It's pretty clear that Ben would never have reached 3,500 rides on Snow White's Scary Adventures without making use of the Guest Assistance Card (GAC) program. We can debate whether or not that's a good thing, but in any case it is safe to say that my family had extensive direct experience with the GAC over the course of ten years. In this last year we had almost completely weaned Ben off of using the card, because he has reached the point as a young adult where he is perfectly capable of standing in a line (both physically and emotionally). I count that as a success in and of itself.
When Disney announced several months back that the GAC program would be phased out due to rampant abuse and replaced with a new Disability Access System (DAS), I was not particularly concerned about how it would affect our family. I had some worries about how it would affect the autism community in general, but for us at least it seemed that Ben had progressed beyond the point where he really needed it. And then, back at the end of August, Ben got sick.
His Atypical Cystic Fibrosis has made a concerted attack on his pancreas, and he currently has a very large stone blocking his main pancreatic duct as well as several smaller stones behind it. He has had two endoscopic procedures since early September, neither of which have been able to remove the stone. A series of successively larger stents have been placed to at least allow his pancreas to drain and to relieve the pancreatitis. Hopefully a third procedure a few weeks from now will finally be successful in removing the stone, but in the meantime he has been miserable. Since this current illness began he has only managed to attend school on four days -- and on two of those days he was sent home within two hours due to pain and nausea. He is not a well young man right now.
Being sick, however, does not dampen his love for Disney and visiting the parks. What has dampened things is his current level of stamina. He seems to only have about two hours of activity in him before he gets too exhausted to carry on. Standing in a long line is simply out of the question for him, he would collapse long before he ever reached the front of the line. And so it was that we found ourselves in the Magic Kingdom two weekends ago and in need of the new DAS program.
We arrived on Friday evening, and my plan was to pick up a DAS card and then see about having Ben meet the fair maidens at Princess Fairytale Hall. He could spend the wait time sitting over at his favorite spot by the teacups or riding on the Peoplemover, so he would spend most of his two hours in the park sitting down. It seemed like a perfectly fine plan. Then we arrived at Main Street and saw the long line spilling out of the Guest Services building.
The line just to ask for a DAS card took more than 25 minutes, during which Ben spent most of his time sitting on one of the couches in the lobby listening to his iPod. To his credit, Ben was very, very patient. When it was finally our turn, I called Ben over and then explained to the Cast Member (CM) that Ben required assistance. The CM asked if we had ever used the DAS program before, and I explained that Ben had used the GAC quite a bit but that this was the first time we had tried the new program. The CM was very friendly and efficient, explaining how the new program worked while he showed me the new card and pointed out the instructions on the back. He took Ben's picture, and then handed us our new DAS card with an expiration date for 14 days in the future since we are local passholders. Aside from what seemed like an unusually long line to speak to a CM, the entire process of obtaining the card seemed very efficient and informative. We left City Hall with our new DAS and made our way to Fantasyland.
Ben wanted to go right to the Teacups, but I steered him over to Princess Fairytale Hall. By then it was already 6pm, and the park was closing at 7pm due to the Halloween party, so I knew we needed to get a return time written on that DAS card right away if Ben stood any chance of meeting a princess. I was very pleased to see that Snow White was in attendance that evening, and so I approached the CM at the attraction entrance and asked about using the DAS for Ben to meet the Fairest One of All. I had noted that the Cinderella side had a currently posted wait time of 50 minutes, whereas the Rapunzel side (where Snow White was visiting) had a posted wait time of 40 minutes. It had been my understanding that the return time that should be given on the DAS card was the current wait time minus ten minutes, so I expected the CM to write up Ben for a return time of 6:30 (it was currently 6pm, with a forty minute wait for Snow White, minus ten minutes). Instead, the CM wrote a return time of 6:50pm. In retrospect I probably should have been more assertive with the CM, but in the moment I chose to accept what we were given since Ben was pulling on me to get away from that spot and go visit his favorite spot by the Teacups.
