Back in April of 2013 I wrote an article defending Disney’s now defunct Guest Assistant Card program. The program was met with significant (and justifiable) criticism because of abuse. Disney saw the writing on the wall and made changes, replacing the old system with the new Disability Access Service in October of 2013.

When Disney developed the new system, they consulted with an organization called Autism Speaks. While that organization has received its fair share of criticism, the intent of the consultation was well founded.

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I do not have a disability that justifies using the Guest Assistance Card or the Disability Access Service card. However, my brother Matt is autistic and is fully justified in his use of either service. The new program is largely designed for guests with mental disabilities but it has been met with criticism (and lawsuits) by those that favored the old system.

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Usage of the Guest Assistance Card (GAC) was limited to six guests. On a trip to the Magic Kingdom in 2011, my family of nine included seven adults, one child and one toddler that didn’t have a ticket. We were told to supplement the GAC with Fastpass, as needed. This meant we used eight park tickets, combined with the GAC to have anybody that could go on an attraction do so with little or no waiting. Our day began as follows:

All 9 of us (8 tickets+ toddler under 3) entered the park.
Two adults each took 4 park tickets

  • One adult acquired two Jungle Cruise Fastpasses, one Splash Mountain Fastpass and one Big Thunder Mountain Railroad Fastpass
  • One adult acquired two Peter Pan’s Flight Fastpasses and two Winnie the Pooh Fastpasses

We started at Pirates of the Caribbean where we used the standby line. By the time we exited the attraction our Jungle Cruise Fastpass was active.

After Jungle Cruise we traveled clockwise through the park taking advantage of the GAC, Fastpasses, and the lack of enforcement of Fastpass return times.

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Since then, several things have changed. We were certainly getting the most out of the system because we knew how to use it. Having said all that, we were at a touring advantage because of the GAC. More importantly though, we avoided meltdowns from a 200 pound autistic man while the rest of us enjoyed an efficient family vacation.

Having said all that, I understand that while families like ours are few and far between, this was an unfair advantage. These accommodations were far too beneficial relative to those being offered to other guests. We would never make Matt wait in a line that we didn’t think he could handle, and thankfully all of his favorites had alternative entrances that we could use as needed. But we have yet to take him through something like Enchanted Tales with Belle. At the time of his last trip (January 2013), the attraction did not accommodate GAC usage. While the lack of GAC usage was odd at the time, our conscious choice was to avoid the attraction because of the line.

Matt hasn’t returned to Walt Disney World since the change from GAC to DAS. However, we have experienced similar systems at Universal Studios and Radiator Springs Racers in Disney California Adventure. The latter approach to GAC is more or less the same as what’s being employed across all attractions now at Disney World and Disneyland.

On paper, I view the Universal Studios approach as more favorable than the DAS, but I expect the difference will be negligible when Matt visits next. To the unitiated, the bullet points of the two system are as follows:

Universal Studios:

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If the standby wait is 30 minutes or less, disabled guests can enter the Express Line without a return time.

If the standby wait is more than 30 minutes, disabled guests will be given a return time as far out as the standby time with a small return window.

Disney World/Disneyland:

If the standby wait is 10 minutes or less, disabled guests can enter the Standby Line.

If the standby wait is more than 10 minutes, disabled guests are given a return time as far out as the standby time, less 10 minutes. They can return anytime after the return time, but cannot have more than one attraction reserved at a time.

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Currently at Disney World and Universal Studios, a member of the disabled guest’s party must check in at the attraction in order to get a return time. At Disneyland, in park kiosks can be used to make selections for any eligible attraction. This eliminates back tracking and would be a welcome addition to Walt Disney World. For that reason, I suspect that ultimately the DAS system will be integrated into My Disney Experience, fully automating the system and alleviating any operational concerns that arise from the 10 minutes or less restriction. If and when the Disney World system gets integrated with the mobile app and in park kiosks, the system will be more than reasonable for most disabled guests.

Recently, a lawsuit was filed by multiple families that argued the new system did not accommodate their needs under the Americans with Disabilities Act. One of the complaints made in the lawsuit was that the new “catch all” accommodations don’t satisfy every guest. The reality is, Disney has been willing to accommodate many special circumstances within reason. I have seen examples of Disney accommodating an autistic guest that wishes to ride the same attraction over and over with Fastpasses (or an equivalent) to be used on just that attraction.

I reached out to guest services and received a phone call over my concerns and was more than satisfied with the answers. My primary concerns were as follows:

Does the DAS card have the same six guest restriction as the GAC? Combining it with Fastpass+ for a family of nine would be a difficult scheduling issue to the extent that bringing Matt would be a problem.

Jungle Cruise is Matt’s favorite attraction, would we be able to have one time instant access to Jungle Cruise?

The cast member that I spoke with pointedly told us that the six guest limit can be lifted if all guests are present at the time of issue. She didn’t specify what the maximum was, but my guess is that it would be in the 10-12 range. This alleviated any concerns of combining the DAS card with Fastpass+ as it would prove to be unnecessary. If needed we could supplement the DAS card with Fastpass+ and make the entire system transparent to Matt.

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With the Jungle Cruise, the cast member indicated that they can issue a return time for the Jungle Cruise at City Hall that would more or less accomplish what we would be looking for. Failing that, we can utilize Fastpass+ to schedule Jungle Cruise as the first attraction of the day.

All told, the most important issue with the DAS card is whether or not it’s transparent to the individuals that need it. For our purposes, I fully expect that to be the case. The card addressed one of the bigger issues as well which was over distribution. By limiting distribution to guests with mental disabilities it significantly curbed the abuse. By changing the benefits, the demand meets the needs of most guests while not being so appealing that it promotes rampant abuse.

I look forward to Matt’s next trip. Behind the scenes there will be more scheduling, but Matt won’t know the difference. He’ll continue to enjoy the attractions that he’s grown to love while utilizing the reasonable accommodations provided.

Have you used the DAS system at Disney World or Disneyland? Do you have thoughts on how theme parks can best address the needs of disabled guests? Let us hear your thoughts below.