Woman's handicapped seating mishap prompts changes at Dollywood venue

An updated photo Dollywood officials sent Kelsey Parker after a Facebook post of her sister's handicapped seating debacle at Rock the Smokies. The image shows handicapped seating at the front of the theatre. (Photo courtesy: Dollywood)

When sisters Caressa Sawyer and Kelsey Parker took their family members to Dollywood's Rock the Smokies music festival in August 2018, they purchased VIP tickets so they could experience the show up close.

Sawyer, who is confined to a wheelchair, said they also purchased the VIP seats to get access to handicapped seating.

"I was told that the VIP was the way to get the handicapped tickets. That that’s up front,” Sawyer recalled.

But when they arrived, Parker said they soon found out the handicapped seats were in the back of the venue.

"The handicapped seats were actually in the back, where we thought the handicapped seats were going to be in the front," Parker said. "That’s the whole reason why we purchased the VIP tickets."

Sawyer said her wheelchair ended up blocking the aisle in the VIP area, so she had to get into a regular chair.

“So, they took my wheelchair away so it wouldn’t be blocking the aisle, and that’s a problem because if there was a fire or an emergency, I wouldn’t be able to leave,” Sawyer explained.

“I was mortified I had to move,” she added.

Fortunately, the sisters said there was a good Samaritan sitting in front of them in the second row.

“The nice lady in front of us overheard all the commotion, and she turned around and said, 'I promise I won’t stand up,'" Sawyer recalled. "So, I was able to see and interact. It turned out good, but there at the beginning, it was kind of rough.”

After their experience, Parker decided to take action.

“I was upset, so I made a Facebook post about what had happened, and it was shared many times,” she said.

It was shared so many times, in fact, that someone gave Parker an email address of a vice president at Dollywood.

"It was great because he messaged me right back and he was appalled," she said. "And he apologized and said he would look into making changes if it was at all possible.”

Two months later, Parker said she received a followup email from Dollywood: A photo that showed handicapped seating at the front of the theater.

"I’m so impressed. And I’m so impressed it only took two months. You don’t see that," Sawyer said of the changes. "You can raise your voice and say something needs to be done, but, typically, nothing gets done."

“It feels so rewarding to know that change was made and that it’s going to be helpful for other people in the future that have disabilities,” Parker said.

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