Accessibility Grade: A-On a bright and sunny August afternoon, we braved the sweltering heat to bring you the inside scoop on a local hotspot: the Clearwater Beach Walk. We all know that, with beaches come the inevitability of sand. As we've mentioned in other Accessibility Reviews, sand and wheelchairs don't get along. To use myself as an example, I've gotten stuck more times than I'd like to admit. Since I've been using a power wheelchair for 32 years, I honestly wasn't expecting much from this locale. I mean, how accessible could a beach be? If you stick around to find out, the answer will probably surprise you just as much as it surprised us.
Summer in Florida can get extremely hot, so if you want to get the experience of a Florida beach day, please make sure to take your diagnoses and limitations into account. It is a great idea to pack a lot of water, to lather up with sunscreen (and reapply throughout the day), and do your best to stay out of the direct sun as much as possible.
Before diving into this thing, it's important to address the elephant in the room: accessible parking. Even though there are a large number of accessible spaces available, they fill up extremely quickly. Pictured here is the parking lot located at Pier 60, which is in the middle of everything, making it prime parking for both beachgoers and those more interested in visiting the shops and restaurants in the surrounding area. Since we didn't get to the beach early enough, probably around 10:45 a.m., accessible parking was pretty much non-existent. We had to park extremely far away from the pier because even the paid lots were full. Lesson learned: if you plan on making the trip to the Clearwater Beach Walk, make sure to get there around the time that the park opens. At the latest, we'd say to find your parking spot around 8:00 a.m.
Pier 60 is an interesting area because it contains a few different areas. When going up to the pier itself, you'll pass by a few buildings that include shops, restaurants, and restrooms. The entrance to these bathrooms had the accessibility logo, which led us to believe that it had accessible stalls. Since we were really late, because finding parking set us back by about 1.5-2 hours, we didn't have time to check. We snapped this photo in between giant groups of people. In it, I'm making my way toward an overhang with a sign that reads, "Pier 60." It is in blue, cursive font. Beyond it are the aforementioned buildings, with palm trees lining both sides of the path.
Making our way forward, we continued passed a few playgrounds and even a giant, blue inflatable castle, which is barely visible in the background of this photo. What's nice about this playground is that it is located under a large, concrete pavilion, giving kids and their parents some much needed shade. What isn't so nice, is that it's built on sand. While there's a concrete path leading up to this playground, that means wheelchair users would be unable to access it without a beach wheelchair or assistance from a parent, guardian, and/or caregiver.
Once you're on the pier, things get much simpler. There is plenty of space for manual and power wheelchairs, plus the surface is nice and smooth. The pier is a great place to look out over the beach and get a taste of the ocean air, all without having to actually deal with the sand. In this picture, I'm looking out over the beach, the wooden guardrail just in front of me. I sit a bit tall in my wheelchair, so it may be difficult for some manual or power wheelchair users to see over. Not to mention, once you're on the pier and get over the ocean, the sea breeze gives you a nice break from the intense heat of the summer. There are a few areas that are also covered, which can be a great place to rest, especially if have a diagnosis that prevents you from walking long distances, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, arthritis, fibromyalgia, etc. Because there were a lot of people on the pier, I had to pay particularly close attention while driving my power chair. Since this is the beach, a lot of people are either barefoot or are wearing sandals. We wouldn't want to ruin somebody's day by crushing their bare feet!
After exiting Pier 60, we passed by the parking lot and noticed that the signs for disabled parking looked a bit different. When we took a closer look, we noticed that an additional sign was tacked below. It reads, "Beach Wheelchairs." Available Daily. 9:30 AM to 4 PM. Lifeguard Station." Beneath this text is a black arrow that is pointing to the left, in the direction of the main Lifeguard Station for Clearwater Beach. After reading this sign, Luis and I said, in unison, "Well, I guess we know where to go next!"
After exiting the pier, we took a right and headed down a winding path that overlooked the beautiful, white sand of the beach. Blue tents, as well as white and blue umbrellas, dotted our field of view. I'd have to say, since I don't get many chances to be near sand without having to worry that I'll get stuck, this was an pretty nice experience for me. The sidewalk was pretty wide, and could probably accommodate two wheelchair users, side-by-side. It wasn't necessarily the smoothest surface, but it was manageable for me.
As we wove our way along the winding path, we came to the Beach Lifeguard Station, located in Tower 0. After hearing some rumblings of free beach wheelchair rentals, we wanted to pop in and ask. We rang the bell on the side door and were greeted by Jonah, who was the current lifeguard on duty. After explaining that we were writing up an Accessibility Review, we asked whether they had any beach wheelchairs that were available to rent. Since we got there a bit late, and since the chairs are first-come-first-serve, we expected slim pickings.
Jonah told us that the beach wheelchair rentals are free, but that they ask for an item as collateral in exchange. That way, they make sure people won't just won't just walk off with these expensive chairs. If you want to make sure that you can grab one of these beach wheelchairs, Jonah advised that you get the the Beach Lifeguard Station as soon as Clearwater Beach opens to the public at 9:30 AM. Usually, they have a few beach chairs that are manual, meaning that they must be pushed by another person and can't be controlled by the wheelchair user. They also have a few power beach wheelchairs, which tend to go quicker than the manual ones. Since sand is tough on anything mechanical, these chairs need regular service to make sure that they stay in tip-top shape. You never know when any of them will be in the shop for maintenance, which is all the more reason to make sure and get to the Lifeguard Station as close to 9:30 AM as possible.
The lack of accessible parking was the only thing that stopped us from giving the Clearwater Beach Walk a proper "A" grade. It took us over an hour to find an accessible spot, because even all of the paid lots were full. As a result, we were forced to park a great distance from the Beach Walk, which would've been a deal breaker for some disabled people. Aside from that, everything that we visited seemed to be really accessible. Even if you don't get one of the free beach wheelchairs from the lifeguard station, there are places around the beach that will rent them for a fee. Overall, we were pretty happy with the park. We'll just try and plan our next trip for a time when the weather cools down, at least a little bit.