Thursday, October 24, 2013

Disney's Disability Access Service Has a Problem

Disney nixed the oft-abused Guest Assistance Card system for disabled guests earlier this month, replacing it with the Disability Access Service on Oct. 9. I was able to check it out with my special needs son, and my family's initial impressions aren't kind.

Oh, I get that the old platform that let those issued Guest Assistance Cards cut lines was doomed the moment that scruple-free teens and profiteering disabled tour guides slammed the system. It always felt too good to be true to be able to take my son -- who is never good for more than an hour or two at a theme park at a time before sensory overload sends us through the exit turnstiles -- to the park and take in nearly as many attractions as someone staying the entire day. However, the new system is one that will continue to reward those cheating the system while making it a lot harder for someone that truly has a physical or mental disability from enjoying Disney World or Disneyland.

Let me go over how the new system works, why it doesn't work, and how easily it will be gamed by insensitive opportunists.

Disability Access Service
Guests get the new pass the same way that they used to by lining up at Guest Relations. The new pass is actually processed, complete with a photo of the disabled guest. It was a surprisingly seamless event, but there is one unfortunate tweak to the new system. Annual passholders were able to get the Guest Assistance Card with expiration dates stretching out for two to three months. We were told that the new pass is good for no more than a week. I've read two weeks, but I was told seven days is the max. Why? There is even a photo on it now. One would think that it would be valid even longer, but instead Disney will make repeat disabled visitors have to head out to Guest Relations more often. When you consider that the passes are popular for parents of young children who have mental or physical ailments that prevent them from tolerating long lines, the new policy of having to queue them up more often at Guest Relations -- likely making that queue longer in the future -- doesn't make a lot of sense.

Then we get to how the pass works. Unlike the Guest Assistance Card where disabled guests were either ushered in through the exit or sent to the Fastpass line, a Disney cast member at the entrance to the attraction will check the length of the standby line, subtract 10 minutes for the time that will be typically spent in the Fastpass line and issue that as your return time. The pass will naturally change once automated kiosks are set up, but for now we're going old school with cast members filling in one of the 38 available lines on the Disability Access Service pass and signing off with their initials. Yes, this is better than Fastpass, especially later in the day when issued Fastpass return times are several hours in the future or run out entirely.

Getting a special needs child that was used to having immediate access to rides to warm up to the new system isn't easy. Don't get me wrong. The ability to spend that time elsewhere in the park instead of a challenging queue is definitely an advantage. However, that still subjects a family to the typically lengthy standby lines elsewhere. They can also juggle Fastpass reservations like everybody else. It isn't until a Disability Access Service attraction is completed or surrendered that a new ride can be reserved.

The one exception that we found to this is toward the end of the operating day. We hit four parks this past weekend, and when we hit up Toy Story Mania at 8:20pm with a 120 minute wait on Sunday -- and the park closing at 8:30pm -- they actually let us go right to the Fastpass entrance with the pass. I guess they realize that having a family with a special needs child rambling around a park for two hours with everything else closed isn't going to work. My biggest tip to anyone having to get the new pass for disabled children that don't do well with waiting is to hit the park during the first hour or two of operation when the lines aren't so bad or to save that marquee long-line attraction to the end where it seems as if they will let you on.

Thanks for the Memories, Guest Assistance Card
I realize that I'm starting to come off as spoiled here, so let's kick in with some personal perspective. My son was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly after his first birthday. It took a few rounds of chemo and more importantly radiation to eradicate the disease two years later. You don't zap the brain of 2 1/2 year old without some serious ramifications. You don't want to see his dental X-rays. You also probably don't want to walk a mile in his shoes where significant development delays and sensory integration issues make everything from a routine traffic jam to someone singing "Happy Birthday" a few tables down the kind of stuff that will send him into a downward emotional spiral.

He's not spoiled, though we spoil him. He's not a brat, though many in the vicinity of one of his meltdowns will argue otherwise.

