Disney Changes Set to Impact Special Needs Families


Some upsetting news has emerged for families of individuals with autism and other special needs who plan to visit Disney World or Disneyland anytime in the foreseeable future.

According to Mice Age, the widely popular Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program, which helped accommodate guests with special needs, is set to discontinue at the beginning of next month.  The GAC previously allowed an individual with special needs and up to five other guests to access the “FastPass” areas, by-passing many of the long lines in the process. The card did not guarantee parties would skip every line, but it was a huge relief for those who were unable to wait in long lines due to their physical or developmental issues.

The GAC program will supposedly be replaced by something called the Disabled Assistance System (DAS). Without getting into details on the DAS (including the poorly chosen name), it appears to be a very bad alternative that will severely impact the overall experience of special needs families who visit any of the Disney theme parks.

There’s speculation that the planned changes are due to rampant abuse of the system carried out by able-bodied individuals.  Due to health privacy laws, Disney Cast Members were not allowed to ask for medical documentation for those requesting a Guest Assistance Card, essentially turning the program into an honor system.  As one would imagine, this led to some series abuse, and perhaps the straw that broke the camel’s back occurred earlier this year when the Today Show did an embarrassing exposé about families hiring "disabled tour guides" from Craig’s List, who would accompany them on trips for the sole purpose of obtaining a GAC.  That sickening story can be watched below.

These developments are upsetting on so many levels, and it would be very easy to direct one’s anger at Disney for making these changes.  Ultimately, however, the anger should be directed towards the shameful individuals who abused this system that led to these planned changes in the first place.  What these selfish people don’t realize is that most of us would gladly exchange the struggles we face with having to wait in long lines at Disney. 

We live in Florida and were actually considering renewing our annual pass for Disney, but these planned changes to the GAC program pretty much make that decision easy.  There is no way we could have a meaningful or enjoyable experience at these parks without some way to avoid excessive wait times.  It’s the reality of our son’s condition.

For those who want to do something about these planned changes, there is a Change.org petition that can be signed here.  Tell Disney not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and to find a better solution to accommodate special needs families, while simultaneously weeding out the fraudsters in the process.

19 Responses to Disney Changes Set to Impact Special Needs Families

  1. Gysenia Gonzalez says:

    As a mother of a child with special needs, who has very low tolerance level of crowds and lines, yet disney is one place he loves and enjoys very much. He loves Mickey Mouse and in fact is the only character of any sort he likes. This would make it close to impossible to take him. He is 17 years old with the mind of a small child. Not fair he needs to suffer due to other people’s mistakes.

  2. Joe Levan says:

    We have been visiting Disney for 14 years during spring break. We are a school of special needs and we have been enjoying the GAC I highly recommend you guys not removing this assistance. I would like you guys to tweak the application process so that individuals will have a harder time abusing it. Please reconsider or our Spring break trip will be hard make next spring.

  3. Gisela Osaba says:

    Is very sad what bad people and specially lazy people do to earn money and I also forgot to say people with no heart and feelings for others do. They have no idea what it is living day after day with a special needs kid or have a family member with some kind of disability. I know that Disney will find the correct solution. I have a daughter with Autism ,and epilepsy and not having the guest pass we will not be able to go again Disney should be able to start requesting some kind of document that can prove that person really deserve the pass.Then we will see what those people with no heart do.

  4. Linda kaddas says:

    As someone who has a disability which allows walking much less waiting in line impossible, I am outraged that disney would discontinue their program for people who really need it, possible solution would be to lessen the number of people who accompany the disabled person. We are planning a trip this year and I would be sad if I missed out due to changes!

  5. junedotterman says:

    I will no longer buy anything made by Disney. This decision is ridiculous
    hurting children and people with disabilities because some people take advantage. This definitely in my opinion is not any way to treat people with disabilities.

  6. Donna David says:

    I really feel we all need to give Disney a chance to come up with a better system. I can not believe they would not put a better system in place. Give them a chance.

  7. CM says:

    I’d just like to say that no one is TAKING AWAY the special assistance programs. They are changing it. If a group honestly needs the assistance, they will find a way to stick it out. That doesn’t mean it will be the easiest thing ever and come without a little bit of sacrifice (i.e. coming back at a later time), but neither did the GAC card. It had TONS of flaws, and I’m pretty sure DAS is going to help fix some of those. And in all honestly, CMs are more open than you think. If you genuinely take the time and effort to explain your needs (such as an autistic person NEEDING to ride specifically THREE times), the CM will 99% of the time help you out.

