As you no doubt have heard, Disney has been forced to change their policy regarding Guest Assistance Cards, or GACs. The GAC is a magical thing that is offered to parties of up to six guests, providing someone in your party needs special accommodation. Today, October 8th, will be the program’s last day the policy is in operation.
When we went to Disney, this program literally MADE our vacation. The guide book we had purchased beforehand said to head directly to Guest Services upon entering your first park. Explain to the employee behind the counter the nature of your family member’s disability, and what you’d like to see done. There’s no “autism package” per se. We were a little nervous, because autism is a non-obvious disability. It’s not like Jake was in a wheelchair or had a cast. Would we be asked to “flap” to prove our need for help? Not at all. I told the lady that Jake felt safe in his jogging stroller, and that it would be nice if we could have a quiet place to wait in line. She offered me a red band for Jake’s stroller, in effect turning it into a wheelchair. She gave us a GAC, also red, and said we could use this to bypass what I call the “cattle-being-led-to-slaughter” winding lines and use the secret back door entrances for amusements.
Please understand that us asking for assistance had nothing to do with wanting to be “first” in line. I honestly didn’t know what (if any) accommodations would be offered. I just knew that Jake, who’s sensitive to crowds and noise, would be unable (not unwilling – an important distinction), to wait in line and behave as expected for an hour. This is why I only asked for a quite place to wait our turn. Why did we bring Jake to Disney in the first place, knowing that it’s everything he hates? I guess we just had to try and see for ourselves. Shouldn’t he be given the option to experience Magic Kingdom?
Back to our story: I can’t understate how much this meant to us. I will admit to feeling guilty. I don’t like overt accommodations to be made. I really don’t expect the rock band to play softly because I wanted Jake to experience a concert. I don’t expect the cheerleaders to keep it down at the basketball game. Sometimes these things naturally happen, like when the Sunday School sings quietly in their morning warm-ups, and they keep the yelling to a minimum. Having people so willingly go out of there way to make our stay more enjoyable was a mix of awesome and embarrassing. I reconciled this with Jake truly requiring some level of assistance to enjoy his visit.
I will get into more details of our Disney vacation and how we rocked it soon. It costs more, and takes considerably more planning to take a kid like Jake to Disney, but if you’re willing to put in the work, you’ll reap the rewards.
Now we’ve come to the crux of the issue. Too many people, far too few of which with true disability, were getting GACs. Teens were renting wheelchairs for the day to get prime spots in ride queues. People were making up problems. I’ve read recently that the fines and penalties for NOT accommodating someone with a disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act are so steep and punitive, that it was just easier to go along with the abuse of the system at Disney than to risk an infraction.
I’m sure when it’s all said and done, after the switch to whatever new system is developed has smoothed out, Disney will still be a magical place for those with special needs. It just sucks that greed, impatience, and a bold desire to cheat the system is so pervasive.
Here’s a link to an explanatory letter by Meg Crofton, President of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Operations. She does a nice, corporate job of explaining why Disney was forced to make the changes, and vows to continue providing “an inclusive and welcoming environment” for those with disabilities.