Autism and the New Disability Assistance Card at Walt Disney Worldby Jeff Kober, contributing writer
Recent events and publicized abuse of Disney's Guest Assistance Card (GAC) have resulted in huge reaction. As a result, Disney has implemented a new system called the Disability Access Service (DAS) Card for those with physical and emotional health challenges. [For details on the new system, see "Disney debuts the Disability Access Service" by Adrienne Vincent-Phoenix in the October 14 Disneyland Park Update.]
The implementation differs slightly between Disneyland and Walt Disney World. In this article, I will focus on the program's implementation in Walt Disney World as it affects those dealing with autism, who face many challenges that require special attention and care. While I am not an expert on autism, I have two children who reside on different ends of the spectrum, and from that perspective, I can offer some thoughts.
The original system provided you a card at Guest Relations, which you presented at the front of an attraction. Usually, this meant shorter lines, often at attractions like Space Mountain or Kilimanjaro Safaris where there was a Fastpass queue in place. The system recently started allowing those with a Guest Assistance Card to also utilize the shorter queues implemented through Fastpass+. For instance, "it's a small world" now has a shortened queue with Fastpass+ in addition to the standard line. You might have taken advantage of another queue for guests in wheel chairs, although that queue wasn't necessarily faster, and in reality, was intended for those who wanted to take advtage of those boats that could accommodate wheelchairs.
I visited Disney's Hollywood Studios with my 11-year-old son with only an hour and a half left in the day. He has three things he loves to do: Toy Story Mania, the MuppetVision 4D pre-show, and the Great Movie Ride. I was welcomed by a Guest Relations cast member, who explained the new program, which emphasized that:
- We would receive a card with my son's photo on it that had a lot of lines on it for the number of attractions we would visit.
- We were urged to utilize Fastpass (which they used to do with the GAC program) but said that when we couldn't get a Fastpass for the time needed, that a member of our party could visit an attraction, get a time that would be essentially 10 minutes less than the current standby time, and then return to use the Fastpass or Fastpass+ lane.
- When you return to the attraction, you have to have the individual whose face is on the card.
- When the card was filled or after two weeks (the current length for the card), we would receive a new card with my son's photo already on it.
We headed to Toy Story Mania to get a designated time. We were directed to the cast member working with the stand-by queue. The stand-by time was 80 minutes. He noted the time, then asked if it was okay if he put the time for 70 minutes later. "Will that work for you?" For me that was the most important question to ask. I told him that was fine, and he invited me back at 7:20 p.m. I know that time would have been difficult for my son if he were a few years younger and less mature. I also know it would have been confusing for him a few years ago to go to the attraction, get a ticket signed, but not go on the attraction right then and there. Still, I feel the cast member would have been flexible had I asked. I think that will be the most important factor moving this program forward.
We went on to the Great Movie Ride and Muppet-Vision 4D, then returned to the Great Movie Ride. All in all, the experience was uneventful and not a whole lot different than it was when we visited several weeks ago.
We then went to the Magic Kingdom. There are many attractions he enjoys at that park, but none greater than the horse-drawn trolley. That's where we spent our time initially, and then when the trolley got ready to do the trolley show, we headed over to the Jungle Cruise to get a Fastpass. With the old system, we would have just walked on with the GAC card. Fortunately in our case, once we got the Fastpasses, my son was ready to head back to see the horses in the Trolly Show. Afterwards, we headed back to Jungle Cruise, but my son was insisting on the Hall of Presidents. Yes, the Hall of Presidents. Why? Well it happens that the film portion of the show has more horses depicted in it than there are presidents. As always, with autistic children—and children in general—you have to be flexible.
By the time we were done, he was hungry, and so we went and got a snack. By the time we finished, we were past our Fastpass time. I'm sure we could have explained our situation and gotten into the Jungle Cruise. But his interest was no longer in going to the Jungle Cruise. Instead, we headed over and got a Fastpass for Winnie the Pooh, which spit out a complementary Fastpass to Mickey's PhilarMagic as well. We then went over to Buzz Lightyear to get a time assigned to us on the pass. That standby time was only 20 minutes, which meant our pass was for a return in 10 minutes. That was a perfect opportunity to ride the PeopleMover. We then returned to Buzz Lightyear, where we found an older man by himself utilizing the DAS pass as well. His walk was fairly slow and deliberate. I asked hin about his experience. He said that he was glad that it was much fairer to all. But still, he was a little overwhelmed by having to come back to get his pass. For him, the new system means a lot of walking.
