In Defense of the Disney Guest Assistance Card (GAC)

Written by Tim Grassey. Posted in Disney Parks

frontpagepic

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

Browse Archived Articles by

86 Comments

Comments for In Defense of the Disney Guest Assistance Card (GAC) are now closed.

  1. As someone who has never had a GAC but will now need one, I certainly hope they don’t punish the whole for the wrongs of a few. My niece is almost 3 and has several special needs. She cannot walk so we use her stroller as a wheelchair. She can also not wait in any line for more than an hour becuase she has to be fed through a feeding tube every hour to stay hydrated. My sister just learned from her Tubbie buddies (families who have members with feeding tubes) that this qualifies her for a GAC card. Last year we took her to the park without this card and it was a challenge, we had to carry her through every line because we couldn’t take the stoller with us and had to skip several rides with the rest of the family so we could feed her. I look forward to being able to use the GAC card and hope they don’t make any changes to the program, it sounds like it can really help those in need.

  2. We have a grandson who uses a GAC because of autism. His mom gives the precise diagnosis when getting the pass, and has documentation with her to back it up. I really see no harm at all in requesting a doctors note. “Ethically challenged” should not be a qualification for a GAC. Those who lack honesty should be excluded. I know lots of people who face significant disabilities, and frankly, none of them have any problem with a requirement to “show proof”. Because this is a privilege, perhaps asking for documentation can be OK. It certainly doesn’t take much ! Not one user who has described their situation here would be unable to get a note, or card, signed by a doctor.

    We are pass holders, and close enough so we can take shorter day trips. While the GAC may accommodate the rides we do take, our visits often involve very few rides overall. We usually have at least one meal in the park, and enjoy attractions that have no wait, or a very short wait. The GAC makes the DLR a great day for my grandson, and we all enjoy the time together, although the rest of our “crowd” may be using fastpasses or standing in a line.

    Yes, there are abusers, and often they start at a pretty young age. However, why put the pressure on the Disney staff to deal with morally bankrupt people ? And why let your day be ruined by it ? Walt envisioned a land of laughter and joy ! Lets grant that wish and savor the positive experience, and support it being available to those who have greater struggles than most of us face !

  3. My partner and I have Utilized the GAC for several visits to Disneyland. HIV infection has caused both significant changes to our metabolism and general health, affecting stamina and the ability to stand for long periods without being affected by peripheral neuropathy. The GAC card is a lifesaver- and I can’t say I’ve ever been subjected to stares or rude comments of other guests who think we’re abusing a privelege. My mother recently visited again after a 30 year absence, and had to be pushed in a wheelchair for the first time.Fibromyalgia and age are starting to take a toll. She has complete mobility, but no stamina for long distance walking or standing. It’s a shame there are those who take advantage of this system, just to bypass the long lines, but the bottom line is this- not every disability is a visible one.

  4. I’m a cancer patient and try to avoid using the GAC. But being a passholder that goes often, it’s a good thing to have. I can go to the parks and feel fine, but sometimes it will hit in the middle of a trip and I’ll feel dizzied and often nauseous. Physically, I look fine. (Other than being noticeably underweight.) Because of this, guest relations often will look me up and down and try to talk me out of a GAC. I hate getting dirty looks from CM’s and guests because I look okay. I hate it even more when I feel like certain people only want to go to the parks with me because they know I am prone to getting a GAC. If a line is short, I won’t use it and when friends get frustrated over that it sucks because I feel a little used.

    I just wish there was a way to deal with GAC where people who honestly need it can get it without the dirty looks from guest relations and other CM’s.

  5. We used the GAC for my much younger sister in law back in 2001. She has type 1 Diabetes and at the time, had a pump that couldn’t get wet or hot. She was very sensative to the heat and would “melt” if we stood in line too long, exposed to the sun. Rides like Grizzy River Run at DCA were iffy with the pump, due to all the water. The GAC was great! She unplugged, I held the pump (waiting in the shade) while she and my husband went to the exit to enter, got on a raft, did the ride and were back within 10 minues. She was WET, but her pump was dry – we plugged her in, checked her number and all was fine.

