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Disneyland Brings Back Program for the Disabled

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Reversing a decision denounced by advocates for the disabled, Disneyland on Monday restored and expanded a program in which children with special needs are admitted to the park at discount prices.

The move came just three days after The Times reported that Disneyland had quietly ended the program, called Happy Hearts, which has attracted thousands of disabled children to the Anaheim theme park annually since its inception 20 years ago.

“I apologize for any misunderstanding, and if we have offended anyone in the disabled community,” said Bill Ross, vice president of public affairs for Disneyland Resort.

Ross said Disneyland would double, from 12 to 24, the number of days each year that disabled people and their families are eligible to enter the park for $18, which is up to 50% off the regular price.

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He acknowledged that Disneyland officials had received many calls and letters since the decision was made public.

“Clearly,” he said, “we have listened to them.”

Disneyland officials had denied that there was an economic motive for ending the program, and they had offered a number of explanations for the cancellation that were greeted with skepticism by advocates for the disabled. Among the explanations were that able-bodied people were taking advantage of the program, that the program resulted in overcrowding, and that the park wanted the disabled to take advantage of other discounts.

Parents and advocates--who had previously supported Disneyland’s treatment of the disabled--applauded the reversal, but wondered aloud whether the latest decision was a gesture of generosity or damage control.

“I think it’s fabulous,” said Sal Morreale, an Irvine stockbroker who has an autistic son. “But once they heard the outcry, I thought there might be an outside chance they would reverse themselves.”

News of the cancellation spread rapidly across the country and even led to angry postings on Internet bulletin boards.

“Disney’s decision to cut Happy Hearts is hard-hearted, blind and discriminatory,” read one computer message. “Unless this decision is reversed, I’ve had my last trip to the Magic Kingdom.”

A Pennsylvania man called The Times on Monday to offer to pay the tab for an Irvine special education class that had put its trip on hold after Happy Hearts was canceled.

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Although Disneyland wouldn’t say how many negative comments it had gotten in response to the cancellation, park insiders said management had been deluged with angry calls.

Al Lutz, a frequent visitor and author of an online guide to Disneyland, said he and a group of about 30 fellow annual pass holders went en masse to Disneyland on Sunday to complain about the change.

“I got applause from the group when I told [Disneyland officials] that it’s just like they were . . . asking to be whupped,” Lutz said. “There were plenty of folks asking them just where their heads were, along with us.”

Darlene Clark, a special education teacher for the Orange County Department of Education, expressed relief--and a little satisfaction--that the chorus of bad publicity drove Disneyland to reinstate the popular program.

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The spring event was the highlight of the year for her 10 disabled students, who sold candy and wrapping paper to finance the trip, which she said would have been out of the question without the discount provided by Happy Hearts.

“I’m so glad they have rescinded their decision and are giving it back,” said Clark, who is also a foster parent to two disabled children. “We could never do it at the regular rate.”

Clark, who said Disneyland has always been very supportive of programs for the disabled, said she was shocked to hear that the park had dropped the popular program.

“You can’t print my initial reaction,” she said. “I’m an annual pass holder and I go to Disneyland all the time and when I heard it, I didn’t want to go anymore.”

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Happy Hearts allows disabled youngsters to enter the park for $18 on six days each spring and fall, compared to a regular children’s admission price of $26 and a regular adult admission of $36. Now the disabled and their families and caregivers will be eligible for discounts 12 days each spring and fall.

The program was not held this spring, but Ross said it would be reinstated in the fall.


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