When Disney announced they would be changing their disability access on October 9th, many people in the disabled community freaked out. They yelled and cried that Disney was robbing them of the only way they could enjoy the parks or that their disabled children were suddenly being cheated out of vacation. Personally, I breathed a sigh of relief. I'm happy about the change to the Disney disability assistance system, or DAS as it will be called.
My son is autistic and my daughter has a wonderful mixture of ADD and Type I Diabetes. As you can imagine, travel for us is full of challenges, meltdowns and the occasional medical semi-emergency. We have been to Disney three times as a family in the past four years, and each time used the Disney Guest Access Card, or GAC as it is commonly known as.
On our first trip, I had only vague details about what would happen when we asked for a card. You see, while Disney fan boards like disboards.com go into detail about every mundane detail at Disney, including the locks on bathroom doors at Disney hotels, they were completely hush-hush about the details of the disability card. Posters on these sites were adamant that the cards weren’t a front of the line pass and that sometimes they would even wait longer than the normal line. Well, those posters should have been a bit more careful with what they wished for. But, anyways, the main point here is the GAC became the fight club of the Disney message board world. No one was allowed to give out details about the different stamps on the cards or what to ask for when you went to get one. Supposedly this was to combat “abuse,” but scammers always find a way to scam and it seemed to create elitism rather than actually help first time visitors like my family.
So, when we got to Disney we went nearly the entire first day before I broke down and went to guest relations for a pass for my son. It was a hot day at animal kingdom and my son was getting very frustrated about the normal pushing and crowding that occurs, and had been edging towards a meltdown all afternoon. My daughter wanted to ride more rides and was getting agitated at needing to stop for my son to cool down and regain his sense of personal space so often. When we went into guest relations, it was of the mindset that we might have to wait longer for those rides but at least we would be waiting in an alternate area where people would not try to push ahead of my son when he stopped momentarily in line to look at something, and there wouldn’t be issues with him hitting anyone while trying to release stress by hand flapping.
The experience we had on that trip, and every other trip after, was completely the opposite of what the posters on the Disney message boards would describe as a typical GAC experience. On every ride we went on with those passes, my kids got front of the line access. The cast members were the nicest people in the world to my kids, and went out of their way to make them both feel good, even when they couldn’t understand what my son was saying due to his speech impediment. They would even let my kids choose where they wanted to sit as they got whisked in front of the people who had been waiting in line. On our first trip, my son wore his pass on a lanyard and refused to take it off even at meals. He felt like the most important kid in the world due to that pass. Both my kids loved it, to be honest. They didn’t have to wait for anything and Disney World turned into their personal playground.
On our first trip, I was shocked by the pass and I admit I let my kids use the hell out of it. They got to ride Space Mountain as many times as they wanted, and enjoyed the hell out of it. I looked at the situation with trepidation. I had read all the posts on the message boards, and honestly thought we weren’t supposed to be getting front of the line access. I actually went back to guest services because I thought that they had accidently given my son a pass that should be given to a Wish Trip kid. They told me that the pass was correct for a kid with autism that had issues being in confined spaces with others. The first two days of our trip, I thought the pass was amazing. But, as our trip went on I noticed a couple things that weren’t so wonderful.
First, I felt guilt. Yeah my son has issues with people standing close to him, but that doesn’t translate into never needing to wait for anything. Others claim they need these passes for their kids because they are incapable of standing in a line. What happens when these kids need to get food at McDonald’s or if all the bathroom stalls are full? There are no GACs for that, so how do these kids learn to cope with lines outside of the magic of Disney?
Because of the guilt, on later trips we started relying mainly on fast passes and putting the GAC on the back burner until meltdowns were imminent or the fast pass system was getting bumpy for us. I will come out and say we have traveled mainly during off seasons, so the lines and fast pass return times have never been truly terrible to begin with. We are ok with getting snacks or browsing gift shops or even just staring at the scenery while waiting for fast pass times for the most part. There were many times I had secretly wished that the Disney system was more like Six Flags- you get a return time and come back when your time is up. At Six Flags we use this system often and fill our time with enjoying the little things around the park that people typically miss while rushing from ride to ride. We would run into issues with fast passes when we would get to the park later in the morning (both kids are not morning people) and the fast passes would be gone or the return times would be during a scheduled meal. My son loves schedules and hates missed meals, so missing a scheduled meal would be a day-ending meltdown. This worked ok, but the guilt of how unfair the system seemed to the people waiting in line always nagged at me.
The second major issue we had with the card was how fast it made each ride experience for us. It was a 5-10 minute experience to get on Expedition Everest and check out Disco Yeti. I hated how much of the theming we missed and the speed of which we got put through things was like a sugar high for the kids. They wanted to ride again and again, they wanted to hop from ride to ride to ride. There was nothing slowing down the rate at which they consumed the rides. There was nothing that would make them stop and appreciate the scenery and small details that they wanted to rush by to get to the front of the line at the next ride. Before I put my foot down and slowed my kids down, it was like a manic race from ride to ride. Now, image having more than one family with this pass and the ability to let the kids ride whatever they want as much as they want. You are pretty much turning Disney World into their private playground. Is it any wonder that the GAC became so abused that people were paying for tour guides to use one to guide them around the parks?
The thing is, it was not just the abusers that were causing problems for Disney with the GAC. The majority of people aren’t scummy enough to lie about their kid having autism just to skip some lines. But, there are more autistic kids today than there were ten years ago, and as Disney has developed a good reputation as the vacation spot of choice for the families of disabled kids, there are more autistic kids at Disney World on any given day now than there were ten years ago as well. When you are ushering these families through the fast pass line, which relies on crowd metrics and a count of passes currently given out, you begin to face a logistics nightmare. When everyone as special access that access is no longer so special because the fastpass lane now is now composed 60% of guests without a fast pass, making that line longer and making the normal wait even worse for those without a pass. Now, not only does the fast pass wait longer, but there are so many people given front of the line access that they are creating new long lines.
On October 9th, Disney is set to switch over to a system like the one at Six Flags, only a bit better. At Six Flags, you have to trudge up to the exit, flag down an employee and wait for them to write down a return time. Then you trudge back down, wait it out and trudge back up the exit for your ride. At Disney, you go to the cast members at the front of the ride and your given a time to return. Same concept, except you’re not walking all the way to the loading area of the ride for your time. Personally, I think it’s great.
Sure my son will no longer be rushed to the front of any line we choose to enter, but it teaches important concepts and it gives you time to relax. Instead of rushing from ride to ride, you will have 20 minutes to enjoy a snack, appreciate the scenery or shop. It’s helping to wean your child off of the need for instant gratification. It’s providing a more “real” and more normal experience for disabled kids. And, most of all, it’s making the words of all those posters on the Disney message boards 100% true. It’s no longer a front of the line pass, it’s now an equal access pass and I am very happy about it.