Monday, September 23, 2013

Disney's new program for people with disabilities: the scoop from Disney


With the reveal last week of Disney's new program for people with disabilities, Disney life as special needs parents know it seemed like it was coming to an end. Tweets and comments were flying in response to a MiceAge post that Disneyland and Disney World were discontinuing the Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program and replacing it with a new system similar to the FastPass one.

I have a vested interest: We're headed to Disneyland for the first time in December. To Max, Cars Land is the Holy Land. Disney's always been wonderfully accommodating to our family, and others that have kids with special needs. The GAC has been a lifesaver. Disneyland put out a brief Q&A on the new program (my friend/ Disneyphile Ellen G. shared it). For more info I reached out to Suzi Brown, Director of Media Relations and External Communications at Disneyland.

Brown confirmed that the new system is being rolled out at Disneyland and Disney World, starting Wednesday, October 9. A Disability Access Service Card will be available to eligible guests, defined as those unable to wait in a conventional queue due to a disability (including non-visible disabilities). These guests will be assigned a specific return time for a particular attraction, and can leave the line until then.

The word on MiceAge is that guests with a disability would first obtain a pass with their photo on it. They can use it to reserve a ride time at kiosks set up around the park—one ride at a time, reportedly. If the person with the card doesn't ride, no one in the party can. Brown could not confirm details of how the program will work; Disney hasn't yet communicated it to cast members yet, she pointed out. "We've been working with Autism Speaks for quite some time now, and they have been a great partner in giving us feedback on the new system," she said, noting that it's similar to ones already in place at Universal Studios and Knott's Berry Farm.

Change is always unnerving, but especially so when it involves kids who need accommodating, a place that makes them ecstatic and a system that's worked so well for them until now. Disney is incredible for both kids and parents because it makes family trips that could otherwise be a nightmare possible. That's magic.

Like other kids with sensory issues, Max has a difficult time with waiting on lines and transitions. While the new system means we could wait elsewhere, there's a meltdown factor involved with leaving a ride, waiting around and returning to it, repeatedly throughout a day. What also remains to be seen: Whether there will be significant waits at kiosks, and whether families will have to wait on line at a ride once they return at the designated time. Kids and adults in wheelchairs who are not eligible for the Disability Access Card will be treated the same as other guests (for non-wheelchair accessible rides, they can go through the exit or Fastpass lane).

When I noted some potential challenges to Brown, including the difficulty some kids have with getting on and off lines, she had this to say: "We get that needs of individuals vary dramatically, and that one size doesn't fit all. Like we've always done, guests who have particular concerns can speak with Guest Relations about their particular needs."

I felt relieved to hear that. While the parks can't create a custom program for every child with special needs, perhaps they will come up with solutions for those kids who lose it when there's too much hustle and bustle. "We can't ask what a disability is, because of confidentiality laws, so we rely on guests to share what their needs are, and will continue to listen to those," Brown said. "We pride ourselves on listening to guests." The new program won't be set in stone: "There will be a test-and-adjust period, as we call it," Brown said.

Disney Disability Access 2.0 is in response to abuse of the current system, which made news this year. In May, the Today show did a segment on tour guides with disabilities hiring themselves out at Disneyland so visitors could bypass lines. Just last week, Inside Edition exposed a scam artist selling Guest Assistance Cards to a family at the park, along with another creep who guided a family onto rides using his GAC. (Perhaps there's a Haunted Mansion in hell for these people?)

Originally, the GAC was supposed to help stop abuse. As Robert Niles of Theme Park Insider writes, "When I worked at Walt Disney World's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I soon lost count of the number of groups of able-bodied teenagers who rented a wheelchair and took turns riding in it in an attempt to skip as many lines as possible." With the advent of sites like craigslist, a new generation of scams became possible. The Disability Access Service Card should help stop people from making financial gains off the system, along with garden-variety jerks who abuse it—although, sadly, jerks will always find a way to do their jerk thing.

