How Disneyland's new Disability Access Service works — even when it doesn’t
What we learned from the first day of the new Disneyland system
Hello! It’s the last Sunday before our 30 percent-off sale ends. Take advantage before it’s gone!
“To all who come to this happy place: Welcome.” — Walt Disney, at the opening of Disneyland, 1955
I have heard many times from many people that a trip to Disney resorts with disabled children feels “magical.” All the hardships of the real world melt away, the red carpet is rolled out, and suddenly people are treating your child with the care and respect due any child, instead of like a problem to be solved.
My family experienced this magic, too, in 2018. The twins were 8 years old and everything at Disneyland felt wonderful and magical.
We returned to the Disney theme parks this year and while it was still wonderful, some of the magic had worn off. Staff (called “cast members”) were never mean, of course, but there was poorer communication, less understanding and less automatic acceptance of what was needed.
I am hoping this is a temporary dark cloud caused by being closed for 16 months during the pandemic. But part of it seems to be related to the significant changes Disney is implementing in its Disability Access Service system. More than once we were reminded by cast members that this program was now only for people whose disability made waiting in lines difficult, rather than any disability. That is in fact the case for my kids, and yet we were still made to wait a lot — sometimes even longer than would have been typical — while staff figured out appropriate accommodations.
We also had the “luck” of being at Disneyland on the first day they rolled out the new ride reservation system, Genie+, which also meant the first day of the electronic DAS pass. The system crashed and everyone had to revert to paper for that day.
On the bright side, the technical issues were resolved by the next day and the new app-based ride reservation system is WONDERFUL. I would often scan our tickets and make a new reservation on my smart phone while walking onto a ride so that by the time we were done, we had a new ride reservation ready to go! I also used the app for food orders, which made for less waiting at restaurants. Their food choices, especially at the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Avengers Campus areas, were impressive, with several vegan and meat-less options available.
I’m excited for the new virtual interviews, too, so that disabled visitors after Dec. 20 do not have to wait in line to register for the DAS pass like we did.
Overall, I give Disneyland 4 ½ stars. If you have a chance — and feel safe enough —plan a trip with your child! Below are my top tips for a smoother ride with disabled kids.
Before you go, know the lingo
“DAS pass” — Disability Access Service includes a free ride reservation pass for the disabled person and up to five friends. This acts almost exactly like what used to be called a FastPass and now is called Genie+. Once you register with Guest Relations, a new section appears on your Disneyland app where you can easily make reservations for a return time.
“Return time” — When you make a DAS pass reservation, you are essentially reserving a spot in line without having to physically queue up. The app (or cast member, if there are technical problems) gives you a “return time” equivalent to the line wait at that moment. So, if at noon there is a 50-minute wait for the Incredicoaster and you make a reservation, you will get a return time for 12:50 p.m.
“Lightning Lane” — Each ride has two entrances (and sometimes three but we’ll get to that). There is the “stand by” lane — which is the normal queue. Then there is the Lightning Lane, which is only for people with the Genie+ or DAS passes. It’s important to get in the right entrance. Also note that this is still a line. So, though the wait is shorter, it’s not zero. I found it took about 30 minutes from start to finish to go through most rides.
“Enter through the exit” — Often, the wheelchair accessible entrance is through the ride’s exit, which can be tricky to find. You can ask any cast member for help or look for signs with the universal access symbol. Again, they can be tricky to find, since everything is so artistically designed, but you’ll get used to looking for this symbol.
“Can transfer”/ “can walk” — The ride operator will often ask you if your wheelchair user “can transfer” or “can walk.” So, it’s a good idea to figure that out ahead of time or be ready for a lift if your child is not ambulatory. Based on observation, I would say that most people using DAS passes are aging, ambulatory adults. That is not a judgment, just noting that so medical parents understand what operators are accustomed to. My wheelchair user is more than 60 pounds and not ambulatory, so he’s right on the edge of whether we can lift him or not. Happily, there are a few options for those who need to stay in their wheelchairs. The new Web Slingers ride, for example, has a special car that wheelchairs can attach to. (My son figured out that if he uses that one, he got to ride twice as no other wheelchair users were waiting.) For a full list of rides and the type of mobility accommodations available click here.
