Disney With Disabilities: Do Sweeping Changes Make Disney Less Disabled-Friendly?

Lisa Fritscher May 8, 2014 No Comments



Wheelchair Fireworks Viewing

Disney provides a variety of wheelchair viewing areas for parades and fireworks.

Disney has long been known as a pioneer in accessibility for the disabled. Long before the Americans With Disabilities Act of 1990 made public access a requirement, Disney was doing what it could to make its parks and resorts more disabled-friendly. Yet some radical changes that began in October 2013 have many in the disabled community scratching their heads, wondering whether Disney is trying to send a message that the disabled are no longer welcome.

My dad is my favorite Disney park buddy, and he has numerous medical conditions that make it tough for him to endure a day in the parks. So we have tracked the changes with great interest, and we have personal experience with both the old system and the new. Here’s what we have learned.


The Old Way: The GAC
Disney went through several variations on disabled accessibility over the years, before finally settling on the Guest Assistance Card, or GAC. These red and white cards were issued to people with physical or mental conditions who needed some extra assistance to enjoy the theme parks. They were issued with a wide range of stamps depending on the guest’s specific needs. For example, some people were able to wait in regular lines, but were unable to climb stairs. Some needed a place to wait outside of direct sunlight. Others needed front row seating due to low vision.


The Guest Assistance Card, or GAC, was the gold standard for many years.

For those with more complicated or brittle medical conditions, Disney also offered two higher-level stamps. The arrow stamp allowed the guest and his or her party (up to 6 people) to utilize the FastPass entrances at attractions that provided them, or a special disabled entrance at others. The green light stamp, issued mostly to Make a Wish kids and others in extremely fragile health, provided front-of-line access to virtually every experience.


The Issues
A couple of things happened during 2012 and 2013 that made it seem inevitable that the GAC system would change. The first was that Disney began enforcing return times for FastPass. For several years, although each FastPass had a designated one-hour return window, cast members would accept FastPasses at any time after the window opened, as long as it was the same day. Suddenly, that changed. Anyone who arrived even a few minutes after the return window was turned away. Around the same time, Disney announced the coming of FastPass+, a new ride reservation system that would allow park visitors to book ride times before ever leaving home.

With increasing awareness and acceptance of disability issues, the number of people using GACs had skyrocketed in recent years. Meanwhile, the internet made it easy to learn what kinds of GAC stamps were available, and increasing numbers of people requested the arrow stamp. Adding to the situation was the fact that under the Americans With Disabilities Act, Disney is not allowed to ask for proof of disability when providing access. Sadly, many people without any disabilities at all knew what to say at Guest Relations to gain what was essentially an unlimited FastPass.

With the enforcement of FastPass return times and the announcement of FastPass+, it was clear that the GAC system would not work with Disney’s plans. An unpredictable number of people entering the FastPass lines at any time of day would surely throw off the exact counts that Disney was trying to obtain. But the final blow came in the form of bad press.

A reporter for NBC News went undercover in spring 2013 to investigate rumored GAC abuse. The reporter hired two different people from Craigslist, both offering paid tour guide services that would allow visitors to skip the lines. According to the report, both people obtained their Guest Assistance Cards legitimately, due to their personal medical conditions. But both sold their services, which included use of their GACs, to strangers.

Naturally, the story exploded. Outraged members of the disability community and healthy visitors alike called for an immediate end to the abuse. Disney took action immediately, sending cease and desist letters to disabled tour guides and warning all GAC holders that such abuse could result in GACs being revoked and even banning from the parks.


The New System: The DAS

DAS Card

The Disability Assistance Service card, or DAS, replaced the GAC in October 2013.

Some believe that the GAC program ended because of the bad press. Some believe it was unsustainable in the new FastPass+ era. Some even think that Disney decided the disabled population did not contribute enough to its bottom line. Whatever your personal thoughts on the topic, Disney announced in October 2013 that the long-lived GAC system was coming to a screeching halt.

A few days after the announcement, GAC was out and DAS was in. Rather than the multiple-stamp, tailored system offered by the GAC, the Disability Access Service card is one size fits all. Or one size fits none, depending on your particular needs. For example, the DAS is not issued to those who need to avoid stairs or have visual disabilities that require them to sit up front. Instead, people with those issues find themselves repeating their needs over and over to different cast members at each attraction. The DAS is not issued for mobility impairments, as Disney’s official recommendation is to rent a wheelchair or ECV. Anecdotal reports show mixed reactions to the request for a DAS card which, like the old GAC, must be obtained at Guest Relations. Some people report being told that the DAS is only for people with autism, or being refused a DAS even when they had been eligible for the GAC.

