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Disney Changes Rules for Disabled Kids After Families Abuse Special Accommodations

Posted by on Sep. 24, 2013 at 10:28 AM
  • 13 Replies

Disney Changes Rules for Disabled Kids After Families Abuse Special Accommodations

by Jeanne Sager

Alex Bettencourt at DisneyIt's supposed to be the happiest place on earth, but Disney World and Disneyland are anything but for members of the special needs community at the moment thanks to rumors spreading round the Internet. The theme parks are changing the "guest assistance cards" that parents of children with special needs have come to count on to make vacations with their kids possible. The GAC or GAP program (as its known) has long provided accommodations for children and teens with physical as well as cognitive, developmental, or behavioral challenges.

But rumors that the GAC had been stopped entirely, coupled with a huge petition to get the program back, has parents scared ... and their kids upset.

How would you explain to a child that their favorite vacation spot doesn't want them?

If you've got a neuro-typical kid, you probably haven't thought about it. I'll admit I didn't, even with a future Disney trip on my schedule. It wasn't until I stumbled on a post from one of my favorite bloggers, Shannon Rosa of Squidalicious, that I even knew parents worried that Disney was penalizing kids with special needs because of folks who have been abusing this privilege.

Maybe you heard about the rich jerks who were hiring disabled "family members" to come on vacation so they could get special perks at the parks? There was an expose on the practice a few months back, and then, suddenly, came the rumor that Disney had ended it all.

And parents freaked. For them this isn't a minor inconvenience. It's a full-blown problem. As Rosa, whose son Leo is on the autism spectrum, said on her blog:

You have to understand: our love of the GAC is not because we get to skip lines and blow raspberries at all the chumps who don't. Skipping lines is not a convenience but a necessary accommodation for our boy. Because he is autistic. Because of his specific disability.

Leo can wait in lines, but not always. Not lines of Disneyland length. Not without melting down due to the crowds, the noise, the expectation based on previous experience that he will not have to wait in lines longer than 20 or so minutes. Without the GAC, Disneyland is effectively barred to my son.

And it's not just kids with autism who are affected, here folks. Moriah Bettencourt's son, Alex (the cutie pictured above), has CHARGE Syndrome and he's considered to be deaf/blind as he has serious deficiencies in both areas. Alex, his mom says, "lives for Disneyland."

The family goes to the California amusement park two to three times a year, and they've found GAC isn't just helpful for them -- it helps the other folks in the park have a pleasurable experience BECAUSE Alex's needs are being met. As Moriah told The Stir:

When Alex was about 7 he was finally tall enough to ride some of the larger rides. At that point my husband was uncomfortable with the special needs pass and thought that we should try to stand in line to see if Alex could do it. About 10 minutes into our waiting in the Splash Mountain line Geoff was horrified when Alex suddenly grabbed two handfuls of the hair of the little girl in front of us. He didn't want to hurt her he just was fascinated by her hair that she kept swinging around but as you can imagine when a stranger suddenly grabs the hair of another stranger things get tense really quickly. 

We made our profuse apologies & promptly stepped out of line, since then the GAP has been a necessity for us. Alex is unable to be that close to strangers without wanting to touch them, it's a serious issue.

Needless to say, the Bettencourts, like the Rosas, were swearing off Disney for awhile. As are hundreds of thousands of families who have been cut off. They're among the nearly 20,000 that have signed a MoveOn petition to get Disney to roll back the changes.

But they may not have to.

The good news? The Stir reached out to Disney, and they say the rumors aren't entirely true. They ARE changing the GAC process ... but it's still in place for now, and they're working with disability groups, including Autism Speaks, to make sure the new program will truly meet families' needs.

According to Michele Himmelberg, a PR director for Disneyland Resort:

We have an unwavering commitment to making our parks accessible to all Guests. Given the increasing volume of requests we receive for special access to our attractions, we are changing our process to create a more consistent experience for all our guests while providing accommodations for guests with disabilities. We engaged disability groups, such as Autism Speaks, to develop this new process, which is in line with the rest of our industry.

The new Disability Access Service Card program starts on October 9, and you can be sure parents will be watching, hoping that Disney makes the right choice for their kids with the set-up for the new program. As Shannon Rosa said:

In a fair and just society, you don't take away (or complicate) accommodations for people with disabilities just because non-disabled people are taking advantage of them and making other non-disabled people mad.

Do you use the special accommodations at theme parks?