Ben quickly led around past The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and then proceeded to sit down on the sidewalk right next to the speaker near the Teacups that plays an endless stream of music from Alice in Wonderland. By then Ben really needed to sit down and rest, and he spent a solid 25 minutes just sitting comfortably out of the way of foot traffic listening to music and laughing. Eventually he tired of that, and we walked over to Tomorrowland for a spin on the Peoplemover. By the time we finished that it was 6:45, so I lead Ben back over to Fantasyland and Princess Fairytale Hall.
That's where I got my next shock. When I presented Ben's DAS at the entrance, the CM working there apologized and said they were not allowing any more guests inside until 7pm. When I pointed out that we had specifically been given this return time, and that we did not have tickets or wristbands for the Halloween event and therefore couldn't stay past 7pm, she pointed me to a manager nearby, saying there was really nothing she could do but perhaps the manager could help us. I was angry -- we had done our part, followed instructions to the letter, Ben was on the edge of running out of any remaining stamina, and all he wanted to do was meet Snow White like I had told him he would. I thought to myself, if I had advocated for Ben better earlier on we would have had a 6:30 return time and this wouldn't even be an issue. For the first time in a very long time I was prepared speak some very unkind words to a Disney Cast Member.
To his credit, the manager did not even bat an eyelash when I approached him and explained the situation. I had barely gotten past "..my son was given a return time of 6:50...." when the manager said, "No problem at all, I will take you right back myself. As easily as that, Ben and I were led back to the greeting room and allowed to be the very last family to meet the princesses that night (before the Halloween party, anyway).
For Ben's part, he was completely enchanted. He had been to Princess Fairytale Hall once before, but Snow White had not been there that day. Ben was very excited to see her, and as he strode up to give her a hug I gently reminded Snow White that of course she remembered Ben as being the very last person to go on her ride last year before it closed. She got a huge smile and exclaimed, "Well of course I remember Prince Benjamin! How could I possibly forget?" Needless to say, the rest of the visit went swimmingly.
Ben also had a short visit with Rapunzel that evening, but honestly he had no idea who she was, and he was just being polite. He was also exhausted, and ready to get out of the park and get some rest. Overall it was less that two hours from the time we parked the car until the time we got back, and Ben was wiped out not only for the rest of that night but for the entirety of the next day.
So what did I think of the DAS? It's hard to say from just one day and one attraction. Obviously I was not pleased with the return time we were initially given, and doubly not pleased when we were initially refused entrance when came back at the appointed time. The former seems like a real issue. The latter, I think, was more of a symptom of being there immediately before a special event so I can't really blame DAS for that. Conceptually I don't mind the wait time for Ben, but I think it would have made our lives much more difficult several years ago when he was more prone to extreme meltdowns and outbursts. I gather that there are some serious inconsistencies between how the DAS is handled from park to park, and that's a problem. On the whole I think it is still early days for the program, and I expect that it will take some time to really shake out the system and make it work properly. Disney has earned a lot of goodwill from my family, and I am willing to give them the benefit of the doubt that the system will improve over time.
With all that being said, though, I would advise any family coming to the parks for the fist time with their autistic child to plan on having a bit of a bumpy ride, and to have enough members in their party so that one person can handle the mechanics of using the DAS and someone else to manage their disabled child separately. The only points where the child needs to be physically present are to take the photograph when the card is issued, and then to access the attraction at the appointed return time. The child does not need to be present when obtaining a return time, so I would send another adult ahead to the attraction to take care of that while keeping the child occupied elsewhere. It will definitely require more advanced planning and time management than the GAC system did, and you have to be prepared for that. It's not optimal, and I think Disney can do better (and has done better), but it is also not a complete train wreck. I think the new system works well for the vast majority of physical disabilities, and does address the very real problem of abuse with the previous system by removing the time advantage. The new system is definitely lacking in how it handles guests with cognitive disabilities. Hopefully Disney will understand that and make some appropriate changes, but until then families dealing with autism need to come to the parks fully prepared to advocate aggressively for their loved ones.