Paris by Firefly

With his Firefly, Alan Toy could whip from one famous museum to another. Here he is outside the Louvre.

With his Firefly, Alan Toy could whip from one famous museum to another. Here he is outside the Louvre.

Man, we were tearing the place up! Paris … a city I’ve wanted to return to since I was 7. Here I finally was, for five days, along with my friend John, whose solo trip I joined at the last minute. And we were rocking our first full day there. The Louvre, Musée d’Orsay and the Centre Pompidou — three world-class museums in one day. Too much? Nah, let’s watch a spectacular sunset from the top of the Pompidou and then go grab an awesome dinner. C’est la vie extraordinaire.

We are both wheelchair-using paraplegics. I met John when he was a law student at UCLA and I worked at a research center there. John’s paralysis is from a spinal injury. I’m a 68-year-old post-polio incomplete para. I contracted polio in 1953, in Key West Florida, when I was 3, two years before the Salk vaccine was distributed to a fearful nation. For many years I used a brace and crutches to get around. My mother was very pleased to have a son who, though disabled, was still ambulatory. Walking with crutches has some undeniable accessibility benefits, but it is really hard on the back and shoulders.

When I moved to Los Angeles in 1979 to pursue an acting career, I realized that meeting Hollywood’s limited concept of what a person with a disability looked like meant I needed to get and learn how to use a wheelchair. Then I could more successfully audition for the few disabled roles on TV and film.

The unexpected benefit of getting a wheelchair was the revelation that I should’ve been using one all along! It was incredibly liberating to me, and exponentially increased my capacity to travel distances and carry things on my lap. My mother, though, cried when I told her about it. “We worked so hard to get you walking again!” Thanks, Mom, I appreciate that, but seriously?!

Once my primary mobility option was utterly transformed, I spent the next 39 years further blowing out my shoulders by aggressively pushing myself around and traveling — as much as my budget would allow — to six of the seven continents, and throughout the United States.

My Salvation

Three years ago, I fell out of my wheelchair and badly broke my right foot. After months of recovery, standing on it was so painful that I almost gratefully gave up the notion of ever walking again. Steps became my new enemy, but I was liberated from that heavy leg brace and those shoulder-killing crutches. It seemed like an OK trade-off, at the time.

I could no longer get out of my wheelchair and walk up steps with the crutches and brace. Visiting friends’ houses was now difficult, or impossible. I even had to install an expensive ramp to get into my own apartment. And it meant that all travel plans needed to be very carefully researched to ensure that any Airbnb or hotel was completely accessible, with no steps or barriers anywhere. I now had to use airline aisle chairs to be delivered to my seats and wait to be picked up after everyone else had left the planes upon arrival. I desperately needed another “liberation” to make up for my shrinking access to the big, wide world. Then I saw a Rio Mobility Firefly at the Los Angeles Abilities Expo. Aha! My next “Eureka!” moment had arrived.

The Firefly is a one-wheeled, battery powered wheelchair auxiliary device that easily attaches to the front of most lightweight wheelchairs, converting them into racy three-wheelers. I found that I could go up to 12 miles an hour and 10 miles or more on a charge. Yee-haw! I was back in the saddle again. No more shoulder pain while pushing. No more struggling over rough terrain. No lagging behind. No throbbing exhaustion at the end of the day. I was free again, and I took full advantage.

I put more than 3,000 miles on my first Firefly by traveling to far-flung places like Cape Town, South Africa, and eastern Slovakia. I beat the hell out of it, never using my car for local trips, but rather riding in the bike lanes, and zooming around my hometown, Santa Monica, like a kid on a Hot Wheels trike, until I wore it out.

My second Firefly was my salvation in Quito, Prague, Budapest and Berlin, among many other places. In just over a year, I had logged another 2,000 miles of “flight time.” This was my power machine as I took on Paris in mid-April.

John, who is somewhat younger and stronger than I am, was skeptical about my Firefly, especially because I often have to go through an extra level of hell at airports to ensure its safe passage through airline baggage mauling. But by the end of our adventurous first day, I was pulling him back to our hotel!

Hours of Wonderment

Musée d’Orsay.

Musée d’Orsay. Photo courtesy of Paris Tourist Office. Photographer: Daniel Thierry.

We quickly discovered that many of the major museums and attractions in Paris are free to people with disabilities who can show proof of legitimate membership in our “club.” As wheelchair users, our visually obvious inclusion was usually more than adequate. Not only was our admission free, but we were also usually directed to the front of the queue.

