Walt Disney=10, Disney Management=0mickeysad1

As parents of kids with Down syndrome/autism/etc., we all go to Disneyland/Disney World for our kids. Period. We do it to bring them special moments of happiness. My son Jonathan (30) has the pure heart of a child and simply lights up with utter joy over his favorite attractions. He looks forward to it all year and counts the days. I go to great lengths to make his visits happen. (And anyone who brings their family there is going to great lengths of expense to do so, without exception!)

So it was distressing to me when I lost it at “City Hall” in Disneyland, just 5 mickey angryminutes into the visit. I blew my temper twice in the 20 minutes it took us to get any kind of disability help. Me, the yoga practitioner who strives for evenmindedness (sad face). But I was in worthy company: in our party of 5 was my cousin, who adores Disneyland and was there as a kid with Walt Disney on the day the park opened. My cousin is always the calm one; everyone else can be losing it, but he remains the peacemaker. Well, even he lost it. We were both yelling at the robotic staff who kept repeating the same unhelpful scripts over and over again, seemingly unable to hear a word we said.

Very, very frustrating. Almost unbelievable. And poor Jonathan standing off to the side, waiting for the whole thing to resolve.

Management gets a D-

So here is my assessment: management has put a lame system in place and trained its employees (who want to keep their jobs) to stick to the script and never, ever bend. I feel certain that the employees know it’s a lousy system, but they must bypass their consciences and stick to the script.

“What is your need?” I was asked. (script). I explained that my son has Down syndrome (plus a few other things) and has difficulty waiting in long lines, so we were asking for the Disability Access help. Silence. “So, what is your need?” she asks again, as if I hadn’t said a word. From there it went downhill. They were unable to do a thing for us for 20 minutes. I’ll spare you the rest of the details. Very sad; I think what bothered me most was the total lack of compassion in the staff. This may be simply a matter of luck: some staff are probably warmer than others.

Disneyland is not Disney World

I expected better; a few weeks ago, I spoke with a mom who had just taken her son with Down syndrome to Disney World. The staff was wonderful, and the kind young cast member who helped them went overboard and registered them for seven disability fast passes. Only one is allowed, technically. And technicality rules at Disneyland: we were allowed one fast pass signup at a time on the disability program. You can’t get a second one in advance; you must first use up the one you registered for. THEN you can walk to a kiosk and register for another one.

Standing at a kiosk, trying to wrangle registration for a second attraction (we were in California Adventure, mickey-mouse-WHYwanting to see an attraction there, but the attraction we were already registered for was in Disneyland–and we sure as heck didn’t want to let that one go), I sputtered on about the 7 passes at Disney World. A mom behind me piped up, “The rules are different at Disney World. I’ve been there.” Who knew?

And could Disney World’s leniency have anything to do with its having been sued by families? Here is some interesting additional reading, from March 2015: “Families of autistic children sue Disney over ride access.” I fully agree with this quote from that article: “(In October 2013) Disney revamped its disabled guest passes and replaced them with passes the autism advocates say are virtually useless.” Yep.

The 10-Minute Deal: The Total Benefit

Total benefit of the Disability Access Service (DAS): you get 10 minutes shaved off of the current waiting time at the attraction you want to register for. Ten minutes. So if the wait time is 40 minutes, you only have to wait 30 minutes. Isn’t that nice? Especially if you have a child with autism or a dual diagnosis of DS/autism? And you can only do this one registration at a time. So here’s the deal: register, wait, go on ride, find kiosk, register, wait. Repeat as desired.

Deal or No Deal?

That’s no disability help whatever, and I feel sure Disney management is well aware of it. So they dole out a script to the staff, and that’s the end of the story. Just amazing. Not to mention sad.

Small Consolation: couple the DAS with regular Fast Passes

Yes, you can still simultaneously work those attractions that have Fast Pass available. Just make sure you bring an athlete with you in your party, preferably someone who runs track. That helps. He/she can run off and get registered elsewhere while you wait in line.

Hi Tech Difference

The technical difference between this year and last is this: you will not be given a paper DAS card-with-ID photo on which each ride is written. They still take a picture of the individual with a disability (I have no idea what they do with it), but the identification data is all in a computer somewhere. At each attraction where you use the DAS to shave off 10 minutes, the staff must scan the Disney card of everyone in your party who has registered to go on that attraction.

What’s a parent to do?puzzled mickey mouse

Just go forearmed with knowledge, and bring a party large enough, athletic enough, and smart enough to do on-the-spot scheduling and running to get additional fast passes. At the end of our 13 hours at what my daughter calls “Dizzyland,” we were exhausted, but Jonathan was so happy. Worth it? Yes. But be kind to yourself and plan your trip with two “recovery days” tacked on at the end *for the parents*.

“A dream is a wish your heart makes…” but it may take legal action to get this dream back to where it was before October 2013.

mickey enthusiasticHoping for better in 2016,

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  • Rachel

    I read somewhere a list of amusement parks that are fantastic alternatives for people with special needs. It seems smaller, locally owned parks are more accommodating. My husband really wants to take the girls to Disney because he remembers it being magical when he was little. I’ve never been, so I would much rather go to a smaller place with kind staff. It’s sad that I’m asking my husband to give up his dream to avoid a nightmare vacation (which is a big deal for us–we haven’t had a vacation trip since we got married).

