Walt Disney World has seen an increase in abuse of its Disability Access Service, and is starting to crack down on improper DAS use as a result. This post covers how they’re accomplishing that, along with rumors about Lightning Lane utilization and our commentary about what’s happening.
This revelation actually comes thanks to a story about Walt Disney World suddenly trespassing third-party tour guides from the parks. Walt Disney World has reportedly been banning these unaffiliated tour guides who secure dining and resort reservations, design itineraries, and help their clients navigate the parks–often by acting as an in-person escort.
These guides have reportedly been pulled out of line by Walt Disney World managers, issued trespass notices by Orange County police, and indefinitely banned from all of Walt Disney World property. These trespass notices are not unprecedented–they’re issued whenever guests engage in fisticuffs, have a really bad adult meltdown, or sneak around backstage. A few years ago, there was a dude who went on a tirade about masks and compared himself to the hero in A Bug’s Life, misquoted the movie, and got trespassed. (Note: he was trespassed for the tirade, not misquoting A Bug’s Life. Although that should be a bannable offense.)
According to Insider, which reported on the third-party tour guide ban, there are nine third-party business owners and tour guides impacted by a crackdown on their services, five of whom who have received the trespass notices themselves. Several of these guides have been operating for years and indicate that they’ve never before had an issue.
The reason for this is pretty simple and straightforward. Walt Disney World’s official park rules website has a lengthy list of prohibited activities. Among them is that “unauthorized solicitations of any kind, whether commercial, religious, educational, or otherwise, or conducting any unauthorized commercial activities, including solicitations of money or other contributions or donations.”
Conducting a tour on Walt Disney World property is very clearly an unauthorized commercial activity. This isn’t the first time that Disney has trespassed tour guides. Way back in the nascent days of the internet, they did the same with high-profile park history and inside secrets tours that indirectly competed with things like Keys to the Kingdom.
About a decade ago, Disney also cracked down on disabled tour guides who advertised the ability for their guests/customers to bypass lines in the California and Florida parks. The company started by revoking Guest Assistance Cards of the guides, but that story exploded into nationwide headlines and resulted in the overhaul of GAC and creation of DAS.
Third party tour guides are clearly operating in violation of park rules, and their businesses are built on Disney electing against enforcing those rules–and the risk of the company choosing to do so in the future. This was always a possible outcome. With that said, the market for these tour guides only exists because they provide a service between the extremes of Genie+ and VIP tours. Walt Disney World could easily indirectly kill the market for these tours by filling the void with an official service.
Even if they didn’t want to do that for whatever reason, they could’ve used a more delicate touch here. It sounds like several of these tour guides had guests with them when they were trespassed, and those people are all collateral damage. Given that even these third party tours cost over $100 per hour, those guests are presumably a big-spending demo that Disney wants, and putting them in the middle of this is not great.
On a tangentially related note, we’ve been hearing for months that this type of crackdown was on the horizon. However, we heard that it would occur with web services that circumvent Walt Disney World’s policies and systems for various reservations. Disney managed to briefly cause some of those to go offline over the summer, but to my knowledge, they all returned. I was under the impression that more would be done, but perhaps not? Anyway, none of that is the point of this article.
What caught our attention about this story is that a spokesperson for Walt Disney World said “there has been an uptick in abuses of the Disability Access Service and other services, which impede park operations. The spokesperson declined to provide any documentation of this increase.”
According to Insider, several third-party tour guides and business owners agreed that not everyone in their industry behaves ethically. One experienced third-party tour guide said there are several companies that are “widely known” to abuse Disney’s rules. “For instance, these companies might tell guides to tell guest services they have Irritable Bowel Syndrome to get a disability pass for themselves,” the business owner told Insider.
Other tour guides indicated that they had witnessed unethical behavior in the industry, with some even leaving certain companies because “their owner was involved in some of those unethical practices, and I didn’t want to be associated with that any longer.”
In our view, this is the most interesting aspect of the Insider story and the one that has the most material impact on the guest experience for everyone at Walt Disney World. We’ve heard rumblings about this issue prior to now, have observed it ourselves, and think the current crackdown might portend more sweeping changes to DAS at Walt Disney World.
You might notice a lack of DAS coverage on this website, aside from our Guide to Disability Access Service at Walt Disney World, which covers our experience using it with my dad and was last updated when the Lightning Lane-era changes rolled out. The lack of DAS resources here are not an oversight; it’s deliberate.
