A Proposal for Special Access

So I’m going to wade in with my thoughts about special access cards at amusement parks… not that I’m anywhere near the first autism-parent blogger to actually do so this week, since we don’t have a concrete idea yet how Disney is changing their program.

I will be honest, that I have my… reservations about what I’m hearing about Disney’s replacement to the Guest Access Card (GAC).

I’ve written here about our experiences at amusement parks with the Monster.  We’ve visited Sesame Place, Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Water Country USA and Six Flags America this year.  The first three, part of SeaWorld Entertainment, have a pass system that’s very similar to the current Disney GAC, and Six Flags’ system resembles the DAS system that Disney is now proposing.

Like most children with Autism, the Monster has issues with standing in lines for long periods – partially due to the confined space, partially due to sensory overload, and partially due to having nothing to do for long periods of time.  Passes like the RAP sheet at the SeaWorld parks have been a godsend, letting us zip around the park, while Six Flags was just shy of being a nightmare due to the paucity of their pass being able to admit the Monster on rides.  The important caveat for the latter is… frankly, the Monster is 5.  He’s not interested in roller coasters, which make up the majority of the attractions at Six Flags America, and we avoided the water park since their pass wouldn’t help him there – none of the water rides are included.  (Sesame’s RAP, for instance, includes the water rides, even those with stairs.)

And of course, every parent of children with Autism has heard about Disney’s GAC – if not before the debacle earlier this year with the “rented handicapped guides”, then afterwards.  I’ll even go so far as to say that I don’t blame Disney at all for having to change the system, in light of the problem.  Abuse of the system was rampant, and something needed to be changed to ensure that the program benefited the people for whom it was designed.

Since the story blew up in the special needs community, I’ve been raging back and forth about the issue, because it does make me angry when a corporation makes a decision that makes our lives – the lives of people who have children with Autism – more difficult.  (I would wager that none of the folks making this decision have children on the Spectrum, or with other serious physical/mental/developmental disabilities.)  At the moment, the wife and I are planning to take the family to Walt Disney World next year with her sister’s family, and these changes will certainly complicate the trip.

I was reading Theme Park Insider‘s take on the matter, and as you might expect, there are a great many comments one way or the other.  There are people with physical disabilities who are concerned that the new plan makes it harder for them to enjoy the park.  There are adults who don’t see what the big deal is about Autism and want us to treat this as a ‘learning experience’ for our children.  (I’ll put my Monster next to you in line, so you can have a ‘learning experience’ of your own, thank you.)  There was one commenter who was actually audacious enough to suggest that if you have any disability, then “perhaps amusement parks are not for you”.  There is the legion of Autism parents who were pointing out that the new plan doesn’t necessarily help children with Autism, especially if there’s a line at the booths to handle these pass times.

And then… about half-way down the page, the Monster’s uncle had posted a middle of the road comment, capturing both sides very well.  His son is NT, so the Monster is the child with Autism that he knows best.  On the other hand, he also has  a good view of what it’s like being on the other side, since that’s their “normal” visit to a lot of parks, including Disney.  His comment captures – very well – what it’s like when we go to a park without assistance, and the difference with, and how it feels from the other side of the fence when there’s that special treatment.  And that the goal of the whole system is to make it possible for visitors with special needs to be “as normal” as possible – not better off, nor disadvantaged.

So… Disney, if you’re listening – I have a better proposal than what you’re implementing at Disneyland and DCA in the fall.  It’s a hybrid of the parks above, and I’ll put in bold where the idea comes from.

  • Require us to register when we get to the park.  The photo ID, printouts, however you want to work it.  (The Monster’s in SeaWorld Entertainment’s system with his diagnosis, and we have a ‘my patient requires [X] accomodations’ note from his developmental pediatrician for amusement parks, so I don’t have an issue with Disney ‘carding’ him.) – New Disney DAS System
  • Add more kiosks for reservations, or have the signup at the rides.  Adding another queue that we have to stand in before each ride isn’t going to help us, and the proposed number of kiosks just sounds like there’s going to be long walks to the kiosk between every single ride. – New Disney DAS with improvements
  • Let us choose 2, or 3, or 4 rides (you guys pick the number) that the pass holder can FastPass once.  We’ll have to select the rides and the times at the beginning of the day at the guest relations desk when getting the pass set up for the day. – Water Country USA’s system
  • Rides that have waits under 15 minutes, allow bypass of the line.  Rides that have waits over 15 minutes and are not in the above ‘FastPass’ queue, get a reservation time to come back.  Allow 2 concurrent registrations (with an appropriate additional time added to the second registration to avoid the “zipping around the park” issue) – New Disney DAS System combined with SeaWorld Entertainment’s RAP system
  • Require the person on the photo ID to be riding or no one in the group boards. – New Disney DAS System (though SeaWorld Entertainment’s RAP system requires the wristband wearer to ride and presentation of their printed RAP sheet)

Plus… seriously, can we please not call it “Disabled Access System”?  It’s bad enough when we go to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and they insist on putting a band on the Monster that clearly labels him as ‘disabled’ – Sesame Place uses a different colored band than the Abby’s Magic Queue bands, but one that otherwise looks similar.  So many other parks have a nice, vague name for it that doesn’t label my child like that – even GAC is better.

Why this proposal?

  • It limits abuse.  There’s no perception of a family zooming around the park helter-skelter to go hit the most rides they can.  In most circumstances, the pass-holder will be waiting for rides, like everyone else.
  • It accommodates some of the burden on guests who have genuine issues with the queues.  The goal’s to make it easier to visit the park, and while any solution will have an impacted group one way or the other, it hopefully will minimize it.
  • It evens out the use of pre-programmed rides.  I know that I’d be liable to space out FastPass rides during the day – as would most parents of children on the Spectrum – to have ‘escapes’ if a meltdown starts building up.  For times when they’re more patient, other activities can be found – less busy rides, shows, etc.
  • It makes us a partner to the cast members at Disney.  It doesn’t put the full burden of our family member’s disability on us or on them, but shares it between the two sides.  It’s not up to the park to solely entertain the Monster, but please, make it as easy as possible for me to have something resembling a vacation too while I’m there.
  • It also allows for Disney to track folks who are trying to game the system. Showing up in April as “Bob” and then again in July as “Billy” should raise an alert in their system, really.

Though if I was asked to design a program for any park, I’d add the following features to my list above:

  • Let us pre-register for the access program before we arrive at the park.  If you require a photograph, let us provide one.  Some of our children can either be picky about when we can photograph them, or aren’t often cooperative with a camera.  Set up a system to let us then get the pass quickly at the park, so it potentially eliminates one or more lines.
  • Set it up so that the access program is linked with the park passes.  It’d be nice if annual pass holders didn’t have to stop at guest services every visit to get a fresh pass, for example.  If we’re going to be at WDW for a week, why couldn’t we get an access pass that’s good for a week?
  • Make the program as inconspicuous as possible.  Vacations should be that – a break from the every day problems in our lives.  Having something that calls attention to our situation is a distraction from that goal.


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