By Andrew Areffi, Melissa Areffi, and Heather Swarner
Disney’s new autism assistance card fails to address the real problem – FRAUD.
The newly developed Disability Assistance Service (DAS) is meant to be a one-size fits all solution to address the complaints from non-disabled patrons that somebody with a hangnail or no problem at all could walk in and be given a pass.
By now you’ve undoubtedly heard about Disneyland, Walt Disney World, etc are doing away with the Guest Assistance Card (GAC). For those of you who are unfamiliar with this pass and the controversy surrounding it, here’s the lowdown. GAC was a pass that allowed users with a disability to use alternate entrances in order to bypass the line, or to simply use the Fastpass line because of injury or infirmity. In our case, it was because our three children are on the autism spectrum. The problem is that Disney, for reasons they’ve never explained, never asks for verification of your disability – or any way of identifying the pass holder, like perhaps, with a picture.
Naturally, once the word got out, people came in for the pass for any and every reason.
We live close to Disneyland and are annual pass holders, meaning we go to Disneyland regularly, 1 to 2 times a month on average. We have personally seen these passes being abused and have complained many times to Disneyland staff about it. Disney Execs seemed to be content to ignore the problem until an embarrassing segment aired on the Today show back in late May of this year. The result of that embarrassment comes in the form of this new, “improved” and unbelievably complicated, labor-intensive procedure for disability access known as the Disability Access Service (DAS).
When you arrive at your chosen Disney theme park you will have to go to guest relations, in our case, City Hall at Disneyland. An ominous sight greeted us upon arrival; multiple sets of taped outlines on the ground indicating where people should queue up when the line gets too long – generally not a good sign. It kind of looked like chalk outlines you see on CSI. There are also several greeters stationed outside, telling you which line you should stand in. Clearly Disneyland expected confusion and delay and provided extra staffing to help out.
Once we made it inside, we didn’t go up to the counter, but instead were pulled aside by an employee, Steve, who questioned us about why we were here. We explained the kids’ diagnosis and asked if they had anything to help us. We deliberately didn’t ask for the pass right away because we wanted to see if they would offer it to us or make us ask for it. Result, they made us ask for the pass. With only one interaction, I can’t say for sure if this was policy or just Steve’s way of doing things. After we requested the pass, Steve spent a lot of time explaining the terms and conditions of obtaining the pass and it’s intended use. Steve then photographed the kids and handed us the printed passes each with their picture on it. (The pictures were actually the only good idea we’ve seen about this system so far.) The DAS has a two week expiration date so Annual pass holders will have to repeat this process frequently.
Despite Steve’s verbose and extensive explanation there were no details on how to actually use the pass. When we questioned Steve about this, we were told that a DAS Kiosk would be present at every ride where we could present the pass and receive further instructions on when to come back. This immediately raised a red flag in my brain. Being a frequent Disneyland guest I know one thing for sure, space is at a premium in that park. Where would they find the room to put a kiosk at every ride, not to mention the amount of people required to staff them? It sounded odd, but since they know more about running a theme park than we do, we decided to take it on faith and run with it.
Having arrived late in the afternoon (2:30PM), we decided to head straight for Splash Mountain located in the back of the park and then work our way back around. As we walked around Splash Mountain we looked for the aforementioned DAS Kiosk to present our DAS. It was nowhere to be found. We carried on, confident that we would come across it. Finally we spotted an employee, Jamie, guarding the entrance to the Fastpass line and asked him. Jamie apologized and directed us back the way we came and said the kiosk would be near where you get your Fastpass. Determined to make the most of it, we turned around and walked the 100 yards back around Splash Mountain to the Fastpass Kiosk to find nothing but Fastpass machines. We spoke to another employee, Jennifer, who apologized and said the kiosk would back the way we came near the exit.
However, she did give us Fastpasses to come back and ride 4 hours later at 9:30PM. Wait 4 hours with 3 kids with autism. Fantastic.
Because it was our mission to see how this system really worked, we reversed course again. We passed Jamie at the Fastpass entrance and continued all the way around to the exit of the ride to find… nothing. We inquired with a woman named Margaret at the picture booth as to where we should present our DAS. Margaret excitedly waved over another employee, named Jose. Jose was apparently a supervisor. He apologized again for all the confusion and said that the kiosk we’d been searching for was back the way we came. Jose offered to walk us there personally and then put us on the ride after he showed us where the kiosk was located. Thank goodness – because the kids were on the verge of losing it by that time.
As we walked the third time around the bend, we passed the Fastpass kiosk again. Finally, after walking another 100 or so yards, we came across a little nondescript, unmarked umbrella stand which we probably missed the first time past because it was obscured by a single customer. The first thing we noticed about the new DAS Kiosks is that they aren’t located at every ride, as Steve had told us. They were also not located anywhere near the Fastpass kiosk, as Jamie had indicated.
