Monday, October 5, 2015

Another theme park makes it harder for kids with disabilities

Yesterday my friend Peggy, mom to a boy with Down syndrome and autism, shared a flyer another mom had posted in an autism group she's part of. It's from Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey, whose disability policy will be changing as of November 7, 2015. (There's no mention of this so far on the national Six Flags Safety and Accessibility Guide).

Like many kids, Peggy's son loves going to theme parks. But in order to make the trip do-able for a kid with disabilities, special access to attractions is necessary. This is not about beating the system, as some people say—it's about equalizing the system. Many children with disabilities can't handle crowds, due to sensory issues, or long waits, due to fatigue issues. Some have issues with internal temperature control, which makes waiting on lines on a hot day a medical concern.

Great Adventure's system for people with disabilities, which started in 2007, is similar to the way Disney has operated. The park requires guests who have an Attraction Access Pass to get a reservation time at the attraction and then return. When we were at Disneyland in January 2014, you could get reservations at kiosks around the park—although when that didn't work out so well for Max, we were able to snag other quick-entry passes although I am not sure whether they are still being handed out.

Peggy was pretty disheartened. "As if parents of kids with disabilities don't have enough to prepare for when planning a park trip," she says of the new policy about a doctor's letter and ID. She also noted that parents might not know they need a photo ID or a letter when they get in their car to head to the amusement park, and that very few kids over 12 would even have a photo ID. She pointed out that a doctor may not be able to provide said letter as quickly as a parent needs it.

"Every park in their country has their own set of ever-evolving rules, and it's becoming a lot to remember," she says. (Her family frequently visits Disney World.)

Theme park crackdowns started in late 2013, after social researcher Wednesday Martin—while putting together her book Primates of Park Avenue—discovered that some wealthy families were hiring disabled individuals to gain special access to attractions. This put parks in a tight spot; they had to do something to contain individuals trying to milk the system. As Peggy says, "The positive side of the new Great Adventure policy, of course, is that it will help stop the people who are lying...."

Peggy continues, "I will get this taken care of." It's what we parents of kids with special needs do. But we sure wish it didn't have to be so hard, and getting harder.


On 10/5, I received the following email from a Public Relations Supervisor at Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari:

We read the blog you posted yesterday regarding the changes Six Flags is implementing to its ADA access pass.

The only significant modification we have made is to require a doctor's note indicating that the guest has a disability that prevents him/her from waiting in a normal queue line. We are giving everyone advance notice of this policy change in order to minimize any inconvenience. In the situation where a young child has no photo ID, we will accept the parent’s or guardian’s ID.

The revisions to our policy are intended to benefit those that need special accommodations by eliminating the increasing number of guests who abuse our current system. Our main goal is for all of our guests to have a fun experience at our parks. You should also know that prior to the change, we consulted with various advocates for the disabled who were supportive of our revised policy and did not believe the "doctors note" aspect would raise any serious impediment for the truly disabled.

Image source: Flicker/Sarah_Ackerman


  1. I think providing a doctors' note will be a good end to impostors, but I don't think it's a good idea to carry sensitive information around in public. In addition to the aforementioned, impostors can still forge doctors' notes. It's a fine line between cracking down on impostors and making the system harder for the people who need it.

  2. My son has cystic fibrosis. Our family visited Disneyland/Disney California Adventure last summer. It was incredibly difficult to manage to spend significant amounts of time at the park while balancing his respiratory therapies, special dietary needs, etc. We used the Fast Pass system for some rides which is available to everyone. If you are not living with a chronic illness/disability it may be difficult to understand why our children need accommodations to enjoy the parks.....but the systems that Disney had in place at the time of our visit did little to help accommodate our son's needs with regard to enjoying the theme park. We did have a doctor's note, but my son was 5 and like most 5-year-olds he did not have a photo ID.

    1. I think the photo ID requirement is absurd. Biometric scanning (like fingerprinting) of some sort would alleviate this need.

  3. I don't think this is very fair as it sets up boundaries instead of taking them down. All people deserve to have fun.

  4. There's a significant difference between an accommodation to which individuals with disabilities are entitled under the ADA and the preferential treatment many parents of kids with SN seem to expect.

    Pre-2013 at Disney, the disability access pass was often used to provide skip-to-the-front-of-the-line rockstar access to rides... rather than an accommodation, like, a fast pass (so you could wait your turn without standing in the hot line) or an a/c waiting room instead of outside in the hot sun.

    Bloggers like Shannon of Squidalicious bragged that her son, who has autism, got to ride his fave Space Mountain 4x in a row, then Space Mountain 5x in a row and whatever other ride he pleaded without standing in line (along with his siblings) -- these rides had hour-long waits for the non-disabled. In an average day at the park, most kids get 7-8 rides (1 ride per hour) while her son got upwards of 25 rides. That's not accommodation. That's straight up preferential treatment. Having autism doesn't entitle a kid with SN to a superior Disney experience!!

    1. I, for one, prefer repeated rides to meltdowns. The latter is disconcerting at best and a safety hazard at worst. I don't mind waiting a little while longer for the safety and comfort of others.

  5. You are correct Kate Fowler, it is about accommodation not special treatment. My mom who is in her 60s has sever foot and leg issues from an accident and since she is not a child she doesn't get special treatment but is usually accommodated. What I found is people are ok with children getting accommodated but not adults like my mom. She can not stand for more than a few minutes or walk fast or far but everyone thinks what does it matter she is an adult. To me she was trying to have fun at Disney with her grandchildren and for herself and no one seemed to care. I don't mind accommodations but proof is necessary and should be required and getting more (like repeated rides) is unacceptable to all. So, I should have to explain to my child that ok you are "normal" so it is ok that we stand here in the hot burning sun for hours for one, just one ride but that child has special needs so they get to ride the same ride as many times as they want with no restrictions. I am all for accommodations all, but as Kate points out it needs to be fair and don't give the excuse but their life is hard well you don't know me and my child and even though she maybe "typical" her life has been very hard in different ways.

    1. Those repeated lines and perceived "special treatment" could be accommodations for someone's brain injury like there are accommodations for your mother's leg and foot injury. Brains are as important as legs and feet, if not more, for navigating a theme park.

    2. I meant rides when I said lines.

  6. I used their equal access pass this past summer. I think the addition of a doctors note shouldn't be a hardship unless you are a day tripper and are unaware of this new requirement. We are season pass holders, so only need to do it once. It is not required at other parks we have gone. I guess they get around the privacy issue by saying the note should NOT have a diagnosis.
    They do send you to a handicap entrance and not down the Flash Pass or Disney equivilant Fast Pass line. And many times there was multiple groups waiting. Then the would hold up the regular line to let the Equal Access Pass folks jump right in front of people just getting ready to board.
    So I can understand how it must look to people at the front of a line that just waited 90 minutes, and what someone walking up and boarding must look like.

  7. Be sure your note at Six Flags is typed and on letter size paper. Mine was rejected because the doctor had wrote it on a small sheet of paper and it was rejected for that reason (it had all the required elements). The mom in front of me had hers rejected as the doctor's DEA number was not on her note. So be sure you call your Six Flags and understand their rules before you get a note from your doctor as they seem to reject them easily.


Thanks for sharing!

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