The news feeds are buzzing today (not as in Lightyear…but as in all stirred up) over the newly announced plan that Disney has unveiled changing their policy for disabled guests. It is easy to read any news report or hear how a story is told, process it through your own filter, perspective, and feelings…and then walk away with an opinion strongly forged on the information as you have processed it. There is nothing wrong with that as long as you have formed the opinion on the right information and run it through the right filters.
I think much of the reaction to the new Disney policy is based on misinformation and as result it is running through filters that can’t help reach some of the conclusions people are reacting to. Under the current policy, Disney visitors can get a guest assistance card that grants quicker access to rides, often entering through exit doors to bypass the main lines. Recently we have been tracking the widespread reports of able-bodied people abusing the policy.
Disney’s Guest Assistance Card [GAC] program is going away on October 9, to be replaced by a Disabled Assistance System [DAS]. The basic principal is the same: theme park visitors with disabilities will be given “back door” access to attractions when the guest cannot use the attraction’s “normal” stand-by waiting queue. But instead of getting unlimited instant access to attractions, visitors with disabilities will be given an assigned return time to one attraction at a time. Return times will be set to the current stand-by wait time for the ride or show, so that there’s no time advantage to using DAS over waiting in line. Also, visitors with disabilities must be present and ride in order for others in their party to be admitted through the DAS return line.
There is an understandable reaction from parents with kids who suffer from disabilities to these changes. Many feel anger toward Disney and feel as if Disney is forgetting about their children. I am under the belief that any child in a Disney theme park is a special guest of honor and so that is not what is really happening here. The change has come from the abuse of the system in place that others have taken advantage of and that is where anger should be aimed. The audacity to use the system designed to assist guests with disabilities and make it their own personal “fast track” way to visit the theme parks is cruel, evil, and inhuman. And those who have abused the system are the ones who need to be on the receiving end of the frustration and anger.
The confusion for many comes in trying to deal with the real question and the real expectation. Is it Disney’s job to accommodate or expedite?
If the job is to expedite then the door swings wide open for the abuse that the company is reacting to currently. If being able to abuse the system and figure out a way to get to the front of each line, bypass wait times, and be able to see the entire theme park in one day is possible…then there will always be someone who will figure out a way to beat the system.
If the job is to accommodate then Disney must find a way to make the disabled guest experience easier, minimize the wait time, to what they can to help make the trip for parents with disabled children as easy as possible and make sure they have every opportunity to have a great experience just like any other guest. The accommodations Disney can make will help make this possible.
Having been in theme parks over the years with a child who has needed special assistance, I have seen firsthand how easily the system in place can be abused and have watched first hand it was abused. As a cast member years ago, I watched and saw how the system was abused and how some used it to an unreasonable advantage. That really is a shame and is shameful. For myself, and my experiences as a parent the need is really to accommodate (make some allowances that will prevent me from waiting in a long line, a return time with minimal wait accomplishes that), an easier way to get to an attraction where needed (the current special entrances and early entry points are very helpful) and a place to wait when necessary and have a bit of convenience to take care of the special needs my child might have (which may be a more comfortable place to wait or areas with a bit more privacy) can also be very helpful…. that is my real need…as much as I would love to expedite the process and be able to short cut many of the less attractive moments of being in a crowded theme park (and notice I said, I would love to do that) the reality is… that is a want more than it is actually a need.
So the real issue is whether the need is to accommodate or expedite.
Disney is making the choice to accommodate (Which also allows room and opportunity to expedite…an added bonus)
If that is the case, then there will be glitches to be sure. It is frustrating the changes are being made but the anger should be that there are those who over a period of years has forced the changes. It means that Disney is going to have to respond and to make this successful they are going to have to now do some things better….
A Creatively Designed Themed Area for Accommodation Requests
Right now, the area that disabled persons must make their request for accommodation at the WDW Magic Kingdom is City Hall. The space and the setup they are using right now just does not work. The venue is too public. If the disability is non-apparent, like autism, disabled persons must reveal private medical information in a very public venue. This information can easily be heard by other employees and guests. The venue for disability requests for accommodation should be changed to provide privacy for the discussion of private medical information.
The method for screening must be uniform, clear, written, and available to the public. A reasonable person should be able to read the screening policy and determine how to fulfill the requirements to receive the proper accommodations.
The abuses of the past should not make the default approach in screening to presume fraud. It should not favor apparent disabilities (those that are always visible) over non-apparent disabilities, such as autism, sensory perception issues, and other neurological disabilities. The screening process should protect medical privacy and comply with the ADA.
Cast Member Training
This area must become a specialized area cast members need to be trained in. There is an educational component that must be put in place. Disney cast members should understand the challenges that those with apparent and non-apparent disabilities are facing as they move through their day in a theme park. Again the purpose is to accommodate not expedite.
WDW should ensure all individuals who need it, regardless of the type of disability, access to disability entrances at rides. With this new system in going into place, hopefully the assigned return time will make this easier and actually make the entrance to the attraction more accommodating.
Here is what we need to remember. This new plan is a reaction to those who have abused the system for a number of years. Change is never easy and there are times that in the process of making a change for the better there will be a number of missteps. That is how we all learn along the way in every area of life.
Will everyone be happy ?…no.
Will the change seem or make people feel like they are more inconvenienced ?…yes.
As a general rule do most people ponder what is good for everyone or do we tend to make the issues always about how the change impacts us personally?
Truth is we all focus on how something impacts us personally…it is only natural…and the stories that will grab the news headlines will be how it does not work.
Rarely will you hear the stories of how it works well, and it will work well, every single day.
Disney has consulted with a number of organizations for input on working with those who are disabled. To be certain, the system will need to be fixed, improved, and what unfolds in October will not be the final plan but rather a starting place. The suggestions mentioned above have been suggested by others as well and hopefully Disney will listen and respond in proactive ways. At the end of the day, it is not the desire of the Disney company to create hardships for people with disabilities, there is no strategy to make their lives more difficult as they are guests in the resorts. Instead what we have is a company who moves hundreds of thousands of people through their resorts in the most efficient way possible. The only thing certain is that there are going to be some people not happy. Hopefully the direction they are headed will be one that leads them to being accommodating in creating the best guest experience possible.
(Author Jeff Dixon has written a series of novels that take place within the Walt Disney World Resort. He is also a transformational architect, father of three, and a former cast member at WDW. As an annual pass holder he is in the park regularly, has watched the resort expand through the years, and had the opportunity to be a guest at the Magic Kingdom before it ever opened to the public. In many ways he has grown up, raised a family, and continues to be a part of the Disney community.)