The DAS is officially valid for no more than 6 people traveling together. According to anecdotal reports, it is possible to receive a DAS for a party of up to 10 if everyone in the group presents themselves at Guest Relations. While annual pass holders can receive a DAS that is valid for two months, a DAS for more than 6 people must be renewed each day, with everyone in the group present each time. Presumably this is to cut down on abuse of the type reported by NBC News.

Return Times

The DAS requires you to go to each attraction (or Disneyland kiosk) and obtain a return time.

With a DAS, you or someone in your party must go to the attraction you want to experience (at Walt Disney World), or to one of several kiosks scattered throughout the parks (at Disneyland) and receive a return time from a cast member. The return time is based on the current standby wait time minus ten minutes. Therefore, if the standby line is 80 minutes, your wait will be 70 minutes.

Unlike FastPass+, which requires you to return within a one-hour window, you may return to your DAS attraction at any time the same day, as long as your return time has passed. You are free to wait standby for other attractions, eat, shop, rest or do anything else you like while you are waiting. However, you are not allowed to get a return time for another attraction until you either use the first return time or have it crossed off.


DAS With FastPass+
On its own, DAS was nearly useless for Dad. The fact that he had to physically walk to an attraction, then find a place to wait, then walk back made it more trouble than it was worth. Since FastPass+ opened to annual pass holders, however, he has been able to make it work. It takes a lot more planning than the GAC required, and there are times that he has to leave without using his DAS return time, but overall the combination is less hopeless than it first appeared.

The key is figuring out how to best utilize the DAS. In general, it seems to work best to plan FastPass+ for the three attractions we most want to see. When we arrive at the park, one or both of us take the card to get a return time for something before heading to our first FastPass+ reservation. Even at the most popular attractions, the DAS return time is rarely more than 100 minutes. When we are in the area of the DAS attraction again, we are typically eligible to return.


Use the FastPass+ system, linked to your MagicBand, in conjunction with the DAS card.

Sometimes you have to think outside the box to meet your needs. For example, a few days ago we wanted to see the Festival of Fantasy parade at the Magic Kingdom, then switch to Epcot to have dinner and meet friends for the Village People concert. We wanted to ride our three favorite Magic Kingdom rides as well as Soarin’, but we knew the afternoon line for Soarin’ would be more than Dad could handle. So before we left home, I made FastPass+ reservations for our chosen Magic Kingdom attractions. When we arrived, we parked at Epcot. Dad waited while I took his DAS to Soarin’ to get a return time. Then we hopped on the monorail to the Magic Kingdom. By the time we got back to Epcot, we were able to ride Spaceship Earth with a five minute standby time, and then use our return time at Soarin’ before heading to the World Showcase.


Tips for Parents
Unlike the old GAC, we have not found the DAS to be something we can consistently rely on to meet Dad’s needs. Utilize FastPass+ to its full capacity to ensure you and your child can experience your favorite attractions. In late spring 2014, Disney is expected to expand the FastPass+ system to allow visitors to book additional FastPass+ after using the original three, as well as to add park hopping functionality. Think of the DAS as a little something extra rather than your main source for reasonable access.

If your child has trouble understanding the need to get a return time and then come back to the attraction, have one of the adults in your group act as a runner. As long as an adult is available to wait with the child, there is no need for him or her to go to the attraction until it is actually time to ride. Anyone may take the DAS to the attraction to get a return time.

The DAS has a photo of the person to whom it is issued. That person must physically go on the attraction in order to use the card. For example, if the disabled person is unable to ride Tower of Terror, the rest of your party may NOT use the DAS to experience it. Use FastPass+ instead to minimize your wait. You can use Child Swap in tandem with the DAS, as long as the disabled person rides with one of the groups. See a cast member outside the attraction for more information.

If you have multiple people in your group who qualify for the DAS, don’t be afraid to get more than one. If your party splits up for part of the day, or if the DAS-eligible people have different ride interests, it is better to be covered. For example, Grandma in a wheelchair may be unable or unwilling to go on Space Mountain, while it might be your physically healthy autistic daughter’s favorite ride. Since the DAS holder must ride, getting both Grandma and daughter their own DAS cards allows each of them to do the things that make them happy.

The DAS is issued for the length of your trip. If you are an annual pass holder, you can receive a DAS for up to two months. This is an extension beyond the 14 days annual pass holders originally got, and should help to ease some of the pressure on Guest Relations. You can only obtain a DAS at Guest Relations at a theme park, not at your resort hotel or Downtown Disney.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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