    She, of course, didn’t look like she had any issues that would need a GAC other than the little line peeking out from under her shirt to a pump on her waist. Most CM’s were VERY understanding. The fact she was only 13 helped, I guess. One CM even asked if he needed to carry her up some stairs – she said that she could manage. :)

    She since has found that they are not as accomodating to diabetics. They don’t allow her the card any more, but she doesn’t need it, so she doesn’t ask. She’s on new meds and has a new water-proof pump, so she’s MUCH better off than 2001. However, one of our little friends went a couple years ago – same situation with the pump and they would not grant his family a GAC. Standing in the heat with a five-year-old diabetic who’s numbers are all over the place was difficult, but they managed. Lots of stops and rests. Lots of time in the baby-centers checking numbers and getting snacks.

    It IS a very fine line that has to be followed. A tough call to make. I’m not sure how it will be solved so that the abusers stop abusing the system and the people that need it, even those not “obvious”, will get the help they need.

  6. I have Parkinson’s Disease. Much of the time I can walk normally, so when I can, I do, because I need the exercise. Sometimes I struggle to walk. This ability pretty much goes on and off like a switch. I can’t stand in line for very long unless the line is moving. So I use a scooter to wait in long lines and have to drive a scooter in the parks because I never know when fatigue or PD will strike and I can no longer walk. Sometimes you will see me get out of my scooter and walk around, apparently completely normal and my wife will drive the scooter so that it will be there when I need it.

    Having PD has taught me never to judge whether someone needs a GAC or not. I simply do not know what the circumstances are. In my case, my cane and scooter are my GAC and a card is not required. I am grateful for the graciousness and tact with which Disneyland and Disney World handle disability issues, always asking, “Can you walk 50 feet?”, “Can you transfer?” etc. Plus special viewing areas and access when I need it. It makes it so that it continues to be possible for me to enjoy my favorite vacation spot.

  7. I have Parkinson’s Disease. Much of the time I can walk normally, so when I can, I do, because I need the exercise. Sometimes I struggle to walk. This ability pretty much goes on and off like a switch. I can’t stand in line for very long unless the line is moving. So I use a scooter to wait in long lines and have to drive a scooter in the parks because I never know when fatigue or PD will strike and I can no longer walk. Sometimes you will see me get out of my scooter and walk around, apparently completely normal and my wife will drive the scooter so that it will be there when I need it.

    Having PD has taught me never to judge whether someone needs a GAC or not. I simply do not know what the circumstances are. In my case, my cane and scooter are my GAC and a card is not required. I am grateful for the graciousness and tact with which Disneyland and Disney World handle disability issues, always asking, “Can you walk 50 feet?”, “Can you transfer?” etc. Plus special viewing areas and access when I need it. It makes it so that it continues to be possible for me to enjoy my favorite vacation spot.

  8. We have been getting a GAC for my autistic son since his first trip to Disneyland twelve years ago (he is now 17). We call it his “Magic Pass.” The magic of it for me has been that Disneyland is the one place we can go where his disability actually makes life easier for the rest of the family. The magic for him has been that it’s a place where he can be the “leader” and decide what we do.

    As his tolerance for waiting has increased over the years, we are using the pass less and just going though the regular lines. But the pass has still saved us over and over. We have bypassed impossible (for him) lines and been escorted to back entrances like rock stars. I can’t say enough good things about how cast members have treated us.

    One concern I have is the idea of only getting to go on a certain ride once a day. When he was little, he was obsessed with Big Thunder Mountain and insisted on riding it multiple times a day. That would have been tough to explain. Now we do limit ourselves on a ride like Racers to once a day, but he is old enough to deal with it.

    Having a child with a disability that is not obvious to others has made me less critical of the behavior of others. While I’m sure there are actual cheaters out there, some of the “cheaters”
    may just be individuals who are coping well because they have a GAC.

  9. The GAC made us able to become lifelong Disney goers, and the funny thing is now, we do not need it and do not get it

    Our son has significant special needs. We started taking him from when he was three years old. He was unable to stand in lines and barely able to handle the stimulus levels. The GAC at Disneyworld was a lifesaver on multiple occasions. Being able to take him there actually helped him in so many ways, and he has now learned to both handle the stimulus levels as well as standing in line.