Guest Assistance Card was a blessing. It was not only a break for a child that already has plenty of challenges in daily life, but also the source or relief for parents -- and perhaps more importantly the siblings -- of the afflicted child. It was that one rare time where brothers and sisters of the disabled child would celebrate one of the few remaining advantages of the disadvantaged. Mentally and physically disabled kids used to be treated like rock stars. Now it's just a challenge to make it on stage.

Gaming the System
If Disability Access Service was foolproof it would merely be an inconvenience to the perpetually inconvenienced, but in its original state it's a flop. The honestly disabled will suffer, and the perfectly able that threw morality to the wind and lied to skip lines will continue to do exactly that.

That's the problem with the new plan. Abusers can still game the system. A group of thoughtless teens or perfectly capable families that would feign disability by getting a single Guest Assistance Card can now have everybody in their group grab a Disability Access Service pass and keep several reservations open at the same time.

There. I said it. The genie's out of the bottle, Disney. How are you going to fix that? There's also the rudimentary nature of the cast members scribbling on the card. The honestly disabled will naturally respect the system, but those that were unethical enough to lie to get a Disability Access Service card will just write in their own return times. Do you really think that those manning the Fastpass line will know the initials of every cast member at the attraction earlier in the day? Of course not. This last point will change once the automated kiosks kick in, but we're talking about at least two ways for the dishonest to keep cheating at the expense of the truly disabled that had their once great Guest Assistance Card program taken away.

My experience this weekend wasn't so bad, but I saw a couple of families pleading with cast members at Toy Story Mania earlier that evening about having to come back nearly two hours later. There is little to do at that park to kill time for young kids where the loud shows and scary thrill rides pose sensory challenges.

I will continue to renew by charter annual passes -- for now. However, next time out I will also buy premium Universal Orlando annual passes that include Fastpass-ish access after 4pm or stay at one of the Universal Orlando resorts where guests enjoy front-of-the-line access all day long.

Disney had to do something to fix the way that the Guest Assistance Card was being gamed, but the American Disabilities Act makes it impossible to ask for proof of the mental or physical handicap. Disney's solution is an insult to the truly disabled that will continue to be gamed by those that are not.

If the problem was that the disabled were going on more rides than the abled then going back to a per-ride ticket system would make things fair. As it stands now, don't be surprised if families with special needs children now either stay away from the parks or demand that Disney World and Disneyland begin offering hourly passes since their daily passes are no longer as valuable.


  1. The multiple accounts issue has no good solution, as you can't just say that you can't have multiple passes for the same party, as there are parties where multiple people will have true need of a DAS, but they will often have occasion to split up as well. So each does need their own card.

    As you say, there's no good way around that part of the issue.

  2. I feel your pain. The thing that really sticks out to me and my wife as I read post after post regarding the GAC card is the amount of bile directed at disabled people, disabled children!, by people. "Your free ride is over," "it was just handicapped people taking advantage of the system now they have to wait like the rest of us," "no more front of the line pass, hallelujah!" It makes us sick. All people saw was a family getting a break and it killed them. If your child didn't have a readily identifiable affliction that someone (with no medical training) could see then you were scamming. Also, as I have told some people there is no front of the line pass. If you've waited on a fast pass line, you've got the same benefit. Tell a child with special needs that can't really wait on line or deal with crowds that a 15 minute fast pass line is a glorious gift. The previous system wasn't perfect. But what Disney has done is punish the guilty rather than protect the innocent.

  3. My 41 years of Disney Magic were erased today. The new Guest Assistance program for handicapped guests is no help or assistance at all. My dad is in the Magic Kingdom in Disney World today with my daughter who has cerebral palsy. She has a somewhat mild version of C.P., meaning she is not wheel chair bound and does not have any cognitive issues. She has a right sided weakness, she doesn't have use of her right hand and she wears a brace on her right leg.

    They went to City Hall to request the new guest assistance accommodations explaining that although she walks on her own, she can lose balance and fall and that she fatigues easily. Waiting in long lines would exacerbate her issues greatly and put her in danger of getting hurt. They had NO SPECIAL ACCOMMODATION with fast passes whatsoever!