One thing's for sure: Disney has an admirable history of accommodating guests with special needs. There are wheelchairs and Electric Convenience Vehicles available for rent, special dietary offerings at most restaurants, designated relief areas for service animals, plus options for guests with hearing and visual impairment. I can't imagine that Disney would ever leave kids with special needs in the (pixie) dust.

So before we get too riled up, let's see how the system plays out. Parents of kids with special needs sure aren't shy about speaking up when something isn't working. If the realities of the new program prove too hard to handle, the parks will hear about it—and hopefully make adjustments accordingly. Disney may be a magic place but it's a business, too, and executives won't want to lose hordes of customers or get continuous bad press. Or incur the wrath of Max.

Suzi Brown couldn't confirm whether details about the new system will be posted online when it starts. Parents planning a visit can call Guest Information: (714) 781-4636 for Disneyland and (407) 824-4321 for Disney World.

It's sad to see the Guest Assistance Card go. Still, I'm taking a wait-and-see approach. As my friend Laura said, "I'm wishing for the best—upon a star, of course."

Image: Flickr/BoogaFrito

44 comments:

  1. Not looking forward to being the guinea pig--We're scheduled to arrive for our first-time trip to WDW right on the rollout day, with two SN kids.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I too am taking the wait and see approach with a big HOWEVER! So if my ambulatory CP kid (with other sensory issues) gets tired and decides to use a wheelchair are we out? I get the one size doesn't fit all language they are using but I really don't want to spend $300 for our family to go to Disney only to find that it won't work for us anymore. We are hoping for a Christmas trip to the park and am hoping that they have the kinks worked out by then. Thanks for the update.

    ReplyDelete
  3. thanks, Ellen.
    LOVE this line "Perhaps there's a Haunted Mansion in hell for these people?"

    We hope to go to Disney World next year. Looking forward to hearing your Dec. review!

    ReplyDelete
  4. Yes. This is concerning. My son is blind so he uses a cane to get around. He is also 4 years old so people don't even notice him sometimes which makes navigating crowds and long lines difficult. He also has sensory issues. Disney would be much more challenging for my son now. All because of some jerks! I'm glad they are working on a solution and seem willing to adjust it.

    ReplyDelete
  5. We were at Disneyland in June (visiting the Holy Land), and had both types of experiences. My family, along with my CP kiddo (in a wheelchair), used the handicapped entrance for rides that weren't accessible, and truthfully sometimes we waited longer than those in the standard line. For a few rides, when I asked where we should enter, they said we had to go through the standard ride line. Many cast members offered that if Josh had trouble waiting in line (which he does...he has a hard time keeping his hands to himself), they would give us a pass to come back. For example, the wait for the Toy Story ride was 40 minutes. Our pass allowed us to come back in 40 minutes and go to the front of the line through the exit. We were fine with it being this way. We could sit and rest on a bench near the ride, people watch, eat some ice cream, and then go on our ride. We weren't out any more time than if we had waited in line! I think it's a good system, honestly. I'm hopeful that it will discourage able bodied people who want to abuse the system, but still give our kids that need a little extra help the opportunity to enjoy all the amazingness of Disney. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. some kids need more than a little extra help, my son does not understand the concept of wait-sitting on a bench does not happen in my world, 40 mins from the time we first showed up to ride we could be in a completly different mindset with a screaming child or a sleeping child or a child who no longer wants that ride he wants the last one we just left to get a pass for. i think this is taking away help from the people who need it the most. we visited 2 years ago and brought my son with the understanding we could use the gac for our whole family but once we got there it was only for the rides he could go on with us-which was about 5-what was he to do while we stood in 2 hr lines or drag him back and forth around the park trying to make fast pass times. they told me he could look around the stores while he waited-seriously then you take him shopping!! he deserved to come with us and enjoy the parks as best he could and making that possible for him meant making accomodations for us. i completely disagree with this new policy and think like i said the families who need the magic the most will be the ones who lose the most. nice to say they will look at it case by case but if they could not do that for us then, with this new policy i seriously doubt that is going to happen.