    I personally think it’s for the better too. Cast Members more often than not tend to be accommodating and know what to expect. They literally have to take a class on how to deal with situations like this. They deal with special needs guests every single day, so they have some experience. This includes with individuals who have autism or another mental disability. It’s not just people who can’t walk or don’t want to walk. I think it’s completely fair to limit the amount of times a party can come back and WHEN they come back. It’s pretty unfair when the line is 75 minutes long at an attraction and suddenly no one can walk or they have anxiety with closed spaces (which btw, is almost every ride, exit/fastpass queue or not). It’s hard not to think “why are you here if you can’t wait in a line ever for any amount of time/have anxiety with lots of people,are claustrophobic yet would love to go through an elevator or ride that is basically a car going through a tunnel?” There’s only so much we can do. There’s no such thing, nor ever will be, immediate seating during a busy day. There have been so many cases where the guest assistance line is full of people who genuinely need it and those who are abusing it, but what can a CM do? They have to let it go. So when everyone is complaining that the line is too long, do we force some people to leave? If a guest doesn’t like being judged, then this is what they have to deal with. That sucks, but that’s what it has to be. If you can offer a better solution than what the DAS system has to offer, then I’d honestly like to hear it.

    Yesterday, our special needs line was 30+ minutes long and I had people who walked up the exit and essentially cut the whole line (over an hour) and then wanted to be merged BACK into the regular line when it was close to the front so they didn’t have to wait in the special needs line either. Suddenly their special need wasn’t “special” (not using that in an offensive manner) enough to wait in the line meant to accommodate them. When they saw that they wouldn’t be sent back into the regular line even though they “always use the fastest line,” they left. They were like “why is the line 30 minutes long, I don’t want to wait,” (literally what they said) even though they were standing behind 5-6 wheelchairs, people with canes/crutches. It’s like they couldn’t see how many other people needed the assistance. They were told they were free to come back any time they feel the line is shorter or they would have to go in the line meant to accommodate them, NOT the fastest route. Each pass says ALTERNATE ENTRANCE. This means fastpass or exit, which we allow… up to a certain point. If you want fair, then you’ll get fair. If you want to cut in front of everyone… well, that’s a different story. Also the “No Stairs” pass means you still go through standby until you come across stairs, in which case we’ve got an elevator. This is not an alternate entrance pass, and yet they are allowed through that way due to empathetic CMs (who will be getting hate from special needs if they aren’t allowed, or hate by standby who don’t think it’s right to cut because they don’t feel like it). If you need additional assistance, you will have to go back and talk to City Hall. If we can’t judge based on appearances, then we go by the pass. HOWEVER, if that pass doesn’t offer what you need, then we’re not judging, but you need to take the time to go back and explain that. Again, that sucks, but that’s how it is. There is only so much a person can bypass. There’s no such thing as immediate seating. I understand that there are people who could really use it, but it’s not just one person. There are too many for CMs to take all at once. We have lines everywhere. Unfortunately you use what DL has designated for you or you don’t. The situations have become so bad, even South Park made fun of the GAC system. It’s terrible. For those of you saying “people who really need it…” Do you know who they are? Or are you judging by appearances? I’ve heard people in wheelchairs angrily asking why “that kid” gets a green light to the front, without knowing they’re a “Make A Wish” recipient. I’ve heard a family of an autistic child loudly complaining why “those fat people” don’t just walk instead wait in “their” line. So uh, who’s judging who? Not everyone is like this clearly, but you see the problem? If we can’t meet everyone’s demands, then no one is happy.

