Is Disney Dissing the Disabled to Solve Its Cheating Problem?

Disneyworld, Orlando, Florida, USA
Alamy
Experiencing Disney's (DIS) theme parks in this country is going to change for guests with disabilities next week, and they're probably not going to like it.

Oon Oct. 9, the family entertainment giant is eliminating its Guest Assistance Card, a program that's been in place for years as a way for physically or mentally challenged guests to get on rides and attractions without having to line up in the traditional queues.

Disneyland and Disney World visitors lining up at Guest Relations to acquire the card will instead be introduced to the new Disabled Assistance System. Unlike the current program that offers handicapped guests unlimited access to rides with as many as five friends and family-members, the new photo-based passes will force users to wait the entire length of the standby time before boarding. They are welcome to explore the rest of the park in that time, but they can only have one open reservation at a time -- making it somewhat similar to Disney's popular Fastpass program.

That could lead a lot of families who have children with special needs to rethink their next Disney trip.

Carousel of Progress

Many will argue that the new system is more than fair. Why should disabled adults or families with challenged children have an advantage at the theme parks? The Americans with Disabilities Act was put into place to level the experience. It wasn't drafted so handicapped patrons would enjoy more shows and attractions.

The Guest Assistance Card system was also widely and easily abused. Disney can't hold out for proof of a disability as part of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which led to a lot of ruthless teens and even adults renting wheelchairs or making up maladies to be bestowed the time-saving pass.

That was already a problem, but everything blew up in May when a scathing New York Post exposé detailed how a disabled woman was making money selling VIP tours to affluent families. Well-to-do New Yorkers were paying $130 an hour -- far less than Disney's own VIP offering -- for "black-market Disney guides" whose presence would let them bypass the long queues at Disney World.

"My daughter waited one minute to get on It's a Small World," a mother bragged. "The other kids had to wait 2 1/2 hours."

Truth be told, no one has ever had to wait 150 minutes for that particular attraction, but the furor resulted in a growing backlash against the Guest Assistance Card.

Disney needed a solution. It chose the Disabled Assistance System.

Toy Story Mania

There is no easy compromise, but in the push to inconvenience the abusers Disney finds itself punishing those that actually need the pass.

As the father of a child with special needs, future visits to the parks with my son will be more challenging and less frequent.

He was misdiagnosed with hydrocephalus at birth 15 years ago, and a year after the ventricular shunt was put in we received a bombshell: brain cancer. After surgery and a couple rounds of chemotherapy failed to eradicate the disease we were down to the unsavory option of radiation. It worked -- he's been cancer free for a dozen years -- but you don't nuke a child's brain and get a fairy tale ending.

He goes through hours of therapy a week to deal with the development delays, sensory integration issues, and emotional demons that he tackles perpetually. His setbacks fall into the autism spectrum, and that's essentially the only kind of school that will take him.

When we go to the parks, it's never an all-day affair. Like many children with ADHD, Asperger's Syndrome, and other autistic strains or afflictions that cut social outings short, we're there for a couple of hours at best.

Armed with charter annual passes and the Guest Assistance Card we've been able to tackle a lot before it's time to head out as the crowds storm in. We were never able to conquer as many rides and attractions as all-day guests despite paying as much. The new Disabled Assistance System will make visits by parents of autistic children even less productive before meltdowns and stern looks from judgmental park guests cut short treks even shorter.

One can only imagine that bookings for Comcast's (CMCSA) Universal Orlando resort will spike for families with special needs children and disabled Florida tourists in general. All guests staying at any of the three on-site hotels receive expedited entrance on most of the Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure rides.

Disney and rival theme parks have been cognizant of disabilities by making queues wider for guests with wheelchairs and other mobility issues on newer attractions. But it will be hard to pacify those who have behavioral issues where a lack of patience isn't a matter of being spoiled.

Disney did work with Autism Speaks on the new policy, and the advocacy group is urging parents to see how it unfolds before raising a stink.

That's fair. I'll give it a shot later this month to see how it plays out. But I know I won't be the only flustered parent that's bracing for the worst.



Motley Fool contributor Rick Munarriz owns shares of Walt Disney. The Motley Fool recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns shares of Walt Disney. Try any of our newsletter services free for 30 days

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135 Comments

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Shari McConahay

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”.

