As a little girl, I used to dream of going to Disney World. I remember seeing the commercials on television and wondering what it would be like to see the Magic Kingdom and meet Snow White. But as a one-income family of five, a trip to Disney World was not possible.
It was one of the things that I looked forward to after I became a mom: taking my child to Disney. And as soon Norrin could walk, I was ready to live vicariously through him for a dream vacation. But when he diagnosed with autism, I couldn’t imagine taking my highly sensitive sensory kid to any place like a Disney Park. So when I heard about Disney’s Guest Assistance Card (GAC), Disney World once again became an option.
Two summers ago, we took our first real family vacation. We all deserved a break. But nervous doesn’t even describe how I was feeling. It was Norrin’s first time on a plane, his first time in a hotel and our first time at Disney. My husband Joseph and I carefully planned and strategized our Disney vacation.
And using the GAC really made navigating the Disney Parks so much easier. It made our family vacation less stressful and I am grateful. I know many families that rely on this amazing accommodation. It allows families like ours to feel like any other family. It allows autism moms and dads like me who never made it to Disney as kids to share in the magic with their children.
So you can imagine the disgust I felt when I read in the NY Post that some rich Manhattan moms bragged about using the GAC so that their kids (without a disability) can by pass the lines at Disney.
So how do these Moms do it, if their kids don’t have a disability – invisible or otherwise? As Babble Mom blogger, Pilar Clark, puts it by: “RENTING handicapped tour guides to walk them through Walt Disney World so they can line skip by using entrances dedicated to disabled guests.” While Pilar states that she doesn’t use the GAC for her son with Aspergers, she is outraged for individuals who genuinely need and use this service.
I don’t know what the future is for the GAC, but I hope that Disney does not do away with it because it really helped us. So much so that I wanted to share why we used it, how we used, and when we used it while we were at the park.
How we used the GAC for our son with autism 1 of 8
Click through to see why, how and when we used Disney's Guest Assistance Card while visiting the Disney World Parks.
Why we used the GAC 2 of 8
This is Norrin standing, waiting for something while at one of the Disney Parks. Fingers in ears, looking down, mumbling something that only makes sense to him. This is how he reacts when he is overwhelmed, scared, anxious or uncertain of what's coming next. This reaction could easily lead into a meltdown, cause him to complete shut down and become unresponsive and inconsolable. And in the middle of a meltdown, there is no trying to explain anything. All teachable moments are pointless. And to the untrained eye, Norrin would appear to be a bratty kid with parents who couldn't control him. That's the problem with an invisible disability. This is autism. If not for Disney's Guest Assistance Card, this how every single picture of Norrin would have looked. Weeks before we left for Disney I contacted our pediatrician and asked him to write a note on our behalf. I also made copies of our IEP and our most current evaluation. I carried them with each day we visited the park - just in case someone asked.
When we used the GAC 3 of 8
Before getting on line for any ride we asked Norrin if he wanted to go on. (And honestly, there weren't many rides he wanted to go.) We were lucky he had the comprehension to understand the question and the language to say yes or no. If he said yes, we sized up the line and determined whether or not Norrin could stand the wait. Anything less than twenty minutes we made him wait on line. Anything longer than twenty minutes we used the GAC. And each time we used it, we used it with reluctance. Again, autism is an invisible disability and a kid like Norrin looks "normal" - Joseph and I didn't want anyone questioning us. We used the GAC with discretion. And it also allowed us to have teachable moments while at Disney. We were able to teach Norrin patience and praise him for "good waiting" without the added pressure of hours standing on a line. And because we used the GAC with discretion, it allowed us the true Disney anticipation of waiting for something we really wanted. It added to our excitement and joy!
When we didn’t use the GAC 4 of 8
While at Disney Norrin got to meet some of his favorite characters! But we could not use the GAC to meet them. So we waited. We waited almost two hours to have our photo taken with Buzz Lightyear and Woody. Ninety minutes for Boba Fett (okay, this one may be Joseph's favorite) and almost forty five minutes for Pluto and Mickey. It wasn't easy but we took turns waiting on line, walking Norrin around. We used toys and candy as distractions. And we made it fun for Norrin. Waiting on line for the characters while not waiting on line for many of the rides was a good balance for us.
Why the GAC isn’t always needed 5 of 8
One of the things that I loved the most about our Disney vacation was the beauty of all the Parks. It was just magical and it was easy to feel transported to another country or time. Since Norrin wasn't interested in much of the rides, we easily spent most of our time just walking around, snacking and taking in the sights. Norrin was happy to just watch some of the rides from a distance. Seeing him happy, made us happy.
And when all else failed… 6 of 8
When we knew that the GAC was of no use, when we knew Norrin was tired or overstimulated we left. We took all of our cues from him. This vacation was for him and we wanted him to have fun. One of my biggest regrets is that we visited four Disney Parks on four days and not once did we see it at night. We'll need to tweak our plans next time. I really want us to experience Disney all lit up.
Would we use the GAC again 7 of 8
Absolutely! Norrin, like most little boys, is a huge Cars fan. And we would love for our next family vacation to visit Cars Land in California. Norrin is older and his sense of adventure greater. We know he'll want to get on more rides and the GAC will allow us to enjoy the Park without the added worry. I know many special needs parents will want to do the same. I hope that this small percentage of moms who so grossly misuse this special accommodation do not ruin this for the ones that really need it.
Why the GAC is important for families like mine 8 of 8
Having a child with an invisible disability isn't easy. There are many things that we can not do because it's too overwhelming for our child. We rarely say yes to birthday parties or family gatherings. The extent of Norrin's extracurricular activities are all therapeutic and the GAC allowed us the freedom to go to Disney on our own terms. Like I said, when we used it, we used it with reluctance. It's not something special needs families want to use. It's far from a perk and nowhere near a privilege. To know that there are families out there, misusing this accommodation is sickening. Every day we ventured out to the Parks we put a name tag around Norrin's neck with our information. We held his hand the whole time, fearing he would get lost in the crowd. While Norrin had the language to tell us what he wanted to do, he didn't have the language to tell a stranger his name if asked or to say if he needed help if he got separated from us. If the moms who "rented" disability had to live with it - they'd be disgusted with themselves.
I don't know what the solution is to prevent individuals from taking advantage of the GAC but I want them to understand why it's needed and how it could impact families if the accommodation is taken away.
As a little girl I dreamed of going to Disney, my dream was fulfilled when I was able to take my son two years ago. And now as a special needs mom, I have a new Disney dream. I dream that we may be able to return to Disney with the accommodations of the GAC and that other special needs parents can do the same.
Read more of Lisa’s writing at AutismWonderland.