This blog offers commentary about any and everything, while also soliciting reader feedback via an active comments section. That’s a powder keg for something like DAS, which is one of the most controversial and charged issues at Walt Disney World. Unlike topics like oversized strollers, price increases, parking fees, refillable mug ethics, etc., this has real stakes. DAS users are real people with real feelings, and often, are all to used to judgmental stares in real life. Compounding that with metaphorical ones online is rough, and I don’t want this platform to be a party to that.
With that in mind, I’ll start out with a simple statement. Two things can be true at the same time. First, that reasonable disability accommodations are very necessary for many Walt Disney World guests to have an enjoyable experience, including those with invisible disabilities. Second, DAS abuse is widespread and needs addressing. The first point does not invalidate the second, and the second point does not grant random guests the authority to be arbiters of who “needs” DAS.
Since the controversy several years ago about the Guest Assistance Card, there’s a lot more scrutiny concerning guests using and abusing DAS, along with a belief among some other guests that they are being ‘disadvantaged’ by the system. This manifests itself in visible and audible disdain towards other guests using DAS. I’ve witnessed it repeatedly in-person and in reading online discussions.
I would implore you to err on the side of courtesy. There are myriad invisible disabilities from which other guests could suffer, and the rude words or judgmental gaze of guests ‘scanning’ a person using DAS to ‘make sure’ they really have a disability are awful. I can only imagine how it’d make me feel if I were on the receiving end of that. Anyone using DAS out of necessity would trade places with you in a second and stand in long lines if it meant not being disabled.
I also can’t imagine being on the giving end of that. Okay, you’ve made yourself judge, jury, and executioner…now what? There is absolutely zero upside. Not only is the weight of your eyes or words unfairly falling on someone with an invisible disability at least half the time when you do this, but you’re upsetting yourself with something that’s entirely outside of your control and that you cannot change. Life is too short for that, and it’s far better to be happy at Walt Disney World and focus on your own family.
Look, my apologies for the preachy soapbox with very obvious ‘advice’ that 99.5% of you absolutely did not need to hear. But you know that saying about one bad apple? I’ll err on the side of a long lecture if it might cause even half of that .5% to rethink their behavior. Sorry not sorry, I guess.
To the second point that DAS abuse is widespread and needs addressing, we’ve been hearing ‘rumors’ of this for a while. Not really so much rumors–more unsubstantiated reports from those within the company. The Lightning Lane percentages from those were downright shocking to me. This is the first time I’ve actually seen Walt Disney World publicly admit that there’s an issue and that it needs addressing.
Intuitively, it makes complete sense. Those of you who visited during the phased reopening after FastPass+ had been suspended but before Genie+ rolled out likely saw usage of the FastPass queues. We certainly did! It started out occurring fairly infrequently, and increased (not so coincidentally) as crowds and wait times went up.
There were plausible explanations aside from DAS use. Club 33 members, Golden Oak residents, and other VIPs all had some degree of access to the FastPass lines. However, there were maybe 200 guests fitting the above profile in any park at any given time. They represented a small fraction of all FastPass users–probably a low single-digit number on most days.
As noted above, use of the FastPass lines started slow and got progressively busier during the phased reopening. This makes sense, as there’s a greater incentive to use a line-skipping service when there’s a longer line. If a posted wait time is 15 minutes, even those with the ability or privilege to skip might simply opt for standby. If that same attraction has a 60 minute posted wait time, it’s a very different story.
It doesn’t require a vivid imagination to game out how much worse that might become if a paid line-skipping service is introduced, replacing what was once free and causing standby lines to come to a crawl at times as guests are pulled (very) disproportionately from the Lightning Lane.
Not only would there be more of an incentive to (properly) use the Lightning Lane, but there’d be more of an incentive to abuse it. This occurred even when there was a free FastPass+ option; DAS was a way to skip the lines more often and not be so constrained by “only” having 3 selections.
None of this is speculative. During a DAS lawsuit a few years ago, Disney revealed in testimony and discovery that users of its disability passes experience several more attractions over the course of a day on average as compared to non-users.
The company argued that any expansion of the current system would cause wait times to explode, with Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (for example) increasing by 39 minutes from an average wait time of 69 minutes to 108 minutes. Disney has now prevailed in several such lawsuits.
Now, regular line-skipping costs money but there’s an alternative that’s still free. Again, it doesn’t require much imagination to envision a scenario where some guests justifying abusing the system to themselves. “I’m just taking what Walt Disney World used to offer for free and still should.” “Everyone does it, I’m just leveling the playing field.” “I spend a lot of money and have always been loyal to Disney, it’s the least they can do.” And so on, and so on.
