About Me

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I am an attorney practicing in Hartford, 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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Monday, May 19, 2014

Here & Now (Prologue): The Question Of Autism In Amusement Parks Under The ADA




I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the issue of autistic guests and, more specifically, what services must be extended to autistic guests under the Americans With Disability Act, is one of the hottest topics in the amusement industry today.  To illustrate, I spoke about the Americans With Disabilities Act at an amusement industry event in Las Vegas in February and, while my comments were not directed at the legal requirements surrounding autism specifically, virtually all the questions from the attendees were.  I spent a good portion of two days talking, in one way or another, about one repeated question:  Does an amusement park have a legal obligation to allow autistic guests (and, by extension, their families) immediate boarding on rides?  It’s a question with very little answer in the existing law.  

Well, that may be changing.  As many of you undoubtedly know, a recent lawsuit against Disney called A.L. v. Walt Disney Parks & Resorts US,Inc., has put this question directly to a federal court in California.  It’s a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against an amusement park operator with the know-how and resources to litigate this issue to a ruling.  It’s a case the entire amusement industry needs to watch, and an issue that is very worthy of some discussion – particularly as we approach summer and the height of the amusement industry’s operating season.


Now, before I go further and before I am accused of insensitivity to the autistic community, there is a critically important point to make.  There is a difference between legal requirements on the one hand and guest service on the other.  I am concerned only with the former.  That is to say, whether a park may choose to extend immediate boarding privileges to disabled guests, and more specifically autistic guests, in the interest of providing a service is not the question at hand.  There is obviously no legal impediment to such an offering. But that’s an entirely different question from whether the ADA legally requires amusement operators to allow autistic guests to skip  lines.  And that is the only question that concerns me for the time being.    

 Nor is this piece going to pick apart the specifics of the access policy at issue in the Walt Disney case.  I’ve already done that in a prior piece.  For now, it’s enough to know the following:

1.  Before October 2013, Disney had a system at its theme parks that allowed guests with disabilities to bypass the line and board rides immediately.  For obvious reasons, this was a very popular program.
2.  Starting in October 2013, Disney changed its policy to, as relevant here, require guests who, due to a disability, cannot wait in line to obtain an “appointment” for a ride.  The appointment time corresponded to the length of the line.  The upshot here being that, even if a guest cannot wait in the line, that guest must nonetheless wait before being allowed to ride.  Guests cannot “stack” ride appointments either, so it is generally not possible to set up back-to-back appointments such that a disabled guest waits for the first ride of the day, but none thereafter. 
3.  Guests who do not believe that Disney’s policy adequately addresses their particular needs may discuss the matter with Guest Relations to determine if another reasonable accommodation can be made. 
The Complaint filed in the Disney action, all 176 pages of it, alleges a litany of issues with the new program, including inconsistent enforcement and service issues at Guest Relations, insensitive employee communication with disabled guests, and claims that the policy inflicts emotional distress on parents faced with a “meltdown” (the exact word used in the complaint, repeatedly) by their autistic children.  It even goes so far as to allege that the policy is the result of an intentional effort to keep autistic children out of Disney parks so as not to impair the “Disney Magic” for other guests.  While, uhhhh, interesting, I’m not going to get into these issues too much here because, at bottom, what the plaintiffs in the Disney case want is immediate boarding on rides.  That’s the million dollar issue.

So let’s get into it:  Does the ADA require parks to give immediate boarding access to autistic guests?  This is a complicated issue that raises, to my mind, three questions:

1.  Is immediate boarding necessary, in the legal sense, for autistic guests at amusement parks?  While what little case law exists seems to largely gloss over this question, probably due to a concern about appearing insensitive, I think it is a legitimate question to ask in light of the unique place the amusement industry appears to have with respect to autistic guests and waiting? 

2.  Is an appointment system, as opposed to immediate boarding, unreasonable with respect to autistic guests?  This is the central focus of the Disney complaint and the one that the Court will have to struggle with.  Luckily, in the cruise ship context, one court already has.

3.  Doesn’t eliminating lines fundamentally alter the services an amusement park provides to its guests?  Put another way, isn’t waiting in line an integral part of the amusement park experience (albeit not one that most people enjoy) such that eliminating it results in a wholly different guest experience? 

Because each of these questions raises interesting and important issues in their own right, I’m going to take a page from my recent Blackfish / White Lies series and proceed in multiple parts – one devoted to each of these questions.  So…for now, I leave you with a (hopefully) whetted appetite.  

1 comment:

  1. Can't wait!! We deal with this all the time with Section 504 accommodations etc. in education. It will be interesting to see how the amusement industry will have to deal with this issue and what your "take" is on this.

    ReplyDelete

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