Accessible Travel to Colorado Springs
My daughter, Kelsey, and I headed out to Colorado Springs, CO last week to compete in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association Championships. The event was spread out over four days, with four venues and over 50 teams in attendance. From the young kids in the Prep Division, to the more seasoned athletes at the Championship Level, all ages of athletes from 6 to 60 were represented.
Living in Chicago, we typically fly Southwest Airlines out of Midway Airport. I have found Midway to be more maneuverable than O'Hare, especially with a wheelchair. Parking is closer, accessible shuttles run regularly, and the airport is much smaller. TSA did change the security checkpoint on this last visit, having us go to the far right lane, bypassing the large lines in the main security queue. Kelsey was patted down, as usual, and I fumbled with both of our luggage, my shoes, computer, and coats. Yes, I'm the designated Sherpa of the group. Emelia, Kelsey's service dog is an old pro. She saunters through security without a care in the world.
While we were getting our pre-boarding set up, a gentleman approached us from a new TLC show, "On The Fly" that chronicles the operations of Southwest Airlines. They wanted to show how a person with a disability manages while traveling on Southwest, and we were happy to participate. Maybe this would be our big break into reality television fame! Ha! Knowing us, we will end up on the cutting room floor... Regardless, we felt like movie stars boarding the plane with a film crew and boom mics. Of course, this opportunity would come when I have no makeup on. Just my luck... Anyway, keep your eyes peeled in May 2012 for our big film debut. If we find out in advance when we are airing, I may just have to have a red carpet premier, or, at least watch the show in something other than sweat pants.
We have flown into Denver Airport many times, and I have always found it to be a fairly easy airport to maneuver. I purposely booked a car with Payless, knowing that they were one of the few companies that didn't have accessible shuttles. I wanted to see how they would handle our situation with the wheelchair and the service dog. They didn't have any representatives in the airport terminal to arrange for a special pick up. I had to call to have them bring a car around. I didn't want to take the chance of having them bring a car that wouldn't work for Kelsey, so I left her at pick-up and got the car. That entailed hopping an inaccessible shuttle to Payless, standing in line, negotiating a car that would work for us, and driving back to get her. The whole process took about 30 - 40 minutes. I quizzed them on why they didn't have a shuttle when everyone else did. They were unfazed at the fact that they were the only company that didn't have one. At least they would drive us to the terminal in the rental car upon return. However, next time I return to Denver, I will NOT use Payless.
On to Colorado Springs! The drive south is a fairly uneventful one, mostly flat and brown with mountains in the background. Colorado Springs, itself, is a lovely town. We enjoyed waking up to the mountains every morning, smelling the crisp, clean air, and seeing the bright blue, cloudless sky. We stayed in the north end of town at the Hyatt Place on Garden of the Gods Ave. If you haven't been to a Hyatt Place, I would recommend giving them a try! I was impressed by the décor, size of the rooms, accessibility, and breakfast. The rooms are suites, so you can bring your family. Parking, internet and breakfast are free. The breakfast was better than many that we have had at lower priced hotels. They had breakfast sandwich choices, hot oatmeal, fresh fruit, cereals, fresh juices, and the ever-popular make your own waffles! I was happy to not have the artificial tasting orange juice that I normally get out of a machine and the carb-laden choices of other hotels.
Our basketball schedule allowed us some time to explore the area. Games were early in the morning, so we could enjoy the local sites, get some good meals, and hang out with Kelsey's teammates and their families.
We explored the Olympic and Paralympic Training Center. There were two divisions of the NWBA playing at the facilities, and there were also Olympic gymnasts training in the next gym. These young people are getting ready to go to London 2012! How exciting!
The training center reminds me of a modern college campus with large buildings and quad areas. The public is limited to the places they can go, so unless you have a reason to be in the buildings, you won't get to see the real action. The visitor center is rich with history and the obligatory souvenir shop that was actually pretty good. There are displays throughout the main thoroughfare, and statues identifying the various sports of the Olympic games. I couldn't wait to get into the bobsled that was just outside the visitor center! I've always wanted to zoom down a mountain with six of my closest friends, praying to God that we make it to the bottom! This one just stood still, but it was windy out, so I could imagine the excitement when I closed my eyes.
All 23 of us decided that a night out was in order to celebrate the Coach's birthday. Mind you, Coach Tom, the basketball coach for Great Lakes Adaptive Sports, is a jokester. He usually picks a person in the group at random and tells the waitress that it is that person's birthday just for the sheer humiliation that singing waiters brings to that particular person. Well, today was his turn. It really was his birthday, so it was on the up and up. However, there was still a funny moment. There is nothing like the look of terror on the hostess' face when 23 people show up for dinner, nine of whom are in wheelchairs. Never mind that we have a reservation... It's still a bit to process. What chairs do we remove from the table? Is there enough space to get through? Oh, there's a service dog? Where is THAT going to go? Needless to say, it all worked out fine, and we had a fabulous time. If you ever are in the area, consider going to BJ's Brewery; they did a great job.
Our second day was spent in the small nearby town of Manitou Springs and the famous Garden of the Gods. Manitou Springs is an artists' colony with several shops restaurants, and very interesting people. Our friend, Marie, loved the "hippy" vibe with cute little coffee shops and funky stores. Parking was fairly easy to find, and we were able to find accessible ones to boot! However, the hilliness of the area was a challenge for Kelsey, who uses a manual chair. Most of the shops had level entrances, but they were a bit on the tight side. We did grab a nice lunch at the Stagecoach Inn, which had an accessible patio overlooking a creek.
The Garden of the Gods is a geological treasure, although Kelsey thought they just looked like a bunch of rocks. I enjoyed the different shapes carved by nature and the vistas at every turn. This is a health nut's heaven. Great bike lanes and paths wind throughout the free park for everyone to enjoy. The accessible paths allow everyone to enjoy the scenery. The expansive visitor center provides commentary on the history of the area, accessible restrooms, and a small café.
Our last day of touring the area brought us to Old Colorado City, which is two miles west of downtown. An old mining town, this area has grown to be a mecca of small, quaint shops and restaurants. The area is relatively flat, but there is a slight grade to contend with. Parking was not an issue. I would say that the most annoying thing about the area is the overly steep curb cuts. The sidewalks are high in comparison to the street, so the cuts are very difficult to maneuver. Kelsey had to back down every cut into the street, and I had to push her up to get her onto the next sidewalk. Mind you, she is not a weak person. They were just very difficult. Some of the shops have a single step and were a bit narrow.
We were starving, so I happened upon a little Italian restaurant called Dat's Italian. I can't say that it was the most accessible restaurant in the world, but the food was delicious. Dennis and JoAnn own the place, with Dennis gracefully serving the guests, and JoAnn creating Tuscan heaven in the kitchen. They had a quiet patio in the back that did have one step up. Fortunately, we had manual wheelchairs, so this wasn't too much of an issue. A person in a power chair would have to eat in the dining room, which was dark and intimate. If you enjoy desserts, save room, because JoAnn makes an array of homemade treats that you won't want to miss.
Colorado Springs offers so many other activities that we didn't get to explore on this trip. Pikes Peak's summit at over 14,000 feet, the Air Force Academy, ghost towns, and outdoor adventures make this a great family destination that we will return to in the future.
Oh, and Kelsey's team took tenth place. Oh well... There's always next year!