Afterward riding Buzz, we went to Monster's Inc. Comedy Laugh Floor. This attraction is a new Fastpass+ attraction. Here the queue was listed at 10 minutes, which isn't really accurate, as the show itself is around 15 minutes, and so you could conceivably wait that long. With our card we were ushered in right away. That pushed us into the pre-show area, which guaranteed that we would wait no longer than 15 minutes. Having to wait for the pre-show to clear to join that area can result in a wait that is really upwards to 30 minutes long. We went in and enjoyed the pre-show, which for him means curling into a fetal position on the floor next to the trash receptacle. You know how it is.
Watching the show, I thought back to our visit to Disney's Hollywood Studios. What if we had visited Toy Story Mania just before closing? Would we have been given 10 minutes less than the standby length, or would we have simply been ushered in at this point?
If Disney had approached people with autism years ago and said, you are welcome to not only use our Fastpass, but if there is any other attraction you would like to utilize, let us know and we'll give you a return time that allows you to utilize the Fastpass queue later on, I would have been very pleased. But we've lived for several years under a different system that allowed you to walk on, and frankly, we're a little spoiled. Certainly, there is nothing in my son's experience that made it difficult for me. That said, the new system was a bit of a challenge for me, since I was alone with him, and had to do a lot of backtracking to return to an attraction. Whether we admit it or not, that hassle factor impacts our decision to come back and do it again. That should matter to Disney.
Primarily, I think the program is a work in progress. We are at a new milestone in DIsney's approach with regard to working with those who experience autism. Very soon, Disney will allow all of us to plan Fastpass times online before coming to the park. That will reduce a lot of the backtracking. Also, I see the MyDisney Experience technology getting to the point where you could use this system through your smartphone or through another cast member, and remove the hassle of getting a return time and then coming back later to ride the attraction. Also, Disneyland offers several spots where you can sign in around the park. That concept could be implemented as well in time or perhaps during peak seasons.
Until technology improves on convenience, I offer a few ideas:
Identify the day's key events – Is the afternoon parade important to you? Do you have an important lunch reservation at the Crystal Palace? Figure out the things that really matter most, and plan your day around being near those locations when the time comes.
Regionalize – Break the park into different lands or sections and stay put during that time period. Don't go running from one end of the park to another. For instance, once you get a Fastpass, get a time using your DAS card for another attraction nearby. Then go enjoy an attraction that doesn't require either, or enjoy some entertainment, shopping, or dining. Then move to the next section of the park and enjoy that land or area. With the new DAS system, you can "stay in play, rather than relay".
Think of Fastpass differently – Usually you selected a Fastpass for those favorite attractions that held the longest wait. You may want to change this. Your advantage over the regular day guest is that you don't have to get a Fastpass at 11:30 am for Soarin' only to have to backtrack at 5:45 that evening to enjoy it. For instance, prior we would have gotten a Fastpass to Soarin' and then simply put up with waiting in a standby queue to Living with the Land. Rather, I would get a Fastpass for Living with the Land (which would probably be no longer than 10-20 minutes wait), and then use your DAS card for Soarin'. Let's say the standby wait at Soarin' was 90 minutes. You would come back in 80 minutes. But that time could be easily spent on Livin' with the Land, Circle of Life, or getting a bite to eat at Seasons. If it's a little longer, maybe The Seas with Nemo and Friends or Journey into Your Imagination. Then again, it may only be a much shorter wait. But it's a lot better than retracking from the back end of World Showcase to finally go on the attraction, or having to force everyone out of bed early in the morning to be the first one to get on the attraction. There is no longer a reason to run and rush.
Allow for time off – If you're with your spouse or another adult, consider giving yourself time off. Let one take the autistic individual back to the room while you enjoy the park by yourself. Then switch. Or, if time is precious in the parks, let one go on the attraction with the child, while another enjoys a Citrus Swirl. Plan for ways you can each enjoy the park as well in stress-free ways. It's your vacation, as well.
Save a great attraction as a finale – Remember my experiences earlier with Toy Story Mania and with Monster Inc. Comedy Laugh Floor? If you're going to close out the park, consider saving the attraction to the end until just a few minutes before the end of the day, and see if you can't simply get moved right into the Fastpass queue. This may be a great choice if you have children like mine who do not like to be around the noise of fireworks.
Of course with autistic individuals, results may vary. Perhaps none of this will work for your particular child. I know I've had times where I couldn't get my son out of a meltdown in the middle of the park. I know something of the stares and the "what's wrong with your kid" looks. Life's not fair. But Disney is trying to be fairer. Try these ideas, and then patiently explain to the cast members when things aren't working and you need a little help. Disney has been a real leader in providing accommodations to Guest with all kinds of disabilities. Dealing with those experiencing autism can be the hardest nut to crack. And too often it just seems unfair. But just like our children, the experience in all of this is a work in progress.