Are you concerned about the changes?


by on Sep. 24, 2013 at 10:28 AM
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Replies (1-10):
by on Sep. 24, 2013 at 6:17 PM

We used them and they were a great help to us.  We only rode on one or two that had the fast pass, so I don't know how well this will work for us.  It sounds like a lot of extra walking, which is a problem, and will make planning our day much more difficult, which is not easy to begin with! I hope they roll out this program, and make adjustments along the way.  

by on Sep. 24, 2013 at 6:35 PM

I honestly wasn't aware of the program.  I mean, I guess I knew they had SOME kind of program, because obviously guests with mobility impairments weren't going to be able to go through some of their lines.  

I've been to Disney Land several times with my Mentally Retarded (but not physically impaired) brothers and took my son (ADHD & ASD) to Disney World a few years ago.  While the lines obviously weren't super fun, we didn't need any special accomodations.  Actually, with Disney's new fast pass system and going in the winter rather than summer, we really didn't have very many problems with lines at all!  (The fact that DS had recently changed medications and was on one that made him incredibly tempermental was a much bigger problem!)  

On the other hand, I'm sure there are families of kids with less "visible" dissorders who really do need such accomodations.  It's really sickening that people would abuse the system.  Even so, I'd rather the system exist, even with people abusing it, then to have them abandon the system all together.  Part of what makes Disney great, and worth the extra time and expense to visit, is because of it's fun and inclusive atmopshere.  

by on Sep. 24, 2013 at 6:38 PM

And I'm really glad they're not doing away with the program.  

Because, as they mention in the article, this is really in EVERYONE's best interest.  A small child throwing a fit in line isn't much fun.  Who in the world wants to be waiting in line with a not-so-small autistic child having a full on melt down???  Because once you're in those lines, there's rarely a very quick way to exit them!  

by on Sep. 24, 2013 at 6:38 PM
I'm not taking my ds to Disney ever. it's an overly expensive waste of money.
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by Chelle on Sep. 24, 2013 at 6:58 PM

For us it will have an affect. We did use the other pass because it offered alternative waiting areas that were shaded to wait for rides versus the normal lines that are crowded and in the sun. Ty can't be out in the sun like that, but because he uses a stroller as a wheelchair for places like that (and the mall and zoo, places with lots of walking), Ty can't get the new pass cuz according to Disney, if they are in a wheelchair they are capable of waiting in the normal lines out in the sun and heat like everyone else cuz apparently everyone fits in the same cookie cutter for disabilities and special needs. 

I feel like they did 0 research into the many disabilities out there and are just making it even harder to travel and visit their parks with a disability. Who is seriously going to be able to walk back forth from rides to the kiosks all day long?! These people are DISABLED! Somehow I don't think STAMINA is their strong suit!

I get why they are doing it but they need to go after their own employees who were taking money bribes to let others cheat their way through! 

by Gold Member on Sep. 24, 2013 at 7:19 PM
I think it's good that they're keeping it. Some families need it. Ours? I highly doubt we'll get to go to DL or DW. For a family if 5, we'd have to save so long our kids would have kids lol
by Darby on Sep. 24, 2013 at 8:19 PM

We've never been before...thanks for sharing.

by on Sep. 25, 2013 at 9:26 AM
I heard about this, but not them ending the program. It's sad it has to come to this because of people not wanting to wait in line. We never been there. We go to six flags. They are post to have something like that but we don't use it. We started taking my son on slow days and left when it got really busy, I know Disney world may not have a slow time. We have been to Six flags on a some what busy day, and my son did pert good.
by on Sep. 25, 2013 at 9:40 AM

We are going to Disneyland in October. We never planned on using the special accommodations because my son really doesn't need it, however some children truly DO need it and it saddens me that some have taken advantage of this program and could have really ruined it for those who really need it. :/

by on Sep. 25, 2013 at 11:24 AM
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We went to Disney last August, glad we did it.  I don't know if we'd be able to go now with the new rules.  It's not necessarily the short lines, but I have 2 children in wheelchairs.  It's a PIA to push them through the narrow, crowded lines.  If I were to go back, I would be the parent to stand ground and get my way.  There were times when DH and Hayden would wait in line and then we would meet them (through the handicap enterance).  Also, most rides have seperate enterances and exits... how do the poeple of Disney plan on getting the wheelchairs to the exit.  They need to do a lot of research, hopefully they lose a lot of business because of this.

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