Disney has a long standing reputation of accommodating families of all shapes and sizes. This reputation is largely based on their ability to create attractions that parents can enjoy with their children and grandparents can enjoy with their grandchildren. Beyond these clichés, Disney also does a tremendous job accommodating guests with special needs. Available programs for guests with disabilities include:
- Wheelchairs and Electric Convenience Vehicles (ECV) are available for rent.
- Baby care facilities exist in every park.
- Dietary needs are met at nearly every restaurant.
- Service animal relief areas exist in every park.
- A variety of options are available for guests with hearing impairments.
- Audio descriptions are available for guests with visual impairments.
In addition to the aforementioned benefits, the most impactful program Disney has for special needs guests is the Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program. To the uninitiated, the Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program is a service offered at both Disney World and Disneyland that allows certain accommodations to guests requiring special assistance. The GAC itself is a small piece of thick paper stock obtainable at guest services locations in each park. The card is dated, stamped with the required accommodation and includes the name of the guest requiring assistance and number of people in their party. Typically, the GAC can be used for up to six guests at once and the available stamps include:
- Guests can use an alternate attraction entrance where available
- Guests may enter attractions through the standard wheelchair entrance
- Guests can use their stroller as a wheelchair
- Provide a shaded wait area if available at attraction
Additionally, other accommodations include preferential viewing at shows for guests with visual impairments and the so-called “Green Light” available to guests visiting through the Make a Wish foundation.
The two most common stamps are the alternate attraction entrance and standard wheelchair entrance stamps. The standard wheelchair entrance stamp allows guests to use a wheelchair entrance where available. At a park like Disney California Adventure, most of the standby lines are wheelchair accessible so this stamp does not have a significant benefit to the guests. In most cases, guests with an alternate attraction entrance stamp can enter the attraction through the Fastpass line or through the exit. This can be a huge time saver for these guests, but because of this benefit it also tempts those who don’t need it to abuse the system.
Recently, Disney has made minor changes to the GAC program in an attempt to limit abuse. The most significant of these changes is used at Radiator Springs Racers at Disney California Adventure. Here, alternate attraction entrance GAC users are issued a return time instead of being granted immediate entry to the Fastpass line. This hasn’t eliminated the GAC abuse, but it has helped Disney manage usage on a popular new attraction.
When Disney officially discusses the GAC program, they emphasize that the card is not a front of the line pass, but the card does create an advantage if it has the alternate attraction entrance stamp. One approach Disney has taken to reduce distribution is limiting the available information on the GAC program online. A search of “GAC”, “Autism”, and “Guest Assistance Card” on Disneyland.com yields no results. The same searches on DisneyWorld.com include responses from the Disney Mom’s Panel, but no official policy. A phone call to Disneyland’s information line for more information about the program directed me to guest relations in the parks. I fully support this lack of information as a means of curbing this problem, assuming that it helps prevent abuse.
Morally questionable guests have fabricated ailments in order to receive an alternate attraction entrance GAC. In other cases, ailments have been exaggerated to accomplish the same thing. It is at the discretion of the guest services Cast Member as to what stamp is used on every GAC issued, and there are no requirements for the guests to prove their disabilities. Legally, it is assumed the Americans with Disabilities Act prevents Disney from asking for proof of an ailment. It is also reasonable to assume that Disney fears discrimination lawsuits.
While the total elimination of the GAC program is unlikely, changes to the program’s benefits are a possibility. Depending on the extent of these changes, many legitimate GAC users could decide to visit less or not at all. More importantly, changes may result in some former users taking legal action against a company that isn’t providing sufficient accommodations to those that need it. Unfortunately, if acquiring a GAC provides any advantage there will still be abuse. For this reason, I feel that restricting the distribution is a better approach than substantial changes to the accommodations.
Having said that, the accommodations may be modified more easily when MyMagic+ is rolled out. Some suggested changes to the rules are as follows:
- Limit usage at marquee attractions to once per day, or require a return time for multiple rides.
- Do not allow guests that have difficulty standing for long periods of time access through the Fastpass system. Instead allow these guests to wait in a seated area for the length of the standby line. This could be accomplished with an additional stamp option.
Speaking personally, my older brother Matt, who you see featured in the photos above, is autistic and my family has used a GAC on every trip since we were made aware of the program. At this point in time, family trips are productions and we now travel nine deep. As mentioned, the GAC restricts usage to six guests, so it cannot accommodate every member of my family. Where available, we get Fastpasses to supplement the GAC so that the family can experience attractions together. For rides that don’t currently offer Fastpass, we will typically wait in the standby line. The new policy that eliminates late Fastpass returns has made this approach a bit more difficult for my family, but the inconvenience has been minimal.
At first glance, my brother’s disability is not apparent to all guests or cast members. Physically, he is in the best shape of anyone in the family, and our concerns are in no way linked to his physical ability to stand in line. Our concerns are primarily ones of aggression. When a child throws a temper tantrum in the parks, it creates a scene, but rarely is any damage done to property or guests. However, when a 36 year old acts out aggressively it can be far more damaging. I remember a trip twenty years ago where Matt simply could not handle the stimulation that came with a trip to Disney World. My parents took turns staying with him at the hotel while the other parent toured the parks with me and my older sister.
Like many of us fans, Matt has his favorites at the parks. At the Magic Kingdom, his favorites have turned into a somewhat strict routine and if he hasn’t seen all of these attractions he is significantly more irritable. What makes this more difficult is that depending on the trip, a deviation from the specific order is also cause for increased irritability. His order at the Magic Kingdom is:
- Jungle Cruise
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- A bag of candy at the shop after Pirates of the Caribbean
- Splash Mountain
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
- The Haunted Mansion
- It’s a Small World
- Peter Pan’s Flight
He has other favorites, but typically after experiencing these attractions his irritability has worn off. Several years ago, my girlfriend (now wife) and I took an early morning flight on Thanksgiving Day. After dinner, some of us went into the park to ride a few attractions with Matt. We started the routine and made it as far as Splash Mountain. It was in the high 40s, and we got significantly wet on Splash Mountain. We were cold, we were exhausted, and we wanted to leave the park. Matt had other ideas, and we were faced with the choice of physically restraining him in the middle of Fantasyland, or completing the required attractions in the routine. We opted to complete the routine.
For my family, the GAC allows us to experience a family vacation that we can all enjoy together. Matt loves Disney World and eagerly anticipates our family vacations. Some of our best photos of Matt involve trips to Disney as you can see by the ones included in this column. Our family is looking forward to taking him to Disneyland for the first time this summer to see how he reacts to things that are somewhat familiar but still very different.
While it may seem self serving, I would hate to see substantial changes to the GAC program. It allows our whole family to enjoy a vacation with my brother Matt. If those accommodations were removed or limited, it would likely mean that we could no longer bring Matt to the parks, and thus bring an end to our Disney family vacations.
Have you used the GAC? What strengths and weaknesses does the program hold for you and what changes, if any, would you make?