3 Lessons From the Uproar Over Disney’s Disability Access Policy

After reports about repeated abuses of its disability access policy at its U.S. theme parks, Disney has instituted changes in how it accommodates visitors with disabilities, to the dismay of many.

Under a new policy that went into effect on October 9, visitors can now request a Disability Access Service Card for someone with special needs who has difficulties waiting in lines. The holder of the card must have their photo taken. If a line at a ride is too long, visitors with the card can reserve a return time for the ride. A return time can be requested for only one ride at a time and the person holding the card must be among those returning for the ride at the designated time.

Under Disney’s previous disability policy, visitors could obtain a Guest Assistance Card that allowed anyone with it to go to the front of the line at an unlimited number of rides via separate entrances. According to the website MiceChat, more than 2,000 Guest Assistance Cards were issued on a busy day at both Disney’s California and Florida theme parks, meaning that they were given to 10 percent of visitors.

In explaining its reasons for changing its policy, Disney cited repeated instances of the old policy being “abused and exploited.” An egregious example was reported in May in the New York Post. Some wealthy parents (who did not have a child with disablities) from New York City were found to be hiring individuals with disabilities for $130 per hour to be “guides.”

Many families with autistic children or children with other disabilities have been grateful for Disney’s efforts to make its parks inclusive and accessible and have been disappointed about the changes in the policy, which is a bit more complicated. One problems I can see arising with the new policy is that some children may be frustrated to learn that there will be more steps involved before they can board a ride. One organization, GRASP, has made some suggestions about altering the Disability Access Service Card to accommodate individuals on the autism spectrum: might it be possible for some visitors to have “access to a favorite attraction multiple times in a row without having to obtain a return time”?

My own teenage autistic son Charlie does not care for large amusement parks, preferring smaller, local carnivals. Nonetheless, the controversy about Disney’s disability access policy has highlighted some concerns that a lot of families with children with disabilities, and persons with disabilities, have.

1. We need to push for more programs for individuals with disabilities.

The real issue highlighted by all the uproar about the Disney disability policy is an old one: there simply aren’t a lot of options for leisure activities and vacations for families with children with disabilities. There are only a very few summer camp programs (run by organizations like The Arc) that can accommodate my son, who also has intellectual disabilities — Disney’s previous disability policy was accordingly regarded as a real boon by many families. After school and weekend activities exist but are in short supply for him and other older kids and adults with disabilities.

2. We can’t rely on private companies to provide support for individuals with disabilities “out of their own good will.”

Disney seems to have good intentions with the new Disability Access Service Card. But the company’s handling of the whole issue of disability access shows why private companies can’t be the arbiters of disability access.

As under its previous disability access policy, Disney is not requiring that people provide a doctor’s note or other proof of a person’s disability to obtain a pass, due to “legal restrictions” about requesting such information. As a result, Disney is taking visitors at their own word. While it’s helpful for families with kids like Charlie not to have provide all that documentation, Disney’s policy contains a loophole that could still be open to misuse.

The overall problem is that it’s just not that clear what kinds of accommodations a large, for-profit amusement park should provide for visitors with a wide range of disabilities. Title III of the Americans with Disabilities Act describes the accommodations that public spaces and (in the case of new construction), commercial properties must provide. These include ramps, elevators and other facilities to allow access. But accommodations for those with “invisible disabilities” such as autism spectrum disorders can vary greatly depending on the individual.

3. We shouldn’t demonize the adult with disabilities who was hired by the wealthy family to accompany them to Disney.

Disney cannot have been too happy about the many reports of people abusing its disability access policy. While there was a lot of outcry about wealthy parents who would stoop to hiring an individual with a disability just to get ahead in a line, a separate issue to consider is why would a person end up agreeing to such employment? Was it because they simply could not find another job, or one that paid so well?