“Companion restroom” — Most of the restrooms at Disneyland are the typical gendered galleys with rows of stalls. But if you know where to look and what to ask, you can find fabulously large single restrooms that can accommodate your pit crew. Often, they are next to the regular restrooms, but not always, and their locations seem to have been taken off the app’s map but you can see their locations here. Ask a cast member if you can’t find one. Unfortunately, there are no adult-sized changing tables in these restrooms. If that is a need, you can ask to change at a first aid station. Since my dude can stand, we used this cool trick to change a pullup without undressing.
Who knows if the Omicron variant will shut everything down again, but if you feel comfortable going to a theme park during a pandemic, here’s what we saw in early December. (For more on my reasons to feel safe enough to take my fully vaccinated kids on this trip, read last week’s issue or this recent piece in The Washington Post.)
In California, masks are not required outside but are required indoors. At Disneyland, I would say about 2/3 of people still wore masks outside. Much of the park experience is outside, which is nice for COVID-19 avoidance.
When rides were indoors, staffers were serious about making visitors keep their masks on, covering noses, mouths and chins. They would stop rides or pointedly make announcements until the offenders covered up.
Disney Resort Media Relations did not respond by publication time to my questions, including whether or not there is an exceptions policy for children who do not tolerate any sort of mask wearing. I will say that I didn’t notice any children (or adults for that matter) mask-free inside nor any special exceptions tags like they do have for strollers that are used as wheelchairs.
Vaccination or a negative test result was also theoretically required for park entrance but no one ever checked our documentation.
At San Diego Zoo and Legoland, crowds were low. That was not the case at Disneyland, unfortunately, and that made me pretty nervous.
But through a combination of vaccination, social distancing, masking, hand washing and luck, we managed to get through our trip illness-free. I hope this guide helps some of you have a similarly magical Disney experience.
Medical Motherhood’s news briefs
• From Spectrum News 1: “How families with children with disabilities cope with holiday anxiety”
“Begin to train ourselves to recognize and return and let go of that emotional reaction, that burst, is the key to emotional maturity and increased happiness in our lives,” Joe Clem said.
Clem says it’s also important to recognize your inner strength, that you’re doing your best to care for your loved one even in the most challenging moments.
• From The Washington Post: “Margaret Giannini, pioneer in helping children with disabilities, dies at 100”
Dr. Giannini was working at New York Medical College in 1950 when the chairman of the pediatrics department asked her to meet with a group of parents frustrated by the lack of medical services for their children, who had disabilities such as Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and autism.
Conventional wisdom at the time led to the institutionalization of many people with physical and intellectual disabilities, until activists and parents began to push for other options. Dr. Giannini, who was known as Dr. G, agreed to take the children as her patients, initially seeing them one to three times a week at the college’s hospital in East Harlem.
She was given an office in the basement, her son said, because officials felt that the sight of disabled children would upset others at the hospital. But her groundbreaking work — she used a multidisciplinary approach of therapy and medical care with the goal of developing physical, communication, social and learning skills — led to more patients. Her office was moved upstairs, and she went on to become the founder and director of what is now the Westchester Institute for Human Development in Valhalla, just north of New York City.
• From Disability Debrief: “Guide to international news, December 2021”
The report provides grim confirmation to our concerns that children with disabilities are worse off in health, wealth, education and family life. They're less likely to be in conditions they can thrive and less likely to receive support to do so. Headline figures are that children with disabilities are, in comparison to children without disabilities:
42% less likely to have foundational reading and numeracy skills;
49% more likely to have never attended school.
53% more likely to have symptoms of acute respiratory infection;
51% per cent more likely to feel unhappy;
32% more likely to experience severe corporal punishment.
In addition to those I found particularly striking:
Of children of upper-secondary-school age, 80% of those with difficulties communicating or caring for themselves are out of school.
Toddlers with disabilities are 60% less likely to have children's books their household than toddlers without disabilities.
Medical Motherhood is a weekly newsletter dedicated to the experience of raising disabled children.
Replies to this email go directly to me, Shasta Kearns Moore.