Ah, the mystique of Key West... Hemingway's Hangout and Buffet's Margaritaville have intrigued and entertained travelers for decades. I was, of course, curious about another aspect of this hedonistic wonderland... Is it accessible?
I flew into Key West Airport, which is extremely small! There are no jetways, but I did see ramps to bring wheelchair users to and from the few small flights that come in every day. Most travelers fly into the larger Miami Airport and enjoy the 155 mile drive through the Keys. This is especially necessary if one needs get a wheelchair accessible van rental.
There is one accessible taxi in town, and Five Sixes Taxi has it. However, if you stay at the Doubletree, they have just purchased a brand new shuttle with a lift and room for two manual or one powerchair! It runs the regular hourly route from the hotel to Duval St. If you need it to pick you up from the airport, please be sure to arrange transportation at the hotel in advance.
I visited several hotels in Key West, and while they were all compliant, each had varying levels of accessibility. For example, Southernmost at the Beach's newest wing has large, accessible rooms with king beds, but Southernmost Hotel's rooms were a bit more narrow. The Fairfield Inn required use of ramps that were sometimes accessed by going to the side of the hotel. I found it most difficult to maneuver.
My favorite rooms were at the Pier House and Westin; nice sized, centrally located, with good amenities. I also loved the Doubletree, who also had large rooms and a great pool. They are a bit further away from the "action" of Duvall Street, but the accessible shuttle will get you there quickly.
I found several pool lifts, and those who didn't have them were planning to have them in place by March 2012. Also, the Hilton properties (Doubletree, The Reach, Casa Marina, etc.) had recently gone through disability awareness training, so accessibility is top of mind. Lastly, I was happy to hear that the Westin and Sheraton Suites have hosted wounded veteran programs successfully in the recent past and were ready to accommodate any special needs that may come their way.
Now on to the fun!
There are several things to do on Key West, and every tour operator I spoke with had a sense of inclusiveness in their approach to providing accessibility. They will go out of their way to make sure everyone has a good time. Most of these accommodations require advance notice and a conversation with management. Not to worry, though. These are all small family-run operations who are willing to assist. For example, the Jolly Rodger Sailboat took me up to show me exactly how they could work with us to get wheelchairs on board. The Sebago catamaran has a ramp.
If you want to tour the island, the Old Town trolley has an accessible trolley, as does the Conch Train. You need to notify them a day in advance so that they are ready for your arrival.
If you just want to stroll Duval Street, you won't have any problem. The street is level with good curb cuts. The sidewalks are fairly wide, but can get crowded in the evening crowds or when a cruise ship is in town. While there are some old holdouts that still have steps to enter their establishments, we found a growing number of ramps and level access to stores and restaurants. After talking to locals, I found out that there was a woman who went around suing people who weren't compliant, so now you can find restaurants with accessible bathrooms and ramps throughout the island.
There are some famous places to visit on the island, namely the Hemingway House and Truman's Little White House. The grounds for both properties are accessible, but the second floor to each home is not accessible. In this case, the homes both have a video of the second floor to watch for those who cannot climb the stairs.
My favorite find on this trip was the tranquil Ft. Zachary Taylor on the southern shores of Key West. For just a few dollars, you can enjoy a day away from the t-shirt shops and bars of Duval St. and enjoy nature with a picnic on the beach. There is plenty of accessible parking, accessible trails, picnic areas, and a beach wheelchair. All of the concessions and restrooms are accessible, with new ramps installed a couple years ago. The beach is fairly flat, and sunsets here are stunning! They allow wedding ceremonies here, too!
I also discovered what made Key West so special and mystical. It's the people! This small, close-knit community is filled with those who have come to lead a laid back lifestyle in the warmth of a tropical paradise. They are helpful, friendly, funny, and down to earth. They are easily approachable, and willing to tell the story of why they ended up in the Southernmost city in the U.S. Take your time here, enjoy the music, the people, and the sunsets. Slow your pace, and you may find a treasure that you will want to return to year after year.