November 16 2013 at 2:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
RouteUS66Busload

I'm profoundly deaf and haven't returned to pay-into-disneyland. Learned that they provided interpreter upon request that's neat. We just looked upon from outside then headed out for our 2nd home in Oceanside, CA at the Days INN.

October 05 2013 at 11:25 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
medic1306

About time. Many families abused the old system.... And did it knowingly. They can wait. I have no problem with one family member but when five or more would get on.... It was wrong

October 04 2013 at 6:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
llamammama2

i would rather spend the day in the truck of my car..........parked next to a dumpster..........in august.

October 04 2013 at 5:43 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
no1chef99david

I worked at DISNEY WORLD for a great number of years, both on MainStreet in the Magic Kingdom and at TestTrack at EPCOT. I can not speek for what they are now doing and what the old system evolved into - but I blame it ALL on guest relations.
In the "old days" (OK 10 years ago) you had to go to guest relations and you would recieve a "blue" pass which would allow the diabled person AND 1 OTHER PERSON (the assumption was that it was a helper since employees are NOT are not allowed to help for insurance reasons) . When I was there it was made perfectly clear to the "cast members" that 1 and only 1 helper copuld go with the rider and they were to convey to the others ion the parties to either wait or go to fast pass and get a pass for another time and that we were never to accomidate a group no matter how much they complained. shows how low people have gotten and how bad manangement has become at their parks that they would not even enforce their own rules.
P.S. we as "cast members" were aware of the fraud that people were using and we were told to not allow them on and if they had a problem they could ask for the mananger on duty (MOD) and that they would be directed on how to get a blue card and how to use it.

October 04 2013 at 4:49 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to no1chef99david's comment
Stephanie Whaley

Thats fine and good for people with certain disabilities. Our family has a child with Cystic Fibrosis. During our day at the park we have to double back 2 to 3 times to first aid to perform life sustaining treatments like chest therapy and inhaled medications and it takes close to 4 hours of our park time. So front of the line for us helped us get the park done in conjunction with her treatments. How will this fast pass help us!
I do agree that the system was super lacksadaisie, I never had to show our medical letters, they just gave us the pass.

October 04 2013 at 5:17 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
simplesins

Maybe what they need to do is turn the line into something of a deli counter system...check into the line, scan your ticket and get a number with an approximate ride time, and then go about your business, come back when it's your turn to ride. Give it to everybody so there is no incentive for people to take advantage of the system. Turn those areas where theoretically the disabled are supposed to wait for, but instead have been whisked onto, the rides, into a quiet area where they can wait if they choose until their number is shown to ride. Given the degree of technology out there, there is no reason they couldn't come up with an app for that, showing that number xxxxx are boarding at "It's A Small World" or you could see that your number is coming close and head back. That way it's fair to all, yet you remove the "Oh, the 20 of us can't wait in lines with my little poopsie" as they can either go other areas of the park or wait in the "quiet" area before they overwhelm their senses with whatever ride they're being taken onto.

October 03 2013 at 11:30 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
fastfredie51

I went to Disney World and will never go again because of their Fastpass. I waiting in line for hours and then I get to the front and all these people come with Fastpass and go in front of me. They get a Fastpass and go see other things and then come back and go in front of everyone that stayed in line. not fair. Now they want to go after the disable, go after the fastpass and let leave the disable alone.

October 03 2013 at 11:07 PM Report abuse +6 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to fastfredie51's comment
rawkstar4179

You do realize that everyone has the ability to get a FastPass, right? It's not like they managed to find the hidden stash of Pixie Dust and conjure one out of thin air. So rather than getting mad at Disney for offering something you didn't take advantage of, you actually use the system to get your own "go ahead of that schmuck standing in line" pass.

October 03 2013 at 11:32 PM Report abuse -4 rate up rate down Reply
no1chef99david

As a former "cast member" I can tell you that we as the ride staff HATED and HATED the "FASTPASS" it does nothing to even out the wait times. By the way here is a little known piece of information...all you have to do is to watch for when a cast member steps away from the fastpass stands and on the top right corner of the back of the despinser there is a button that all you have to do is press it and you can get as many passes for the ride as you want just don't get caught

October 04 2013 at 4:53 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
dgcajun101

example of what I will say. go to the hospital with limited parking and see one person who is in the er and you have 20 people in 10 cars taking up space both in the lot and in the hospital! if a person needs more than 2 helpers not only should they not be there because they are in too bad a shape to enjoy but also ties up everyone behind them by however many people they bring with. I agree that this is a needed change and a limit to helpers. now, if it is a school group etc. and there needs to be several chaperones for the disabled kids, that is quite another but they can stand in line and not cut in either. I know kids are a handful but disabled kids are no different than any other kid. I for one am disabled and would not be able to stand very long, but that is where a small chair comes in handy and I would use it instead of trying to cut in line.