      Delete
  6. Such a shame that a few ruin it for the many and always makes me wonder, What is wrong with people today?! But, I appreciate your optimism with you lets wait and see approach.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The Guest Assistance Card was never, ever intended as a move to the front of the line pass, it was simply a way to accommodate the needs of guests who couldn't stand in the long lines (e.g. use alternate entrance if you're in a wheelchair, wait in an air conditioned room instead of outside in a long line, etc). However, it did end up working as a de facto skip the long lines pass for many kids with SN, which is awesome PERK but no means an ENTITLEMENT.

      I too am hoping the transition to the new system works -- and that Disney does step up to the plate and make the accommodations necessary for folks with SN to enjoy theme parks.

      (Many of the bloggers who are up in arm about the specific-details-not-yet-released changes are those with kids on the spectrum or severe sensory issues, who are unable to wait in lines or cope with loud noises. I'm genuinely baffled as to why on earth a parent would want to take a kid with autism who is spooked by crowds/noise/lines/etc to a Disney theme park, which is quite possibly the loudest, most crowded, most likely to result in sensory overload place on earth).


      Delete
    2. Max has CP, but he has sensory issues and in the past has had problems waiting on lines. At the same time, he cannot WAIT to get to Cars Land. That is exactly why I am taking him, and why many parents take their children with special needs to Disney parks. Our kids truly want to go, though the loud, noisy realities can make it hard. This is why Disney offers accommodations.

      Delete
    3. Anonymous, if you are so baffled, maybe you should get to know some people with those issues or who have kids with those issues. Just because you get overstimulated sometimes doesn't mean you are overstimulated all the time or that you don't like things other people do. If we avoided all potentially overstimulating places, we'd avoid the beach, restaurants, ball games, and even the library. We'd sit at home with noise cancelling headphones on (like we do sometimes, when needed). Saying, "Why would anyone want to take a severely autistic child to Disney World?" is pretty hurtful. Autistic children have families who like to spend time together. Autistic children are not a monolithic entity with all the same thoughts and feelings. Autistic children are children first and autism is only a facet of who they are. If you saw my autistic 15 year old son sing "It's a Small World" and smile with delight over loud fireworks or see him dancing in Tomorrowland to the cover band, then you'd get it. Why do I take my son (who occasionally gets overstimulated) to Disneyland or Disneyworld? Because he's a kid and he likes it and I'm a parent and I like to do things he likes. Just like other parents.

      Delete
    4. Anonymous... maybe we want to take our Autistic children because, despite the parts they struggle with, they have genuine joy at the park, as well? Maybe we want to watch our children's faces light up at the characters they love, that they identify with, just like every other child? Or maybe we want their sibling to have a normal trip to an amusement park, and to get the family time that is sometimes just not possible with a special needs child?

      Your comments show how completely unaware you are of the challenges of Autism. Worse, you couldn't fathom the absolute joy that comes in the happiness of an Autistic child.

      Delete
  7. Enjoy DisneyLand :) Hope the new system works.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm glad to hear someone mention that individual needs are still individual and that cast members will listen and be as flexible as possible. Definitely concerned for those spending the their vacation time and money on the first 'see how it goes' phase. Knowing my kid, if I were one of them, I would have cancelled my trip and rescheduled for elsewhere. Which would be not magical at all. :(
    Enjoy your trip in December...which should be after the 'see how it goes time' luckily. Hopefully Disney will not know who you are and how big your audience is (unless it comes to a point where you need them to--in which case, I say use that following you've worked hard to gain, girl!!!) so that you can get an accurate view of how the new system is working and not one based on your following. And more importantly, I hope you have a fabulous and magical trip!

    ReplyDelete
  9. I have visited Disneyland twice in the last 6 months - in December during super high peak season and August during the summer peak, I have a 9 year old son on the spectrum and 3 neurotypical children (1,2 and 13). Without the guest assistance card trips to Disneyland would be impossible for our family. The Cars ride in California Adventure works the way the new system they are planning to implement for the Special Needs Pass- they assign you a time to return within the next hour and a half to two hours - I am certain this will likely change based on demand, because in December when we visited they said demand was too high and we couldn't even have a pass to return at a later time - an impossible thing to explain to a 9 year old child with autism who has limited verbal skills. The problem with this new system will lie in the fact that you can only queue like this for one ride at a time, and with the time it takes to get to other rides in the park and stand in a traditional line for them if you can, it leaves very little time to be able to return for your queue time. Legoland years ago had a policy where they allowed guests with an assistance card to sign up for up to 5 rides at a time with return times next to each - I think something like that would be more prudent and beneficial.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Queue for one rude at time? Like everybody else at Disneyland?

      Delete
    2. This, exactly. Waiting more comfortably seems fair, getting to enjoy more rides does not.

      Delete
    3. But you don't understand. When an ordinary person goes to the park, they can go early and stay late (if they want to, I mean their bodies are able to do that). For a kid or adult with medical issues or mental disabilities, they can stay for a few hours. With the GAC, we could ride a few rides (no typically that many for us), and then take a long rest or go back our hotel. Without the person using the GAC, the rest of the family just rode normally. We were able to enjoy quite a few hours together with the GAC, and then when our son tired out, my husband or I would take the rest of the family to wait in lines while my son went to the hotel to rest or we would all just leave so we could stay together and enjoy each other's company. Believe it or not, we're not the parents of disabled people just so we can get more "goodies". I've waited for three months before just so my child could attend a public school. We've waited for therapy and procedures. We've changed jobs to get better health insurance. I homeschool my son. I'm hardly a burden on society or trying to get more than our fair share. Goodness, we're not even trying for a fair share half the time, we're just trying to have a few friends, a happy life, and to walk down the street without someone staring. I've waited in lines with my non-disabled kids and it was just fine. Jeez.

      Delete
    4. "Believe it or not, we're not the parents of disabled people just so we can get more "goodies". "

      THIS! I'm so sick of people throwing off as much hostility on people w/special needs as on the people who cheated the system. I even had a cast member say "Well, it will be a good chance to teach your 10 year old that sometimes you have to wait." Really? I thought we covered that pretty well last year when we had to dump him w/elderly relatives on his birthday and delay his party 2 months so we could have an emergency consult w/his little brother's oncologist instead...

      Delete
  10. Scammers...ugh. I hope this new system prevents abuse. I think an ID-style card that lasts for the duration of the stay would be a good idea.

    ReplyDelete
  11. You can sign this petition:

    http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/disneyland-discontinues?mailing_id=15444&source=s.icn.em.cr&r_by=8798709

    ReplyDelete
  12. I'm a Disney fanatic, or Disney freak, as we've been called! We o to Disney on a weekly basis, and have been really annoyed with people flipping out and messages I've gotten about it. Being at Disney so much. Let me say this, the abuse is WAY beyond the news stories you've seen! It's so bad that a lot of the handicap lines can be longer than the regular lines!
    I also have to say what anonymous did, Disney has NEVER had a skip the line pass. It got called that by some person and now everyone thinks that's what it is! I have three special needs kidos. One with autism, and two with Down syndrome. My one son with DS is severely delayed an wheelchair bound. He has Anhidrosis and overheats if out too long. He also has multiple medical devices that come with us. It's not easy taking him to Disney anyway. And I keep saying to let me try it and I'll let you know! Disney I stuck between a rock and a hard place because they can't legally ask for proof but they have to change because of the horrible abuse.
    A cast member told me it would weed out abuse, but I'm not sure how until I try it, because it seems they'll just follow the new plan and keep abusing! We'll see!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Sounds similar to the system that Six Flags uses, except you don't get a card with your picture on it or anything, just a signed sheet of paper with your name on it. I can definitely see how it can be upsetting for a kid to actually go all the way up to the ride, and then have to leave and come back later. Is it possible that one parent could take Max's card to the rides by themselves while the other parent does something different with the kids? Maybe get times for a few rides at a time? Or does the kid with the pass have to actually be standing there in order to be assigned a time to ride?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That's possible, I'm sure to split up, but families with autism are often splitting up. I know we are. If we go somewhere and we can tell our son is ready to have a meltdown, one parent steps out with him and the other kids stay and finish what they were doing. Disney was a place where we almost never had to split up. It was so nice.

