Use, not abuse, forced Disney to change its disabled access system
Written by Robert Niles
People continue to react to the Walt Disney Company's decision to change the way it accommodates visitors with disabilities in its theme parks. Beth Kassab of the Orlando Sentinel quoted me in her most recent column, which suggested that increasing wait times at Disney World attractions prompted some visitors to find ways around the wait, with GAC use and abuse becoming one popular way to do that.Tweet
Much of the coverage over Disney's decision to replace the Guest Assistance Card [GAC] with a new Disabled Assistance System has focused on reported abuse of the system by people pretending to have a disability to get preferred access to attractions. But conversations with Disney cast members have convinced me that is not the reason Disney made this change.
This isn't going to be easy for some Disney visitors to hear. But let's consider this a little tough love. The reason why Disney is ending the GAC program isn't because it was abused too much by people without disabilities. Disney killed the GAC because it was used too much by people with disabilities.
As we've written before, Disney did not intend to create a system that gave visitors with disabilities no-wait, front-of-the-line access to its attractions. That's simply the way the system evolved, for maximum operational efficiency. It simply was easier for Disney attractions personnel to move parties with a disabled visitor immediately onto a ride via the exit, than to make them wait and block the exit area, or to come back later.
Getting to ride without waiting invited abuse, which is why Disney adopted the GAC program, to make visitors with disabilities get a card from Disney so that individual attraction cast members wouldn't have to bear the responsibility of deciding who deserved special access. That helped put a stop to groups of kids renting a wheelchair to skip lines, but the system eventually grew unsustainable.
As crowds grew at Disney theme parks, people who previously could have endured a five- to 20-minute wait for rides and shows found that they couldn't handle waits of 40-80 minutes or more. Without the GAC, many people with back problems, weight issues, heart conditions, autism, or any of many other issues that make waiting in line difficult or impossible simply might have decided not to visit a Disney theme park. But with the GAC, not only could they visit, but Disney became a preferred entertainment destination. As more and more people used GAC to access rides, standby lines grew even longer, prompting even more people to get a GAC.
These aren't "fakers." They are people with legitimate medical claims. The number of people with medical conditions that could impede their ability to visit a crowded theme park is, unfortunately, astronomical. We're talking about tens of millions of Americans. More than one third of Americans are obese, according to the federal government. A third of adults have high blood pressure. One in six American children have a development disability. Autism prevalence is now at one in 50 kids. (That's nearly 1.5 million children, doing the math on U.S. Census Bureau data.) And let's not forget that Disney attracts millions of visitors from outside the United States, too, adding to the pool of potential visitors with disabilities.
Neither Disney nor any other theme park company can sustain a system that gives all of these people front-of-the-line access. But, fortunately for Disney (though not for the families affected by this change), the law doesn't require that Disney does that. The Americans with Disabilities Act simply requires that institutions create facilities and procedures accessible to persons with disabilities. It does not provide for nor demand preferred access. So that's why we soon will have a new system for disable access at Disney parks, a ride reservation system that will allow people with disabilities to skip non-accessible queues in the parks, but not to skip the waits.
Of course, many people are upset that they're losing what was a wonderful accommodation. For many families dealing with a disability, having front of the line access at Disney provided a welcome relief in an otherwise trying and frustrating experience. Frankly, it stinks to lose that. But Disney can't give preferred access to everyone. At some point, if everyone is "preferred," no one is. And millions of Disney visitors effectively lose their access to the parks again.
Don't think for a moment, though, that the system Disney introduces in 10 days will be its final word on access. For some families, even the new reservation system won't be enough to provide access to the park and its attractions. Don't be surprised it Disney tweaks the system in the months and years ahead to better balance the needs of all its visitors, including those with autism and other conditions for which a reservation system is — and here's an understatement — less than optimal.
But let's also not believe that this change is coming because a small group of greedy people decided to cheat the system. The "disabled" aren't a small subset of Americans. They're more than a hundred million of us. Use, not abuse, made Disney's GAC system unsustainable.
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