October 03 2013 at 10:37 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to dgcajun101's comment
Thelma Mayflower

You can look around you and thank them. One bad apple ruins everything, don't blame Disney, blame the scammers......

October 03 2013 at 10:26 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
sharincrab

I actually spoke to a rep today and she said see how it works is. I explained my situation about my son, he is autistic, Downs and has other mental and physical issues. Can't wait in the heat, can't tolerate a lot of waiting or people and yes has melt downs that could make someone think I was a terrible parent. I would trade my kid to be healthy and wait in line like all the others but we can't, because of the disability act they can't check out needs is wrong. I think if you want the card you should have to provide the doctor's letter. I have no problem doing that and anyone that really needs it wouldn't either. I told the rep that I couldn't wait in one line to get a fast pass ticket for him and come back later, he would have a melt down for having to leave, she asked can't you leave him somewhere else and go get it? NO, I am the only parent,I'm a widow and have to push his chair, he can't be trusted alone. This is wrong of Disney and they are going to loose a lot of families that have to deal with this. It is unbelievable that the autistic foundation hasn't helped more with the decisions that WD is making right now. I doubt we will go there again if this is how they are going to do it. We will go to Universal Studios and the other parks. WD was awesome doing the GSA but low life people had to take advantage of it. They should only offer it to children or disabled adults that are like children or adults that have health issues about the heat. There should be a required doctors letter explaining that the child can't handle the waits and stuff that would cause the behavior and health issues to be worse for the child or adult. I hate not being able to go there again but I will not pay that kind of money to have my child be upset the whole time. My son is 32(like a 3 yr old) but we appreciate every day we have with him but we know that he could pass at anytime due to his health issues so for our holidays and birthdays we just go down there instead of a bunch of useless presents. We have a great trip and time. We will miss the people that work there especially the ones at the Lion King Parade. They know us and always talked to us every year. My son will be heart broken. I hope those people that did the escort thing are really happy that they have ruined a bunch of children's and families vacations that meant a lot to them. Sadder that WD can't figure out a better way. RULE for GSA- show dr. letter to get it and have to have a really good reason, broken legs don't count! PLEASE reconsider. And for the ones that griped about the people getting to go through the line faster. WE ALL would give that up for our children to be healthy and be able to handle the waiting. If we were standing next to you during a melt down you would not be happy either so make up your minds, screaming, swinging, dangerous,unhappy children or let us go through the line quicker and not be so petty.you can't always see the issues a child/adult have so no nasty comments please.

October 03 2013 at 10:16 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to sharincrab's comment
dgcajun101

you can buy tickets prior to getting there, so have you checked on being able to get this pass prior as well???

October 03 2013 at 10:46 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to dgcajun101's comment
sharincrab

What pass and buying tickets prior to getting there are you talking about? The GSA is free for handicapped children, and yes I buy my tickets before I get to FL. every year. The passes I am talking about are the ones we will have to wait in line to get to come back, children that can't wait will not handle having to go back and forth to the rides like that.

October 03 2013 at 11:27 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Thommy

@sharincrab: The GAC was never ever intended to allow folks to skip to the front of the line, though it did often work that way as a PERK. The GAC was intended to provide those with disabilities, like your son, with the ACCOMMODATIONS to which they are entitled under the ADA.

But accommodations aren't good enough for your precious pumpkin -- he deserves the PREFERENTIAL treatment to which you feel he's entitled!

October 04 2013 at 8:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
Michele

I really don't feel that those with Disabilities should get special preference over anyone.
They're human beings just like the rest of us, yes, with disabilities, but still human beings.
I worked at a children's doctors office and the kids with disabilities were never given special preference over getting in and getting out of the doctor's office. They had to learn to wait to be seen. And that's only fair.

October 04 2013 at 3:39 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply