“To all who come to this happy place — welcome! Disneyland is your land.”
Walt Disney, Disneyland Opening Day Speech, 1955
Disneyland and the Walt Disney World Resort have long been recognized as among the most inclusive and accessible vacation destinations in the world, largely because of the high standards of hospitality and customer service set by their namesake in the 1950’s.
Tradition notwithstanding, times do change and in many ways for the better. Improvements in health care and pharmacology are enabling adults to live longer. Advances in technology allow those with mobility challenges to maintain active lives within the community. Increased social awareness and acceptance of people with differing levels of functional ability provide greater opportunities for everyone to access and participate in travel and recreational activity, such as a theme-park vacation!
Given all this, it would be difficult to imagine a travel party that does not have at least one member with some sort of special need or health challenge.
On October 9, 2013, Disney completely overhauled its system for accommodating Guests with disabilities to coincide with the new FastPass+ System of reservations for high-volume attractions. If you’ve visited either the Disneyland or the Walt Disney World Resorts prior to this date and have utilized these accommodations, you’ll see that although Guests’ needs continue to be accommodated, the system has become more complex.
So, what does this mean for you as you plan your Disney vacation with extra challenges? Let’s look at what the parks offer for differently-abled Guests with special needs:
Before you arrive
Disney has information for Guests with Disabilities available for review on the official website. This should be your first stop when seeking information because it comes “straight from the Mouse’s mouth!”
At the Theme Parks
The Guide for Guests with Disabilities is a brochure that provides a detailed overview of services and facilities available for Guests with disabilities. It is available at Guest Relations locations within all 4 Disney Theme Parks, 2 Disney Water Parks, vacation planners, front desk and concierge areas, and wheelchair rental locations.
This guide provides a detailed overview of the services and facilities available for Guests with disabilities, including information about:
- Companion restroom locations
- Accessible drinking fountain locations
- Auxiliary aids
- Telephone assistance
- Transportation facilities
- Specific attraction entrance and boarding procedures, as some attractions allow Guests to remain in a wheelchair and some are transfer-accessible.
Additionally, Guests with specific disability concerns can visit Guest Relations at any of the Disney Theme Parks or Disney Water Parks for additional information and assistance.
Note the locations of the First Aid Station in each of the theme parks. First Aid Stations provide a place to store medications and spare oxygen tanks, or to receive assistance.
Disney offers several accommodations for Guests with visual and hearing challenges and for Guests who utilize trained service animals – for the most part, these have not changed.
Some examples of accommodations include:
- Assistive Listening systems
- Reflective Captioning
- Sign Language interpretation
- Text Typewriter telephones
- Handheld Captioning
- Video Captioning
- Audio Description devices
- Braille guidebooks
- Digital audio tour
Handheld Accessibility Device
The Disney Theme Parks welcome Trained Service Animals
It is important for you to know that Cast Members are not permitted to take control of service animals. Guests with service animals should follow the same attraction entrance guidelines as Guests who use wheelchairs.
Each Theme Park and allows Guests to use (backstage) locations for service animal relief areas. Please consult the Guidebook for Guests with Disabilities, for specific information.
Photo: Edward Crane, personal collection
Accelerated Access to Attractions
The accommodation that previously provided accelerated access to certain attractions based upon the ability of the guest to tolerate an extended wait in the queue is no longer being provided. Disney’s Guest Assistance Card (GAC) has been replaced with the Disability Access Service Card (DAS), which has been designed to work together with the FastPass+ system of attraction reservation. With the DAS, guests now receive a return time for attractions based on their current posted wait time.
The official guide to the Disability Access Service Card is available for download in PDF format. If you plan to request this accommodation, I highly recommend that you review the file thoroughly. As with the GAC, requests for the DAS accommodation are made in person at Guest Relations located at the front of each of the four theme parks. Unlike FastPass+ reservations, procurement of the DAS is not available prior to your arrival at the theme park.
One noticeable change with this new system appears to be the way in which the Cast Members at Guest Relations are granting a particular accommodation based upon the Guest’s stated need, NOT their diagnosis or disability.
Needs based upon cognitive or sensory disabilities that make it difficult for the Guest to wait in the traditional queue are offered the DAS, which will provide the Guest with an alternate waiting environment. Guests who state that they their need is based upon mobility or endurance issues are offered the accommodation of wheelchair or ECV (scooter) rental if they do not already have their own assistive device and are offered the alternate entrance accommodation.
