On a recent afternoon at Walt Disney World, Dennis Robles was cruising around on an electric "mobility scooter" that the park usually rents out to people with disabilities. Mr. Robles doesn't have a problem walking -- he says he was simply saving up energy for late-night dancing.
"I'm pretty healthy," says the 37-year-old truck driver from Brooklyn, N.Y. "Just lazy, I guess."
The power scooter is an increasingly ubiquitous sight, with an estimated 1.2 million in use nationwide. But while the $1,000-plus vehicles have been hailed as a boon for the infirm and the elderly, they are now finding a new constituency: able-bodied people who simply don't feel like walking. In addition to theme parks like Dollywood and Minnesota's giant Mall of America, the scooters are popping up everywhere from Las Vegas casinos to grocery stores. When scooter demand outstrips supply at Wal-Mart, greeters "evaluate the situation" and make sure that people using the scooters can demonstrate a legitimate need, according to a company spokesman.
Some entrepreneurs are starting to push the vehicles as bicycles without the pedaling. City Scooter Tours, an outfit that operates in Washington and plans to extend into Chicago, offers scooters as an easy way to see the sights.
"It's kind of bad for the cause," says Janna Starr, director of disability rights and technology policy for United Cerebral Palsy, a nonprofit group. Stores and tourist attractions need to set guidelines and "not just let people come up and take off in the scooters just because they want one," she says.
Ms. Starr and some other advocates for the disabled say able-bodied riders can rile pedestrians, creating a negative image of scooter use that could hurt those who really need assistance.
In the next few years, there will likely be a lot more people buzzing down sidewalks and in supermarket aisles. The number of people aged 50 and older is expected to soar by 33 million to 118 million by 2020, according to the Census Bureau.
Cavernous stores, which tend to offer scooters for free, and big theme parks, which tend to rent them, see these scooters not only as a tool for the disabled but also as a lure for visitors who might not otherwise want to spend the day walking around. At the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., where all the scooters are rented out by noon most weekends, the fleet is being expanded from 30 to 45 later this year. Over the past year, Dolly Parton's Dollywood theme park in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., boosted its fleet from 55 to 70. People often bring their own scooters, but the park's rentals are a convenience for occasional users. "Our park is quite hilly," says Dollywood spokesman Pete Owens. "It's quite a handy vehicle to have."
While some companies say they don't limit ridership to disabled people, others actively encourage use to anybody who wants one. The owner of Florida Mobility, a motorized scooter vendor outside Disney World, pitches a $75 rental package by telling customers: "Ride all day and dance at night." Last month, Avis started offering motorized scooters in Las Vegas and Orlando, Fla., and for an extra $40 to $50, they will arrange for the scooter to be waiting in the trunk of the rental car. At AA Tourist Rentals in Orlando, Fla., scooter business was up 20 percent in the last year, an increase the company partly attributes to a spry blonde woman in the ads: "She doesn't look like there's anything wrong with her," says office manager Donna Carroll.
Karen McKinney jumped on her first scooter in May when she and her sister and their friends took an organized scooter tour through the National Mall in Washington. (The tour company, City Scooter Tours, which is owned by rental company Scootaround, bills the trip as "a way for the entire family to experience the sights together.") The 57-year-old from Elkridge, Md., says when the group took their last trip, to Las Vegas, they tired out after all the walking and were looking for an alternative this year. They thought about taking a van tour of the monuments, but worried about the walk from the van to the sites. "None of us have a disability, but we're all getting older," she says.
Ms. Starr, of United Cerebral Palsy, says scooters are beginning to attract some of the problems associated with handicapped-accessible parking spaces -- with some riders being accused of not warranting the privilege. She says it also puts companies in the problematic position of judging who "deserves" aid and encourages them to assess disabilities -- which can be hidden -- based on appearances.
Judy Stark, 65, bought her Golden Companion scooter about two years ago on the recommendation of a friend. What started as an occasional indulgence is now becoming a more permanent part of her life -- she even walks her dog via scooter, giving Mugsy a lift on particularly hot days. Recently at the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa in Atlantic City, N.J., she drove in laps around the casino floor, something that would have required several walking breaks before. "Now waiting on line at the buffet is no problem," she says. "You just sit there."
Power scooters caught on in the early 1990s, in part because they're a more outdoorsy alternative to motorized wheelchairs. Power wheelchairs are typically used by severely disabled people because they're steered via a joystick, which requires less upper body strength to steer than the scooter's handlebars.
When industry leader Pride Mobility Products began selling its Victory scooter in 1992, it promoted "sleek styling" and personalized options. In recent years, scooter manufacturers have pushed it even further -- the tail lights on a Landlex scooter are reminiscent of a sports car's. Prices are as low as $1,000, down from twice that, as cheaper scooters from Asia flood the market.
Scooters are now being designed for specific uses. The SmartKart by Dane Technologies, for example, maxes out at three miles per hour, instead of the standard five, because it is meant to be used in grocery stores and other crowded indoor spaces. In the last year, Pride has super-sized models like the Maxima and introduced the Celebrity-X, to keep up with the increase in obesity.
Even some riders say it's not easy for them to decide if they really need a scooter. On a recent trip to Foxwoods Resort Casino in Connecticut, John Hopkins refused to rent a scooter, despite urgings from his daughter. The 66-year-old retiree, who had a quadruple bypass four years ago and suffers from the effects of a stroke, says he struggled on foot at the casino but thinks scooters are "a pain" that get in the way of other people and cause traffic jams. Plus, "there's a vanity part," he says. "I'd just rather do it on my own."
John Warchalowsky, 81, says he's been using a scooter for years. A retired phone-company manager from Bergenfield, N.J., Mr. Warchalowsky has taken his scooter to the Grand Canyon, on Caribbean cruises and to every state in the nation, including Alaska. When the green one conked out, he replaced it with a fire-engine red scooter and kept on touring with his girlfriend, who also rides one. He says he walks around his house and remains active, but the scooter gets him out more. Another benefit: He always buys cheap tickets to shows at casinos, because he knows he'll be put in a better spot. "I tell the usher, how do I get all the way back there? And he puts us right in the mezzanine with the handicapped people."