In Defense of the Disney Guest Assistance Card (GAC)

Written by Tim Grassey. Posted in Disney Parks

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Published on April 28, 2013 at 2:30 am with 86 Comments

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?

About Tim Grassey

Three months before being born, Tim enjoyed his first trip to Disney World. Ever since, frequent trips to Disney World and Disneyland have helped feed the obsession. After a three year run as a podcaster, Tim currently co-owns the Disney information site, WDWThemeParks.com. You can follow the site on twitter @wdwthemeparks or follow Tim directly @tgrassey

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  • toonaspie

    It’s a shame how the abusers are ruining things for people who seriously need the accommodations. I think that everytime one applies for a card they should be told “this is not a Front of the Line Pass. Do you wish to continue applying?” We will see how many people this will scare away.

    I don’t like the “sitting for the amount of time as standby” idea. I think it’s best to just let them through the fastpass or single ride line instead of putting them through something needlessly complicated.

    • JFS in IL

      I flat out asked at Guest Services if there was a pass for Joe to sit in the shade instead of standing in line and the cast member said most attractions simply did not have such a space and to use the Fast Pass entrance or the wheel chair entrance if no FP.

      In some cases, even if there was a spot to sit and wait, I suspect some folks would not be able to do so (those who can not sit comfortably for long periods, folks with autism or Downs if they do not understand waiting, etc. ) Plus then we’d have the non-disabled folks complaining “How come they get to sit” etc. and the waiting folks with the pass would have to deal with the comments and stares etc. Not worth it.

  • DobbysCloset

    A great article, thanks. It really says something about the appeal of Disney that so many people would brave their own distress to enjoy the parks. I’m would guess that the same people who abuse the pass are also the ones who go on rides that, if they really had the disability they claim, would potentially be damaging to their pre-existing conditions…

    My disability is not visible but, having no human family, I have trained Dobby in accordance with the ADA guidelines to accompany me in public. I hope to go to Disneyland in the next few years with him — I can sit or stand forever at the age of 60 but being in line with thousands of total strangers happily enjoying each other’s company makes me anxious. When we’re out and about I offer special needs people I see a chance to “make friends” with Dobby, turning frowns upside down!

  • bayouguy

    Our daughter is autistic, with the no outwards signs. She can handle the short lines or lines that move quickly (Pirates, Mermaid, Haunted Mansion). But the long lines and crowd noises can be burdensome for her. We allow her to make choices for using the card. Some are not too surprising (Midway Mania, Raider Springs), but some queues are very interesting to her (Snow White, Monsters Inc), so she’ll want to experience those queues.
    We really try to use the card wisely. We can’t control others so we just enjoy Disneyland and DCA with our daughter.

  • mickeyandme67

    You guys can go ahead of me anytime. Thanks for your stories.

  • TRONAlex

    Both of my children are autistic. This Special Assstance pass really helps alot. Sometimes when I tell the Person at Guest relations that my son is severly autistc, they give me 20/20 questions. I feel like I am on trial, just to get a SAP for my son. Some times I go to DCA and get a pass for my daughter who is autuistic as well. She can go on rides with me or my wife. Since my son is scared to go on certain rides , my wife gets a pass for my son at Disneyland so we have fun as a family.
    Or sometimes the people in guest relations give me a pass for 2 and my wife a pass for 2.
    If I have any issues at Guest Relations, I will ask for a supervisor on stage for a pass.
    What really upsets me is sometimes a ride has more handycap people in the line then standby. I am not against the people in electric wheel chairs or anything like that. I mean families that have autistic chidren or downs syndrome etc. have to wait just as long as a person with a wheel chair.
    Disneyland needs to separate from wheel chair bound/ to a person that can walk. They share a special assistance line and my son goes into a balistic fit. for example, Small World Holiday, the SAP line is longer then the Standby. They have 1 boat for a wheel chair and everyone has to wait for the boat to come back. I have to avoid these kinds of rides because of Disney not separating the line.
    I hope that changes aren’t that severe since my son doesn’t look autistic, but acts autistic with the flairing arms and speach issues and is sometimes in his own world.

  • TRONAlex

    Tim,
    My son is severly autistic, and your brother is autistic.
    How does your brother get a hair cut?
    My son can’t stand one and it takes 3 people to hold him down just to buz his his hair. He’s 6, but is really strong.
    Thanks for reading this,
    Alex

    • http://www.wdwthemeparks.com Tim Grassey

      Unfortunately/Fortunately, we can’t really relate to the same issues with getting a haircut for Matt. For a while we went to a local barbershop and made sure that he went to a barber that was familiar with him. For Matt, the issue is more that it tickles more than anything.