      Delete
  14. guest assistance card = The world owes me a living and no one has it as bad as I do, oh boo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo, geeeezzz, get over yourself, if you don't like the disney policy stay home you will not be missed!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "Anonymous" = coward hiding behind their computer keyboard spewing hate and ignorance.

      Delete
    2. I should clarify...in THIS case.

      Delete
    3. So smilinjo is your real name huh?

      Delete
    4. Some people need accommodations like the GAC to have a magical day at the happiest place on Earth.

      Delete
  15. And to think that a bunch of, over-privileged, self-important, rich a$$holes ruined it for disabled children and their families. It makes me sick. And the rest of you complaining that giving some disabled kids a break is somehow "not fair"? Shut the hell up. You wouldn't survive a single day in the life of some of these families. Count your blessings that you CAN stand in line, that you CAN wait. You're darn lucky that your biggest obstacle in life is ONLY your crappy attitude.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have a child with a physical and mental disability, the world owes ME a living because I have it worse than everyone, I should never have to wait in line, I should be served first, I should have curb service everywhere, I should be treated like I am very special because no other person can do what I do or deal with the things I have to deal because my life is hard and EVERYTHING is about ME. EVERYONE must bow down to my needs and requirements because I have a child with a physical and/or mental disability.

      Delete
  16. My family have been Annual Passholders for many years. My daughter is wheelchair bound. Getting in the FastPass line doesn't means getting in any sooner than those in the regular lines.....two examples....Toy Story and Buzz Light Year. Only one car....always a wait line after you get in. With the new system after waiting an hour and half to come back a specific time will we then half to wait the usual additional half hour or more in line for the special cars? So where is the equality?

    ReplyDelete
  17. We had to wait in line for over an hour with four kids, one of which uses a wheelchair for the Carsland ride. We didn't get any special treatment and that was a year ago. The problem becomes when you have to wait in line with everyone else but you also have to wait longer in the front of the line because there is one only "special" car for you and your family to ride in. I'm just not convinced that Disney is so magical. And I could go on and on about how long we waited for the moms with twins to get out of the one wheelchair accessible bathroom stall. If you are going to Disney take your hat full of patience.

    ReplyDelete
  18. I have to say this is interesting. I'm not a parent of a special needs kid, and I can't particularly say that I'm special needs but myself and my cousin (both adults) have severe social anxiety and get extremely claustrophobic and panic-y when standing among too many people for too long. Waiting in long lines at Disney, surrounded by people with sometimes no escape is a horrible feeling for people with social anxiety. I used the GAC at Disney and it was extremely relieving, however, I really hated the looks people gave me in the regular line. I could see them thinking, "that girl isn't handicapped, she's riding the system and cutting lines." It hurts a little!

    I'll be going back to Disney World for my 21st birthday in January, we'll see how this new system works, or if I'll just brave the lines (can't be too busy in January, right? xD)

    Anyway, I really hope this does prevent people from abusing the system, and is still as easy as before for special needs kids AND adults!

    ReplyDelete
  19. The problem is, You guys are going and as a blogger and someone with a large online presence you might not be treated as the average CP family. Or sensory family or whatever it is we might posses. But I hope to hear it goes well. It gives us hope to one day go.If not, we will just stick to good old disney cruises

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Nancy, I sure wouldn't turn down free tickets but we are going to experience Disneyland like any other family.

      Delete
  20. To Anonymous, you're a vile pig...enough said.

    While I'm extremely sympathetic to families with SN, as the parent of two typical children, I'm thrilled to see this change. The GAC was NEVER meant to be front of the line access. Unfortunately, Disney allowed that to happen and the result was that not only did despicable people that didn't need the accommodations abuse the system, so did some families that really did the accommodations.

    Moving a family to the front of the line to allow them to ride so that their child doesn't suffer a meltdown is understandable. Allowing that family to ride the same ride over and over, multiple times, while other families are still waiting to even ride it once was just as despicable.

