's ability to walk never stopped him from getting on an amusement park ride until he got into Kentucky Kingdom.
"On top of being disappointed that they wouldn't allow him to get on because of policy, he was also humiliated in front of his friends," Newman's mother said.
Robert Meehan had the same experience. At the request of this reporter, Meehan, a physical therapist at Frazier Rehab and a roller coaster enthusiast, also tried to ride roller coasters at Kentucky Kingdom. He was grounded almost immediately.
At Thunder Run, the ride operator was captured on hidden camera telling Meehan the roller coaster was off limits to wheelchair users -- even people like Meehan who can transfer themselves from their wheelchair to the roller coaster under their own power.
"We can't let him for safety reasons," the ride operator said.
When pressed on what those safety reasons were, the ride operator said, "They didn't really explain them to us. They just told us that's what it was."
At Mile High Falls, the ride on which Newman ran into trouble, Meehan was turned away again, even though a toddler was carried onto the ride next to him.
Meehan told the operator he didn't need any help getting in the boat. The ride operator said that wasn't good enough.
"We're not allowed because we've visually seen him in the wheelchair, so we can't allow him to get on," the ride operator said.
In other parts of Kentucky Kingdom, Meehan ran into different problems. At the brand new Lightning Run, the elevator that carries people with disabilities to the platform wasn't working. There was no treasure at Bluebeard's Bounty, either. The accessibility entrance in the back of the ride was padlocked.
The policy at that time at Kentucky Kingdom was in contrast to Holiday World and Kings Island. Representatives at both of those parks said they open all attractions to people in wheelchairs, provided the customer can get in and out of the ride on their own or with the help of a friend.
So why not Kentucky Kingdom? Director of Operations Lesly Birkner said management saw it as a safety risk.
"The policy was created to be more restrictive to the loading and unloading process as we began from square one," Birkner said.
With the park just a month old, Birkner said inexperienced staff members couldn't perform the specialized loading procedures for people in wheelchairs while still maintaining the security of the general public.
"We have to make a line on that," Birkner said. "Safety is first. We're starting with a new team."
Now, the park has changed that policy. It is fixing the elevator designed for wheelchair users at Lightning Run, unlocked the accessibility entrance at Bluebeard's Bounty, and training all 100 ride operators on how to admit wheelchair users who want to ride roller coasters.
That cleared the way for Jon Newman to take a long awaited trip down Thunder Run.
"That was great," said a laughing Newman as the ride came to a stop.
It turned out he wasn't the only one excited. Eight-year-old Owen Chaidez, visiting with his family from Chicago, also got a turn.
"This is going to be epic!" Owen screamed as the roller coaster pulled away.
His was an epic ride that almost didn't happen and a reminder that the fight for equal treatment can be a roller coaster.
"Because we don't think of him as in a wheelchair," said his mother Peg Chaidez. "And I forget sometimes that there's limitations."
Some wheelchair users have also complained it was too hard for them to get from one side of Kentucky Kingdom to the other. They said the pedestrian bridge inside the park is so steep it's hard for wheel chair users to get over. They wanted to be allowed to use an employee only cross walk on the inner Ring Road at the fairgrounds.
Kentucky Kingdom said that's a safety and liability issue, but the park will now post ambassadors at both sides of the pedestrian bridge to help wheelchair users get from one side to the other.
To view the Kentucky Kingdom rider requirements, click here.
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