Disney World – The Happiest Place on Earth, Just Became the Fairest Place on Earth: But is it?
Let me open this with, this is not a crisis, and the world has so many more important problems. This is about a change made to the disability pass that affects individuals with autism and their families.
15 years ago our friends, Kevin and Ang, introduced us to taking our children with autism to Disney World, as they did with their two sons, one with autism, for many years prior. That one visit turned into a yearly visit, because for just 1 short week each year having autism doesn’t suck for Alanna and Austin.
For the couple of days that we would go to the parks our stress levels decreased, here we did not have to be in combat mode and worry that Austin might flop to the ground and begin biting himself, or that Alanna may grab or blow in the face of another individual. At Disney we were almost NORMAL. Sure we got to enter the rides via the fast pass lane or the handicapped entrance, but we went on rides like everyone else. We did something that millions of other families do every day of the year, we went on vacation and we enjoyed ourselves.
The difference is that year 14 was just as thrilling as year 1 to Alanna and Austin. The joy of riding “it’s a small world” may have even been greater as now they anticipated what they would see, and the language change in the song.
Certainly, if a ride was closed we would have a small breakdown in the routine, but that too was something we taught them to deal with, and to move forward, and they did.
Being children, they had their favorites, being children with autism they had those that we just had to go on again and again with no desire to try something new – SOARING is the one ride that both children enjoy and to hear a full sentence out of Austin each time the chair raises up – “Here we go!” brought tears of joy the first time, the fifth time and the 50th time. Alanna would say, “Make it go faster.” We would ride on SOARING several times per visit, as there is no way to explain the pure innocence that is witnessed when seeing their faces, as Austin and Alanna must truly believe they are soaring above each of those places, and could not possibly understand the technology that brings the environments to them.
We leave SOARING and we head to Mexico, to ride in the boat and enjoy the Three Caballeros, a video that Austin watches daily, one that many children probably don’t even know. Austin loves to watch the flying donkey. Alanna also watches Pablo Penquin try to migrate to warmer weather. This is all that we go on at Epcot, and off we go to Hollywood Studios, thank goodness for Hopper Pass.
Hollywood Studios here we come. We listen to Ariel and Belle sing the favorite songs and move through the movie plot in 30 minutes or less, then off to see Kermit and friends in 3D. If we time it just right we stay for Fantasmic, and we watch Austin become mesmerized by the large screen made of water, but we are sure to sit in the back row, just in case we have to leave – as crying children, or some other event may cause us to have to cut the event short. But for two years he made it all the way through. In previous years, Alanna would get upset if we have to leave, so Chelsea will stay with her and meet us at the car. Toy Story 3D and the new Disney Characters from the television shows hold little interest, so 3 shows and maybe Fantasmic and we are usually done for the day.
Picture from 2012 trip.
A full day is always spent at Magic Kingdom, however we take the children separately, as Alanna has a strict routine of the order in which she wants to access the rides, and Austin is more of a repetitive rider on limited rides. Alanna moves from Jungle Cruise, to Aladdin’s Magic Carpet ride, Pirates, then Haunted Mansion and then off to It’s a Small World, Peter Pan’s flight, Philharmagic and then Winnie the Pooh, and Cinderella’s Golden Carousel, and the order is the same year after year.
Picture from 2012 trip
Due to a recent devastating illness that caused Austin to be on life support for some time, he now uses a wheelchair for long days of walking. Austin loves It’s a Small World, Philharmagic, and Winnie the Pooh, but then he is off to Tomorrow Land and the Transit Authority.
This year everything changed. In an attempt to make things FAIR for all, our children lost the one place they could go and enjoy time off from their daily overly structured demand filled days.
It started at Hollywood Studios with waiting at customer service for over an hour while we were assisted in getting our “new” disability pass with photo for each of the kids. We started at Hollywood Studios as we knew this park had few “rides” and is generally the shows that we go to, in hopes that the line would be shortest. After a call to Disney prior to our trip, we were promised 4 Fast Pass tickets to use on the rides. However, there aren’t 4 rides at Hollywood Studios that we would use them, and they weren’t transferrable to any other park, so this was not necessary at Hollywood Studios, but took considerable time for the customer service person to confirm.
Picture from 2013 trip
The new pass, which requires that you go to the fast pass entrance, have a Disney employee look at how long the wait time is for the regular line, calculate what time that would be (suppose to subtract 10 mins – this doesn’t always happen), and then ask that we return at that time to the same fast pass entrance.
The next day I took Alanna and the girls (Her sister Chelsea and friend Amanda) to Magic Kingdom, and again we waited in a long line to get the 4 Fast Pass tickets for this park. We attempted to schedule the day using Alanna’s usual routine noted above, however this was not feasible, as we needed to get a “time” on our card for Dumbo which had an hour wait. So we went there first, and of course Alanna thought she was going on, only to be told let’s go back to It’s a Small World. She rode It’s a Small World, then we waited for Mickey’s Philharmagic, and went over to Dumbo, only to be told we were, 4 minutes early. So we waited to the side until the staff person allowed us to enter, only to wait in a holding area for 10 more minutes. Alanna attempted to blow in the face of another little girl waiting in this area and had to be watched carefully. Once on the Dumbo ride she was visibly upset by the change in her routine, and the back and forth to the ride.
Once off the ride we went to Winnie The Pooh, and again had to get a time. The young lady was quite flustered with us standing there and others wanting to give her their Fast Pass ticket, and she wrote a time that was longer than the wait time for the regular line. I did not notice this until after we stepped away, as I could see she was flustered, and of course Alanna thought she was going on the ride, again to be told that we had to come back. So we went to see the Characters, and waited in the line to see Donald, Goofy and Minnie.
Once done we went back to Winnie the Pooh, however the joy this generally brings Alanna was missing. Alanna was not happy and it shows. We got Fast Pass tickets for the new Ariel ride and hoped that this would make her happy. She did enjoy seeing the new ride. However, after this Alanna was done for the day. I got her something to eat, then took her to the Philharmagic in hopes to change the mood, but she would have none of it, and needed to be brought back to our hotel.
Picture from 2013 trip
The next day, Billy and I brought Austin to Magic Kingdom. He had been asking for It’s a Small World, and that is where we went. Upon arriving to the 10 minute long regular line and deciding to just stay there, we were approached by a Disney Employee and told we could go to the Disability Entrance with the wheelchair and wait there for 10 minutes and we will get on. Once there we were instructed by another gentleman to wait to the side of the exit. Austin was becoming anxious and announcing “go, go” to us in an effort to get his wheelchair moving. Once the 10 minutes was up, we asked to go down the ramp, and looking at his analog clock the employee informed us that according to his watch, we had 1 more minute. My satellite set cell phone was not acceptable to show him the time had indeed been 10 minutes. We stood and waited for 1 more minute, only to be sent to the bottom of a ramp, where a couple that had previously waited was still standing. We waited 4 more minutes at this location, only to have a family that was waiting behind us at the entrance come down and wait. All of us were then loaded onto one boat. The couple in front waited longer than we did, and we waited longer than the 10 minutes we would have waited should we have stayed in the regular line. Once on the ride, Austin was happy.
We went to the Ariel ride and received a return time. We went back to Fantasyland and went to see Philharmagic. Once back at the Ariel ride we entered through the Fast Pass lane. Once inside of the ride, we were instructed to go to a different area to enter the ride. We watched as others that were behind us enter shell cars, and begin their ride. We waited, and waited. Austin began to become upset and verbalize a strong, “No, Go!” When the Disney employee approached us to ask us questions about how he is going to get on. We explained he will walk, that he needs the chair for long distances. We waited. When we asked what the hold up was, there was little explanation, as we did not need a car that held the chair. Eventually we were permitted to go on, 15 minutes after we would have been on the ride, had the staff permitted us to enter where everyone else did.
The examples throughout the trip are repetitive. Employees unable to calculate the time accurately due to crowds and wanting to please all. Longer wait times for us than for others. Having to plan and replan each ride, needing to become a travel agent within the parks to schedule all we usually participated in, going two “Lands” forward to get a ride time, then back two “Lands.” Our children being made to go to a ride, only to have a card written on, and have to return which caused them much confusion and anxiety. We were told that they didn’t have to go with us to get a time, but how would that be possible? Separating from Austin would cause much anxiety. Alanna and I went together on the rides while her sister and friend went to other areas; I had to bring her with me to each time entry. Staff are unable to keep up with all the different types of entry possibilities. Some staff took the job a bit too seriously and this new found “power” was too rewarding as they now could make us wait until they felt it was appropriate.
Unfortunately, a vacation that was more stressful than remaining home. We left Florida with no happy memories of our children enjoying their favorite rides and characters, but instead with the thoughts of how much work it was to keep them calm enough to enjoy anything, and many unused fast pass tickets as our children were unable to remain until the time stamped. The disappointment has forced us to reconsider ever returning to Disney, as Alanna and Austin are not able to understand this new process, and for us parents it added to our usual stress level as we attempted to plan our route over and over again. We understand that others have abused the use of the disability pass and that you have been forced to respond to the masses who viewed the abuse. We of course have witnessed those that were possibly participants in this abuse and are saddened that others would use those with disabilities as their opening to get to the front of a line. However, as parents of children with disabilities, we would have offered you any documentation that you need to validate our children’s disability and how it affects their participation at The Happiest Place on Earth.
Disney we thank you for a 15 year run of an awesome vacation that brought smiles and memories to our children that could never be replaced or surpassed. We are saddened at the thought they these memories will not continue for another 20 + years as we had anticipated, with plans to move closer after retirement. We are not upset with you as a company, but with all those that have caused you to make this drastic change to your process.
Disney will forever be a staple in our home, as Austin carries a hollowed out Winnie the Pooh everywhere he goes, and the many movies and decorations will consume us we are sure, but we will no longer travel to see the “real” Cinderella and her Castle, and I can’t express how much we will miss her and all the Princesses and Disney Characters. The genuine hugs and excitement they brought to our children as they thought they were in the presence of their favorite characters, to witness that innocence and joy is impossible to express.
Gallagher Family Christmas Mantel 2013