Change In Disney’s Disability Policy Makes Kingdom Much Less Magical


I look goofy standing next to Mickey.

“The happiest place on Earth” got a little less friendly last month when Disney announced it would no longer allow visitors with disabilities instant access to rides and attractions.

This is disappointing news to children with autism and their parents, myself included. When we visited Disney two years ago, we were told our son was eligible for a Guest Assistance Card. That card was king!

Disney guest assistance card

Disney’s Guest Assistance Card ruled! WTF, Mickey? Bring the GAC back, and help a disabled brother out!

Our Guest Assistance Card made the Magic Kingdom even more magical. We could enter any ride or attraction we wanted through the exit, and there was never more than a few minutes wait. In some cases, we were escorted past long lines of envious-looking people, and moved right to the front. We felt like part of the Magic Kingdom’s Royal Family!

This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

Unfortunately, plenty of able-bodied people have taken advantage of Disney’s lax medical assistance policy. Due to confidentiality laws, Disney cannot ask guests to provide proof of a disability. Visit the Customer Service office at the Magic Kingdom, tell them you’re disabled, and they would give you a Guest Assistance Card, no questions asked. There were also reports of wealthy families hiring disabled people to pose as family members during Disney trips so they could enjoy the perks of the Guest Assistance Cards.

As a result of this widespread abuse, Disney will no longer allow disabled guests instant access to rides and attractions. Instead, people with disabilities will be given a ticket with a time they can return and enter the attraction without waiting.

The new policy takes effect October 8, and parents of special needs kids already foresee problems. Disabled guests are given tickets telling them exactly when they can ride, for example; “Come back in 40 minutes to ride Space Mountain.” So your special needs child doesn’t have to wait in a line, but he or she still has to wait.

And for some kids, that isn’t going to work.

Special Kids Were Actually Special At Disney

Vacationing with special needs kids is always a gamble, and amusement parks can be especially challenging. Children with autism like rides and attractions the same as any kid, but sometimes the sights, sounds, and crowds can be overwhelming and meltdown inducing. There’s a lot of walking and waiting, and some kids are a flight risk.

Disney’s welcoming attitude toward people with disabilities is what made the resort such an appealing vacation spot for parents of special needs children. Special kids got special treatment at Disney theme parks.


Cinderella’s Castle at night, bathed in purple haze.

And why not? Special needs kids are treated differently every place they go — school, church, the supermarket, etc. But at Disney, they got the Royal Treatment. That’s what made a trip to Disney so magical for special needs kids and their families.

But this new policy makes Disney theme parks much less appealing as a resort option. My son couldn’t have visited Disney World if it weren’t for the privileges our Guest Assistance Card afforded us. There’s no way he could have waited on those long lines (I doubt I could have, either).

Disney should tighten up its current policy; not toss it out. Maybe guests with disabilities should apply for special privileges in advance, and have to show proof of their disability — a doctor’s note, or proof you qualify for state or federal disability benefits. Work around the confidentiality laws, and weed out wrongdoers who abuse the system. Don’t punish people with disabilities who need the special services.


Originally Published in SMART Publications, October 2013

Disney Memories Both Magical And Manic


Feeling magical in front of Cinderella’s castle.

“Welcome to the happiest place on earth,” I said to my wife through gritted teeth. We were pressed shoulder-to-shoulder in a packed mass of humanity, waiting to get off the ferry to the Magic Kingdom.

It was our second trip back to the park that day. We were all tired, but we (mostly my wife and I) wanted to see the park at night. My eight-year-old daughter wanted to ride Space Mountain again.

But it had been a hard day. My son needed a haircut, and one of the Magic Kingdom guidebooks (The Idiot’s Guide To Disney World) suggested stopping at the Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street for a trim. We did, but my son had a meltdown in the chair. While this is not uncommon for a kid with autism, it’s not the way you want to spend your day at Disney. (That’s what I get for following The Idiot’s Guide!) Luckily the patient and skilled stylist (the aptly named, Orlando) worked through it, and gave Rocco one of the best haircuts of his life.

Weird, Singing Puppet Freakout

My daughter had troubles, too. She was unimpressed with some of the rides, especially the Haunted Mansion, and It’s A Small World.

“That was my favorite ride when I was a kid! Grandma’s, too!” My wife was incredulous.

My daughter’s sulky pout earned her a mini-lecture about being more appreciative.

“Besides, not every ride has to be a rollercoaster or a log flume,” my wife said. “The man who built this place wanted interesting rides that everybody could enjoy.”

“It’s okay,” I told my daughter as we drifted from Fantasyland into Liberty Square (where a lackluster visit to the Haunted Mansion awaited us). “You imagined the ride would be bigger and more exciting than it actually was. Your imagination was bigger than what the real world had to offer. That’s disappointing, but don’t ever settle for less, Francesca. Make the world rise to meet your expectations. Make it be what you imagine it can be.”

I tried to sound worldly, but I think I confused her…and myself. Later she admitted It’s A Small World was a pretty cool ride after all, but “those weird, singing puppets freaked me out.”

Let The Memories Begin!

The sign at the entrance to Disney says, “Let the memories begin!” and we generated quite a few during our visit. We had breakfast with Mickey and friends, and we hit every ride at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot (several more than once). We saw pirates and princesses, rode a jungle boat and spaceships, visited Mars and a high-speed test track, ate pricey ice cream and chicken tenders and watched tourists gnaw on giant turkey legs. We toured the world in miniature, stucco, and animatronic replication.

We rode countless buses, boats, and monorails. One shuttle bus trip was so lengthy, a little boy had to jump off at a red light so he could pee in the manicured hedges. For obvious reasons, this is my daughter’s most vivid memory, and one she’s eager to share with others when they ask about her Disney vacation.

The entrance to the Magic Kingdom that night was as crowded as the ferry boat that brought us there. We locked hands and wove down Main Street, following the route of the Electrical Parade.

We pressed on, and the crowd thinned by the time we reached Tomorrowland. We caught our breath, and enjoy the sight of Disney after dark as we cruised around on the PeopleMover. My daughter and I rode Space Mountain twice, and then I found my wife and son sitting on a bench, staring up at Cinderella’s Castle. They both looked dazed and dreamy.


My daughter and I ride Space Mountain. I cheaped out on the official photo and took this picture of the sample screen instead.

“You just missed the most awesome fireworks display I’ve ever seen,” my wife said.

My daughter wasn’t disappointed.

“But we just rode Space Mountain…twice!”

Another fine Disney memory is born…right up there with peeing in the bushes at a red light.


Originally published in Wayne TODAY, January 2012