Along with more programs to provide leisure time and other activities for older children and adults with disabilities, we need to think about providing job opportunities and, even more, for work that draws on an individual’s unique abilities. How can we encourage private companies (yes, including the one mentioned throughout this post) to start and support training and hiring programs for individuals with disabilities?


Photo via Michael Kappel/Flickr


Nikki Ryan
Nikki Ryan4 years ago

As a Occupational Therapist I am well aware of the vast various types of disabilities that can hinder a person's every day life. While It may seem unfair to people with no impairments that people with disabilities do not have to wait in line, it is true that any people have no idea of the hard ships. I speak from not only a therapist point of view, but from a parent, & a person with an impairment. Last year, my daughter had Odd pains in her legs, & was in the process of being tested for osteosarcoma, ( bone cancer) due to an abnormal lesion in her femur, before her test I wanted to take her to the parks, but obviously did not want her on her feet, I could not believe the amount of rude stares, & even strangers asking me " what is wrong with your daughter?!! Even guest services, I could hear the lady whisper.. ah, did you see that lady? As I walked away.. how dare you presume!! I work EVERY day as an advocate for the disabled.. no one has the right to look at another person & make assumptions.. unless you know exactly the hardship, Or are the person's medial profession, do not look at someone & presume their intentions. Most people I can speak of with a disability do not fid navigating in a Wheel chair, or motor scooter in a crowded place an enjoyable experience.. I wish people were not so ignorant!!

Shari M.
Shari McConahay4 years ago

My 41 years of Disney Magic were erased today. The new Guest Assistance program for handicapped guests is no help or assistance at all. My dad is in the Magic Kingdom in Disney World today with my daughter who has cerebral palsy. She has a somewhat mild version of C.P., meaning she is not wheel chair bound and does not have any cognitive issues. She has a right sided weakness, she doesn't have use of her right hand and she wears a brace on her right leg.

They went to City Hall to request the new guest assistance accommodations explaining that although she walks on her own, she can lose balance and fall and that she fatigues easily. Waiting in long lines would exacerbate her issues greatly and put her in danger of getting hurt. They had NO SPECIAL ACCOMMODATION with fast passes whatsoever!

The information Disney released had said that the new changes would mean they could get multiple fast passes and would be given times to return to rides. They did not have anything like that available. They told him they had to get a fast pass for each ride and gave a complimentary stroller to MY EIGHT YEAR OLD so that she could use it as a wheel chair. They gave her stroller as wheelchair access and told them they had to wait in line with the stroller with everyone else.

Sure, that will help her not get fatigued, but way to go in making her FEEL singled out and handicapped. She doesn't use a stroller or a wheelchair any other time. Previously, they always gave us an alternate en

Hazel Veal
Hazel Veal4 years ago

This year has been very hard. I have my 9 year old son Ethann My 7 year old daughter Jazmine My 7 year old granddaughter Tifany and my granddaughter Nataly who is 2. I was hoping there was someone out there who could offer a few gifts this year for their Christmas. Any thing would be gratefully appreciated and cherished. I am 44 on disability and times just has gotten a lot harder than I could ever imagine.
Thanks so much just for reading this. I know there are so many families out here this year that are struggling to make ends meet. It is heartbreaking when you have to choose between electricity and toys for the kids. Not even going to try and think of what our Christmas meal will consist of.
May God continue to shine His light on each and every one of us!!
my email is

Alfred Donovan
Past Member 4 years ago

Could the solution be separate ques for the disabled ? this would insure thet the disabled got a fair crack of the whip.I myself have a disability caused by a stroke and find it tiresome and upsetting to be kept waiting in line for several hours.On a visit to Disney World in Paris a few years ago on discussing the matter with a person who was there with his severally disabled son he told me the the best way to avoid much of the hassle was to make sure I attended early in the morning when there was less people about.I tried this and found I had unfettered access to almost all of the attractions.It was bliss.Maybe Disney could set a certain time of day when disabled people especially kids could gain access like this.I am however aware that some people who are disabled are hostile to any form of help because they want to be accepted as normal.I myself have been subjected to this hostility.I fear there is no one all cure for this problem.

