WDWNT: The Magazine – GAC Changes and Consequences To Guests with Disabilities

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Months ago, news broke about the abuses happening in the Disney Parks with the GAC, or the Guest Assistance Card. An undercover story detailed the story of wealthy parents paying individuals with disabilities to escort their families through the Parks so that they could “skip the lines” at the attractions.

The fall-out over this expose has been heartbreaking for many families who have children with an ACTUAL disability, because they are uncertain whether the newly-revised guest assistance system will provide the same level of guest assistance as the previous GAC system.

I am one such family. I have three children, two with Special Needs, and I am uncertain how we will navigate the Parks once the new Disability Access Service Card (DASC), formerly the GAC, goes into effect.

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My Disney story is one of love at first sight…

When I first walked into the front gates of the Magic Kingdom at 14 years old, I knew I was hooked. After college, I moved to Orlando for a year, and spent at least one night per week in the Parks. I got married at Polynesian resort and had my wedding reception dinner at the Artist Point restaurant at the Wilderness Lodge. I’ve been to the Disney Parks over 100 times.

When I had my first son, his first trip to Disney was when he was 6 months old and I knew I wanted to raise my kids “Disney.” I wanted to see my beloved Disney through my kids’ eyes.

My son loved Disney, even from an early age. We watched the movies and Disney shows, so he knew all of the characters and had a wonderful time seeing Mickey and the gang in person. We tried to go to Disney at least once a year. In 2006, we went as a family – my husband, my two-year old son, our new baby, and me.

But something changed for my oldest son when we went to Walt Disney World that year.  Characters that he formerly loved meeting now scared him. He would cry and try to get away from Mickey and Goofy, not hug them. He covered his ears and screamed during parades and shows. He freaked out while we waited in the crowded lines. He even slapped me and my husband while waiting in lines, and he is the most calm, non-violent kid I know. We knew coming home from this trip that something was wrong.

After we got back from the trip to Disney World, we saw Doctors and Psychologist and got the diagnosis — Autism.

We were devastated.

As as the weeks passed, we realized the challenges that we had ahead of us.  My son spent hours and hours per week in therapies. My son could quote lines and lines from “Toy Story,” but could not ask me for a cup of juice.

And this may sound silly, but one of my thoughts was “How will we ever go back to Disney World, with all of the challenges we now have?”

We waited two years before deciding  to return to Disney World. In that time, my son with Autism got a little better. We welcomed a new baby boy, bringing our family to five members – two parents and three boys!  I also joined an Autism support group after my son’s diagnosis, and from other parents, I learned about Disney’s Guest Assistance Card. Guests with disabilities can request a card at Guest Services; this pass enables these guests to wait in an alternate line, away from the crowds and noise. We knew this pass was the answer to my son’s sensory processing problems.

On our trip in 2008, we went to Guest Services on the first day of our trip, with a note from his Pediatrician, stating that my son has Autism. The Cast Member at Guest Services said that because of HIPAA laws, he didn’t need to see the letter, but we kept it on us at all times, just in case. We heard that some families using the GAC had experienced nasty comments from the people in the standard lines, and I wanted to make sure that I had the Doctor’s note as proof of our son’s disability, in case anyone every questioned our integrity.

(And if anyone ever did question my integrity, saying my sons don’t “look” disabled, I would show the Doctor’s note, and tell them that I would GLADLY trade places with them, if that meant my sons wouldn’t live their whole lives with disabilities.)

And with the GAC, we had a FABULOUS time.

And that’s really what we were striving for when on vacation at Disney World — to feel like any normal family. Because at home, during every other day of the year, we have Speech therapies, Physical therapies, Occupational therapies, psychologist appointments, Social Skills training, and a myriad of meetings with teachers and educators. To be able to get away from the stresses of our lives at home, and be able to enjoy Disney World with our sons, despite the challenges of my son’s disability, make me love Disney all the more —  because Disney has always provided appropriate accommodations to those with disabilities.

In 2011, our youngest son was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder. He also cannot tolerate loud noises (like parades and fireworks) and lots of people in close proximity of him, but we use a stroller that creates a space just for him. But in contrast, he craves sensory input, and LOVES roller coasters, thrill rides and anything that spins him around.

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My youngest son blocking out the noise of the fireworks

We’ve been back three more times since 2008, and have used the GAC each time. It’s been a lifesaver for our family. I don’t think my sons could handle the Disney Parks without the GAC.

So you can imagine my disappointment when the news story broke about people abusing the GAC system. I can’t imagine people abusing a system designed to help people with disabilities! For those of us with children with disabilities, we struggle every day, even with the simplest of tasks – brushing teeth, getting dressed, school work, making friends, maintaining a sense of normalcy. Walt Disney World has always given my family accommodations to make use feel like any other family on vacation, happily relaxing together, enjoying each other, spending quality time together.

This past week, Walt Disney World has announced changes to the GAC, set to be implemented in early October. These changes come in response to the abuses detailed in the news expose. And I can tell you, as a HUGE Disney fan and a Mom of three kids, two with Special Needs, I am nervous about the changes.

We made out last trip to Disney World this past August. We used the GAC to navigate the Parks and my son with Autism had very few issues. But one of his problems was that we had a reservation for dinner at the Plaza Restaurant on Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. Due to a computer glitch, the Cast Members could not seat us for about 20 minutes. We were given a buzzer, but this “glitch” threw my son off of his schedule. We had reservation at a certain time, and if you know anything about Autism, change is not always a welcome thing. He became very upset and agitated and it took all we had, as parents, to keep him calm and distracted until we could be seated.