    The information Disney released had said that the new changes would mean they could get multiple fast passes and would be given times to return to rides. They did not have anything like that available. They told him they had to get a fast pass for each ride and gave a complimentary stroller to MY EIGHT YEAR OLD so that she could use it as a wheel chair. They gave her stroller as wheelchair access and told them they had to wait in line with the stroller with everyone else.

    Sure, that will help her not get fatigued, but way to go in making her FEEL singled out and handicapped. She doesn't use a stroller or a wheelchair any other time. Previously, they always gave us an alternate entrance pass and we were able to see everything she wanted in Magic Kingdom before she tired out.

    I told my dad to speak to a supervisor, but he does not want to spend their one day there waiting to talk to people since he will evidently have to wait in line too. We live in Florida and usually visit Disney World several times a year. I have gone to Disney World at least once a year for all 41 years of my life. In the last 4 years since we adopted our daughter, we have been thankful to be able to have the guest assistance card so that she could experience the same magic we felt growing up. We went to the parks in Orlando several times a year, every year and never saw any abuse of the previous system when we were using it, which leaves me wondering if the change was even necessary.

    Regardless of whether the change was necessary or not, there has to be a better solution so that you could continue accommodating guests that need assistance. Until I have confirmation of better accommodations for my daughter, sorry, Mickey, we won’t be “seeing you real soon”.

  4. I first would like to say, I know the original accommodations were intended for children who had special needs, but in my case I really needed the accomodations so my children who have suffered so much this last year and a half because of "mommy being sick" would have benifited from this too.

    They have lost so much this last year and a half and the silver lining in all of it was we could go to Disneyland and not have to wait as long as everyone else because I cannot do what all the other parents can do. I know now because of the changes we will not be able to do half of what I had planned and hoped for because of my illness. And again to a three and six year old they will not understand why, it will be again "mommy's sick we can't stay/go anymore because she needs to lay down." It's bad enough I will be gritting my teeth the entire time from pain just so my babies can have what they so badly deserve NORMALCY again. And for Disney to take all of that away because some people lack any morals/charachter is really who is to blame in all of this. I am dreading planning this trip now because I have no idea how it will go and how much more guilt I will feel after because I ruined something else that was supposed to be so much fun.

    I am in no way asking for a pity party or anything close to it. I know there are people who have more struggles than me. I worked with children who had special needs before becoming sick and it makes me angry that there is no one advocating for you. Disney is supposed to be fun and aaccessible to all children, not just the kids who dont have special needs. But I also think with the prices these days they are also making it about people who have money and those who do not, then compound the fact they took away something that at least gave parents who have other things to deal with than a kid who wants a 50 dollar Mickey souvenir cup, they have taken away the magic from people who need some magic the most.

    1. You don't want accommodations from Disney, you want PREFERENTIAL treatment for your family. No. Just no. Because your children have had a tough year and thus deserve to be treated BETTER than other kids at Disneyland. Using a DAS with a return time so that you can do other stuff and not get fatigued standing in a hot, sweaty line? That's an accommodation Disney is happy to give you. Skipping to the front of the line because it's been a tough year for your kids? PERK. Straight-up PERK. (You wanna skip all the lines? Hire a VIP guide).

      How do you know the other, seemingly neurotypical kids in line at Disney haven't had an even HARDER year that your little pumpkins?? Maybe those kids survived cancer and lost both parents in a car crash three months ago. Maybe the kid behind you in line survived a sexual assault. You have no idea. Disney has no idea. And it's insane to think that Disney would dole out perks on the basis of obstacles outside of the park folks have overcome!

    2. Wow Macey are you bitter? She was talking about how sick she is, not just about her kids. When you are really ill, it takes away much from everyone near you. I'm sure she would be very happy not to have an illness and rather be healthy. So, be glad you can be self-righteous, hope you are never in her shoes.