In fact, you can still see this play out in the parks. If you attend Extended Evening Hours, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, or other events outside standard operating hours when Genie+ is not offered, you’ll still see people using the Lightning Lanes. In some cases, you will see a lot of people.
Totally anecdotal, but I’ve noticed it more this year–in particular at the busier Extended Evening Hours that I’ve attended. There were a couple of ExEH nights at Magic Kingdom where I saw the overflowLightning Lane queues in use at Peter Pan’s Flight, Space Mountain, and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Again, it’s probably not a coincidence that usage increases as posted wait times increase.
To be abundantly clear, I’m not suggesting that all of even a majority of these people are abusing DAS. I truly have no clue.
What I have heard, though, is that usage of DAS has increased dramatically in the last few years. It’s possible that this is coincidental, and it’s happening because the percentage of disabled guests visiting Walt Disney World has increased. If the comparison were to 2020-2021, I’d believe that. A unique form of pent-up demand would make sense, especially among more vulnerable populations.
But my understanding is that DAS usage is up significantly as compared to 2019. Other explanations are conceivable, but I think they strain credulity. You can likely draw a straight line between Genie+ (and then higher prices for Genie+) and a rise in use for DAS as the free “alternative” to it.
Now that we’ve established that DAS abuse is almost certainly occurring (again, along with plenty of completely proper use!) what’s Walt Disney World to do about it? Well, this crackdown on third-party tour groups is one step. It’s only a first step, and a small one at that. These tour groups are incredibly small scale, and it’s hard to conceive of them accounting for more than a low single-digit percentage of all abuse.
Most of it is likely happening among individuals–and that’s more difficult to police without running afoul of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Ironically enough, changing DAS is also its own powder keg, and a potential lightning rod for controversy. There are a lot of people with a vested interest in DAS, including both the legit users and the abusers.
You might be inclined to think that legitimate users would want to see DAS crackdowns occur. Many of them probably do. But it’s not quite so simple. For one thing, any change brings with it uncertainty until it has been implemented, and many of the families who need DAS most also (very understandably!) crave consistency and stability.
Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Which is to say that change can be intimidating and unsettling; many rightful DAS users might prefer keeping the stable but imperfect product rather than rolling the dice on a replacement. I can certainly empathize with that perspective.
Compounding matters is the small but vocal minority of abusers who would complain in bad faith and muddy the waters of any discourse around DAS changes. Knowing that their loophole would be closed, some of these individuals would have a strong incentive to voice outrage, even if it’s baseless and insincere.
Bad faith outrage around DAS might sound shocking…if you haven’t lived through the last several years of social media, in which case, it would be more surprising if this didn’t happen. Either way, it complicates matters and makes an explosive issue even more fraught for Walt Disney World.
Walt Disney World knows this, which is likely why there has been minimal movement on DAS abuse, aside from indirect acts like banning third-party tour guides. This won’t be enough, though. Something’s gotta give–just like it was too big to ignore back when the change was made from GAC to DAS, the same will soon be true. Perhaps they’re starting with low-hanging fruit like tour guides and waiting for an individual system until the new system that allows for the advance booking of Lightning Lanes at some point in 2024.
I’m somewhat surprised that Walt Disney World hasn’t used the protective veil of a theme park association to make industry wide changes. Sort of like how the California Attractions and Parks Association was the face of pushing for reopening a few years ago, which allowed Disneyland to mostly avoid controversy. (Well, to the extent they wanted. Disney still issued some sharp statements, but some of those were very justified.)
Frankly, I don’t know why Disney doesn’t use TEA or some organization like that for creating uniform standards and protocol for any potentially sticky issue. It’d be suitable for everything from security checkpoints to smoking rules, and would give Disney plausible deniability as to their involvement in the crafting of such rules. When it comes to ADA accommodations, standardization could also streamline things for those guests with actual disabilities by outsourcing the process. It wouldn’t just be about sidestepping controversy–it could truly make visiting easier for those with disabilities. Win-win!
Thoughts on Walt Disney World cracking down on DAS abuse? If you’ve used Disability Access Service at Walt Disney World, what do you think of the experience? Have you noticed high Lightning Lane usage at times when Genie+ was not being offered? Please feel free to share your personal anecdotes about DAS and other thoughts in the comments below! Just be sure to err on the side of kindness and empathy and don’t engage in personal attacks, antagonism, or trolling. Comments that cross any lines will be deleted.