As Disney prepares a replacement for Guest Assistance Cards, here's how we got into this mess
Published: September 17, 2013 at 1:03 PM
In considering how Disney's new program will work, perhaps it's worth taking a look back to see how we got to this point.
Before the adoption of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990, theme parks in the United States were under no federal obligation to accommodate visitors in wheelchairs, or those with other medical disabilities. However, industry practice was to find a way to allow visitors in wheelchairs to get on rides and into shows when they could not go through traditional, narrow serpentine queues.
Typically, the way parks accommodated these visitors was to bring them through the exit. Parks usually design wider exits for attractions, to allow people to get out quickly, so there was plenty of space for a wheelchair to access the ride from that point. But operations staff didn't want wheelchair parties clogging that space at the exit while they waited their "fair turn" to board, so custom became to load those parties as soon as possible. That allowed wheelchair parties to bypass not just the queues for attractions, but also the waits.
And once word about that got around, the attempts at abusing this practice began. When I worked at Walt Disney World's Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, I soon lost count of the number of groups of able-bodied teenagers who'd rented a wheelchair and took turns riding in it in an attempt to skip as many lines as possible. So Disney introduced the Guest Assistance Card program to try to cut down on such abuse. Visitors would need to go to Guest Relations to get a special card that would identify them as needing special access to an attraction. While many park employees continued to admit guests in wheelchairs through "back-door" entrances, many also stonewalled others they suspected of trying to cheat the system, asking to see their GAC before letting them ride.
Problem solved? Not even close. The ADA isn't just about people in wheelchairs. It also requires accommodation from people dealing with any from a much wider range of disabilities, including mental and emotional conditions that make it difficult or impossible for people to deal with confined queues or uncertain wait times. Civil and criminal penalties for denying accommodation can be harsh, so the cost of denying a GAC to someone who actually needed it was so large that saying no to such requests simply wasn't worth the risk. Just about anyone making a plausible request could get a GAC.
Let's acknowledge here that most people aren't jerks. If they see people with obvious disabilities getting to skip queues, they don't begrudge that and calmly accept letting those others go ahead. But as soon as people see others getting to cut the line who don't have obvious disabilities, or who appear (to them, at least) obviously not to have a disability, they feel less shame in asking for that same advantage, too. Over time, the number of guests with GACs swelled, and grew to include thousands of visitors who were physically and mentally capable of waiting in traditional queues. Which only encouraged more people to abuse the GAC system, lest they be left waiting behind others abusing the system, too.
Ultimately, the solution that will stop this abuse is to create a system of accommodation that doesn't allow persons with disabilities to get access to more attractions than another guest without a disability would on the same day. Building more ADA-compliant queues will address this challenge for guests using wheelchairs, by eliminating the need for them to bypass the queue. More efficient use of ride reservation systems can help accommodate guests with the mental or emotional inability to handle a queue, too.
By restricting the number of return passes, timing them to require a wait time approximately equal to the current stand-by wait, and eliminating the transfer for line-skipping privileges, Disney appears to be taking a step toward creating that more efficient system. The cynic awaits pushback from those visitors who've been abusing GACs and who will now have to wait their fair turn. The optimist hopes that at least a few instead will welcome the change and take this opportunity to atone for their participation in past abuse.
Update: Disney has confirmed the changes. Our discussion continues in this new post.