The Disney drama. I’m sure you are well aware of it all. If you haven’t heard, I’d like to know what cave you live in. (Mostly because I want to come visit. And perhaps take up residence alongside you.)
I’ve avoided getting into the fray on purpose. Because after a while it feels a lot like beating a dead horse. And I wonder what I can bring to the table that is new or hasn’t been dissected 8,000 times.
Except that, as I read blog post after blog post, CNN articles, Huffington Post opinion pieces, and Facebook rants, a peculiar voice seems to be missing. A “side” (if there can be a side in such things) that is quite silent amid the protests and anger. The side is there…just quiet…perhaps even pushed to the side a little bit. Or just not as organized and loud anyway.
Here’s the background: I have a daughter with Cerebral Palsy and Epilepsy. For all intents and purposes, she cannot walk, nor can she talk. She rocks the cutest little walker you ever did see, and can say a few things, but generally speaking she is non-verbal and requires a wheelchair for anything more than about half an hour of walking. Or, because she is still only 4.5 years old…we use a stroller.
We also happen to have annual passes to Disneyland, and it has been one of the most magical and incredible family fun times of our lives. I could try to explain it to you in paragraph after paragraph, but there’s just no way to describe seeing your child have genuine fun…their face light up…and feel like just one of the kids…when you so often watch them on the sidelines…watching everyone else ride bikes and play baseball in the cul de sac. Disneyland is one of the absolute few places where we can all…every one of us…participate in the same way. Disneyland is not a basic human right, but it’s FUN. And in so many ways, it actually manages to level the playing field, if even only for a day.
(And just to clarify as I continue, we paid for our passes with our own moola, and yes, I’ve done a few posts for Disney…but they were through a third party and I have ZERO contact with Disney folks. Truly. I have about as much connection to Disney as your neighbor does. Unless your neighbor actually does work for Disney. Then not him. He doesn’t count.)
(Also, yes, I am very aware of how privileged we are to be able to buy our family passes. In fact, they expire in November, and we are having big conversations about if renewal is the best option for what it does to illustrate our family values to our children vs. the fun stuff. It’s complicated. And weirdly hard.)
I want to begin with my understanding of the history of the Guest Assistance Card at Disneyland. The GAC was never intended to be a cut to the front of the line pass. Or, as Fox News called it: “[the] line-jumping program“. Sure, that’s how it worked out in reality (guests with the pass typically enter through the exits of rides and don’t have to wait in the oftentimes long lines), but the reason the card was created had nothing to do with giving the disabled a permanent Fast Pass or any kind of special privileges. It was created originally to solve a very simple problem: people in wheelchairs physically couldn’t get through the lines. The older, original line ups weren’t designed to accommodate wheelchairs. They just weren’t wide enough, with large enough turns at the ends as dictated by ADA regulations. Period. When the GAC was first implemented (and I think it was even called something else until recently), it was a simple solution to a mobility issue. If Jill wants to ride Peter Pan, she literally cannot wait in the line. Physically. Not because we feel entitled to jump the line, Fox. Not because she gets an extra perk for being born with a disability. But because we won’t fit. (And before anyone points out that it’s a double stroller…yes, it happens to be…ADA requires 32″ of clearance for wheelchairs and our stroller is 29″ wide. It’s only a matter of time until we have to transition to an official chair.)
Ever notice that the official symbol for disabilities is a dude in a wheelchair? That’s because there was a time, not too long ago, when the vast majority of people only considered physical disabilities to be “handicapped”. In fact, we’re not even really allowed to use that word anymore. It’s so 1995. And politically incorrect.
And that’s kind of the point here.
We all know that the definitions of a disability have widened to include many different disabilities…both visible and invisible. Both physical and cognitive. Sensory issues, Autism Spectrum, seizure disorders, spina bifida, children who need regularly cathed…and so much more.
Disneyland is caught in the middle of an ever changing landscape, and what was once simply considered “wheelchair access” is now a much nuanced and very complicated world to navigate. Never was it intended (or even considered) that kids with “invisible disabilities” would be part of that equation. (P.S. federal law prohibits Disney from requiring proof of a disability…another conundrum Disney is caught in, which is ironic because most of us with proof have no problem showing it…I actually brought a report from our neurologist the first visit thinking we had to show something).
Now, I am not in any way saying that children/people with sensory disorders (for example) should not be given a GAC. They should. Because that’s real. But I won’t speak to the issues of cognitive/sensory/behavior based disorders in this post simply because I cannot. We deal with a whole host of issues, but none of these are in our repertoire. I would be speaking completely out of turn if I even tried.
And if I’m being really honest, it feels like most of the attention/discussion/debate on this topic revolves around this “type” of disability. Again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t have a say…of course they do…just that it seems that those with primarily physical disabilities are awfully quiet on the topic. And I want to give a voice to them too. Not silencing anyone…just joining the conversation, if you will. (Like all those disclaimers? Because I just know someone will think I’m all anti-autism or something and I am so totally not. Love you friends! All of you.) But I do find it interesting that Disney spokeswoman Suzi Brown said that “We engaged disability groups, such as Autism Speaks, to develop this new process, which is in line with the rest of our industry.” I’d be curious to see a list of these “disability groups” and I find it interesting that Autism Speaks was called out by name. Let’s face it, Disney doesn’t do anything by accident…including singling out an organization in a heated press release.
So here’s how I imagine it went down: Disneyland realized that their line rides weren’t in compliance with ADA regulations (regulations which were also still mainly geared for wheelchair access). They devised a plan that kept them from completely redesigning their park and solved the problem. Said card was abused by some who would rent a wheelchair and pretend to be disabled. Everyone knew there was abuse, but whatever. At some point, if you want to be shady, go ahead and be shady.
As years went on, the definitions expanded (rightfully so) and as such, so did the abuse of the system. You don’t even have to spend the $25 to rent a chair! Hot dog!
In fact, even within the last year that we have had our annual passes, we have seen it. The line to get your GAC at City Hall was literally out the door and down the street. Andy overheard a group laughing about how they were denied the GAC this time. You know, as he stood there with our daughter in her walker. Super funny. Keep laughing. Mocking my daughter’s disability is super hysterical. There is a special place for you, my friend.
There have even been exposes of rich Manhattan moms who pay disabled people to go to the parks with them so they can cut to the front of the line. Apparently money really can’t buy you class. I kinda thought that was just a saying.
Disney says they want to put a stop to all this abuse. They’ve devised a new plan…in it’s simplest form it goes something like this:
We go to one of the kiosks they will distribute around the park. Stand in line. Get a pass with a time to go on the ride. The time penciled in will mimic that of what it would take for us to stand in the line assuming our wheelchair/stroller could fit. We go off and hang out, stroll through a shop, eat lunch…ride Peter Pan. Repeat. For every single ride. One at a time.
Now, in theory, this looks to be a fair option. We can’t stand in the line, so Disneyland will artificially create wait times for us. They are, after all, in the business of creating Magic.
But there are two fundamental issues with this system:
1) It won’t curb abuse. Let’s face it. People who are ugly enough to PRETEND THEY HAVE A DISABILITY are heartless jerks who have no idea what they are pretending. They just want to have the best time possible at the parks without all that pesky waiting in line business. Sure, they’ll get on fewer rides this way…since they’re no longer “cutting” the line…but who wouldn’t rather wander around, eat a Dole Whip, take a breather on a bench, watch the newest parade, or take a bathroom break INSTEAD OF STANDING IN A HOT SUN DRENCHED LINE for 45 minutes? No one in their right mind would choose to stand in line over the “lolly gagging” around approach. Add to it a less than ideal conscience, no legal way to require proof, and the abuse will be EXACTLY THE SAME.
In the meantime…
2) I find it WILDLY IRONIC that people with disabilities will be forced to criss-cross the park many times more than a typical park guest to get to and from these kiosks. Wildly ironic. Particularly for those with mobility issues. Unless Disney installs these kiosks at every single ride line, our family will be going back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. You know, while pushing a wheelchair. Does no one else find this almost funny? “Hey you’re disabled…just walk over to that end of FantasyLand for your pass…times TWELVE if you want to go on all the rides here.” Brilliant.
At best, this new system doesn’t solve the problem of abuse…at worst, it singles out and actually penalizes those with mobility issues.
I’m not pretending to have the perfect answer. But I am saying that this one isn’t the Right One.
A couple of other thoughts:
I find it interesting that this anger is coming up NOW. In Disney’s defense, the fact is that in the newer California Adventure, the GAC isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. Ride lines there were built to accommodate “wheelchairs” and we have to stand in line just like “everyone else” OR we have the option to get a pass with a time penciled in to come back. Basically, what the new system is proposing (minus the kiosks…it’s done at each ride). So, really…Disney has been quietly implementing changes as they go for years…but in the older, built in 1955 park, it’s more complicated and more obvious. But it’s been happening across the courtyard since Day 1.
I would be curious, on the flip side, to know WHY is Disney doing this? I know, I know: abuse, they say. Especially after the atrocities of the Manhattan Mom Scandal. But…who’s complaining? Those of us in the disabled community know that people cheat the system. We know it’s part of the human condition. It’s annoying and heart breaking, but it just is, you know? If you can sleep at night pretending to have a debilitating condition…well, go for it I guess. But I’m not really seeing a lot of fist raising and torch lighting from the disabled community fighting for change. I just don’t. So why the overwhelming need for changes?
And then there’s THIS side of the coin: The first time we visited the park with a GAC I told Andy “You know, I know it’s not the point, but I think that active military and anyone who deployed in the last 10 years should get one of these passes too. Because hello, they deserve it. If Disney is all about being The Happiest Place on Earth, it seems that would be a cool thing for them to implement. It’s really awesome to have a day where you don’t feel bogged down by reality.”
Here’s my appeal to those of you who still think that disabled folks need to just wait “just like everyone else” and quit demanding special treatment:
Life isn’t a competition for Who Has It Hardest. It’s not.
But the harsh reality is that we are not “just like everyone else”. I desperately wish we were. But, we are not.
And it sucks.
But I assure you that we’ve waited.
We’ve waited as I pace my front porch looking frantically for the ambulance to pull up.
We’ve waited for seizures to stop after 3 hours of not.
We’ve waited on hold with hospital bill collectors looking to set up payment plans that I’m supposed to magically make.
We’ve waited in hallways, wearing worried paths into the tile.
We’ve waited in clinics we can hardly pronounce the names for.
We’ve waited in world class children’s hospitals for answers, we never really found.
We’ve waited for the sick and dying children in rooms surrounding us to get even one visitor. Knowing that even with world class care, they probably won’t ever go home to their bedrooms.
We’ve waited as insurance we pay A WHOLE LOT FOR denies life saving medication for my daughter. THREE TIMES OVER.
We’ve waited for more test results than I can shake a stick at.
We’ve waited for trips to Target that take 3 times longer because we’re wrangling equipment.
Her siblings wait. all. the. time. For their disabled sister. Even when they, themselves, are not.
I’m still waiting to hear the words “I love you, Mommy.”
I’m still waiting to chase my girl around the couch.
I’m still waiting for the day my family can go camping.
I have a feeling that I’ll always be waiting for some of these things.
So we’ve waited. A whole damn lot.
I promise you that if it meant getting to see my girl skip through Pixie Hollow, I would happily stand in lines in exchange.
All those kids who chose Disney as their Make A Wish? Bet they’d swap the GAC they’re automatically given for your lines any day.
While the intent of the GAC was not a “cut in line pass”, the truth is that Disney is in the business of Happy and Magic.
And if, for only one day, we get to skip the waiting…would it kill you?
While I don’t feel entitled to any kind of special privilege, and it isn’t the purpose of the GAC, I can’t help but think: would it be that awful to just throw us a bone?
Life is not fair. Nor will it ever be. But at some point, is it so hard to even give it a try? Even if fair to one looks unfair to the other. For one day?
So while you hold your girl’s hand, swinging arms, watching her hang off the line railings and feeling exasperated that she’s just. not. listening., I’ll keep pushing our stroller/wheelchair, giving medications, grilling the Disney Fire Chief about emergency procedures, and praying she stays safe the whole day.
But let’s keep it fair, right?
* * * *
Also, in the highly unlikely event that someone from Disney actually reads this: Give Military Families the GAC too.
Because THANK YOU.
You’ve waited a whole lot too. And I think it’s high time you didn’t have to.
****UPDATE: I actually visited the park on Days 1 and 2 of the new changes to the program. For details on how it works and my thoughts see HERE.***