Disney Parks' New Pass for the Disabled Is a Dud: A Dad Breaks It Down

Disneyworld, Orlando, Florida, USA
The new Disability Access Service system at Disney World and Disneyland isn't making many guests happy in the Happiest Place on Earth.

Disney's new program for physically and mentally handicapped guests replaced the more useful, yet widely abused, Guest Assistance Card program that was shuttered on Oct. 9. I predicted the change would be trouble, covering the news earlier this month. And Disney (DIS), too, knew that it would be a rough transition.

The previous service offered no-wait access to theme park rides and attractions for disabled guests and their families, making vacations that would still be difficult somewhat easier. However, unofficial disabled "tour guides" got into the act, charging vacationers a pretty penny for the expedited access their disability passes provided. Wealthy but ethically bankrupt families bragged about using them to bypass the long lines endured by the masses, and a wave of outrage sank the old program.

How Disney Blew It

My family hit all four of the Disney World parks this past weekend with my special needs son, and DAS didn't win high marks. I blogged about Disability Access Service -- how it works, how it doesn't, and how it can be gamed -- and have concluded that it's the worst of both worlds.

Though Disney reportedly worked with advocacy group Autism Speaks to come up with a plan that would meet the needs of families with children on the autism spectrum, the new system is more inconvenient for the families that need it, yet can still be circumvented by those willing to abuse the platform in the first place.

Guests running low on moral fortitude can have everyone in their group take out the new pass and have several reservations open at the same time. It's also easy to forge return times with the system in its current state, though that will change once automated kiosks are brought online. If someone's willing to lie having about an ailment to get the pass, they're not going to flinch at loading up on them or scribbling in desired return times.

A common complaint from non-disabled visitors to Disney parks was that, using the Guest Assistance Card, disabled adults or families with special needs children were able to go on significantly more rides over the course of a day than an ordinary park guest could. The spirit of the American with Disabilities Act of 1990 was to create a level playing field: It wasn't supposed to tilt things in the other direction.

However, that assumption misses a key point: Many families with special needs children can't stick around at the park for a full day, due to their physical and mental challenges. There are few children on the autism spectrum, for example, who could handle the highly stimulating environment of a theme park for more than a couple of hours at a time.

Why Not Pay by the Ride - or by the Hour?

One simple solution would have been to return to the days of the individual ride tickets.

Disneyland in California and the Magic Kingdom in Florida used to charge low admission prices, then guests would pay separately for tickets to the rides. A system under which people paid based on how many rides they went on would turn today's expensive Disney smorgasbord into a more reasonable deal for a special needs family that might be able to enjoy just two or three rides before having to exit the park.

A slightly more complex solution that would dovetail with the new Disability Access Service would be to offer hourly passes.

Some smaller, regional parks already charge less for admissions later in the day, knowing that guests won't have as much time to enjoy the park. Why couldn't Disney offer a similar choice for guests who can't stick around as long? Whether it's a matter of physical challenges or having to catch a flight back home later in the day, giving guests the option to buy time in the parks in hourly blocks would help deflect some of the groundswell of protests about the new Disability Access Service.

Tracking hourly passes might have been a challenge in the past, but Disney's already moving toward individual guest bracelets that track in-park activities and monitor reservations. Disney scanners can now show when someone arrives at Disney World or Disneyland and when they leave.

Here's hoping Disney doesn't stand pat with this solution, when better options exist that would meet the needs of disabled guests without being so easily gamed by the unscrupulous.

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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Debbie Barnes Slaten

I have a disabled son we go to disney world every year. He is in a wheelchair most of the time 4 out of 5 rides we wait longer for a wheelchair boat or ride .So all the people that complain that we go to the front of the line you really have no idea what your saying. I would give anything for my son to be able to wait in line like you can.

February 02 2014 at 2:18 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

I will never be visiting disneyworld agian. The new disability pass system is horrible. I know that it is just a matter of time before disney starts losing money once word spreads of how horrible this system really is.
I went to seaworld yesterday and enjoyed it so much better with my 2special needs children.
If I am unable to have access to the fastpass line right away that's one thing but unable to have to rides open at the same time that's another. For example space mountain was a 45min return time that's fine so we walked over to dumbo which was a 10 minute return time hhere's the catch I would have to forfeit space mountain to ride dumbo
What the heck is that all about. I know families thathave special needs autistic children most likely will not be returning to this once magical park

December 18 2013 at 11:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bianca.swift's comment

Or starts really making money from the massive amounts of people WITHOUT a disabled family member who were tired of waiting in EVERY major ride line for an additional 45 minutes so that 36 family members with 5 wheelchairs between them cut in front of them in EVERY line. Nothing is more fair than giving "get out of line free" cards to people hey?

Even with the new system you STILL have the advantage. You don't have to walk through and stand for nearly 3 hours to ride the Radiator Springs Racers. Now all you have to wait the exact same amount of time that EVERY ONE ELSE has to wait. Boo-Hoo for you. At least while you are "waiting", you can go and eat, shop, get a picture with Mickey, go sit in the shade (while we stand in the sun shuffling forward one foot at a time) or fill the time in any other way that you would like. Don't panic, you are still "privileged" Bianca, you are just not über-privileged like you were before.

April 10 2014 at 3:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q464fj2r-YI This is how the "front of the line" really is for people using the DAS system. Educate yourselves people.

