Disney Changes Rules for Disabled Kids After Families Abuse Special Accommodations

Alex Bettencourt at DisneyIt's supposed to be the happiest place on earth, but Disney World and Disneyland are anything but for members of the special needs community at the moment thanks to rumors spreading round the Internet. The theme parks are changing the "guest assistance cards" that parents of children with special needs have come to count on to make vacations with their kids possible. The GAC or GAP program (as its known) has long provided accommodations for children and teens with physical as well as cognitive, developmental, or behavioral challenges.

But rumors that the GAC had been stopped entirely, coupled with a huge petition to get the program back, has parents scared ... and their kids upset.

How would you explain to a child that their favorite vacation spot doesn't want them?

If you've got a neuro-typical kid, you probably haven't thought about it. I'll admit I didn't, even with a future Disney trip on my schedule. It wasn't until I stumbled on a post from one of my favorite bloggers, Shannon Rosa of Squidalicious, that I even knew parents worried that Disney was penalizing kids with special needs because of folks who have been abusing this privilege.

Maybe you heard about the rich jerks who were hiring disabled "family members" to come on vacation so they could get special perks at the parks? There was an expose on the practice a few months back, and then, suddenly, came the rumor that Disney had ended it all.

And parents freaked. For them this isn't a minor inconvenience. It's a full-blown problem. As Rosa, whose son Leo is on the autism spectrum, said on her blog:

You have to understand: our love of the GAC is not because we get to skip lines and blow raspberries at all the chumps who don't. Skipping lines is not a convenience but a necessary accommodation for our boy. Because he is autistic. Because of his specific disability.

Leo can wait in lines, but not always. Not lines of Disneyland length. Not without melting down due to the crowds, the noise, the expectation based on previous experience that he will not have to wait in lines longer than 20 or so minutes. Without the GAC, Disneyland is effectively barred to my son.

And it's not just kids with autism who are affected, here folks. Moriah Bettencourt's son, Alex (the cutie pictured above), has CHARGE Syndrome and he's considered to be deaf/blind as he has serious deficiencies in both areas. Alex, his mom says, "lives for Disneyland."

The family goes to the California amusement park two to three times a year, and they've found GAC isn't just helpful for them -- it helps the other folks in the park have a pleasurable experience BECAUSE Alex's needs are being met. As Moriah told The Stir:

When Alex was about 7 he was finally tall enough to ride some of the larger rides. At that point my husband was uncomfortable with the special needs pass and thought that we should try to stand in line to see if Alex could do it. About 10 minutes into our waiting in the Splash Mountain line Geoff was horrified when Alex suddenly grabbed two handfuls of the hair of the little girl in front of us. He didn't want to hurt her he just was fascinated by her hair that she kept swinging around but as you can imagine when a stranger suddenly grabs the hair of another stranger things get tense really quickly. 

We made our profuse apologies & promptly stepped out of line, since then the GAP has been a necessity for us. Alex is unable to be that close to strangers without wanting to touch them, it's a serious issue.

Needless to say, the Bettencourts, like the Rosas, were swearing off Disney for awhile. As are hundreds of thousands of families who have been cut off. They're among the nearly 20,000 that have signed a MoveOn petition to get Disney to roll back the changes.

But they may not have to.

The good news? The Stir reached out to Disney, and they say the rumors aren't entirely true. They ARE changing the GAC process ... but it's still in place for now, and they're working with disability groups, including Autism Speaks, to make sure the new program will truly meet families' needs.

According to Michele Himmelberg, a PR director for Disneyland Resort:

We have an unwavering commitment to making our parks accessible to all Guests. Given the increasing volume of requests we receive for special access to our attractions, we are changing our process to create a more consistent experience for all our guests while providing accommodations for guests with disabilities. We engaged disability groups, such as Autism Speaks, to develop this new process, which is in line with the rest of our industry.

The new Disability Access Service Card program starts on October 9, and you can be sure parents will be watching, hoping that Disney makes the right choice for their kids with the set-up for the new program. As Shannon Rosa said:

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.

Do you use the special accommodations at theme parks? Are you concerned about the changes?


Image via Moriah Bettencourt



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nonmember avatar Rochelle

As long as they have the program, I'll continue to hire disabled people for money to let my family use their special needs access card that allowed us to skip the long lines at Disney. Thanks for keeping the program! You can hire disabled people to help cut lines and its great. So everyone should take advantage.

Michelle L Haider

I have 2 daughters with Autism, and I am physically unable to walk or stand for any length of time. We want to take our girls there, but we will see what Disney comes up with to help us

Todd Vrancic

Rochelle, if everyone did things the way you advocate, everyone would have the "Special Access" that allows them to skip lines and the result would be that there would be no "Special Access" for those who truly need it.  If you are close enough to neurotypical and do not have any physical issues that necessitate the special treatment, stand in line like everyone else, or better yet, keep your entitled, selfish behind at home.

Freela Freela

If you go to DisneyWorld when it isn't peak times and use their FastPass system, you will probably not have to stand in many lines longer than 20 minutes anyhow.  We have gone twice in the last summer/early fall and have had no trouble getting on rides within 20 minutes or so.  However, I get that not everyone can go off-peak and think that accomodations should be made for people who need it.  I can see requesting some sort of proof that the person has a condition meeting their criteria or some proof that the registered individual is actually travelling or staying with the family they are getting on the rides with.

Paws84 Paws84

Omg. Rochelle, how the hell do you sleep at night? Wow. That's pretty bad.

Baile... Bailey8307

I'm pretty sure Rochelle is being fasetious.. at least I really hope so!

keelh... keelhaulrose

My mom had polio as a child, and has just enough muscle mass in her legs to stay upright and walk short distances. We used to go to Disney one a year, and relied on the GAP to make it so she could enjoy the day with us (not all lines are wheelchair friendly).

We're thinking of going back now that my daughters are getting old enough, and I hope they keep the program. She doesn't mind waiting while we stand in line and get to the front, she just can't stand with us.

Kelly Adams Gold

As a parent with 2 kids on the spectrum, I'm patiently awaiting to see how the new system works. I think people are panicking over nothing right now. Give it a chance it may just work out better. If it doesn't work out, I just won't be going to Disney very much.

nonmember avatar Hank

God forbid children have to wait their time in line like everyone else. I'm Rochelle, as long as the program to bypass lines is around, I'll take advantage of it. If you want disabled kids to view themselves as normal, treat them as such.

nonmember avatar Helene

I have a 4 year old who is autistic. Disney World was HORRIBLE in 2012 with regards to assistance for our son. I will NEVER go there again however disneyland in 2013 was fantastic!! They need the programs in place & unfortunately it is horrid people like Rochelle above that makes it difficult for people that truly need & rely on the programs.

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