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My oldest son with Autism holding the restaurant pager and stressing out about our delayed reservation time

I am now very grateful we took our family vacation in August, before the changes to the GAC take effect, because I am truly nervous about the ramifications of this new system on families with disabilities.

The new DASC card will have a photo of the person with a disability printed on it, for which I am in favor. This way, those individuals scamming the system will not be able to use cards issued for other people. But other changes are more uncertain…

As Tom Corless reported earlier in the week, the changes will work this like this: “On the back of the DAS card, you will find a grid that guests familiar with Universal Orlando’s accessibility system will recognize. There are enough spots for about 30 attractions visits (if you fill them up, you will need a new card), and the columns are labeled “Attraction,” “Posted Time,” “Current Time.” “Return Time,” and “Cast”. The way this works at Walt Disney World is the greeter Cast Member at each attraction (NOT special kiosks, as has been rumored) will take the current wait time, subtract 10 minutes, add it to the time on the clock and tell them to come back at that time to enter an alternate entrance. For example, if the wait at Space Mountain is 60 minutes at 3:00 pm, the guest would be told to come back at 3:50 pm to enter the FASTPASS line. This also works at continuous shows, too: if the next show of Voyage of the Little Mermaid is 2:45  pm but the Cast Member knows the last person in line will get into the 3:15 pm show, he’ll tell the guest to come back for the 3:15 pm show. Again, this is to have the guest wait the actual length of time everyone else is waiting while also accommodating the guest’s needs. The guests can go eat lunch or see a show while they wait for the time to come up, and then come back any time after their return time

So let’s just talk out a DASC scenario with children with Autism…. With the new DASC, we approach a kiosk at the front of Pirates of the Caribbean and obtain our “return time” to come back  in an hour. Then we have to LEAVE the Pirates of the Caribbean area. My son has seen the Pirates attraction, gotten excited about going on the ride, and now we have to leave and come back in an hour? Because of his disability, he doesn’t always have the cognitive understanding that we will come back at a later time; he thinks we are not getting to go on the attraction at all. It’s very likely he could have a meltdown on the sidewalk in front of Pirates because he wants to ride it NOW. (And for those that don’t understand Autism, he is not being a spoiled brat, it’s just Autism rearing its ugly head)

This new system may not work well for kids on the Spectrum. With the DASC, Disney may be excluding many, many families with kids with disabilities. Families that, for many years, have seen Disney World, as the ONE PLACE where their family could feel “normal.” Typical. I am in touch with several families that are not sure they will be returning due to the changes.

In response to my concerns, and many other families in the Autism community, I reached out to the Walt Disney World PR office, to see if I could get some clarification to questions I had about the new DASC. This week, I spoke with Jacquee Wahler, a member of Disney’s External Communications team. She was able to assuage my concerns and assure me that Walt Disney World will always be striving to create a magical experience for every guest. Jacquee stated that the “Disability Access Service (DAS) Card will be a new tool provided at the Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort theme parks to enhance the service we provide to our guests with disabilities at our attractions. It replaces the Guest Assistance Card (GAC), and allows guests with special assistance needs to virtually wait at those attractions with a posted wait time. This service can be used in addition to Disney’s FastPass service and Disney FastPass+.”

Walt Disney World has also released a statement from Meg Crofton, President of Walt Disney Parks and Resort Operations. In it, the press release states, “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.”

Personally, I am holding out hope. Disney, you haven’t failed me yet. My oldest son still remembers what he had for lunch at the Pinocchio Haus three years ago. Both my sons with Special Needs were in the Captain Jack’s Pirate Tutorial show at the Magic Kingdom. We ridden “It’s a Small World” more times than I can count. Some of our most cherished memories are at Walt Disney World and I don’t want that to end for us. I will keep coming back, because Walk Disney World has always been my family’s “happy place.”

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Good times at the Magic Kingdom for my family

I am apprehensive about the new DASC, but I’m willing to wait until October 9th to hear the reviews of the new process. I would love to bring my son with Autism to the Magic Kingdom on October 9th and document the new DASC system in action, to see how it’s really going to work with those with disabilities.

I think the most important tip I took away from my talk with Jacquee Wahler is that for those guests with disabilities, you need to take the time to have a real open and honest conversation with the Cast Member at the Guest Services counter when asking for the DASC.  Be sure to talk about your family members diagnosis and what challenges you experience because of that diagnosis. Be clear about what your family member struggles with on a daily basis and how the translates in the Disney Park setting.

Meg Crofton also wrote in her statement, “As with any change, there will be a period of adjustment, particular for those families that 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.”

“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. ”

Here is hoping that Walt Disney World continues to make the impossible possible for ALL families.

Do you have an opinion on the new Disability Access Service Card? The previous Guest Assistance Card? How should Disney create a system that gives accommodations for guests with disabilities, but keeps out those that would cheat the system?

I don’t know about you, but there are times when planning a Disney vacation can be overwhelming! There are so many options, where to stay, when to go, is this the best price. So, I want to introduce you all to Cindy Minor and the team at Small World Big Fun. They will help you plan your Disney vacation for FREE. Contact them today!

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