When I arrived at the Louvre, ahead of John, there were hundreds of people ahead of me in line. But five minutes later I was inside. I made a beeline for the Mona Lisa, hoping to avoid fighting the crowd to see her. No problem. As soon as I got to her special hall, I was taken to a spot directly in front of Da Vinci’s most famous lady. Between the unbelievable access and her timeless, knowing smile, I found myself heaving a sob of deeply felt emotion.

After a few hours of wonderment at iconic works like Winged Victory and the Code of Hammurabi, John and I headed out through the Tuileries Gardens and crossed the river Seine to our next stop, the Musée d’Orsay.

The d’Orsay used to be a train station, Gare d’Orsay, and is known to many as the location of the 2007 animated film, Ratatouille. In 1986, it was repurposed into one of the greatest art museums in the world, housing French paintings, sculpture and furniture that dates between 1848 and 1914.

Again, to our delight, we bypassed the line, and cruised right into Impressionist art heaven. Every turn or new room drew gasps from me, as I came face-to-face with iconic Van Goghs, Monets, Gaugins, Renoirs and more. These were works I had seen in books my whole life, and now, viewing them in person, I was melting in their beauty. We spent a blissful three hours there, including having a delicious lunch in the Café
Campana, under the huge window clock that is so prominently featured in Ratatouille.

Yes, that’s the famous clock from Ratatouille that Toy is posing in front of.

Yes, that’s the famous clock from Ratatouille that Toy is posing in front of.

When we left the d’Orsay, it was late afternoon, and I was ready for a rest before dinner. But John convinced me to go to the terrific modern art museum, Centre Pompidou, which was on the way to our hotel. That led to the aforementioned sunset and dinner.

The next day, John was a bit sore, but, having expended very little physical exertion myself, I was raring to go again. This was Eiffel Tower day, along with Les Invalides Museum and Napoleon’s tomb.

When we arrived at the Tower, there were huge crowds waiting in line to go up. We headed to a ticket office where, once again, we were taken to the front of the line and then escorted to the very next lift up. It was like a VIP dream. We weren’t there 10 minutes before being put on the elevator.

The view from the second level was exhilarating. We spent over an hour taking it in, from one side to the next of the square platform, each offering its own unique perspective of the City of Light.

Next, it was on to see the emperor, or at least his crypt. Napoleon’s tomb is located in the royal chapel that is part of Les Invalides, so named because it used to be a hospital and retirement home for French veterans. Before the Eiffel Tower was built, the gilded dome of the chapel was the tallest structure in Paris. Looking down on the tomb from the gallery above is one of the few things I remembered from my previous visit in 1958. But here we encountered our first disappointment — access to view the tomb is not possible for chair users. Nevertheless, the rest of the museum of French conquest and warfare was also a freebie, so we explored hall after hall of weapons and armor, from prehistory through the disastrous war in Indochina.

When we had enough of cannons, pikes and cuirassiers, it was late afternoon and time to head back to the d’Orsay, where we had dinner reservations in its utterly gorgeous main restaurant. Aside from the delicious pâté de foie gras, the prix fixe menu was quite ordinary, but the room itself was splendid. Originally the d’Orsay train station lobby, the large space is a dazzling combination of huge windows, gilded murals, chandeliers and mirrors to magnify and enhance a room that is, itself, a historical monument. The grandeur of the dinner surroundings is why prior reservations are highly recommended.

Blissfully Gazing at Art

Our return trip to the hotel turned into a bit of a comédie des erreurs, as we boarded the correct bus, which, like most Parisian buses was completely accessible — but headed in the wrong direction! After discussing our desired destination with some fellow passengers, they advised us to get off immediately, head back to where we boarded and pick up a bus on the other side of the street. It was a beautiful, full-moon-over-Paris night, so neither of us minded the rather long trip back to the right bus stop. But even though we headed in the correct direction on the next bus, we got confused and got off long before our stop, embarking on another nocturnal exploration of the city, until we finally found our hotel. Once again, the Firefly made it more like an adventure than a trudge.

The Louvre as seen from the Tuileries garden

The Louvre as seen from the Tuileries garden. Photo courtesy of Paris Tourist Office.

The next morning, I had tickets to a light show of Vincent van Gogh‘s works. But John and I decided to take different paths that day. He went to see friends, and I set off on my own to the Atelier des Lumières, a digital art museum located in a former 19th century iron foundry.

