Autism and Disney: Taken for a ride

We’ve all heard or used the dreaded, trite expression, “It’s not you; it’s me” as it relates to the termination of a relationship.

Eliza and Ethan Walmark with Minnie Mouse

This very morning, in fact, I just had that exact conversation with my clothing. “It’s not you, skinny jeans, it’s me. It’s definitely me.”

However, as it relates to my most recent relationship termination — with Disney, not my husband of almost 10 years — I can say in earnest, that in this instance, it’s all you Disney — it’s definitely not me.

Walt Disney himself said, “We believed in our idea (Disneyland) — a family park where parents and children could have fun — together.”

Each year, families with special needs children like mine spend millions of dollars in your theme parks, hotels and resorts, on Disney Media (classics & entertainment, Disney & Pixar Animation Studios, Disney Princess & Disney Fairies, Lucasfilm and Marvel), on Disney Publishing (children’s books, magazines and digital products), in your stores, attending Broadway and roadshow productions and we also watch your television/cable stations which helps set ad rates and determine Nielsen ratings that generate revenue.

So, after all our community has done for you, how do you “repay” us? You take away the single most important “peace-of-mind” benefit the parks afford families who travel with special needs individuals — the Guest Assistance Card (GAC).

The change

Disney’s website explains the changes as follows:

You may have heard or read about some changes coming on Oct. 9 to one of our programs to assist guests with disabilities at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts.

We are modifying our current Guest Assistance Card program, which provides access to attractions for guests with disabilities, so we can continue to serve the guests who truly need it. Our new program is designed to provide the special experience our guests have come to expect from Disney. We also hope it will enable us to help control abuse with the current program that was, unfortunately, widespread and growing at an alarming rate.

The new Disability Access Service (DAS) Card will replace the Guest Assistance Card. Guests will be able to request a Disability Access Service Card at Guest Relations, and they will receive a return time for attractions based on the current wait time.

With that said, we have long recognized and accommodated people with different needs. Guests can visit Guest Relations to discuss their individual situation, and we will continue to provide assistance that is responsive to their unique circumstances.

What’s so bad about the new “DAS” card

As the mother of a child on the autism spectrum, I call “BS.” This past August marked the fourth year in a row my husband and I took our two children to Disneyland. Every time, without fail, we stand behind people who clearly try to cheat the system. People use every trick in the book to receive a GAC, from packs of teens who claim their ADD, ADHD or anxiety disorder prevents them from standing on lines, to people who actually rent wheelchairs and/or crutches for the day and claim they can’t walk. And my personal favorite, families who hire — that’s right, actually hire — a disabled person to spend the day with them, solely for a decreased wait time. (These people are a perfect example of why karma exists.)

Walmark kids at Disney

Disney, most likely due to legal issues and possible discrimination, does not require any sort of proof to verify a disability — to secure a card. To stop the systemic abuse, Disney now operates under the “punish one, punish all” philosophy, a monumental mistake. “Our” community suffers because “their” community abuses the system.

The new DAS Card operates on the same model as their “Fastpass”. Unlike Fastpass however, DAS is issued only at Guest Relations offices, and guests are allowed to reserve one ride for a particular time slot.

Think DAS is a good plan for families with special needs children? Think again. Children with special needs don’t always have the cognitive and/or verbal abilities to understand wait or return times, and can be sensitive to sensory stimuli, heat/humidity, loud and unpredictable noises, parades, fireworks, bands and horse-pulled trolleys in the middle of streets, which can culminate in epic meltdowns. (Of course, there will always be the guests who stare at “our” children as they melt down with whispers, disapproving glares, and disgust — the exact type of judgmental behavior parents took a vacation to escape from in the first place.) My family once rode the “It’s a Small World” ride three times in a row, because Ethan started to become overwhelmed, and the ride calmed him. We can’t do that now with the new system.

Disney’s response

Autism Speaks writes that it “does not endorse this new plan and will rely on our [network of] families for feedback. (My family’s feedback? The new DAS stinks.) To help quell the controversy, the president of Disney Parks addressed the program changes in a letter:

Dear Friends,

Disney Parks holds a cherished place in the hearts of the millions of Guests who visit us each year. We know that is especially true for those of you who have a loved one with a disability. For many families, what would be impossible elsewhere is not only possible, but magical, at our parks and resorts. We are proud to play such an important role in so many of your lives. Unfortunately, our current program for providing access to attractions for Guests with disabilities has been abused and exploited to such an extent that we are no longer able to effectively sustain it in its present form. After careful consideration, and with the needs of our Guests with disabilities as our foremost concern, we are modifying the current program so that we will be able to continue to serve those Guests for whom the program is intended.

Over the past few days, you have likely heard about these upcoming changes and how they might affect our Guests with disabilities. Our relationship with you is important to us, and we want to take the opportunity to clear up any confusion or misinterpretation.

Our commitment to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all our Guests has not changed. We have long recognized that people may have different needs, and we will continue to work individually with our Guests with disabilities to provide assistance that is responsive to their unique circumstances.

As with any change, there will be a period of adjustment, particularly for those families who have developed and refined their preferred ways of enjoying our parks with their loved ones over the years. I thank you in advance for your patience as we fine-tune our new program to mitigate the current abuse, while still providing the special experience our Guests have come to expect from Disney.

Most of all, thank you for entrusting your treasured time with those you love to Disney Parks.


Meg Crofton
President, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Operations, U.S. and France

Actions speak louder than words. Disney’s new plan actually hurts those families it aims to help. We want what Mr. Disney promised all those years ago: “A family park where parents and children could have fun — together.” For the special needs community, that would be our happily ever after. Even if that happily ever after is only one day of the year.

Image credit: Allison Ziering Walmark

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