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Disabled Ask Disneyland to Restore Passes for Rides

Times Staff Writer

Kelsey O’Maley, 9, can’t feed herself. She can’t walk by herself. She can’t even sit up in her wheelchair without effort.

On a roller coaster, though, Kelsey can do what any other kid does: have fun.

So when she and her mom arrived this summer at Disneyland and discovered that the park no longer gives disabled patrons special access to rides, they were reminded of what Kelsey couldn’t do.

“For these kids, they don’t get to be on swim teams or soccer teams. They’re always watching other kids do what they don’t get to do,” said Kimberlee O’Maley, Kelsey’s mother, of Indianapolis. “Disneyland was probably the one place they could have a positive experience.”

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Other park patrons are voicing the same complaints. Critics have collected 14,700 signatures on an Internet petition that asks Disneyland to again offer “special assistance passes” that allowed disabled guests and those accompanying them to enter rides through the exit, often bypassing long lines.

Many complain that a new system for the disabled is inconsistently applied or not applied at all at the Disneyland Resort’s two theme parks. The O’Maleys, for example, said they spent much of their time during a recent visit trying to figure out the new rules and arguing with Disneyland employees.

The park discontinued the special assistance passes in March because able-bodied people -- many of them teens -- were cheating, park officials say.

Some took advantage of the system by renting a wheelchair, requesting a pass and using it to cut to the front of the line. Park officials said the program was so abused that sometimes the handicapped line was longer than the normal one.

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Under the new system, Disney employees talk with park visitors to determine the level of assistance they may need, said Disneyland Resort spokesman Bob Tucker.

The employees might then issue a “guest assistance card” that is customized to the type of assistance needed.

A guest with a hearing or visual disability, for example, is assigned a code that alerts employees to give them front-row seating.

“The previous program applied the same solution to all guests regardless of their needs,” Tucker said. “Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, we now tailor our assistance to each guest on a case-by-case basis.”

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The new system was developed with the help of disabled advocacy groups, and Tucker said it has been “very positively received.”

Rebekah McIlhenny of Garden Grove’s Dayle McIntosh Center, which helps disabled people live independently, helped Disneyland revamp its procedures. She says the park is making an honest effort to accommodate the disabled.

“I don’t think there was any way that they were going to be able to put a policy in place that wasn’t going to have a lot of kinks,” McIlhenny said.

“We know there are concerns. I think the [employees] still need additional training.... But I’ve been really pleased with their willingness to discuss things and hear the complaints. I think they are taking it very seriously.”

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But Sarah Demarco said that when she took her five children -- four of whom have disabilities including cerebral palsy and Down syndrome -- to Disneyland a few weeks ago, the kinks were still far from worked out.

As she had in the past, the Tucson resident went straight to the park’s City Hall, carrying paperwork documenting her children’s disabilities. Employees first told her they no longer had disabled passes to give her. When she complained, they gave her a pass that allowed her to use her specially fitted triple-seat stroller as a wheelchair, which allowed her to take it in lines for rides. Normally, strollers are parked outside the lines.

DeMarco said she struggled to wind the stroller through long lines and often had to lift it to fit through the queues. And when she complained to ride operators, they told her to go back to City Hall to request a different pass that gave her more access.

“I understand that people were taking advantage,” DeMarco said. “But now the people that really are handicapped are paying the price.”

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Camarillo resident Marcus Anthony, 43, has spina bifida and severe arthritis. He said park workers would not give him a pass because his disability was so obvious it was unnecessary. But once he got to the attraction he wanted to ride, he was told he needed a special card.

“It seems there’s confusion among employees,” Anthony said. “I don’t think everyone’s getting the message on what the actual policy is.”

Critics complain that decisions about access are being left to young, sometimes inexperienced, employees.

“They have taken federal law, and they’re allowing it to be applied at the discretion of [employees],” O’Maley said.

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The best solution, she and others said, is to reinstate the special assistance pass but distribute it only to people who prove their disability.

“Most people with a real disability don’t mind having to prove it” and routinely carry paperwork, O’Maley said.

This approach is used at some other amusement parks. At Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park, for example, officials say they also see abuse of their special assistance pass but limit it by requiring a doctor’s note. The pass, according to the Knott’s policy, is to help accommodate wheelchairs and not to bypass the line.

Maryland attorney R. Wayne Pierce, who frequently represents amusement parks, said that for the industry, it’s a balancing act between safety and access.

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“In many ways, it amounts to a no-win situation,” Pierce said. “There’s no way for an owner-operator to make a risk-free choice.”

The disabled patrons said they are simply asking for accommodation and compassion.

“Do you know how many things we can’t do that we accept?” O’Maley said. “It’s in your face every day what you’re shut out of.... This was one of the few breaks people with disabilities got.”


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