An eye-popping hour of wonderful images and music later, I was ready for more. Consulting a map, I realized I wasn’t far from the Pablo Picasso Museum. This was the only place where I had to “authenticate” my disability by showing my California disabled placard ID. But once I satisfied the ticket taker’s officiousness, I was in again for free and was happy to see I had arrived during a combination exhibit of Picasso’s and Calder’s works.

I passed another hour, blissfully gazing at art, and then I was on the streets again, energized for more exploration. This time my mechanical horse took me through Le Marais, the former “Jewish quarter,” over to the Place de la Bastille, the site of the famous prison uprising, and then back down to the Seine, where I practically flew all of the way across central Paris to the Musée Marmottan Monet, home of some of the most amazing works of art Paris has to offer. This relatively small private museum, often overlooked by tourists, is one of the great art repositories, not just in Paris, but in the world.

The Marmottan was awkwardly accessible via a portable ramp and a tiny, noisy lift. And the second floor was not accessible to me at all, because that elevator was too small to fit even a light, manual chair. But the other two floors of art blew my mind. The main floor had a collection of such beautiful works that I almost forgot to go down to the lower level. Room after room of art by Degas, Manet, Sisley, Pissarro, Gaugin and others delighted my eyes and my soul.

To my great relief, the elevator down was much larger than the one going up. It opened on the most extensive collection of Monet paintings in any museum in the world. I was practically weeping at the beauty of these glorious works by one of the most beloved impressionist painters of all. I can sincerely say that, if you miss this museum while visiting, you haven’t really seen Paris.

After an incredibly soul-enriching afternoon, I was still up for more. My Firefly had plenty of battery juice left, so I went over to the Champs Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, another place I remembered visiting as a child. But, to my chagrin, the route to the Arc was through a tunnel under the street that apparently only had steps. Thus, I had to relive my memories from across the enormous traffic circle, which would’ve been a suicide mission to try to roll across.

Being on the Champs Élysées, it only made sense to follow it back down to the Place du Concorde and the Tuilerie Gardens. Tourists scattered in my wake as I whizzed past them down one of the most famous — and crowded — streets in the world. I thought about using the bike lane in the street, but that also seemed somewhat suicidal. To avoid taking out any pedestrians, I begrudgingly slowed down to a moderate jogging speed until I arrived at the Place du Concord, where thousands of heads had been separated from their bodies during the French Revolution.

With so many cultural, historical and architectural choices at the plaza, I wound up in the Petit Palais. It and its larger and very impressive neighbor, the Grand Palais, were built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. The Petit Palais now houses the City of Paris Museum of Fine Arts, an eclectic assemblage of art, mostly from the Renaissance to the early-1900s. I gave it an hour before feeling like I had overdosed on art for the day.

It was late afternoon, and I really wanted to see a dinner show of some kind while in Paris. So I headed for the famous Moulin Rouge to see if anything of interest was on the bill. Taking narrow back streets, I cruised past so many little cafés and chocolatiers that I realized I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was really hungry. The Moulin Rouge had nothing interesting on the marquee, so I headed in the general direction of our hotel, hoping to find a meal on the way.

C’est une Catastrophe

I considered it my great fortune when I happened upon the Brasserie le Magenta, which had every outward appearance of being the perfect Parisian restaurant, to have a few happy hour drinks and, perhaps, some escargots or soupe à l’oignon. Happily, the menu had all of my yearnings listed, and I decided to camp for a while. I detached my Firefly, put it behind a nearby partition to the outside seating area, and settled in for an hour or two of people watching, engaging Parisian hipsters with my bad French, and enjoying an unseasonably warm spring evening over a couple of drinks and good food.

Alan Toy and his friend John pose for the ubiquitious Eiffel Tower snapshot

Alan Toy and his friend John pose for the ubiquitious Eiffel Tower snapshot.

Several hours, and more than a couple of drinks later, I paid my bill and went to fetch my nearby Firefly. Catastrophe! It was gone! The restaurant, I discovered, was next to a drug rehabilitation center, and some of the clients, evidently, weren’t very rehabilitated. Someone had snatched my Firefly, thinking, presumably, that they could get a few Euros by selling it or its parts.

I went into a cold and immediately sobering panic. I had lost my super powers and was now a mere aging mortal in a wheelchair, way too far from my hotel, in a suddenly very foreign city.