November 24 2013 at 7:56 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to INES's comment

You say that you stand in more lines than we do, but you are so far wrong it isn't funny. The fast pass line bypasses a HUGE amount of line. Oh, and that stairway you pointed out that you assumed led straight to the cars? It is just another much longer segment than your little one turn hallway with 20 people in it. The people who "got to go up the stairs" wound around three or four more twists and turns that are each 2x the length of your little hallway, and then had to go back down stairs again and wind around to the boarding area. Sorry no sympathy here for your having to wait for the 2 disabled cars with only 20 people in front of you. You had a 30 foot walk and a 10 or 15 minute wait. Those people who went up the stairs and who had legitimate fast passes still waited 25 or 35 minutes more than you did.

April 10 2014 at 3:58 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

"How Disney Blew It" please, Disney doesn't have to do any thing special for anybody, they had a great system and lowlife Americans abused the system, (sound familiar?)

October 27 2013 at 8:47 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I have seen many annual passholders who are there the entire day using the old system and would go on an attraction between 3-5 times in one day (especially Radiator Springs Racers). It wasn't fair to the regular paying guest. The DAS system has actually been received well at least in California Adventure so far and guests, though still learning, are doing ok with the system. When it comes to regards to "larger people" needing mobility devices and can't say if they truly do or do not need it, its not my place to say. However I have made one observation...I have been lucky enough to travel to Tokyo Disney and while my 3-day stay was brief I noticed something weird but welcoming. I only saw a total of 3 wheelchairs (not ecvs), 2 of which appeared to be special needs guests and 1 who was very elderly. I don't know...just food for thought.

October 26 2013 at 2:40 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

a lot of people don't understand that some of the rides have stairs of which you can not get a wheelchair on. My husband has M.S. when we went to Disneyland with our grandchildren, we had to wait in line, the only difference is they took us down a hall way that had no stairs.by the time we got to the ride and got on it was15 min.And no I'm not going to let my young grandchildren stand in line by themselves.nor am I going to let my husband go by his self.

October 26 2013 at 5:50 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

There is a protest outside Disneyland this Sunday at 10:00. Come join us in showing Disney how we feel about their new system.

October 25 2013 at 11:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to SBrown's comment

Hey that's great! Glad to see that you are protesting about all of the disabled people who have abused the system for so many years, and are now whining about the absolutely necessary changes that Disney was forced to make due to their abuse. It's about time that we took a stand against those manipulative bustards. Good for you!

April 10 2014 at 4:02 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

I have handicapped kids and they are so treated poorly by regular people. They do not want a break they just want to be on an even playing field with normal people. Walk a mile in their shoes and see how life is. So what if you let them ahead in a line. Shame on anyone not handicapped abusing this, ban them from the park for life.

October 25 2013 at 11:47 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Liz's comment

You got your wish. This is much closer to leveling the playing field than the old system. The old system was tilted WAY in their favor. This system is only titled mostly in their favor. Congratulations on your victory, and I hope to see more such adjustments in fairness soon.

April 10 2014 at 4:04 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

look, it will NEVER be the same EVERYWHERE for the handicaped human. AINT happening. there will be gallant tries, but in the end it wont be the same, and once everyone accepts it as what it is we'll all be better off. I grew up with two boyhood friends who were both in wheelchairs by age 8. Neither saw their 19th birthday, and there were NOT many places for them to go in those days [60s] it HAS gotten better,,,,,,,so lets keep trying and dont get pissed off.

remember...there is a reason its called handicaped. paint it as you wish...but its NOT the same, sad as it is....its the truth.

October 25 2013 at 11:05 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
3 replies to dimag56in41's comment
Amy Tenberge

First, some of the information in this article is not correct. The GAC was NEVER a front of the line pass!! I am sick of seeing this in print! It was automatic access to the Fastpass line OR access to the wheelchair accessible line, neither of which guaranteed no wait! In fact, sometimes a wait was necessary because the number of wheelchair accessible ride vehicles on each attraction is limited, and that's where the disabled go whether they are wheelchair restricted or not. ANY guest can arrange for a Fastpass, and can therefore witness that while the line may be shorter, especially on popular attractions, there is STILL a line!

Second, "20 people" were never allowed access with one GAC. The GAC was for 6, in other words, in would accommodate most of the average sized families, so they could enjoy attractions together on their vacations. Anyone who honestly thinks my daughters should not get to see their disabled sibling enjoy a ride because they aren't disabled has a heart of stone. And what of single parents? Mom rides with SN child while the other kids take care of themselves? That's ludicrous and prejudiced.

So sad to see the total lack of compassion in the general public these days.

October 25 2013 at 10:51 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Amy Tenberge's comment

I absolutely agree the GAC wasn't intended as a front of the line pass -- though it did often end up being one. I also agree that your non-disabled daughters should get to see and go on the ride with your disabled daughter.

What I do NOT agree with is that folks with special needs are entitled to BETTER treatment than the 'average' Disney visitor -- the parents with kids on the spectrum seem to be the MOST overentitled about this (my kid can't wait in lines! He must go on Radiator Springs 5x in a row! etc!!!). The ADA requires Disney to provide accommodations to the disabled... the DAS provides accommodations.

November 05 2013 at 2:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply