Equal Access in America’s Theme Parks

I am about to become extremely unpopular with some of you. The stance I am about to take may not earn me any brownie points, but in my eyes? It’s the only way to make things fair for everyone.

Recently, a mother from New York admitted to a journalist that she pays physically handicapped people to be a tour guide while her family visits Walt Disney World. She does this because the person she hires can often qualify to skip lines due to their disability and the family of up to five people who pays for this “service” can also enjoy said benefits.

Is this legal? That’s some murky water that I won’t get into right now. Disney is hardly the only company who has policies that can help expedite a guest’s visit with the physical disability, but it’s the quickest to grab headlines when it comes to any legal or moral hot button topics. Head honchos at Disney have issued a statement saying that they are looking to crack down on this type of abuse of the policy. As a stroke of genius, they didn’t release to the public how they plan on doing this.

The internet outcry against families who hire such “tour guides” has been loud and clear. I stand with you on that. For better or worse, waiting in theme park lines is part of the experience. Having to exploit someone’s disability because you don’t want to wait in line isn’t the quickest way to gain popularity points. However, who is really to blame here? Is it the families who pay th or the disabled person soliciting their services via Craig’s List? I will let you decide that one.

King's Island

What actually got my attention was a story that flew under the radar last week that ran on USA Today. In the article, a mother who takes her autistic son to King’s Island several times every summer was told the park was sticking to a policy this season that had been in place for years, but rarely enforced.

In the past, when she took her autistic son to King’s Island in Ohio, no matter what attraction they picked – they would be escorted up the exit and allowed to board immediately without question, regardless of the posted wait. This summer, all Cedar Fair parks are giving any guest with a disability who cannot wait in line a return time card. For example, if the posted wait time is 45 minutes for a roller coaster and the family approaches the line at noon, the guest and their family is given a card by an attractions attendant with a return time to come back for immediate boarding – at 12:45.

Meanwhile, instead of standing in very slow moving lines amongst loud noises and hoards of people – the family can choose where they wait. At the allotted time, they then take the pass to the designated handicapped entrance and board the attraction as quickly as possible, usually through the exit.

Some parents who have children with autism call the policy unfair and are writing letters to Cedar Fair, the Autism Society and media trying to expedite their visits to the park and have the company change the rule. However, I am here to tell you, that Cedar Fair is in the right on this one.

The Americans with Disabilities Act requires that places of business offer equal access to those with a handicap as to those without one. For example, if you own a store that has a curb in order to step up and gain access to the building, you must provide a ramp for wheelchairs. However, equal access does not mean better access.

The Beast

Copyright Cedar Fair

If the posted wait time for a roller coaster is 90 minutes and all the other guests in the park are waiting their turn to ride, providing a return time card for disabled guests to wait that same amount of time is indeed equal. One can argue that it’s better, because that family gets a chance to sit down on a bench, have lunch, or even experience other attractions with shorter waits during this time. I am also quick to realize that having a child with autism doesn’t necessarily mean this option is truly better.

I feel I should pause here and take a moment to make you realize that I do have a heart. If you have someone in your family affected by autism, I can’t imagine what your day to day life is like. Until I got in to the theme park business, I had little experience being around hundreds of people with a wide assortment of disabilities every day. I have seen so many kids in wheelchairs, in braces on feeding tubes…. my eyes are tearing up just writing about it now.

Autistic children in particular, those meltdowns are hard to watch. Not because they are unruly or the parents need to do anything differently, but because you know there is nothing anyone can really do to calm them down. The entire point of being at a theme park is a sense of escape from the real world. One can even make the argument that no one needs that escape more than guests with severe mental and physical disabilities.

Cedar Fair Return Time Card

Copyright Cedar Fair

So what’s the big deal? Why does it even matter that a parent and child take up two extra seats on a roller coaster a few times a day? The problem is an enforceable policy which can remain consistent for everyone regardless of circumstance.

More often than you would think, organizations that help grant children wishes, descend on theme parks all across the United States. Dozens to hundreds of people with extremely severe mental and physical disabilities are given the chance to experience what it’s like to see a live stage performance, ride a train or even meet their favorite character. They are often escorted by not just family members, but volunteers who dedicate their own time and money to make sure that these people get a chance to escape reality for just a few days.

Every time I see these groups come through the parks, I am humbled. It’s a small army of motorized wheelchairs, matching t-shirts and oxygen tanks. It’s incredible how much patience, warmth and stamina these volunteers have to organize a trip like this. All of the guests of honor here require different medications, have different physical limitations and need their own version of specialized attention.

Even though organizations often descend to one park a day and split into groups of 10 to 30 at a time, they can take over an attraction if they all come at once. So let’s say thirty guests with disabilities visit the carousel at one time accompanied by one volunteer each. That’s sixty people riding the carousel which, for sake of argument, has a capacity of exactly sixty people per ride.


Let us also assume that it’s a busy day in the park and the wait for the carousel is twenty minutes. In this scenario, there is also no return time policy being enforced. These guests, who clearly have a disability, are given the go ahead to go through the exit and take over the entire ride.

Make no mistake, they have every right to the carousel. However, what’s to stop them from wanting to go again? With no policy in place for them to have to wait a certain amount of time, they can just stay on for five or six or more rides. The wait for the attraction would go from twenty minutes to over an hour or more. Even if they hopped off the attraction for one cycle, let one group through who waited in the normal queue on, and then rode again several times over – the capacity would be cut in half.

Can you only enforce the policy on large groups of disables guests versus individual families? Absolutely not. Only if you want to open up a Pandora’s Box of legal nightmares. Who’s to say how many disabled guests are too many? What if a family has adopted five children with disabilities? Yes, this happens – there are incredible people out there with amazing hearts.

I can’t express enough how incredibly difficult it must be to have a loved one with autism and how much sympathy and admiration I have for those who are affected by it. My hope is that if you do visit a theme park and an employee tells you that you need to wait the same amount of time as everyone else? Don’t take it out on the attendant. They are enforcing a policy that sometimes they don’t even like or agree with.

If you would like to donate to any of these charities, visit the Sunshine Foundation, Wishing Well Foundation or Dream Factory.

Meanwhile if you can come up with a policy that allows equal and fair access across the board for everyone, regardless of physical and mental limitations – I am sure the parks would listen. It’s not only the right thing to do to accommodate people with disabilities, it’s smart business. Allowing anyone to gain access to whatever they want whenever they want it? Just isn’t fair.

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