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.
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.