Disney confirms changes to disability access program. But is there a better way?
Published: September 23, 2013 at 10:43 AM
Disney soon will be changing the way that visitors with disabilities access rides and shows at its theme parks.
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.
Questions remain, of course. Will all wheelchair parties now have to get DAS cards? (Now, many guests with wheelchairs go straight to wheelchair entrances, not bothering with GACs, as our own Daniel Etcheberry reports.) Will the DAS return times be for a specific time window, as FastPass is now, or can parties with a DAS reservation ride at any time during the day after their assigned time, without having to worry about missing a specific hour-long window? Will Disney provide enough staff so that people won't have to wait in long lines just to get DAS approval and attraction return times?
Theme Park Insider readers reacted passionately to the initial reports about this change — some welcoming it as a long-overdue response to an abused system and others attacking it as an unworkable alternative that will keep their families from being able to visit the parks. But is there a better alternative to GAC or DAS?
From reading your responses to the program, it appears that the key issue is fairness in the number of attractions that a party can experience in one day. Having disability access should not enable those families to visit more attractions during their visit than those without that access can experience. And not having disability access should not prevent groups traveling with a person with disabilities from experiencing the same number of rides and shows during their trip as a "normal" party can. If all visitors could feel assured that they'd still get their "fair" number of rides in, perhaps they'd feel less stressed out about how other people were using systems such as DAS.
Perhaps a more ideal system would price theme parks on the number of attractions visited instead of the amount of time spent there. And to ensure that visitors didn't just crowd the "best" rides and shows, the system would group attractions into classes, and give you a limited number of visits to rides and shows in each class.
Hey, maybe A-through-E ticket books weren't such a bad idea, after all?
Actually, Disney's new FastPass+ system restores some of the functionality of the ticket books, in that it does confirm three attraction visits per day for people using that new ride reservation system. Disney hasn't rolled out FastPass+ fully, but perhaps families with a person with autism might be able to use the system in the future to schedule a day in the parks in a way that would accommodate those visitors' needs.
Let's think this through: Maybe the solution to the disability access problem is a more scheduled day for everyone, with an increased reliance on FastPass+-type scheduling that minimizes or eliminates the use of the conflict-producing stand-by lines. Disney's old ticket-book-style of access would return, not through physical ticket books, but through FastPass+ back-end programming that allows visitors a certain number of reserved visits to certain classes of attractions on a given day. Sure, there'd be less opportunity for spontaneity during a theme park visit. But there'd be less uncertainty, and fewer conflicts in stand-by lines, too.
Another way to reduce wait time is, of course, to increase the park's peak capacity. Disney's decision to drop millions of dollars on new ride reservation and scheduling systems instead of simply using that money to build more rides has many of its current (and some now-former) fans upset. But new rides attract new visitors, and it's unlikely that a park ever could build enough new attractions to ensure insignificant wait time during the busiest times of the year. If it could, that park would be stuck with a massive amount of excess capacity during slower times of the year. No park that wanted to stay in business would spend its money to do that.
Even if parks so their very best to create the most accessible queues possible, there will be some people with certain conditions who won't be able to use them. So a park needs to come up with some system to accommodate people who can't wait in traditional queues. Disney's going to give its new system a try, starting next month. But just as DAS evolved from GAC, it's likely that we'll see Disney's system for accommodating visitors with disabilities continue to evolve in the future.
Update: Keep this in mind before commenting, too. While I appreciate the passion that so many readers have brought to the discussion on this issue, I'm reminded of an old law school cliche: "If you have the law on your side, pound the law. If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. If you don't have the law or the facts on your side, pound the table."
The more you "pound the table" in your reaction to this issue, the more likely others are to see you as someone without facts or law on your side. From my time working at Disney, I know that many cast members were convinced that the guests who complained the loudest, and with the most emotion, were often the ones trying to pull a fast one.
Many readers have brought good reason and insightful experience to this discussion. They are the ones who will convince others and have influence in shaping the future of theme park policy. Those who "pound the table" won't. And, frankly, shouldn't.