    Thank you for sharing your experience with us!

    • Natalie Hale

      I’ve just finished reading many comments on FB in reply to my blog post; most experiences were identical to mine…BUT…this tip came up: if your child is young and in a stroller, there is a wonderful solution: City Hall will, if asked, place a special band on the stroller which qualifies it as a wheelchair, and you will be able to enter attractions through the wheelchair entrance, a very short wait! I hope your child with a disability is young enough–or willing to sit in a wheelchair!

  • Confused

    I’m confused about what the problem was… You didn’t like their system? or the cast members wouldn’t risk their jobs to bend the rules for you? I thought you went every year, was it different?

    • Natalie Hale

      As I mentioned in the blog, the wonderful system that was previously in place was trashed in October of 2013 and this new program put in place. In the past, individuals with disabilities such as Down syndrome or autism could be accommodated without incurring meltdowns; this was completely thrown out in 10/2013 when Disney claimed that people were hiring individuals with disabilities to pose as family members so that their entire party could skip to the head of the line. So the Disney experience was changed forever in 10/2013 for kids with disabilities. Please read my blog again to get more clarification. I did not ask cast members to risk their jobs. Since posting this blog on FB in various Down syndrome groups, I have received comments from many distressed parents who had the identical experience. Everything changed at both US Disney parks in October of 2013.

  • Lisa

    I am confused. I went to DL , twice this Summer, with people who were in wheelchairs. We used the “return time” system, at the attractions that offered it, with no visit to City Hall or special pass. We had very short wait times and no questions asked. It was soooooo easy. So, I guess I am unclear as to what you were looking for, when you can skip City Hall and just use their new system with no hassle.

    • Natalie Hale

      A wheelchair is the magic ticket. Many parents reported the same to me on FB. Even young children with Down syndrome, for example, in strollers were given the same magic pass as those in wheelchairs. An autistic teenager without a wheelchair, for example, gets a dramatically different treatment. Too many parents have commented on Facebook for me to doubt this.

  • Kim

    What needs did you specifically tell them when they repeatedly asked. Generally, my experience has been great if you specifically articulate what you need. Examples may be, we can only stand for about 10 minutes, so we either need expedited access or air conditioned seating while waiting in line. Another need is that we cannot tolerate many hours at the park, so we needed expedited fast pass to eliminate travel and wait times at the attractions. Sometimes it probably makes a difference that we have several family members with differing disabilities, so they generally apply significant access options to our entire group. The key is being specific about your NEED, not just having a particular disability. But this has been my experience at Disney World, not Disneyland.

    I will say that the reports of paid “disability” escorts that lead to this change is true in Florida. I was skeptical of the change, but attended Disney World of day 1 of the new policy and have found staff generally helpful and respectful then and since.

    • Natalie Hale

      Yes, Disney World gets much higher reviews from parents! See my “pie” graph blog on FB, “Down Syndrome Reading with Natalie Hale.”

  • Marilyn

    My husband is disabled, as is a friend I go to Disneyland with often. The change is also for them. Every 3 months they have to go and reregister as disabled. The old system was 6 months. You have to prove that you can’t stand in line (friend had stroke and uses a walker and husband is a disabled vet). Some rides you have to get the FP at the ride and some at the kios. This is very confusing as it changes often. The management needs to spend the day in their shoes, then the system might get fixed.

  • Allison Goodman

    We have a 23 year old son with Down Syndrome and will be going to Disneyland next week (May 23-25). Other than DS, he has a congenital heart defect with no current limitations or issues with it…but he does become fatigued quicker than normal. Would the DAS pass/card even be worth it? Also, are their rides that your adult son with DS could not or would not go on that typical a teen/adult would enjoy or go on? Thanks!

    • Natalie Hale

      Definitely get the pass/card. You can decide how or if to use it after you get it. Get clear instructions from the staff at “City Hall” and go from there. As for the rides my son goes on, his likes and dislikes are very specific! We go on any/all rides that he likes. No problem.

  • Jo

    That sounds awful 🙁 I went to Disneyland in Paris last year and they were fantastic! but they might not have had the same issues as the parks in America.
    for there you have to prove that the person with the disability actually does not understand the concept of queues and from there they do everything to help! I was asked if i needed help pushing her wheelchair!
    for the DAS cards they are colour coded for what I saw Green was all access(basically saying no waiting time, right to front, needs a career or as many) and Orange was for the likes of injury where a wheel chair would be an issue around the bends of a queue- still a shorter waiting time.
    I was there just after Christmas and it was so busy, the longest we had to wait for any ride was about 15 minutes and the woman done nothing but apologise.
    I brought my Sister who was 14 at the time (I was 21) and I have recommended it to everyone, even going back in Oct, but I do hope they do not bring this policy to Paris, it sounds awful esp as she can be quite violent when she gets frustrated.

    I don’t get why DL over in the US is struggling with understanding being with a disability. 🙁