    As he got more capable of handling the lines and the stimulus, we would get the card but use it less and less. Going to Disneyworld and Disneyland became a therapy for him. Something that would have been a non starter without the card.

    We no longer get a GAC card because we don’t need it (he is 17). He now goes on all the rides, in the lines, does the shows, sees the fireworks. It is one of his “safe” places to go.

    They have also done wonderfully handling his dietary needs over the years. People would question us why we would continually go to Disney, but it is such a no brainer specifically because they have gone out of the way to make it work for families like us.

  10. The GAC made us able to become lifelong Disney goers, and the funny thing is now, we do not need it and do not get it

    Our son has significant special needs. We started taking him from when he was three years old. He was unable to stand in lines and barely able to handle the stimulus levels. The GAC at Disneyworld was a lifesaver on multiple occasions. Being able to take him there actually helped him in so many ways, and he has now learned to both handle the stimulus levels as well as standing in line.

    As he got more capable of handling the lines and the stimulus, we would get the card but use it less and less. Going to Disneyworld and Disneyland became a therapy for him. Something that would have been a non starter without the card.

    We no longer get a GAC card because we don’t need it (he is 17). He now goes on all the rides, in the lines, does the shows, sees the fireworks. It is one of his “safe” places to go.

    They have also done wonderfully handling his dietary needs over the years. People would question us why we would continually go to Disney, but it is such a no brainer specifically because they have gone out of the way to make it work for families like us.

  11. Neither my nor my partner has ever had to get/use the GAC because neither of us have any issues. I am a pretty overweight guy, but that doesn’t stop me doing anything except the dumbo ride.

    That being said – I was taught manners growing up and to always be the better person. I won’t get a GAC unless I have something significantly wrong with me (or the partner) but I do not look down on ANYONE, “ethically questionable” or otherwise, because frankly, it isn’t worth my time to get upset over, and ain’t no one got no time for no anger when you at Disneyland. If someone who thinks they’re getting one up on me by getting a GAC when they’re skinnier than me and don’t need it, hey, more power to you if you can sleep at night. But that’s all it’ll be. An additional 5 minutes.

    NOW – on the flip side, my partner is like a lot of people I see/read here. He will get SO MAD about stuff he sees or things people do. Like when the rope drops and people barge in front of you to get ahead. He gets so upset. But I just tell him it ain’t worth it. We already both take BP meds, we don’t need it to get any worse :)

    I, personally, am actually fairly impressed with how Disney handles this. I think that sure, some “bad people” get it, but it helps out a lot more people than I think any of us realize, as evidenced by this thread. And it’s not like you see hundreds of these people a day at DL or WDW. I just came back from a 4 day vaca at WDW Resort and neither my partner nor I even remember seeing anyone with the GAC cutting in front of the line, or going to the back entrance, or whatnot. And he would totally notice and remember. And then he’d get all ragey and angsty about it and I’d have to tone him down a bit….

    People, please remember, for your health if nothing else, life is too short. If some DBag wants to get a GAC and get 5 minutes ahead of you. Or hell, even 1/2 hour ahead of you, just remember, that’s less time you have to spend dealing with someone like that. They move on to the next ride, and after that day (or day after) you’ll never see them again. Is it really worth it to get upset about someone that you’re never going to see again? The anger only hurts you… Not them. And they aren’t gonna be changing anytime soon.

    Dbags always gonna be dbags. Cheers, mates.

  12. Great Article! We have used the GAC for the last few trips that we have made to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World and it has been a wonderful thing to have. My mom has a medical condition that causes her knees and legs to swell up if she stands on them for too long so when we found out that Disney had a program to help people with medical problems like hers we were very greatful! We also used the GAC when my sister had foot surgery and had to use a wheel chair, the Cast Members were all very nice and accommodating and didnt make you feel like you were in the way at all or causing any disturbance for the other guests. I think this is one of the best programs that Disney offers and I hope to be able to use it again for my family if needed on future trips!

