Sue Ann pulled up her knee-high rainbow socks, made one quick yank at her polyester skirt to make sure it was no longer wedged into the waistband of her briefs, and announced herself ready for Disneyland. Though elderly, short, squat, and assigned male at birth, Sue Ann (a pseudonym) looks fetching in her ever-askew blond wig. The gal's got moxie. She's a 4'6" American Girl Doll, except with regular prostate exams. Most of her life has been spent being unable to be herself, having been born in an era when Americans sent people with developmental disabilities to Dickensian institutions—not to mention an era when being trans was extremely taboo. Once she got out of the state hospital, she commenced doing whatever the fuck she wanted. And what she wanted more than anything was to go to Disneyland.
I was very privileged to be the one to take her. For years, I have worked with people who have disabilities, and I've taken three different clients on a Hajj to Disney Anaheim. Many people with developmental disabilities make a trip to a Disney theme park their one vacation in life—yes, life. They live on Social Security, a very modest amount, and Disney parks aren't cheap. A one-day Disneyland pass costs $99—and that doesn't count parking, food, or gift shop purchases. If a person with disabilities gets a windfall—an inheritance, bonus at work, high-stakes Special Olympics betting payout—they need to dump it quickly, lest the government step in and snatch it. Naturally, their first choice is often to spend it like an NFL star who just won the big game.
Having a disability at Disney theme parks was like being Bianca Jagger at Studio 54.
Not only is Disneyland fun, but it has generally been inclusive for people with differences. For example, though Sue Ann ambled her way through the airport with me, getting disdainful snickers from the T.S.A. agents, she was practically Cinderella being doted on by enchanted mice when we made it to the Magic Kingdom. Everyone from the kid selling giant turkey legs to "cast members," like the Little Mermaid, engaged her. I never saw one flicker in a cast member's eye that there might be anything strange about Sue Ann at all. Even when she delivered some message to them in her stilted, incomprehensible cadence, they pretended that it was the news that they had always been waiting for, and complimented her on her colorful outfit. Sue Ann glowed.
This was 2012, and at that time having a disability at Disney theme parks was like being Bianca Jagger at Studio 54—Disney let guests with disabilities cut the line. That's right, no waiting for four hours to get into Splash Mountain, bitches: Flash your pass and strut, shuffle, or roll your way past all the able-bodied schmucks who have to endure UV rays, fallen arches, and other people's churlish brats to ride a wet ride. For one day in your life you got to rule Disneyland. It was victory. It was justice. It was epic.
But then, just like that, everything changed.
In May of 2013, the New York Post ran a story called "Rich Manhattan Moms Hire Handicapped Tour Guides So Kids Can Cut Lines at Disney World." Dubbed "tour concierges," an entire black-market web of douchebaggary ensured wealthy families could pay someone with a disability over $1,034 a day to help them avoid lines. (Disney offers its own VIP Tour Service for anyone who wants to skip lines, disability or not, but it costs $400 to $550.) This moral decrepitude was, according to the article, a niche cottage industry. Though Disney is pointedly mute on the subject, soon after the piece came out, Disney completely dismantled the Happiest Disability Policy on Earth. Disney declined to comment for this story, but on their website, they allude to people taking advantage of the previous system: "The new program is designed to provide the special experience guests have come to expect from Disney. It will also help control abuse that was, unfortunately, widespread and growing at an alarming rate." Now when someone with a special need goes to the park they receive a Disability Access Service Card.
"The DAS Card is designed to accommodate guests who aren't able to wait in a conventional queue environment due to a disability (including non-apparent disabilities)," Disney's site explains. "DAS will be issued at Guest Relations main entrance locations and will offer guests a return time for attractions based on the current wait time. As soon as the Guest finishes one attraction, they can receive a return time for another."
So there you have it, assholes poisoning the dreams of children and adults with cerebral palsy, Down Syndrome, limited mobility, and anyone else who for once in their life didn't want to be relegated to the short bus of life. But hey, if you can bribe an elite preschool to hop little Aubrey to the head of the waiting list, why not cheat Walt?
"I don't mind the new way," said a young woman I spoke to who has Louis-Bar syndrome, a degenerative condition that severely inhibits movement, coordination, and her body's ability to fight disease. "They got rid of the old way because I guess too many people were loading grandma into a wheelchair before or something." She visited the park recently. "I just went and did something else until it was my turn."
The current Disney system seems to work better for higher functioning folks who can understand idle time.
But not everyone is OK with the change. The old policy wasn't just magnanimous—it was practical, especially for parents of children with autism or people with physical or cognitive disabilities for whom patience over long delays ain't gonna happen. Mothers of 16 children with Autism have sued the Walt Disney Company over the policy change, alleging the corporation has violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"The current Disney system seems to work better for higher functioning folks who can understand idle time," says Andy Dogali, the parties' attorney. "People with more moderate to severe disabilities are all just uniformly suffering now."
"Suffering" might be a bit of a stretch, but if the idea is to create as close to the same experience for every guest as possible, then the new system sucks. Each case varies, but some parents find the new policy violates the American With Disabilities Act by discriminating against children and adults who can no longer enjoy the park. The lawsuit started in 2013 when parents sued the Walt Disney Company in California. Last year, a federal judge transferred the case to a federal court in Orlando, Florida, at Disney's request, because the new program's developers work there. In February, the Florida Commission on Human Relations declared "reasonable cause exists to believe that unlawful public accommodation practices occurred," according to Disability Scoop. The commission lacks the power to legally enforce their findings, but they could help the families in their lawsuit against Disney.
Since then, additional legal developments have hit the Mouse House. More families filed an additional lawsuit in Los Angeles in May. Back in Florida, Dogali filed a request to depose the Walt Disney Company COO Tom Staggs—a man many believe will become the company's next CEO. Disney has fought Dogali's request.
As for Sue Ann, she's bummed. Before the change, she could head straight for Small World and ride it repeatedly for two hours—because she could. Off boat, on boat. Off boat, on boat. Then back to the hotel. We got up and did the same thing the next day, but it was worth it just to hear that goddamned song 73 times.
The ADA's legal implications raise complicated issues, but nobody is asking the Walt Disney Company to cater to every person's individual needs. Activists aren't asking Disney build a dome over the entire park for people with disabilities preventing them from enduring sunlight, and nobody has sued the company asking the company to change the name of Tweedle Dee's brother to "Tweedle Cognitively Challenged." The old practice may have allowed rich families to take advantage of the policy, but it also allowed people with disabilities a rare chance to feel valued.
Maybe Disney should follow its own lead and heed a popular line from Frozen: "Love is putting someone else's needs before yours."