Teddy G.
Teddy G4 years ago

(cont'd) is a great place for those with special-needs kids, but honestly, there are tens of thousands of visitors every day. Disney is far from a perfect company, but I do feel they are trying to do the best job they can to serve those people. There is no easy answer, and no way to make everyone happy with every policy all the time. Give it time, and hopefully there will be some tweaking to iron out the inevitable glitches in a new system.

Yeah, I wish there were some warning; "you have reached your maximum character allowance......" lol

Teddy G.
Teddy G4 years ago

I feel Disney has made a good effort to accommodate those with all kinds of disabilities. The new system will need a bit of tweaking, but they generally do their best to balance being a profitable business with helping guests enjoy themselves. It's tough to have fun at an always crowded theme park when one has a disability of any sort. Still, not everyone gets to do everything they want; it's reality. I have severe arthritis, so some things are now out of reach. I enjoy what I can. While the ADA (and basic human decency) require equal access, there is no requirement to make life a head-of-the-line affair.

No, I don't know how difficult it is to care for a child on the spectrum. I can't imagine what it must be like to have to plan every move all day, or to worry about what will happen when your child becomes an adult. I would like to see Disney tweak the DAC to better serve those on the spectrum, but I don't support the suggestion of allowing certain guests to endlessly ride a favorite attraction with no wait. I am fortunate enough to live within half a day's drive, and have an AP. Many families plan for years to visit DL or WDW from all corners of the globe. How can anyone reasonably say that their right to enjoy that which they have paid for (for a limited time) is superceded by another paying guest's right to enjoy the same place?

Many of the complaints have come from locals who have annual passports, and who visit often. I understand that Disneyland i

Mac C.
mac C4 years ago

I hope Disney adjust its policy to make it easier. There is abuse in every system, but more important is that everyone has easy and equal access. I like your thought about companies providing job opportunities to those with disabilities. Excellent. Thank you!

Dow P.
Dow P.4 years ago

I don't believe that actual problems with the former access program had any major influence on accommodating less with the new one. Many cast members resent the whole disability exception for they have heard unsubstantiated rumors. Cast members are even convinced they have seen many cases of abuse. But can they really trust what they have seen. Most disabilities are not obvious. Let me also throw into the discussion that the Disney vip tour for those non disabled guests who want easy access costs $2000. This price included a cast member escort. Who is responsible then for the perceived abuse when Disney itself is overcharging for quick pass access. I also believe that celebrities are given free and easy access cause it helps promote the park and insures "safety". Is that equal and fair? I love DL so don't think I am protesting for negative attention. I trust that Disney will reform this biased policy.

Nancy Crouse
Nancy Crouse4 years ago

Would Walt Disney be at all happy with this entire situation? This is what happens when mega corporations take over existing profitable ones, they become so impersonal and oblivious to and could really care less about those of us whom may have been born with a disability, developed one or resulting from and accident or with age and years of physical abuses now have visible and invisible disabilities.
Just think what is ahead with the "baby boomer" generation causing a glut at the entrances of these parks or simply say, forget this! As much as I wish to return to Disney World I may just say "forget this" just like Cilo Green!
Perhaps a boycott and/or massive petiton is in order! Laws would help too!

Robert K.
Robert K4 years ago

I've been kind of lucky. I have a major disability that doesn't show, COPD, but in the 10 years I've had it nobody has given me grief over it, but I have heard the stories f people taking heat for "illegally" using a handicapped space. What I've found is that a lot of places have too few spots to park.

I quit going to amusement parks because of the waits, which are hard for me to do, so I think Disney deserves credit for trying. Too bad the a-holes screwed with the policy. And for Amanda, I have a physical disability, but if you think I deserve better than, say, a mother with an autistic child, the only contact you have had with autism must be with a mild form like Asperger's, not with a severe case.