I posted some time back about the news stories that were circulating concerning some real classy individuals who were hiring “disabled” people to pose as family members when they went to the Disney theme parks so they could juke the system and take advantage of Disney’s generous policies for truly disabled guests. As the parent of an autistic child, I really appreciated Disney’s now former treatment of their disabled visitors, and thought those who both bought and sold a way into it through fraud to be assholes of the nth degree.
Sadly, the fraud was becoming so rampant that Disney was forced to change their policies. I was very concerned that by doing so, visiting Disneyworld would become very hard or impossible for our 23-year-old daughter Elizabeth. Disney was one of the few places we could take her where she could stay reasonably engaged and seemed to enjoy parts of it, and it has become a yearly routine with us where we stay in the same property in the same type of room and visit the parks according to Elizabeth’s comfort level. That kind of routine is comforting to autistic people, and after we had established it as part of our routine about 15 years ago, the trip to Orlando was our one and only full-family vacation. It was the comfort of the expected and Disney’s policies with regard to disabled guests that really made those trips possible with Elizabeth.
Last week we took our annual trip again, just days after Disney revised their policies for disabled guests. We had heard many things ranging from “it worked” to “they ruined it”, but of course not from people who had actually needed and used the new “Disabled Access Service”. We went to Disney intimately familiar with how their policies worked in the the past, and therefore a first-hand perspective on how different the changes were.
First, let me explain how the old policy worked. Upon entering a Disney park, you went up to Guest Services and told them you had a disabled family member with you. You did NOT have to tell them what the disability was… in fact I was told they could not ask you. They only thing they could ask was what specific needs you needed help with… like was your family member totally incapacitated in a wheelchair? Were they mobile? Elizabeth gets quickly overstimulated by external stimuli like crowds, noise and smells. She has almost no grasp of time. Waiting in line is possible for short lengths, but she will quickly become overwhelmed and have a physical and emotional meltdown. The trick for her is to get on the rides within 10 minutes or so, then take her somewhere where she can focus on something else or shutdown briefly to equalize. We would get a “Guest Access Card”, which was basically a universal FastPass, meaning we could bypass the long lines and use the ones that were set up for the FastPass system of getting a return time ticket and coming back to ride later. With the pass, we could just walk into any FastPass line, which usually was less than 10 minutes long. We could also go back to that same right anytime we wanted, all day. It was ideal for what she needed.
That’s all over now.
Here’s how the new disability policy at Disney works:
You still go to guest services, but now they give you a small, folding card called a “Disabled Access Service” card, or DAS. The card has a picture of the disabled guest on it, presumably to prevent other members of the party from using the pass without the disabled person with them on the ride—now a requirement. You also have to sign an agreement stating you will not abuse this pass nor sell its use to anyone… effectively ending the “disabled pass for sale” fraud or at least leaving those who try it open to legal repercussions. Instead of instant access to the FastPass line at any ride at any time, the card has an area for Disney ride employees to write in a return time for you to come back and use the FastPass line. The time they write down is the length of time the standby line is currently at, less ten minutes. So, if you go up to a ride and the wait time is posted as 60 minutes, you get a return time of 50 minutes later. The time does not expire, so you just need to wait until after the time written down has passed and you can go and get right into the FastPass line. You also do not have to have the disabled person WITH you when you sign up for the time… they only need to be present when you actually ride. This is smart, because many kids like Elizabeth won’t be able to understand that they have to come back later to ride. You can also use the regular FastPass system in conjunction with your DAS.
The bad parts—you can only have one ride signed up for at a time, and you don’t get instant access to the shorter line… you have to come back later to ride.
For us, especially on the days we went to Disneyworld this year (in the offseason, so smaller crowds) this worked pretty well. The wait for the lines on some of the less popular rides was short enough for Elizabeth to tolerate anyway, and we did a FastPass here and there as well. We did have to plan our day out a lot more thoroughly than we ever had to before, but Elizabeth only likes to ride certain rides anyway, so it was not to difficult to do that. With other disabled folks who can and like to ride more rides, especially the most popular ones, I can see it being a challenge. Also, on days where EVERY line is an hour or longer, it will limit how many rides you can actually get on, and you will spend a lot of your day waiting for that return time to come around.