  13. I read this with interest as we visit Disneyland Resort Paris and my son has Down Syndrome and doesn’t quite “get” the idea of a queue and, for 20 years, have always been most accommodating regarding the GAC as indeed they have with us (mum and dad) as we have become less mobile with arthritis and are unable to shuffle with the rst of the gueats in the queue (and my wife uses a wheelchair). However, Paris has for many years required the guest to provide proof of disability by means of a disabled parking badge, a doctor’s note, proof of disability benefits or other official documentation. They have also used the ticket to return later system too. There does seem to have been a huge upsurge in the disabled queues in recent years there too and I see no problem with having to prove disability. That’s certainly always been the case within the UK just as much as a driving license is required to show proof of being allowed to drive. Anything that reduces the instances of fraud is welcome as far as am concerned if only that it means we get on the rides faster! I’ve also found the cast members go out of their way to ensure we have a great time every time. For those worrying about the US parks, these things work fine in Europe and make things a lot easier for disabled guests.
    The only problem I have heard of in the US parks was a child with Down Syndrome from the UK who had bad motor control and also wouldn’t stand in a queue without trying to run off and getting cross (similar to the original post as DS does share some aspects with autism). They were refused a pass as the CMs decided she was not disabled enough (this was 10 years ago in WDW so they must have had some system running back then too and one can see DS due to facial characteristics). Her mum hired a wheelchair for her and got the pass without any problem. I don’t blame the mum but the CMs were not really on the ball regarding mental disabilities then considering that “disabled” meant “unable to walk” only. That, I think, has changed now and the attitudes far better..

  14. I really enjoyed your article, Tim. I’m sorry, but I admit to laughing at your cold day in the MK having to go through Matt’s routine. We have a Matt (29 yr old stubborn, non-verbal, autistic) that makes us do a lot of things we don’t want to to avoid further meltdowns. ;)

    We haven’t been to WDW in many years, but have been going to DL every summer since 2002. Our Matt no longer goes on our Disney trips with us, his last one was so difficult for all of us that we stopped going. (We have another son with autism, too.)

    When, we switched to DL, we found that we preferred it to WDW because it’s smaller and easier to navigate. We were able to stay across the street and walk over, making that entry much less of an ordeal. (no trams, buses, monorails, or boats to ride just to enter the park)

    Our other autistic son loves to go to DL, he does still ask when we are going back to WDW from time to time. His routine is different than your brother’s…he always wants to know which restaurants we are going to next & the attractions are secondary.

    We get a GAC pass and use it at rides with fast pass access if the lines are over 20 minutes. He does love Peter Pan’s flight, and I admit, I do use the GAS pass there, too. I’ve waited in line with him there, but it was about an hour long and he got so upset and was crying. At his 6’4″, 280 lb stature, we were quite the spectacle. Since the line is always long, we don’t attempt that anymore! (I like that the GAC line is in the back, hidden a little bit.)

    POC is an attraction where the lines move quickly, and the GAC entrance takes longer to use than the regular queue. (Just a heads up!) And another reader mentioned the Racers procedure being different…take note of her ordeal and be prepared! :)

    I can’t think of any changes I’d make to the system. I imagine the abuse is easy b/c CA doesn’t allow the cast members to view a Drs note or other proof of disability, but DL’s hands are tied there.

    I hope your family enjoys DL as much as ours does. I hope Matt is okay with the differences and has a great time there. Maybe you will make the switch like we did all those years ago!

    It’s a longer flight, but well worth the effort! We will be there at the end of August.

    Oh…I forgot…the weather is amazing!!! No thunderstorms in the middle of the day, hardly ever any humidity, 80s in the day 50s-60s at night, can’t beat it!

  15. Thank you so much for writing this article. Several year ago, I had a life-changing traumatic brain injury for which I need to take medication that restricts sun exposure. Between the side effects from the head injury and the meds I take, I have many physical limitations and standing in lines for rides is a torturous experience. The GACs have been a Godsend for me and I too am hoping the the Next Gen Program doesn’t change this program in a way that I will no longer be able to go to the one place that provides some much needed happiness for my family. It is disheartening to hear about people abusing this system but for the rest of us, it is an accommodation that has made a huge difference in our ability to be able to go to DLR and WDW. If this program is discontinued, we will no longer be able to enjoy either one.

    On behalf of all of us who need this help to be able to spend time at Disney parks, thank you for providing this assistance.