    Also, if you choose to ignore all the people who NEED the line and wonder why YOU specifically have to wait, then I’m sorry, but no one will feel bad for you whether you need it or not. Being selfish is not appreciated by anyone. Coincidentally, the people who genuinely tend to need the pass and assistance usually stick out the wait and appreciate ANY help they can get. They don’t moan about how they didn’t get on the ride immediately. I don’t feel bad for the people saying “omg I’m never coming back, Disney is just choosing to hurt those who need it because others are abusing it. Omg Disney is totally discriminating.” No one went up to you specifically and said you can’t get a pass or that your disability counts for nothing. Say you have to come back at a different time instead of whenever you want. Don’t like it? For once, think of all the OTHER people who have to deal with the same with a possibly worse situation. Yup, we do it for them too, so they don’t have to wait in the 30+ minute line, and instead maybe wait 5 minutes when we ask them to come back. Shocking. For all you know, you’ll be having less of a struggle than before. Judging a system before it’s even out much? If it’s REALLY that much of an issue, explain it. In the mean time, we’ll be seeing hundreds of guests relieved that we’re being a little more strict with how we handle special needs. We got complaints on a daily basis with GAC, so if you think that system was wonderful, think again.

    This post was in no way to offend anyone, disability or not. I’m not arguing with anyone, belittle anyone, choose one side over another. This is an explanation and a glimpse at why the change is welcome park-wide guests and CMs included. I know when you’ve got an individual with severe mental disabilities, it’s hard to think about why the CM may not send you straight to the front, but hopefully this can help with understanding that sacrifices are made on every corner. Mental disabilities aren’t the same as physical disabilities, and vice versa. We get it. Most of us just have ONE LINE for both though. Short of redesigning entire attraction queues, we do what we can. It’s not perfect and probably never will be. Changing our system isn’t meant to make the line longer. It will happen on some days, but probably not most. Unless we ask for doctor’s notes (which will never happen), we will still get abuse. Hopefully less. Regardless, happy or not, it’s happening. Come back or don’t, it’s happening. I’m willing to bet you’ll be back, and probably happy though. Just take it with a grain of salt.

  8. Rebecca says:

    We have used the pass on the one occassion we could afford to come. I was shocked we did not need to show documentation and felt there certainly would be people who abused this. We will be unable to attend again without this pass, especially now that both children have been diagnosed. I support a change, but not the cancellation. please find a solution!

  9. Mellissa says:

    I have a GAC. I would never, ever consider doing what these people did. And yes, by about mid Disney day, I am limping, due to my disability. Do up to five of my friends/family “benefit” from my disability? Yes. First, let me clarify that my pass allows me only entry through Fastpass lines (exits if there is no fastpass). I’ve never been directed to a special side entrance at Star Tours (thanks, Cast Members), I written out a fast pass with a return time of the stand by time on it. So, I don’t have special skip to the front of the line ability, more like we’ll hold your place in line even if you don’t stand there ability, due to the fact that I don’t stand well (I walk fine, but the bone structure in my feet don’t support me standing very well). So, while my party of five (or less) may benefit from my GAC, they also benefit from someone who walks much slower, someone who limps, someone who has to change shoes often, someone who has to take pain medication throughout the day, someone who has to wrap and rewrap the feet for maximum support, someone who could fall over for no apparent reason, other than pain in the feet, and someone who may not be able to stay as long as we had originally planned, because her feet are so swollen, so bruised, and so blue and black, it’s near impossible to move.

    So, am I mad that people scam the system? Yes. But before you think, “Wow it must be nice to be disabled and go in shorter lines and ride all the rides…” just remember, magic comes with a price, dearie. My GAC comes with the price of my feet just about falling off. A price I put up with occasionally due to my love of Disneyland. This new system…seems like a lot more walking and a lot more standing. And that helps the disabled folks how?

  10. Nicole says:

    I think it’s very unfair of you to critique Disney for the loss of the GAC program, while at the same time saying that there is a new DAS program that you won’t go into detail about it. When one door closes, another door opens. What you’re posting here is meant to get people up in arms over the end of the old program, which was obviously flawed, if not totally broken. What does the new DAS program offer? Give all sides fairly, then let people decide for themselves.

  11. Elaine says:

    Really. You really think Disney is just going to let all disabled people fend for themselves? Give me a break and give Disney more credit. I just took my son with ASD for the first time. It was a huge deal. I pulled him out of school and went during an off time. I tried to think of every possible thing that might upset him. For example, I reserved specific plane seats so he would know which seats we sat in. We had a rain plan. When we got to the park — BAM! His fingerprint was rejected. To this day I have no idea why; and we all started to get a bit antsy. Before I could even step in, a CM swooped in and did something on a clipboard and we were on our way. To the people who are going to “never buy anything from Disney again” — thank you; you are just making the lines shorter for the rest of us. To Disney staff, thank you for excellent service for six days!

