Reports had circulated that wealthier patrons of Disney amusement parks were paying for “disabled tour guides” to skip long lines.
Citing abuse of the system, Disney officials said that starting Oct. 9, the California-based Disneyland Park and Florida-based Disney World Resort theme parks will no longer allow disabled visitors to skip the hours-long wait in lines for rides and attractions, with the announcement Disney is discontinuing its Guest Assistance Card program.
Though the discontinuation of the GAC program was initially reported earlier this month by the website MiceAge, which says it’s dedicated to providing Disney-lovers the inside scoop of park happenings, news of the rule-change spread rapidly this week after Suzi Brown, director of media relations and external communications at Disneyland, confirmed the GAC program was on its way out.
In a statement, Brown said,
“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.”
Designed for able-bodied pedestrians and not disabled persons, Disney’s GAC program was introduced 10 years ago as a way to allow disabled guests and their families a way to better enjoy the park. However, fraud has been associated with the program, with wealthier families reportedly hiring “disabled tour guides” so they could skip the long lines for rides.
Currently those who are unable to wait in the regular line are able to obtain backdoor access to rides and either wait in very short lines or no line at all. But since Disney does not require proof of disability to obtain an assistance card, Brown says many able-bodied guests were obtaining the passes in order to skip the lines.
When Disney officials announced the retirement of the GAC program, they also announced a new program would replace it, which will involve issuing tickets to visitors with a scheduled return time, allowing them to wait in a shorter line when they return.
It’s a program some are saying is similar to the FastPass system the park offers to all other guests, which Brown says is not accurate, since the guests using the disability pass would not be limited on how many passes they obtain in an hour and the return time would be based on the actual wait time for the ride.
Staff at Disneyland and Disney World were reportedly scheduled to be briefed on the new program on Sept. 24. Once all staff had been informed of the new policy, Disney officials said more information would be released to the public.
In response to the announcement, some parents of children with disabilities have expressed concern about the effect waiting in line could have on their children. Kim McClain, whose daughter has special needs and qualifies for a GAC pass, created a petition asking Disney to keep the current policy in place.
She wrote that the GAC program is not a privilege for those families with challenges, but is “simply an accommodation to provide access to the park for those who otherwise would not be able to enjoy the park. If you remove this accommodation; you will undoubtedly remove the ability for many to access and enjoy the park, excluding an impaired segment of the population due to the misconduct of others. Which does not at all seem to make sense.”
When asked why Disney didn’t tighten the rules for who could obtain a pass, Brown said, “Due to confidentiality laws, we’re limited in the information we can ask.” She added that before Disney decided to axe the GAC program, officials spoke with groups such as Autism Speaks “to develop this new process, which is in line with the rest of our industry.”
Though not all guests are happy about the upcoming policy change, others such as Matt Asner, executive director of the Southern California chapter of Autism Speaks, said families with disabled persons should wait to see how the program works before they criticize it.
“Change is difficult,” he said. “I didn’t want it to change, but I understand there was an issue that needed to be dealt with.”
Disabled tour guides
Under the GAC program, a disabled guest could bring up to six additional park guests with them to the front of the line for any ride or attraction. With wait times as long as two and a half hours for rides such as “It’s a Small World,” those aware of the GAC program began to take advantage of the park’s accommodations for disabled guests.
As the New York Post reported earlier this May, many wealthy moms in Manhattan bragged about hiring disabled persons to pose as family members so their kids would not have to wait in line. These disabled or black-market Disney tour guides reportedly charged around $130 an hour or $1,040 for an eight-hour day.
Though it sounds expensive, hiring a disabled tour guide is cheaper than the ‘VIP Tour’ Disney offers, which allows guests to have a guide and obtain fast passes for rides for $310 to $380 per hour.
In June, NBC had one of its producers go undercover with his family and hire two disabled tour guides around Disneyland. Guide number one, Mara, who said she had knee and back problems, charged a family of four $50 per hour to bypass the long lines. On day two, NBC hired
Ryan for $200 per hour. He did not share how he had obtained his card.
After Mara and Ryan showed the family around the park, NBC reporter Jeff Rossen met up with the tour guides in the parking lot and asked why they were allowing healthy people to use their disabled pass.
Mara said that since we live in a capitalist country and Disney is profiting from all of the people who enter the park, she didn’t think she was doing anything wrong. Ryan too said that he didn’t feel sharing his pass with a healthy family was an abuse of Disney’s GAC system and said he couldn’t care less about those other people waiting in line.
In response to the NBC investigation and report in the New York Post, Disney released a statement saying, “We find it deplorable. We have initiated a review of this abuse and will take appropriate steps to deter this type of unacceptable activity.” Officials also said they would be sending out warning letters to those who advertise GAC passes online and would revoke passes for those caught abusing the system.
After the news of the abuse of Disney’s GAC system broke, many called the use of disabled tour guides “despicable,” while others argued it was a good way to help disabled persons make money.
One person commented to CNN that “at least they are sharing the wealth and providing the less fortunate with over $1000 a day to go to Disney World.” Another reader made a similar comment saying that “$1040 for a day spent having fun — not a bad job. Pretending they are part of the family isn’t a good example for the children, but providing work for someone who is disabled isn’t a bad thing to do.”
What about the children?
Erin Moya’s 4-year-old son has spina bifida. While Moya says she recognizes there was a need to change the program in order to stop the abuse of the system, she says she is worried that the new program may prevent some families who have persons with real disabilities from being able to visit the park.
“For example, my son, similar to many others living with disabilities, has special medical procedures that have to be done at a specific frequency throughout the day,” Moya said. “To then have to worry about ‘scheduling’ rides is just one more complication to add to a visit that is probably already more complex than most people realize.”
Rebecca Goddard, a mother of two sons, ages 4 and 6, who have autism, also expressed concern about the change in the program for disabled visitors. Goddard says she takes her sons to Disneyland once a week, and says they can’t wait in lines longer than a few minutes before they begin to push other people.
“My boys don’t have the cognition to understand why it’s going to be a long wait,” she said. “There are so few things for my boys that bring them utter joy and happiness — to mess with it just makes me sad.”
In response, Brown said Disney recognizes “that needs of individuals vary dramatically, and that one size doesn’t fit all. Like we’ve always done, guests who have particular concerns can speak with Guest Relations about their particular needs.”
While not all parents are convinced, Ellen Seidman, whose son Max has sensory issues, said that after speaking with Brown she thinks parents of kids with special needs should “see how the system plays out” before getting too riled up.
On her blog “Love that Max,” Seidman said that “Disney has an admirable history of accommodating guests with special needs,” and went on to describe how the park rents wheelchairs and Electric Convenience Vehicles, offers foods for those with special dietary restrictions at most restaurants, has designated relief areas for service animals and has options for guests with hearing and visual impairment.
“I can’t imagine that Disney would ever leave kids with special needs in the (pixie) dust,” she said. “If the realities of the new program prove too hard to handle, the parks will hear about it — and hopefully make adjustments accordingly,” she continued, explaining that parents of kids with special needs are not afraid to speak up.