Disney's new theme park disability policy sparks anger

A view of Walt Disney World
A view of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. (Gary Hershorn/Getty Images)

Some Disney fans with disabilities are rethinking their summer plans in light of the company’s new rules limiting who is eligible to skip the line at their popular parks.

Annie — who suffers from multiple sclerosis and asked not to be identified by her real name to keep her diagnosis private — goes to Disney World every year with her husband and friends and has used the Disability Access Service (DAS) pass over 18 times since November 2023.

With the pass, she can reserve a time to show up for a ride, sparing her the need to wait in line for long periods of time.

“It really was life-changing,” she said. “To not have to wait all day in heat or extreme cold, which my body cannot handle.”

But after the company changed its policy on who is eligible for the service, Annie was denied a pass.

“It makes me mad at Disney,” she said.

On May 20, Disney instituted its more restrictive policy on who qualifies for its DAS program.

Previously, those who “have difficulty tolerating extended waits in a conventional queue environment due to a disability” were eligible for the program. But under the revised policy, only those with a “developmental disability such as autism or a similar disorder” are eligible to request a return time.

The company didn’t respond to a request from Yahoo News to provide concrete details on how many DAS passes are issued each year and how the new policy will affect that number. Several people who had been granted a DAS pass before described a lax vetting process in which most simply obtained a pass after requesting one.

Now guests have to go online and schedule an interview with a Cast Member (Disney employee) to discuss their medical issues and reasons for needing the pass.

“Guests may discuss their needs with a Cast Member via live video chat as soon as 30 days prior to their park visit,” the company says on its website. “Cast Members will work with Guests individually to discuss specific requests and offer assistance.”

Once approved, a guest’s DAS is valid for 120 days.

The changes to the program have sparked outrage among guests who benefitted from it. Organizers started a group called “DAS Defenders” who launched a Change.org petition seeking to restore the old policy for passes. The petition currently has over 21,000 signatures.

The recent changes to Disney's DAS program significantly harm the disabled community by excluding many individuals who genuinely need this service to safely and enjoyably navigate the parks,” Kate Martin, a co-creator of a petition, told Yahoo News.

Disney, which historically has been recognized for its disability inclusion efforts, says that it was prompted to make the change to its disability policy because people who did not really need assistance were abusing the system, according to a spokesperson from Disney.

“Disney is dedicated to providing a great experience for all guests, including those with disabilities,” Disneyland officials told Yahoo News in an email. “Which is why we are so committed to delivering a wide range of innovative support services aimed at helping our guests with disabilities have a wonderful time when visiting our theme parks.”

Michelle Pajak, 55, a co-creator of the Change.org petition, said she was initially denied a DAS pass on May 20, the day the new policy went into effect.

Pajak, who said she suffered from autoimmune conditions such as lupus and Hashimoto’s disease, and a bone disease called hypophosphatasia, described the new process as demeaning.

“It triggered my medical PTSD and I cried. … The first Cast Member just … decided I didn’t qualify,” Pajak told Yahoo News. “No matter how hard I tried to get him to listen, he refused. He told me that other people were waiting and hung up on me.”

That rejection was the first time Disney had shown “any sign of anything other than pure inclusivity,” she said, adding that other people she has spoken to have been equally put off by their recent encounters with company employees.

“So many are even afraid to call because of how traumatic the calls are,” she said. “The worst thing is healthy people insulting me and telling me I’m entitled and looking for things I don’t deserve.”

But as someone who has gone to Disney World regularly since childhood, Pjak was determined to get a DAS pass. So she applied to speak to another Cast Member to try the process again, and eventually Pajak was granted a pass.

Other theme parks, such as Universal Studios Hollywood, require documentation in order to obtain privileges like reserving a spot in line, and some guests affected by Disney’s new policy think that that approach is preferable to Disney’s.

“The new DAS pass rules have had us considering getting annual passes with Universal instead next year,” Annie said.

Patricia Martinez, who suffers from psoriatic arthritis and autoimmune disease, was denied a DAS pass despite the fact that the medication she takes requires her to stay out of direct sunlight for an extended period of time. When she discussed those concerns with a park employee, she said she was told she would need to rent a wheelchair and wait in line like everyone else.

“DAS would’ve been a perfect fit for me. … Even if I had got a wheelchair, I have to stand and sit frequently because I also have a clotting disorder,” she said. “That’s not accommodation. That is actually profiting off of the disabled. I personally will never go back to Disney.”