What’s scarier than the Haunted Mansion at night? Disney’s new disability assistance policy.
DISNEY’S NEW DISABILITY ASSISTANCE CARD is a tweak to the Fast Pass system already in place and won’t work for most people on the autism spectrum. It will, in fact, likely ruin the previously wonderful experience of a family trip to the Happiest Place on Earth.
This is my sad conclusion after spending four days with my family at Disney World roughly a week after the Florida and California resorts implemented the new Disability Assistance Card, a move, I was told, that had been in the works for five years, well before stories of people abusing the previous Guest Assistance Card became national news.
While I believe the adage that if you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum you’ve met one person on the autism spectrum, I’m confident in this assessment. Loud, crowded and often hotter than hell is not a great environment for ASD folks. Unfortunately, that’s what Disney is and, frankly, it’s a great place that people love to visit anyway. So you try.
The old GAC was terrific, a pass for families with a disability to move into the Fast Pass lane, generally cutting wait times of 40 to 60 minutes down to 10 or 20 minutes. It was an amazing privilege for a Disney patron and one, I feel, families dealing with a disability – whether it was ASD or epilepsy or MS or cancer or any other number of issues – deserved; perhaps not legally, but certainly in the spirit of what we used to call goodwill and human kindness. Disney was, in fact, proving itself to be as classy as it aspires to be.
The new system is a renunciation. With the DAC, Disney has stepped into the conga line that dances to the discouraging new soundtrack of America: If you can do it and get away with it, go for it.
“We’re getting in line with the industry standards,” a cast member told us on our first day. But why on Earth would they want to do that? Isn’t Disney the industry leader? One wonders what Walt would have thought.
What Disney had done with the Guest Assistance Card was literally give these overtaxed families a break. So in that sense, any change in a system that allowed these families to travel from ride to ride in the most convenient way possible was doomed to failure. What I didn’t realize was how much it would absolutely torpedo our trip. For our ASD teenager, it was a disaster from the moment we arrived. On the last day, he chose to stay at the hotel.
One of the new rules, and it’s understandable, is that those who require the card be present and have his or her photo taken when it’s administered. My son didn’t like it, but I get it; you have to cut down on cheaters. But because the new card is good for only one ride at a time, ASD families are going to need some Fast Passes to at least prime the pump – you can sign up for a ride with the DAC and then use the Fast Passes on another ride so you’re not conspicuously waiting – and unfortunately my son had to show his face every morning to get some Fast Passes.
Disney was willing to give us the passes, but every time we showed up at City Hall, my son sat in a corner with his head between his knees, no doubt feeling like a freak as the cast member asked, “And where is your son?” That was how the day STARTED, and though the family enjoyed its time on the rides, it was generally a quick plummet from that moment. My son never made it longer than a few hours before saying, “I want to go home.”
The GAC allowed a family to travel in its own pack at its own pace; the DAC makes Disney World just another set of rules an ASD family can’t follow. And let’s get this out of the way right now: If you’re thinking, why take an ASD kid to Disney World? You’re in the wrong place.
Every minute not spent on a ride was about, “Where do we go next? Should I walk ahead and sign up for this? Do we have time to do this? Is this on the way? Do you want to spend the Fast Pass on this?” And this was in October, when lines for many rides were relatively small. But being given another set of guidelines was just another heaping helping of stress – the stuff you kinda want to leave at home when you go on vacation.
I think the dirty secret here is that typical Disney patrons have as much to do with these changes as those who have infamously abused the GAC. It’s easy to find reports of GAC holders selling themselves as paid guides, or people simply faking disabilities to get the cards, and they’re appalling. But Disney lives on gate receipts, and customers angry over a disabled family getting what we in the U.S. now call an entitlement can raise a stink about not coming back. And there are more typical patrons than disabled.
I guess that’s the sad truth; that this change is about money, like everything else. It’s certainly not about helping disabled patrons and their caregivers. Because the new system is new, I’m holding out hope for, at the least, modifications. But the fact that Disney never wanted to see our paperwork – diagnoses, IEP – I’m not encouraged. They didn’t want to know, just like most everyone else. Disney is no longer above it, and it’s heartbreaking.