    There is no doubt that the non-disabled that abused the system are awful human beings, however, the attitude of some SN families, i.e., that only their childrens' happiness matters, and screw everyone else that is waiting, doesn't help their cause.

    I paid the same price to enter the park as the SN family,and to see children riding 5 or 6 times while my kids are waiting to ride just once is annoying, to say the least. Yes, SN children deserve an opportunity to enjoy Disneyland or WDW, but they don't deserve it anymore than any other child in the park. They are no more special than any other child in the park.

    All children are special, differently abled or not.

    ReplyDelete
  21. I really hope you're right about them being willing to go the 2.0 route. I just can't believe they teamed up with Autism Speaks. Really? That was their big PR move.....when large chunk of the AU community either has a problem with them (at the least) or just plain detests them? Have they ever followed an AU kid around to see what transitions are like? And another commenter elsewhere summed it up best: You want a special needs kid to get to a ride they love; to be told to leave and come back or go somewhere else to wait; and then come back and stand in line over and over and over????? For each ride??? Why in the world would I spend thousands of dollars for those kind of meltdowns? And....darling...you've entered the world of well known blogger......of course they're going to tell you that. Here's hoping.

    ReplyDelete
  22. As a cast member and a close family member of a child with angelmans syndrome I think the new passes are a great idea. I understand that a lot of people are up in arms about the new passes but contracts sent down from A.d.a as well as the blatant abuse of the original cards makes this new policy a must. Families saying that their child cant stand in line with out having a melt down, all I can say is I understand... but if there is no learning process and experience they will never learn to adapt. No one is saying that it isnt difficult, it truly is.. but its a way for learning and growing. This is, of course my opinion and everyone is going to have theirs but I think once this is completely rolled out familes will see that it will work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Anon, truly, there is no "learning" that will help a child with major sensory issues and that's not opinion, it's FACT. It's not like, say, a phobia you can remedy. Sometimes, the issues can lessen as a child gets older. Noise-blocking headphones like Holly above mentioned can also help. If you truly are a cast member, then perhaps you have seen what it's like when a kid with special needs runs screaming away from a crowd, unable to physically cope with the sound or even the sight. No amount of coaxing or commanding or "learning to wait" will help.

      Delete
  23. I deleted a couple of comments that violated this blog's comments policy. "Ignorance" and "lack of humanity" are actually not part of the policy, but the comments fit that bill, too.

    ReplyDelete
  24. Hi: I have to say that I'm pretty skeptical about how the new policy will play out. My family is taking a Disney cruise in 2014 leaving from Orlando, and I was going to make the effort for us to spend some time in Disney World afterwards. At this point, we won't be doing that. I believe that the only way that Disney will be motivated to relent on the GAC issue is if they see revenue fall off because families with members having disabilities stay away. There are a lot of other entertainment venues looking for special needs families to come, and are hungrier for our money than Disney.

    I also find myself agreeing with Bob about Austism Speaks. Our family was an early and active member of CAN before the merger, and my wife even was a Chapter president at the time of the merger. At this point, I can truly say that I fail to see any positive impact that AS has had on autism in our day-to-day life. We've stopped organizing or participating in any AS fund-raising events. Instead we've redirected our donations and our time to more local special needs organizations that actually deliver value to my family and particularly my son. Kinda sad, really.

    ReplyDelete
  25. Hi, it's Guinea Pig Mom from the first comment. We've been back a few days. It went surprisingly well, although I'm sure going at a very off-peak time helped. We got stroller-as-wheelchair for our neuromotor-impaired/sensory preschooler (ambulatory, but poor strength/stamina) and the new cards for both him and his aspie big brother. We only had to use the cards a couple of times, b/c wait times were relatively short in October, and regular fastpasses generally sufficed. They did seem pretty flexible, and open to adapting the program for individuals. They basically said, "what do you need?" when we got to the counter, rather than saying "here's what our program is".

    ReplyDelete
  26. So much to say on behalf of our special needs child....We are sooooo disappointed in this new policy!!!!!! A few bad apples have spoiled it for families that NEED the current system!!!!!!!

    ReplyDelete

Thanks for sharing!