Disney tightens up disability program

Disney tightens up disability program

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(CNN) -- Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resort will no longer allow visitors with disabilities instant access to rides, starting next month, in an attempt to reduce abuse of the policy.

Under the current policy, Disney visitors can get a guest assistance card that grants quicker access to rides, often entering through exit doors to bypass the main lines.

There were widespread reports of able-bodied people abusing the policy.

Some wealthy park visitors were hiring disabled people to pretend to be family members so they could skip lines, the New York Post reported in May. Social researcher Wednesday Martin learned about the practice while researching a book about New York's Park Avenue elite, the Post reported. "It really is happening," Martin told CNN's "Starting Point" in May.

Starting October 9, guests with a new disability access card will be issued a ticket with a time to enter an attraction, based on the current wait time, so they don't have stay in line. Disney fan site Miceage.com broke the news of the policy change last week.

No proof of disability is required under either the current or new policies. Asked why Disney couldn't keep the current system and require disabled guests to provide proof of disability, Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said, "Due to confidentiality laws, we're limited in the information we can ask."

"We have an unwavering commitment to making our parks accessible to all guests," Brown said in a statement. "Given the increasing volume of requests we receive for special access to our attractions, we are changing our process to create a more consistent experience for all our guests while providing accommodations for guests with disabilities. We engaged disability groups, such as Autism Speaks, to develop this new process, which is in line with the rest of our industry."

Brown stressed that the program is different from the parks'FastPass program, which issues a limited number of FastPasses per hour for certain attraction. A guest using the new disability card would get a return time based on the actual wait time for the ride.

Erin Moya, whose 4-year-old son has spina bifida, agreed that there needed to be a change to stop the abuse. But she worried that the new system makes things more complicated for families that really need help.

"For example, my son, similar to many others living with disabilities, has special medical procedures that have to be done at a specific frequency throughout the day," Moya, of Jacksonville Beach, Florida, wrote in an e-mail. "To then have to worry about 'scheduling' rides is just one more complication to add to a visit that is probably already more complex than most people realize."

Disney, which is starting to train its employees on the new policy this week, will release more details of the program closer to the October 9 rollout date, Brown said. Guests who still have concerns about the policy can talk to guest relations about their assistance needs, she added.

Annual passholder Sheryl Gangano of San Jose, California, says the policy change may cause her to drop her annual pass and reduce her seven to 10 annual trips to Disneyland. Gangano, who has complex regional pain syndrome, can walk but experiences "excruciating pain" from the lightest of touches or when she stands or sits in one position for too long.

"It makes it a challenge to be able to go and enjoy the park," she said. "I will need to figure out how to structure my visits differently and become more aware of my pain. This is unfortunate, as one of the things Disneyland has given me is that escape."

Ellen Seidman, whose family is heading to Disneyland for the first time in December, is willing to give Disney the benefit of the doubt during the rollout.

"Disney has an admirable history of accommodating guests with special needs," she wrote on her "Love that Max" blog about kids with special needs. "There are wheelchairs and Electric Convenience Vehicles available for rent, special dietary offerings at most restaurants, designated relief areas for service animals, plus options for guests with hearing and visual impairment. I can't imagine that Disney would ever leave kids with special needs in the (pixie) dust.

"Parents of kids with special needs sure aren't shy about speaking up when something isn't working. If the realities of the new program prove too hard to handle, the parks will hear about it -- and hopefully make adjustments accordingly."

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