You can see by the picture, Disney didn’t really go out of their way to call attention to it. And trust me folks when we tell you that, when Disney wants your attention, they know how to get it. Put a princess behind it – consider the job done.
After talking with the seven employees at the kiosk at length, we finally understand how this pass works. The DAS kiosk employees have the estimated wait times for all the attractions. Splash Mountain, for example, was 45 min. So they gave us a time that was 45 min later. You can show up later than the 45 min and still get on but you can’t get another ride time until that one is checked off or crossed out by a staff member.
What do we take from this? Disney never addressed the problem of abuse that was the failing of the previous pass.
Ask yourself, was the issue that people were upset because kids in wheelchairs or kids with autism were getting on the ride before them?
No, of course not. And for those whom it was, they obviously have bigger issues in their lives than a disabled kid being before them in line. The real issue was non-disabled people were scamming the system so they can get onto rides faster. The new DAS system does nothing to address this problem. Anyone can still walk into City Hall and request a pass for any reason, no questions asked. Yes, the scammers now have to wait longer, but it is now at the expense of the aforementioned kids in wheelchairs, with autism, and other disabilities. We have a great love and appreciation of Disneyland and we do not think for one minute this was their intent, but they still need to try again.
The DAS system’s major failure is that it’s confusing and doesn’t take into account what the heck we will do for the 45 minutes while we are waiting. It also fails to address that many with a physical or mental disability have less stamina than their typical counterparts. While our kids have plenty of energy we, on the other hand, can only mange them for so long before we just have leave. We have NEVER been able to spend the entire day at Disneyland like our kids’ typical counterparts. Being on alert during every second of every day, is exhausting. The scammers don’t have a disability and will have no trouble killing time between rides. As a result, in the 6 hours we were there, we only managed to get on the Haunted Mansion and Pirates Of the Caribbean using the new DAS system. We scored some “front of line passes” from Jose that allowed the kids to ride the Matterhorn too. However, when you consider it costs over $500 for a family of four to just walk through the gates, that is a pretty sorry ride to dollar ratio.
However, if we haven’t scared you off and you’re dead set on having a Disney experience, here are some tips to help out.
- Call Disney – even before you leave the house. The number for Disneyland/Disney’s California Adventure (DCA) is (714) 781-4565. To get a cast member, press zero when the recording starts. Explain to them that you have a child with autism and ask them what the current policy is regarding the DAS. The reasons you should do this are many. You always want the most up-to-date information, and if a moment on the phone will save you a long time in line, it is well spent. Given that the current version of this is hugely labor intensive and doesn’t really address the problem, Disney is likely to change it – but unless they scrap the whole thing in favor of something else they won’t put out any more press on it.
- Plan your ride schedule out in advance with a map of the park. Try to make them in a linear order. This will help you maximize your ride experience.
- Ask for a map of the Kiosk locations. Before we left, we were told that one was being designed but was not available yet. If they still don’t have one, grab a park map at city hall and ask the cast member issuing your pass to mark the locations on the map.
- Know where your “wait” places are. There will be wait times between rides – look on the map for good places to wait, like restaurants and other seating areas. Ask for a show schedule – Disney does various Parades and street shows throughout the park. You can use these shows and parades to have fun and kill time between rides. Another plus of the current system is that your assigned ride time doesn’t expire – that’s just the earliest time you can come back.
- Don’t limit yourself to one park – You can put rides from DCA on your pass at the Kiosk at Disneyland. If you’re heading over to California Adventure put Monster’s Inc or California Screaming on your pass before you leave Disneyland. It can sometimes take 45 minutes or longer to get out of Disneyland and into California Adventure. If done right, your wait time may be over or mostly over by the time you get there.
The best tip we can give you is, before you leave the park, be sure to give Disneyland feedback, good and bad. Let them know what’s working and what isn’t. But don’t stop there. We need to help Disneyland actually face the fraud problem and do something about it. Send a letter to the President of Disneyland and let him know what you think about the new policy. Nothing is weighted more than a written letter that is snail mailed in. Give him the good, the bad and the ugly, don’t pull your punches but be respectful. Here’s his info:
1313 Disneyland Dr.
Anaheim, CA 92802
Remember, this whole trip is about having fun together. Don’t stay longer just because it’s only another half hour until you have something scheduled. Set yourself and your children up for success. If the kids are tired and cranky but you managed to have a good time, declare victory and go home. Yes, you are getting less for your money than other families, but it’s a small price to pay to end the day with happy family memories of Disneyland instead of a major meltdown ending in the Emergency Room.
Andrew and Melissa Martinez are the parents of three children with autism and the authors of “Navigating Autism – The Essential Guide For Parents By Parents.” Heather Swarner is the parent of one son with autism and a long time parent advocate.