About Me

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I am a consultant and general counsel to International Ride Training LLC as well as a practicing attorney in Avon, Connecticut. A particular focus of mine is the legal needs of the amusement and tourism industry. My focus on the amusement industry derives from my pre-law career as an operations manager with Cedar Fair Entertainment Company and Universal Orlando. Having started my career as a ride operator at Cedar Point in 1992, I progressed through the seasonal ranks and ultimately became the Manager of Ride Operations and Park Services at Worlds of Fun in Kansas City. I also worked in Universal's operations department during the construction and development of Islands of Adventure. Today, I am an active member of the New England Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions and the International Association of Amusement Parks & Attractions. I have been invited to speak at amusement industry meetings and seminars and have worked on a variety of matters relating to this industry.

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

The One Thing No One Is Telling You About Disney's New Disabled Guest Access Policy

As most of you probably already know, Disney has made some waves recently with the announcement of its new access policy for guests with disabilities  Although the change to the policy was announced a couple of weeks ago, I decided not to comment on it until I could see something official from Disney itself explaining how the new policy would work.  Until such an announcement, I simply could not be sure that the media and blogosphere reporting was accurate (imagine that?).  Well, Disney has now officially unveiled its new access policy and published an F.A.Q. on the ins-and-outs of its mechanics.  And having taken a look at Disney's official materials, I am left wondering why a critical component of the policy has been almost completely overlooked by both the national media and, it seems, by the people expressing dismay and anger about the new system.  Contrary to what you may have read in news reports or online petitions, Disney's new policy appears to simultaneously curtail the abuses it encountered under its prior system while still maintaining enough flexibility to address the individual needs of its disabled guests. That's good, right?  Read on to find out more...

First, some quick background on the change, in case you are not up to speed.  For several years, Disney has issued "Guest Assistance Cards" (or "GACs") to guests with disabilities.  Holders of these cards, and their parties, were granted expedited (in many cases, immediate) boarding access on Disney's rides and attractions.  The GAC policy was obviously very popular and, accordingly, was abused by some.  Over the last several months, the media reported instances of wealthy guests hiring disabled people as tour guides at Disney parks, thus allowing the entire group immediate boarding privileges.  Recognizing that abuse was, "unfortunately, widespread and growing at an alarming rate," Disney has now unveiled a new policy, set to take effect this week (October 9), that eliminates GACs and expedited boarding privileges and replaces them with new "Disability Access Service" ("DAS") cards.

Under the new DAS policy (a more detailed discussion of which can be found here), expedited boarding privileges are no longer routinely granted.  Instead the DAS policy requires card holders to obtain a boarding time, based on the current length of the line, for the card holder and his / her party.  Boarding times are only granted for one attraction at a time, i.e. a DAS card holder cannot "stack" boarding times to allow access to a series of attractions consecutively while only, in effect, waiting the length of the line for the first one.  Only after the first boarding time has elapsed, can a DAS card holder obtain a time for a second attraction.

This is how the new policy is being reported in the media.  And it is this presentation of the policy that seems to have resulted in criticism and outrage from some in the disabled community who complain that the new policy does not address the needs of those guests who not only cannot wait in line, but those guests  who simply cannot wait at all.  A recent Orlando Sentinel report sums up the concern:

"Some parents say waiting for an extended period of time, even if they don't have to stand in a crowded queue, is not practical for their children. Some cannot mentally process why they can't ride immediately. Others must be on rigid schedules for food, medicine or even bathroom breaks. Some can be in the parks for only two or three hours before their child becomes exhausted or has a meltdown."

But does the new policy really make it impossible for children (or anyone else) with particular disabilities that make waiting impossible or unduly burdensome to visit Disney's parks?  No.  In fact, there is one critical portion of the DAS policy that has gone almost totally unmentioned in the recent reports.  It's this, from Disney's official blog:

"Q.  What will Disney Parks do if a Guest is concerned the DAS Card doesn’t meet their needs?
A.  Disney Parks have long recognized and accommodated guests with varying needs and will continue to work individually with guests with disabilities to provide assistance that is responsive to their unique circumstances. Guests should visit Guest Relations to discuss their individual needs."

This is an important, indeed vital, component of the DAS policy and no one seems to have noticed it.  Why is it so important?  Because, it provides exactly the flexibility that is demanded under the Americans With Disabilties Act and, perhaps (as a practical matter) more importantly, by Disney's disabled guests.

Title III of the ADA requires public accommodations, such as Disney's parks, to provide to disabled guests, with only limited exceptions, the same opportunity for "full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations" offered to the general public visiting its facilities.  42 U.S.C. 12182(a).  It's a legal requirement echoed by some, including some in the disabled community, who have argued that the new policy is fine because it gives "equal access" not better or easier access.  To such people, requiring disabled guests to wait the length of the line to board an attraction does nothing more than provide the same service that other guests to the park receive.  Nothing less, nothing more.

But what about those guests who have disabilities that prevent them from waiting at all? Those guests who must have their days strictly scheduled, or who can become easily overwhelmed by the constant stimuli of the theme park environment?  Is it any answer to say to those guests that Disney only has to give them the exact same experience it gives to everyone else regardless of individual circumstances.  No.  That's not an answer (at least, it's not a legally correct answer).  The ADA requires more flexibility than that, and in particular requires that public accommodations:

"make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures, when such modifications are necessary to afford such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations to individuals with disabilities, unless the entity can demonstrate that making such modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of such goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, or accommodations."

42 U.S.C.A. § 12182(b)(2)(A)(ii).  That is precisely what the DAS policy does.  It provides a general rule for the majority of disabled guests that will have no issue waiting between attractions, and simultaneously provides the legally required flexibility to address the particular needs of its guests on a case-by-case basis.

Not only is the policy thus legally compliant with the ADA, it provides the opportunity for the guest service that has made Disney a worldwide leader in the entertainment industry.  Disney has long had a reputation for doing "whatever it takes" to make sure that every guest's expectations are exceeded.  A restrictive, "one size fits all" policy simply does not provide the "wiggle room" necessary to make sure that happens in every circumstance.  Specifically recognizing the the very individual circumstances that some members of the public (and the media) claim Disney is ignoring gives Disney the ability to continue exceeding guest expectations when flexibility from "policy" is required.

While the DAS policy seems to have been deemed insensitive and flawed by the media from the day it was announced, the policy appears, in actuality, to reflect typical Disney excellence, at least in its structure and presentation to the public.  The fact that a critical facet of the policy has been overlooked and / or ignored by the media and the public is not Disney's fault, but it is something that Disney's Guest Relations staff will need to be prepared to deal with come October 9.  My guess is they will be and that, this time next year, no one will be talking about how awful this program is anymore.

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