Guests are encouraged to utilize either of these accommodations in addition to the Fast Pass and FastPass+ reservation systems. Again, I urge you to review the official Disney Parks information prior to your arrival at the theme parks. There you will find a detailed description of how the accommodations are utilized.
Accommodation for Guests with Cognitive, Sensory and Mental Health Challenges
Disney has created a Resource for Guests with Cognitive Disabilities Including Autism Spectrum Disorder for both Walt Disney World and Disneyland, also available as pdf files. Some of the information is applicable to Guests with Anxiety Disorders and PTSD, so even if the need is unrelated to Autism, it is worth a review.
It is important for you to know that the American’s With Disabilities Act prohibits Disney from requesting “proof” of disability or even a specific diagnosis. You are, of course, free to divulge your diagnosis if you so choose. However, Cast Members are being discouraged from accepting “doctor’s notes” that in past years could support the Guest’s request for accommodation. This is to avoid the perception that Disney is requiring proof, which would be against Federal Law.
In addition, please be aware that Cast Members are not health care providers and most likely will not have a clear understanding of your needs if you simply provide them with a medical diagnosis. Therefore, it is important that the Guest or the Guest’s representative be able to clearly articulate the need.
While the DAS card is most commonly requested for use by Guests with cognitive, sensory, or mental health challenges, there are other invisible medical challenges for which a Guest may find the card useful. Again, it all depends upon the individual need. Some possible examples are:
- Medical conditions that may result in a rapid change in blood sugar, necessitating immediate treatment
- Medical conditions that may result in seizures, necessitating immediate treatment
- Medical conditions that make it difficult for a Guest to wait in a traditional queue, yet preclude the Guest from utilizing a wheelchair or ECV
If there is more than one Guest in a travel party with the need for accommodation with a Disability Access Service Card, it is highly recommended that each Guest obtain his or her own card. This allows the guests to “split up” if needed and still make use of the accommodations.
The process sounds overwhelming, but it is easier than you may think to obtain the accommodations you need. To assist you, I have created an easy-to-read Guide to Requesting Disney’s DAS Card. To receive your guide directly to your inbox, please see the sidebar, above right.
Accommodations for Guests with Mobility and Endurance Challenges
Wheelchairs and Electric Conveyance Vehicles (ECVs or “scooters”) are available for rent in all the theme parks. Quantities are limited and they are available on a first-come-first-serve basis. Guests are permitted to bring their own mobility assistive devices.
Boarding an Accessible Vehicle on the Jungle Cruise
Guests using wheelchairs or ECVs are provided the accommodation of alternate entrance. It should be noted that, due to safety regulations concerning the number of mobility-impaired guests that may utilize an attraction at one time, the wait for a particular attraction may actually be longer when using this accommodation. Options for boarding procedures are posted at the entrance to each attraction and may vary.
If the Guest has both a cognitive and a mobility disability, the Guest should request both accommodations.
Most attractions, restaurants, shops and shows are accessible to all Guests. In some cases, however, Guests may need the assistance of a member of their party to fully utilize these areas. Also, at some attractions Guests using wheelchairs may need to transfer from their wheelchairs onto an attraction vehicle. Disney Cast Members are not permitted to physically lift Guests from wheelchairs. Disney recommends that Guests who need assistance plan to visit with someone who can physically assist them, when necessary.
Although there are no written guidelines for Guests with prosthetic limbs, Disney Cast Members operating the attractions, particularly the “thrill” rides, may determine Guest safety on an individual basis. The deciding factor appears to be whether or not the Guest is able to brace him- or herself on the ride, with or without the prosthesis.
Image: Rae Augenstein, Personal Collection
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The above information has been presented as a basic guide to the accommodations provided at the Disney Theme Parks. If you have additional questions regarding your individual needs that cannot be answered using the resources mentioned, you may contact the Resorts directly:
Walt Disney World Guest Communications
PO Box 10040
Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830-0040
You can also send an email to WDW.Guest.Communications@disneyworld.com; address it to Disability Relations in the subject line. Give them a phone number so that they can call. It sometimes takes 2-3 weeks, but someone from Disability Relations will call you to discuss your concerns.
DISNEYLAND Guest Communications
P.O. Box 3232
Anaheim, CA 92803-6161
Email DISNEYLAND.Guest.Communications@disneyland.com. Use Disability Relations in the subject line as above.