    3. Everyone has something. I think the best lesson to teach kids is that nothing makes you entitled to special treatment. I'm very grateful for good health. I'm grateful for the good fortune of being able to share experiences with my kids. It's a sad fact of life that sometimes circumstances prevent everyone from participating. But instead of making yourself a victim, embrace what things you CAN do.

  5. We are traveling to WDW soon with a physically-disabled family member and I want to thank you for providing such good information about how the program works. Luckily for us, as long as we can still have access to an entrance where a scooter can enter we should be good. However, my heart goes out to the parents of children with challenges. The new system sounds like it will significantly reduce the magic for those special kids. :(

    It sounds like you're a great advocate for your son - keep up the good fight!!

  6. I was there today, Epcot, Hollywood studios and magic kingdom. The assistance is minimal. I almost think that disney doesn't want us there anymore. In addition to changing the pass they only allow 3 fast passes per day. Not per park but per day!!! They have to be used in one park as well. It was terrible.

  7. As a father of a child with autism, the Guest Assistance Card (GAC) was a godsend. I won't go into the details of his issues, but it is safe to say that we would have never taken our kids to Disney World if it wasn't for the GAC.

    Possible solution: it seems that the main abuse Disney was trying to prevent with the new system was the "disabled tour guides" who were charging able-bodied families to benefit from the use of their GAC. Per the articles I have read, these disabled tour guides were adults, not small children. It seems to me that this could have been better handled through use of identification and a computer system. If everyone over XX years old (probably 16 or 18) who would be part of the GAC group (not just the disabled person) were required to show ID when the GAC was issued, then a computer system could keep track of these names (maybe just the family names) over time. Disney could then keep the GAC system, but just limit the number of different family names that could be associated with each disabled person. Similar to the Disability Access Service (DAS) system, they could even take a photo of the disabled person (or each person in the group for that matter) such that the GAC wouldn’t be passed onto another group.

    Most people (especially disabled children) go with their immediate family, so same last name is allowed plus maybe two or three other family names (to account for grandparents, parent with different last name, grandkids, aunts/uncles, cousins, etc). Yes, this two or three family name limit may reduce the universe of people the disabled person could bring with him/her over time; however, I think most of us honest folks would gladly take this restriction in order to keep the GAC program as it was (or similar).

    1. This sounds great. Wish it were feasible. The type/amount of programming required to develop such a system would make it prohibitively expensive.

      People will always cheat, it's like in our DNA or something. I can see several ways to get around this–fake IDs for example. However, it's one of the better ideas I've heard.

  8. I am not a parent of disabled children. I'm a disabled veteran. I was lucky enough to earn Multiple Sclerosis as my reward for serving my country. However (all kidding aside), I struggle the most with fatigue. I can't do in a day the same amount of things that an able-bodied person can. I can go for maybe 2/3rds of the day if I'm lucky, half if I push myself too hard. ANYONE who doesn't believe that has a PROFOUND effect on your family is delusional or just stupid. "We can't stay because daddy's sick."

    I loved the GAC. Yes, I got on the rides faster than the able-bodied person. But I never stayed the whole day; I couldn't. GAC leveled the playing field for me, the disabled person. I could ride the same amount of rides as the able-bodied guest, and my family was happy. Even if it was temporary, even if the happiness was just an illusion while we were at Disney, it was a period of time where we were truly happy.

    The new DAS card does absolutely nothing for me. Because I now wait the exact same amount of time as someone in the standby line (in many cases, even longer), I simply can't do the same amount of things in the park as an able-bodied person can. Granted, I don't have to stand in the standby line to wait, but the restriction means I can't have the same experience in the park as an able-bodied guest. For me, it's as if I have no assistance at all.