The manager ran down the street to where he knew such illegal exchanges took place, but came back sadly telling me that he couldn’t find my Firefly. The police arrived after a long wait. They were sympathetic, but utterly useless. Although they took my report at the scene, they said I would still have to go to a police station the next morning and give another full report, to get the theft on record. The restaurant manager hailed me a cab, and I finally made it back to the hotel after one in the morning.

John was ready to boogie early the next morning, but not only was I without my e-powered assist, I had to find a police station. So, we again agreed to spend our last full day in Paris separately.

The trip to the police station closest to the hotel took up my whole morning, as I waited for an available English-speaking officer to take and transcribe my report. Knowing I needed to have an official police report for my insurance made the long wait a little more tolerable (and well worth it when I got home), but it still seemed like it took forever.

When I left the station with my report in hand, I knew I would never see my Firefly again, but that my renters’ insurance would probably cover most of the cost to replace it. However, my more immediate concern was how I was going to get to any of the places I wanted to see that I had missed in the previous three days. It wasn’t easy anymore, and it was scorching hot for April in Paris, so I decided to stick close to the hotel and maybe pick up a few gifts at the nearby Gare de l’Est train station.

The afternoon wasn’t a total bust, because even the train stations in Paris are worth visiting. Gare de l’Est was the Parisian starting point for the legendary Orient Express. In the mixture of food stations and touristy trinket traps, I found some extraordinarily delicious chocolates and bought far too much for friends and family back home (and for myself, of course). The uphill push back to the hotel, where I had breezily towed John a few nights before, was now a difficult slog. Although the chocolates didn’t really melt that much, by the time I got to the hotel, I was sweating like a pig.

Au Revoir, Paris

John texted me in late afternoon and we agreed to meet at another nearby train station, Gare du Nord, for our last night’s dinner. This station is yet another architectural wonder, and is also familiar to moviegoers, its interior and exterior having appeared in many films, including The Bourne Identity and Ocean’s Twelve. We ate at the Terminus Nord, an Art Nouveau and Art Déco brasserie that has attracted travelers from around the world since 1925. Our meal was delicious, but the push to and from the station pretty much wore me out. I was more than ready to head home the next day. I opted for an expensive cab ride to the airport, instead of pushing back to Gare Nord for the train we had come in on. We upgraded our seats for the trip home on Norwegian Air, so it was a comfortable flight.

My insurance company did cover the cost of replacing my Firefly, minus the deductible. I’m now preparing for a month-long trip to Spain and Portugal with my wife and son. And I expect to take those places by storm as well, with my brand new electric steed … which I’m never letting it out of my sight in public places again.

But, I’ll always have Paris — where, for three days, I was almost able to travel faster than a speeding bullet and leap tall buildings in a single bound — among my most treasured memories.

A New, Brighter Firefly

The upgraded Firefly promises to make travel even easier.

The upgraded Firefly promises to make travel even easier. Photo by Joe Budd/

After 14 years on the market, the Firefly is getting a major upgrade this summer when Rio Mobility launches the Firefly 2.5 “BK Edition.” In addition to a facelift, the new Firefly offers increased power, better battery life, better tires, enhanced brakes, improved frame docking and more to make the device more functional and easier to use.

“We’re very excited to make some upgrades,” says Alex Hunt, the COO of Rio Mobility. He loves hearing from people that the Firefly changed their life by freeing them to be more independent and travel to places they weren’t able to before. “Now that will be even more true.”

Hunt says the Rio designers worked to incorporate user feedback into the improvements. He is particularly excited about the addition of dual kickstands that allow the user to park and store the Firefly in an upright position. Because the unit can stand on its own, users can roll up to it and just snap it on. “We also put little wheels on the kickstand,” says Hunt. “So, let’s say, you’re taking it from the garage to your trunk. You can roll with it and move it a little more easily, too.”

New safety features include a dual LED light system so users can see and be seen; dual disk brakes with dual disk calipers for more braking power and increased disk and pad lifetimes; and locking brake handles with an integrated bell as well as a color touch-screen with haptic feedback.

Under the hood, the Firefly comes with an improved battery management system and Panasonic GA batteries with a 252 watt-hour battery that passes UN Transportation Testing and is certified to be taken as carry-on luggage on most airlines.

The BK Edition draws its name from Bart Kylstra, the late founder and owner of Rio Mobility. It will be available with a chrome red frame or a metallic gunmetal frame, both with matte black accents for $2,599 — only $200 more than original’s retail price. “It was imperative that we keep the cost reasonable,” says Hunt. “Our next competitor is maybe three times that price.”

For more information, or to order, call 415/552-6277 or send an email to

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