Why I Like the Disney Disability Access Card

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When you have a family member on the autism spectrum, you learn to fear change. Change usually equates to anger, fear, meltdowns, tantrums, and pain (both literal and figurative). As a community we tend to regard change of our most cherished wins, such as a Guest Assistance Card at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, as an affront, a slight, and an outright attack on us as a community. This is the backdrop in which the Walt Disney Company waded with their attempt to address abuse of their Guest Assistance policy.

On October 9th, the Walt Disney Company made a shift in their accommodation policy for guests with disabilities. This shift, removing the Guest Assistance Card and replacing it with the Disability Access Card has been met with dread by the autism community specifically, and a reason for people to rail against Disney in general. Recently my family had the opportunity to test the new card, see how it worked, and I'd like to share my thoughts.

First, some background. Petergreenberg.com launched one of the first reports of the secret method wealthy patrons have used to skip lines at Walt Disney World, using the Guest Assistance Card and a disabled "guide" to abuse a system that made going to the "Happiest place on Earth" bearable for my sons. Rumors flew, allegations were thrown, and parents of children who had to wait hours to ride were, quite rightfully, outraged. The perception was that people of means were using those means to get special treatment by abusing a system designed for those with disabilities. It was elitism gone to the next level. Whether or not it was true, it was possible, and therefore Disney had to act.

In my mind, I can see the dilemma Disney had to face. They could completely remove the disability assistance, but they would face a massive backlash from the disability community, damaging their image as the most family friendly entertainment company. They could choose to deal with the system as is, but it would continue to face the backlash from all their other patrons who save for months to be able to take their families to their parks, again damaging their reputation. Instead, they created a solution that, in my opinion, was ingenious, at least for children with autism. They created scheduled fast passes within a pass.

The past itself looks a lot like a passport, and you can get it from any guest services representative everywhere, though at Disneyland all the passes were printed out at City Hall. The Guest Relations person will still run to go get it for you, but I think in future we will probably grab ours at City Hall for everyone's convenience. The person with the disability has their name and photo on the front, with the number of people that are able to attend with the person (a maximum of 6). At the bottom of the front page there is a notice that asks the guest(s) to use the Fast Pass service when possible if available. So on the service, nothing much has changed other than the person's photo on the front (easier to identify the person). But the big change is how it's used.

First, you can get the card anywhere in Disneyland, not just at City Hall. Of course it's printed at City Hall, but a Disney Cast Member will fetch it for you, and in the mean time they will give you fast passes for rides while you wait (awesome!). There are a limited number of slots on the passport that can be used, and they can be scheduled ahead of time. The guest has access to a City Hall guest relations cast member in all of the lands. There you can request to schedule a "fast pass return" for your ride(s). The cast member then checks the current wait times, and will write down on your pass when you can return for a ride. You are then free to visit other rides, walk through areas, eat your meal/snack, and return anytime after that time to get on the ride. For those rides that do not have fast passes and are constantly busy (like Peter Pan or Mr. Toad's Wild Ride), you can get your time scheduled and ride the carousel, or move on.

We didn't try it (because we didn't need to at the time), but you could potentially schedule all your ride returns up front, and plan out your day for the Disney parks all at once. If this is possible (I would need to confirm that with the Walt Disney Company first), it would make it possible to structure your visit to Disneyland, and therefore easier to prepare your child with autism for their visit. That would be huge. Even if you can't, you can schedule each land, moving methodically through the Park and cover everything. It's orderly, scheduled, and a huge win, in my opinion, for those with autism.

So, what does this do? It essentially makes a fast pass out of the pass (as the other did before, really), but it limits the number of times you can use it for a visit. For most people on a day or week visit, this is no problem. But if you are visiting for several weeks, or if you are using it for every ride, then it could fill up quickly. It also doesn't completely eliminate the potential for "guides" to be paid to take other families through Disneyland, as it's geared to the rider with the disability. That is, unless Disney is tracking how often someone comes, the size of their groups, and track patterns based on Disability Assistance Card requests. But at least it limits the amount of time it could be abused, and that's something. And with a delay of getting someone on a ride instead of making it "instant", it makes it seem less like a special privilege.

How could they make it better? That's a good question, and there are a lot of potential solutions that carry their own problems. One would be to have a family call ahead of time and arrange the pass at that time. They then would have all their pictures placed on the pass (perhaps inside?), so only these people can be allowed to ride with the person needing assistance. Disney could then keep the family connections in their database for future visits. But then you get into the realms of personal data, privacy, and whatnot. What if the person needing assistance comes with friends? How would that be handled? So it's not a solution.

Another potential solution would be to get rid of the guest assistance all together and institute fast passes for all rides. Of course the problem with that would be what would happen when a popular ride (I'm looking at you Cars Land!) "sells out" of fast passes? Having a special pass makes it easier for someone needing assistance that may not be able to race to Cars Land in time.

So, all in all, I like the new system. I think there are still bugs to be worked out and I think cast members need to feel more comfortable with the new system, but I think it's promising. perhaps when wristbands come out, it will be easier to identify who does and does not need assistance, the person's most likely companions, and those that change companions in patterns that would suggest they are acting as "guides" to high-paying customers looking to abuse a much needed system.