      • TRONAlex

        I tried that for a long time and the barber shop didn’t want to cut my sons hair anymore..They said it wasn’t good for the clientel.
        The barber shop’s name was Sports Clips…
        I am glad the issue was tickles and not the sound of clippers/
        scissors cutting hair.
        Thank you for getting back to me on this.
        Alex

  • LuckyJack65

    Great article Tim!
    I am a MK character attendant, and deal with GACs daily. I appreciate the card and do what I can to accommodate the guests who need assistance.
    The one thing that guests either don’t understand or abuse is that the GAC (aside from a Make A Wish GAC) is only for attractions with an alternate entrance, and not for character Meet/Greets. I continually have to spiel to guests that the card will not get them into the front of Merida’s line (or whomever I’m attending on any given day). I even point out to them where the limitations are written on the card,and most guests accept it and either get in line or leave. But some guests get very angry and say some really hateful, awful things because they feel they are being discriminated against. All I can do, aside from remaining calm and providing proper guest service, is direct them to guest relations for assistance.
    The part that really makes me extremely angry/disgusted are those rare guests who see a Make A Wish family go to the front of a character meet/greet line, and yell out loud, “I wish my kid was dying so I could get to the front of every line!” Again, this is a rarity, but does happen.
    My parents visited me in January this year from Indiana. My father has severe arthritis and my mom suffered a stroke in Sept. Neither wanted to rent a ECV (Midwestern pride), but I was able to get a GSC for them, which came in very handy. They were able to rest any where in the park whenever they were tired, but they couldn’t stand in the long lines for attractions. The card was a life saver.
    Again, thanks for writing this article. Well done!

    • http://www.wdwthemeparks.com Tim Grassey

      LuckyJack,

      Is this “no character policy” the reason why there isn’t an Alternative Entrance to Enchanted Tales with Belle?

      Typically we don’t do a lot of character stuff with Matt because usually he’s dictating that we go from ride to ride. However, you can see by the smiles that he loves the characters. The photo with Mickey and Minnie was actually at a special appearance at a “Welcome Party” for my cousin’s wedding at Shades of Green. The photo of him and Goofy was at the end of the night in Storybook Circus where we got pictures of him with the four characters in the tent. Part of the problem is we try to avoid some of the situations that a viewing public may view as inappropriate. This includes crowded meet and greets – conversely, character meals work really well.

      • LuckyJack65

        Tim, unfortunately, that is the case with character meet/greets, including Belle at MK. With the Make-a-Wish GAC, the family is either sent to the front of the line immediately or “back doored” as the case may be, but for all other GAC cards, those guests must wait in line with everyone else. I don’t know the reasoning for this decision, I’m just trained to handle GACs in this manner with character meet/greets.
        The only exception is Town Square Theatre. It was designed with a Fast Pass queue, so all GAC users may skip the standby line. That is the area for meeting Mickey, and seeing Cinderella/Aurora/Rapunzel.
        Going to the Big Top in Storybook Circus late in the evening is a great choice, as most guests are gone from that area and the wait time for meeting characters is very very short.
        If you ever have questions, feel free to contact me. I’ll do my best to find the answers for you and your family!

  • Shin-Gouki

    I have a bad back (and the scar to go with it) along with horrible knee problems that cause me to use a Stone Cold Steve Austin type Knee Brace from time to time. On my last trip I was informed about this service and man did it really help. By comparison I was at a convention recently that took 4 hours in line to get the registration materials and it destroyed me for the weekend. This is a great program, and though I am in better shape than some and tend to feel guilty about it in the end using it saves me from days of pain afterword.

    • waymire01

      Shin-Gouki thanks for bringing up the other “hidden” effect of chronic injuries: the aftermath. My husband, for example, could do one day in the parks if he had to… but would be barely able to get out of bed to go to the restroom the next day if he did.. which really puts a damper on a week long vacation. I speak from experience because that is exactly what happened on our last trip before he finally broke down and got a scooter. I would also like to address a previous comment about “going on the attractions if you are so bad off”. While he does avoid the extreme rides (Everest for example) most of the others are not a problem. It’s not the 3min ride that does the damage.. it’s the hours and hours of walking, standing, and stairs.. most of it on concrete or steel.

  • MochaCat

    thank you for sharing your story!

  • wec

    Hi all. I have a daughter with Autism and we recently visited Disneyland.
    We used the GAC. I always bring a doctors note to prove the disability
    at Guest Relations. Surprisingly, Disney doesn’t require doctors notes though
    I think that they should in cases where the disability isn’t always obvious.
    It’ll limit abuse.