    I know that the big hurdle the park faces is ADA. The law says that the park cannot require proof of disability. I think this has to change in order to improve the situation (i.e. bring back GAC-like capabilities and get rid of the cheaters). Remember that the whole idea of ADA was to level the playing field for the disabled. We MUST find a way to allow proof of disability to prevent fraud. If that means we implement a national disability card, or a state-issued disability card, we do it. We already do it in parking lots: we require a State-issued disability hangtag or placard in order to park in specially-marked handicapped stalls in a parking lot. We MUST be able to do the same thing for other public accommodations. The law has to change. Lobby your Congressman and get the law changed. That's my next mission.

    Once they receive proof of disability, the Park, on the other hand, has it easy. They also made a change to Fastpass at the same time that they made this change to GAC. Fastpass+ (FP+) is now all electronic, done by computer reservations. How easy would it be to code an account to allow FP+ entrance for the disabled? There are several ways they could do it:

    - Allow unlimited FP+ entrances in a specific time window
    - Allow X number of Tier 1 and Y number of Tier 2 attraction entrances per day

    So for example if the average guest rides 3 Tier 1 and 5 Tier 2 rides in a day at Epcot, then code the account to allow 3 Tier 1 and 5 Tier 2 rides at any time during a single calendar day, not including actual FP+ reservations. In this way, I get the same experience as an able-bodied guest, but I do it faster, and I can leave the park. This is the kind of thing that helps everyone. It helps the park; CMs no longer have to be the gatekeeper at the ride, it's all electronic. Able-bodied guests don't know whether or not your FP+ access was reservation-based or disability-code based, so that "unfair" feeling that many experience is eliminated. And of course, this returns us to the GAC-like experience of the past, while still limiting abuse of the system by implementing limited numbers of T1/T2 rides per guest per day, or limiting the hours in which unlimited rides can be used.

    People, the answers are staring us in the face. It's up to US to make those changes a reality.

    1. Smart idea! Make it happen, will ya?!! I'll back you up all the way!

    2. There also needs to be better government gatekeepers for people who qualify for disability. You have an actual disability. People with OCD or agoraphobia do not.

    3. Blind side–The states already require doctors to certify that you are disabled to get parking permits. Perhaps that's not enough, every one should have to pass Blind's 'Disability Test?'

      I have cardiac myopathy–disease of my heart muscle. You can't see it by looking at me. I am sure I wouldn't pass your test. I, also, have severe PTSD–try having a life threatening disease you can't control and not have PTSD.

      Bigots like you are pretty common in society. I've had people call me out on my handicap parking permit because they don't think I look sick enough.

  9. Thanks for sharing. I lived in Orlando, Florida for most of my life and grew up going to Disney. We always had annual passes and I waited in line with my parents and three sisters. Yes it was hot, yes I was sweaty, but it was the price we paid for the fun of Disney. I now have a child who has been diagnosed with autism and another behavioral disorder. I want to take him to Disney, but he cannot wait in line. We live in North Dakota now, but we still go down to Florida about once a year to visit family. Last year I was going down to visit my father in law and so I thought I would take my son to Disney, but when I called to ask about the accommodations they would provide they said they had no set policy; that it was left up to whoever was working at guest relations that day. I was shocked. I am not paying the price of Disney admission to find out we are going to have a lousy day because my son cannot wait in the lines.
    We decided to go to Sea World because the lines would be shorter and it is more about animals and shows which my son loves. Sea World’s disability card is similar to Disney’s only you don’t need to wait to sign up for the next ride (or we didn’t notice because we didn’t go on too many rides). We only went on a couple of the rides because my son was just not that interested in them, but they were great all over the park with accommodating us and making sure my son had a great time. We will definitely be going back to Sea World when we go to Florida. As much as I loved Disney as a child I don’t think we will be able to go if their rules do not change. I wish they could just ask for proof of disability. I would rather bring in a Doctor’s note and avoid the lines than have them not ask for proof and have us avoid Disney.

    1. My kids are both on the spectrum. We just don't subject them to activities that could potentially cause a bad day.

    2. As a disabled person, I don't think my medical records are of any concern to some pimply 18 year old at DW. ADA says you can't question me. If DW wants my custom, then they have to obey the ADA and make 'reasonable accommodation.' That's not optional. That's the law.

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