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Disney parks changing Guest Assistance Card program for patrons with disabilities

Parents of children with special needs are concerned that changes to Disney’s policies for guests with disabilities will make it harder for them to take their kids to the parks for vacation.

“Change is always unnerving, but especially so when it involves kids who need accommodating, a place that makes them ecstatic and a system that’s worked so well for them until now,” Ellen Seidman wrote on her blog, Love That Max. “Disney is incredible for both kids and parents because it makes family trips that could otherwise be a nightmare possible. That’s magic.”

The Guest Assistance Card allowed people with any type of disability that could interfere with waiting in line or accessing rides to go to the front of the lines at many attractions. Beginning Oct. 9, that will be replaced with a Disability Access Service Card. With the new cards, patrons with special needs will go to kiosks and get a pass to come back at a specific time to ride. It will be similar to the current Fastpass system that all park-goers have access to.

Parents of children with autism and other special needs have been talking about the looming change since the news broke last week. Shannon Des Roches Rosa, author of Squidalicious and mother of a boy with autism, wrote on her blog that Disneyland is her son’s “happy place,” and the changes could make it harder for her to take him there.

It is “one of the few places I know he will have a good time all day long, one of a handful of not-our-home places I feel fully comfortable taking him,” Rosa wrote.

I can relate.

We took our kids, one of whom has special needs, on a family vacation to Disney World in January of 2012. We got, and used, the Guest Assistance Card. You might not know our son has a disability just to look at him, but if you stood in line with him for 45 minutes or longer, you’d have a pretty good idea.

We planned our vacation with great care to work around our son’s challenges. We went in January to avoid the heaviest crowds and the extreme heat of summer. We chose a hotel known for being small-ish and quieter than most Disney properties. We were armed with ear plugs for loud attractions and yellow Post-It notes to cover the sensor on the dreaded automatic flushing toilets.

The pass was one piece of a very large picture, but it made our trip more enjoyable, because we didn’t have to worry about our son getting agitated while waiting in line or disturbing people around us. It was a rare opportunity to just be, instead of worrying the whole time about when things might go suddenly, and terribly, wrong.

Like many parents of kids with special needs, I was infuriated by the news this spring that people were hiring “tour guides” with disabilities so they could bypass the lines at Disneyland attractions. I figured the abuse would ruin it for lots of families who have used that pass to enjoy what comes so easily for most families, but often eludes parents of children with special needs.

I would happily wait in Disney’s longest lines every day for a year if it would make my son’s life easier, but it won’t. For those few days, though, we felt like a normal family, doing normal things. My son was the happiest I’ve ever seen him, grinning like crazy on Test Track at Epcot or Splash Mountain at the Magic Kingdom.

It’s too soon to know what, if any, effect the changes will have on park visitors with disabilities. A Disney spokeswoman told the Orlando Sentinel that the company worked with Autism Speaks and other advocacy groups to come up with a solution that would still allow patrons with special needs to enjoy the park, while reducing abuse.

Seidman wrote that she’s waiting to see how Disney executes the plan and deals with potential problems (such as long lines at kiosks) before she deems the change a good or bad thing. Other bloggers, including Rosa, are concerned the change could make things more difficult for these families. Rosa doesn’t see why things need to change, even if the policy is being abused.

“There will always be people who game accommodation systems,” she wrote. “But 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.”

Mari-Jane Williams edits community news for Local Living.



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