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.