  12. nobody important says:

    looks like disney staff is on here doing some damage control :) if you read the details of the planned changes on miceage.com, they are not good and nowhere near as convenient as the current GAC program. defend it all you want, but the truth is this change is going to negativtely affect a lot of families.

    I feel bad for autism families who have saved money and booked vacations….they are in for a rude surprise when they arrive at the parks next month and realize they will be doing a lot more walking and waiting due to the new changes.

    bottom line, in my opinion, this change is not good and disney should do a better job of communicating and listen to their customers and then make the necessary changes to improve the system.

    there are a lot of rumours going around and disney should put out a press release or something to assure everyone their vacations will not be disrupted!!!

  13. Kat says:

    We went to Disney several years ago. My daughter is in a wheelchair as well as Autistic. She was a wish child. So we didn’t have the GAC. But everytime we stood in line for a character meet and greet or rides, cast members always approached us and had us come to the front of the line.
    It says Disney is not doing away with it just changing it so it makes it harder for people to abuse it. Which I agree with. At least they are making an attempt to fix something.

  14. "KC" Cieri says:

    I have been going to Disney since it opened. I never realized how important it would be for special needs children until I had an autistic grandson. He could never stand in the other lines. We did have a special pass and my daughter lived in Celebrations for 7 years and they were at Disney 5 nights out of 7. I think who abused this rule were overweight people in wheelchairs which are not special needs. I would rather see a senior citizens line for people over 65 and special needs. Proof of medical documents are something that would help some are very obvious. This is sad that people who have abused the system have taken away a rule that certainly should bring them guilt but I doubt it. We are a greedy nation that doesn’t care if it benefits themselves. I think sending documentation to a special office before you visit Disney and receiving a number to pick up a pass when you get to the park and verifying the id of the person receiving it. There is a way just stricter rules. There is no way my grandson could visit Disney and wait in those long lines. SHAME ON YOU Disney who claims to be a family park should have found a solution for this before they announced their decision on national TV and other sites. With people who can do animation and run such large parks there wasn’t one idea that could have come up with a plan to help these people??? SHAME ON THE PEOPLE WHO CLAIM TO HAVE A DISABILITY TIME TO PROVE THOSE CLAIMS.

  15. Blangela Langsberry says:

    Not just rich people abusing the system.

    They don’t need to hire anyone to abuse the system. Someone close to me said they just showed up and coached their son to cling to a stuffed animal and not talk so they could convince Disney he was autistic. I told her she was a terrible person but she said, “What? Nobody gets hurt by it.”

    Sad to see people are getting hurt. Seems like Disney is jumping the gun. Why can’t they just continue the current system until the acutally have something to replace it with? Here’s hoping the new system won’t become a bigger burden on families with special needs.

  16. Kim says:

    You can call Walt Disney World guest relations at (407) 939-5277. They said to email wdw.guest.communications@disneyworld.com with any feedback or concerns about these changes.

  17. jeanne says:

    Changing this pass to a Fast pass will not help our disabled children.. I am sorry for the abusers out there.. But my child needs the pass. We always supplied a medical statement with a full diagnosis. For the people who think our children can just wait, have ever spent 24-48 hours with a special needs child? I tis not that my child doesn’t want to stand and wait, it is that he can’t.. These kids deserve a little something special, it is pretty crummy to make unaccessable.

  18. zachary hayes says:

    In reply to nobody important, doesn’t EVERYBODY save to go on a vacation? I read a post of a woman with 2 autistic children that she took to Disney TWICE a week. How fair is that she goes to the front of the line TWICE a week when some families save to go once in a lifetime! Disney is just leveling the field. USE not abuse forced the change. Make A Wish is NOT changing, that is for terminally ill children who ARE escorted to the front of the line. Did you ever look at it this way? If 5,000 guests enter the Magic Kingdom and 2,500 obtain GAC passes for themselves and their 5 guests, how is that “wait” time fair to the other guests? It’s NOT! Like I said, USE not abused forced Disney’s hand in this. And in case you don’t understand, ADA means EQUAL, not “entitled” or “front of the line.” Disney goes above and beyond for the disabled and you all are knocking it before you try it. You know why, cause the cheaters are going to have a hard time cheating!!!!!!!!!!!

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