    Several years ago I had the chance to educate another guest who asked me
    “Where do you get that neat little card.” I replied first, you get a child with
    a disability. Second you get medical bills from hospitals and doctors that
    aren’t covered by insurance, then you get lots of heart break but rewards too
    regarding raising a child with disabilities. Then you get a doctors note and get the pass at
    Guest Relations. Then when getting on attractions, in my daughters case where
    her disability isn’t always obvious, you often get nasty comments from other guests who
    feel that you’re cutting in line. The guy truly empathized with me by saying “It’s not really that neat
    of a little card is it.” We ended up with a friendly conversation and I told him, well; it is nice
    as it makes visits to the park easier, but there’s the other stuff that goes with it.

  • ranman101

    I don’t have anyone in my direct family that has a need for a GAC. I do know many that abuse this system. I have even watched my own sister brag about getting one ( sorry I can’t choose family), and she has nothing wrong with her. As much as the GAC system is not perfect, its better than nothing. As a premium pass holder for Disneyland, I am tired of watching the abuse. I was just at Disneyland a few weeks ago with my sister in law who suffers from Primary Pulmonary Hypertension. It was amazing to me how many people in the “secondary entrance areas” that openly admitted they just lied to get GAC. I think it speaks volumes about our society. Not in a good way.

  • victoriaskitten

    Great informative article. Thanks.
    I have been using an ECV for 3 years now and didn’t know about the GAC card. When you look at me you don’t see anything but a healthy looking woman. I have a lung disease therefore walking long distances, climbing stairs, takes my breath away and I get dizzy and start wheezing. Meds do not help me. Also more than a few stairs with my bad knees, hips and back are just not fun.
    I always go through the lines when possible sitting on my scooter and just inform the cast members that I can’t climb stairs. They have always been very nice. For Radiator Springs I get to the park first thing and get fast passes for my group. When alone I go single rider. Otherwise I don’t go on that ride. For other rides such as Hollywood Tower we get a hand written fastpass and come back at the appointed time. I am just happy to skip the stairs.
    In the last year or so I have noticed that their seem to be many more guests who need assistance and I myself inwardly have a question about some guests but never voice it outloud.
    I have been rudely questioned when I park my vehicle in the handicap parking with the correct plates and have calmly told the men (always men who make the comments) that I would gladly change places with them right that minute if they would like and not have to go through the horrid ending that is coming to me and all my family. Then I tell them to never assume anything.
    I am always touched deeply when I see families with a loved one in wheel chairs with some disability and feel such joy when I see them taking them on and off the rides. The cast members are my heros they show such care and respect. I truly feel lucky to witness these moments.
    I don’t think that I will get a GAC card in the near future and will continue doing what has been working for me. So if you see me walking for a bit it’s because I just can’t stand to sit for the entire day( we are usually at the park from opening to closeing) and I need to get up stretch my legs and back.
    Thanks again for a great article and everyones comments.

  • kimbyslice

    We had a horrible experience in Disneyland Paris with the GAC card. We were traveling with my mom, my aunt, my brother and my 78 year old grandfather with extremely bad knees. After two weeks of traveling Europe my grandfather could no longer walk for more than a few minutes, even while using his cane, so we rented a wheelchair for the remainder of our trip. When we arrived at Disneyland Paris, with my grandfather in his wheelchair, it took them 15 minutes just to let us into the park, even though there was no wait at the turnstiles. They had to have a supervisor of some sort come over to unlock the gate so he could fit through.

    When we headed over to guest services, the asked if we had a doctor’s note proving that my grandfather was handicapped (old man, in a non-disney wheelchair) and when we replied with a negative, they asked if we could have his doctor fax a note. No!?!? We’re from California and with the time differences it would be near impossible to reach his doctor, not to mention using a cell phone for an international call. The guest relations woman, sighed and clicked away and finally told us she was making an exception just for us and not to expect it again but that the GAC would only be good for my grandfather, plus one person.

    Not wanting to ruin the trip, my mom and aunt sent my brother and I off so we could explore the parks and they went around with my grandfather, but at each attraction one of them would have to wait outside or do the standby (or single rider) line and hope that they would both finish the attraction around the same time. Ultimately they made the best of the trip but it definitely soured our entire experience of Disneyland Paris. I guess the one positive is that their stringency does cut down on those who abuse the system, but I can’t imagine that every handicapped person travels around with a doctor’s note to prove that they are disabled. I doubt this policy would be accepted in the United States.

  • daliseurat

    Thank you for this eye-opening article and all the great posts. I too know many people who brag about lying to get the card. I always let them know how they are damaging a system meant to help people who need it. Reading how it has helped folks through their eyes is amazing and shows just how important the system is.

  • SpectroMan

    I think it’s impossible to have a perfect system without requiring medical proof of one’s disability. Disney is to be commended for making such extensive efforts to accomodate the handicapped and disabled in every aspect of their parks, but sadly the abuse is rampant. People talk, the internet speaks volumes, and social media makes it okay to be an abuser. I often hear co-workers say, “Oh, I’ll just rent a scooter that day” when discussing going on a busy day. It’s infuriating.