Saturday, July 7, 2012

Walt Disney World and Accommodating Autism Spectrum Disorder - the Guest Services Card

Taking someone with an Autism Spectrum Disorder on vacation provides its own challenges, which are unique to each family. In fact, for many families, concerns over new places, new experiences and unpredictable food choices can stop a vacation before it even starts. Let’s face it, who wants to go on vacation prepared to explain your child’s flavor of autism throughout the trip? Or worry that disaffected workers will not be able nor want to answer questions about park attractions and food options? Enter Disney. The Disney staff is well trained to accommodate families with special needs, both “visible” and “invisible” (think Asperger’s, juvenile diabetes, etc.) One way they do this is through the Guest Assistance Card (GAC).

The Guest Assistance Card, though well known to those who frequent Disney, isn’t well known to most, and is a little tricky to find on the website, if not impossible (I'm not sure it's even there). What is it? It is a card that can be used to identify someone with an “invisible disability,” allowing them certain specified accommodations. (We've only used it once, so take our advice as one family's experience and feel free to share your own! Always check directly with Disney for current policies and guidelines.)

How can it be used? Let’s start by stating what it is not. It is not, contrary to my daughter’s hopes, a get-to-the-front-of-the-line, with no waiting, ever, pass. One thing it can do is allow the guest (and a limited number of those in the party) to use an alternate entrance or waiting area (often the handicapped entrance), which will, indeed, result in a much shorter wait. Sometimes, no wait at all. (And, yes, in some cases they will be ushered to the front of the standard line, as it all depends on the ride and who is working at that moment.) For shows, it can mean an alternate seating area. This is very helpful for those who have significant difficulty standing in line or other sensory concerns. However, if FASTPASS is available, per Disney, do choose to use it first.

What are other ways it can be used? For us, we used it as a conversation starter. As we were unfamiliar with many of the Walt Disney World attractions, this allowed us to easily approach staff to ask about whatever our concerns were. (Sure, questions can be asked without a card, but for parents of older kids, it makes the situation much less awkward.) For rides, we’d pull it out (as a subtle way to show she has an invisible need without verbalizing her autism to fellow tourists surrounding us) and ask about certain sensory components of the ride so she could make a choice as to whether or not it was worth a try. Another time, we used it to ask about ride duration (from waiting in line to the end of the ride), where the exit was, and if there was somewhere safe she could wait while my husband and I rode.

(NOTE: We let our daughter wait for us as she is old enough and responsible enough. Not all kids will reach this level of independence. Only choose this option once or twice, as it is a family vacation, where everyone should enjoy themselves. And, for goodness’ sake, never ever leave young kids alone! Also, Disney staff is *not* responsible for watching your children – unless you are paying for their childcare services. But you already knew that, didn't you. :) )

One thing we did find is that the card cannot be used for character meet and greets. However, we did use her card as a speaking tool to chat with the character escort when one line closed before she could get in it. We asked for tips on how to meet certain special characters, and that particular Disney staff member was quite helpful – and understanding. Again, subtly pulling the card out (most guest have absolutely no idea what the cards are for) enabled us to start a conversation without drawing added attention to our daughter’s situation. It also demonstrated to the staff there is a true as opposed to perceived need, which is wonderful when your child is a teen or older, as it is uncommon for kids that age to have difficulty reining in their disappointment, etc.

Unfortunately, many unscrupulous adults do apply for these cards as a means to receive special treatment, etc., when no true disability exists. (Ironic, huh? We go through life with folks like that giving us raised eyebrows and rude comments, but when they have the opportunity to take advantage of something that gives us a needed breather – they do. Anyone shocked…?) In fact, the only negative interaction we had with any of the Disney staff at Walt Disney World was when we were applying for a GAC for our daughter. I was a little uneasy approaching the counter, thanks to so many who have abused this system. After reading up on it, I did bring paperwork from Kristina’s doctor to back up her diagnosis. Unfortunately, as we approached Guest Services, the woman working there already had a scowl on her face (very atypical for anyone working at Disney!). As I mentioned why we were there, handing her the paperwork, she shoved (yes shoved), the papers back at me, firmly stating she cannot look at personal forms. (This, of course, has me scratching my head as to how they weed out the imposters.) After giving her the required information, we received the card and went on our way – with the lady never even hinting at a smile. To be honest, in some respects I can’t blame her as I can’t even imagine what fabricated stories she has to deal with on a regular basis. Still, I am hoping this is not the norm, as it threw my Disney experience for the first part of the day.

Let’s break it down:
·         Guest Assistance Cards are available at Guest Services locations.
·         Be prepared to show documentation of the disability, even if it is never needed - and explain why your child needs this.
·         The individual applying for the card must be present.
·         The Guest Assistance Card is not meant to be, per Disney, a line jump pass, though it definitely will give you access to an alternate entrance with little to no wait. (Per Disney, use FASTPASS when available.)
·         There is no extra charge for the card.
·         Do not abuse it. Respect it, or we’ll all lose it.
·         The pass is only good for the duration of your stay and is nontransferable.

The Guest Assistance Card is helpful for many families – and each family will have different reasons and uses for it. Disney wants to make sure the entire family has a safe, happy time, and this includes accommodating those with other concerns that do not qualify for a GAC, such as food allergies. (Have an allergy? Mention it when ordering, and don’t be surprised if the chef comes out to speak with you!) For us, it provided peace of mind and played a small part in a successful family vacation.

As with anything else, don’t be afraid to ask for help and to make your unique situation known to Disney staff. Disney truly wants each and every person who enters the Parks to have a magical, memorable experience!

Have you used the GAC? Feel free to add your personal tips below!


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