One of the things that helps a lot is how good the Disney guest services people are. They seem to be able to tell what you really need to make your day enjoyable, as opposed to what you might want. They are hamstrung in that regard because of legal restrictions… they are not allowed to ask what the disability is, only what kind of needs you might have they can help with. Those legal issues with privacy continue, even with the new policy. Still, they must be trained to give people the “eyeball test” and have leeway to “unofficially” do more for you if they see you need it. The lady who helped us at Epcot’s Guest Services took one look at Elizabeth, who would not respond to questions because she was wrapped up in an OCD moment of asking over and over for an “Ice Cream Mickey Bar”, and must have recognized she really did need assistance to enjoy the parks. She asked about Elizabeth’s needs, and what our specific plans were that day. At Epcot, Elizabeth really only likes to ride “Soarin’” and “Finding Nemo”, plus sometimes “Spaceship Earth”. We got the DAS pass, which you get one for up to a two wek stay and it works in all the parks, plus she gave us each a generic FastPass ticket which would get us all into one FastPass line instantly. She advised us to go sign up for a return time for Nemo, then use the FastPasses on Soarin’ and when we were done with that it would be our time for Nemo. They she gave us a voucher for four free Ice Cream Mickey Bars! Breakfast of champions. She also advised us to go to the Guest Services in each park we visited and ask if we could get another set of generic Fastpasses so we could plan a back-to-back ride at least once each day. We did that at Magic Kingdom, and they gave us another one time FastPass ticket as well.
The new policy is supposed to be about examining the specific needs of disabled guests and meeting them without giving instant access across the board, which is what the frauds were taking advantage of. Disney is claiming this is a better system for the disabled, but it isn’t better. Yes, it does meet the needs of those who cannot physically or mentally handle the long waits for rides, but all it really does is allow you to wait somewhere else rather than in line, and for 10 minutes less than the normal wait time. One of the new things they have that we didn’t use are special quiet areas where those who struggle with the bombardment of sensory input can go to decompress and maybe wait until the ride time. Elizabeth tolerates the crowds mainly because we get her a wheelchair, and if it’s too much she puts a blanket over her head and shuts down for a while (pushing an adult woman in a wheelchair with a blanket completely over her head through a Disney park gets some looks, I can tell you). I can see us using these quiet areas in the future, however… a great idea that Universal Studios has had for a long time already. Disney really is trying to address the needs of autism and other disabilities, and I think they are doing that admirably in the face of the problems certain people were causing with the system.
All that’s really gone are the extra benefits we used to get with the old policy. We could ride any ride at any time, right away (or more accurately via the FastPass line, usually less than a 10 minute wait). Our typical kids could use the card to get on rides Elizabeth wouldn’t want to ride, while she got a snack or found a quiet corner to rest in. Those “perks” were what the frauds took advantage of, so that’s what Disney had to take away. It’s too bad, because those perks were a small but greatly appreciated thing for my kids, for whom the other 364 days a year are also impacted by their sister’s autism. Unfortunately there is no “Disabled Life Access” pass for the rest of the year. Getting a little extra at Disney was great for them, and frankly they deserved it.
There are things we can’t do as a family, things the kids couldn’t do or have, and certain demands, inconveniences, and restrictions, placed on them because of the challenges we all have to face with having an autistic child. The blessings of those challenges is that it’s taught my kids to be better people. Not once has any of them complained about the daily impact Elizabeth’s autism has had on their lives. They love their sister and are the better for having a special needs person in their lives to teach them how to appreciate the gifts God gives us and to give of themselves to help those who are in need of their assistance, concern, and support. It was really wonderful to be able to go to Disneyworld each year and have them get a few days with some special privileges… almost as a kind of reward for being kind, loving, and understanding siblings to their big sister. Disney was forced to take that away, thanks to the frauds.
The funny thing is, they don’t care about losing those perks. Their only concern is how the change affects Elizabeth, and if it would reduce her enjoyment of visiting Disney. You see, while we all really enjoy going to Disney and love the parks, it really is all about Elizabeth for all of us. It is so rare for there to be a place we can all go together that Elizabeth doesn’t just tolerate, but actually enjoys. Those moments when she seems genuinely happy and engaged with her environment are more important to us than short line waits or any other perks. If you needed proof of this, you merely have to go on the “It’s a Small World” ride with us sometime. Imagine being in the boat, slowly winding through that world of color, movement and wonder. Then turn to our family of six and you’ll suddenly understand what it’s all about. Rather than looking at the surrounding wonderland, we’ll all be stealing looks at Elizabeth’s face… seeing the joy in it as she is in one of the places that makes her truly happy. That’s our ride, seeing her smile. My kids were more interested in seeing Elizabeth’s reactions than looking at the ride when they were still younger than 10 years old. That should tell you all you need to know about my kids, and why they wouldn’t care about the less beneficial policy changes so long as Elizabeth is still able to go to Disney and enjoy the parks.
I’m giving Disney an “A” grade for their new policies, not because they are ideal but because they were forced to change them because of a lot of shallow, despicable people who scammed the system, and they are doing their best to continue to help those who need it. I wish it didn’t have to be this way, but the effort is there. The new system takes some planning and forethought on the part of the disabled guest’s party, but it will not ruin the enjoyment of the park… it just makes it a little less convenient to take advantage of.
As for the frauds who pretended to have disabled family members so their spoiled brats could skip the lines… I feel sorry for them. Not because they can’t do that anymore, but because when they ride “It’s a Small World” you can bet every single one of them would be looking at the displays rather than what really matters, and always will.