Does Disney’s Paper Straw Policy Violate The American Disabilities Act?

Disney Parks new paper straw policy has drawn a lot of attention from online fan groups. When the company announced they would be eliminating plastic straws from their parks in 2018, the reaction was mixed. Heated debates starting popping up on all sides of the argument and are still going on.

One of the reasons Theme Park University exists is to educate people on how theme parks run. Not necessarily from a fan perspective, but from a business and sometimes regulatory point of view. On the subject of paper straws, there seems to be a lot of misinformation out there.

The purpose of this article isn’t to tell you how to feel about paper straws in theme parks. Rather, if you want to have discussions about the subject, we want you to have an informed point of view. After all, in the age of “fake news” facts are important.

As a starting point, a move to paper straws from plastic is not a cost-saving measure. According to reports when Starbucks announced the same switch, the increase in price is 10x difference. While this article states that plastic straws cost about 0.5 cents, the new paper straws being used by Starbucks run about 2.5 cents per straw.

That’s a significant increase. While I am not privy to how much Disney is paying per paper straw (nor how much previously per plastic straw), I couldn’t find any source citing paper straws were cheaper than plastic.

Second, this policy isn’t exactly “new” to theme parks, including Disney. Ever since Disney’s Animal Kingdom opened in 1998, paper straws are all that has been provided to any guest entering the park. Anyone who brings a plastic straw through the front gate and is screened through bag check will tell you, security’s policy is to confiscate those straws at Animal Kingdom and have been since the park opening.

SeaWorld Parks have also formally banned plastic straws (as well as other forms of plastic) from their parks in 2019 as well. Many of their parks within the chain have actually not been using plastic straws for quite some time. However, the announcement (which came before Disney’s) also included several other forms of plastic.

Which begs the question: if SeaWorld and Disney’s Animal Kingdom haven’t been offering guests plastic straws for years, how could it be a violation of the American Disabilities Act?

Believe it or not, I was recently banned from commenting on a Disney Facebook forum called Disney Parks People for asking these questions. Rian Lehman, one of the admins of that group, blocked me from commenting because I got into a discussion with him about the American Disabilities Act.

This is not to say that Lehman is the only one with this opinion. I’ve seen it echoed in many online forums. While you can claim that it may be a guest service issue or even there are better alternatives than paper for straws, saying that Disney is violating the law by only providing paper straws is just plain incorrect.

To give some context, the American Disabilities Act (ADA) became law in 1990. It provides protection to those who are disabled to have the same rights and opportunities as everyone else. In short, to claim that Disney (or any place that serves drinks) is in violation of the ADA for not providing plastic straws is saying they are breaking the law.

For further clarification, if you visit the American Disabilities Act website it does give some verbiage on offering straws.

Some people with disabilities find it difficult to lift or hold glasses, cups, or other beverage containers. Providing straws, especially the type that bends, will be appreciated.

I took it a step further and reached out to Erik Beard from The Legal Roller Coaster for his take on the theme park straw situation. Side note: if you’ve never visited The Legal Roller Coaster and you’re interested about the legal side of how theme parks operate, it’s an absolute must. The website often takes deep deep dives into cases regarding the ADA. I’m a huge fan and have read many of his articles several times for reference when writing for Theme Park University.

For reference, Erik Beard is a practicing attorney who specializes in advising the amusement park industry on legal matters. He has represented and advised amusement parks, aquatic facilities, trade associations, and industry suppliers with respect to the Americans With Disabilities Act, amusement ride and aquatic safety matters, drowning investigation, and operational and risk management best practices.

As expected, Erik gave me a lengthy and detailed response to my question regarding straws in theme parks and how it related to the American Disabilities Act. Here is his detailed response:

This is a great question and I’m happy you reached out.  The short answer is that there is nothing in the law that requires a business to offer straws at all or straws with particular features like flexibility or plastic fabrication.  From a broad ADA perspective, the law requires that owners of businesses, like amusement parks, comply with certain design standards when they build a new attraction, food stand, merchandise shop, etc. and get as close as feasible to those standards on preexisting structures.  It also requires that businesses make reasonable modifications to policies and practices that are necessary to give disabled guests equal access to the facility or service being offered.  Finally, there are requirements that businesses provide certain auxiliary aids, like audio captioning, sign language interpreters, etc., to assist guests with disabilities.  But none of those broad mandates gets to the level of minutia required to get into the question of straws. 

Getting slightly deeper into the weeds, there is case law about a business’ obligation under the ADA to provide certain services.  Unless they fall into a regulatory mandate, like the auxiliary aids or the design standards referenced above, the ADA generally does not require businesses to purchase items catered only to guests with disabilities.  For example, there is no requirement that a book store carry a copy of every book in braille or in an audio-book format so that visually impaired customers can have their choice of every book in the store.  The only requirement is that whatever the store does carry has to be equally available to customers with and without disabilities.  I see the straw question as raising a similar issue.  While its undoubtedly true that straws are a big help to some guests with disabilities, the law does not require parks to buy them solely for that reason.  If a park offers straws to its non-disabled guests, it must make those straws available to guests with disabilities.  But the park does not have any legal obligation to buy straws in the first place.

The only way I could see this really raising a legal issue is if a park were to prohibit a guest with a disability from using a straw that he/she brought from home.  A park’s “no straws” policy is probably one of those policies that must be reasonably modified if necessary to accommodate the guest and provide a similar experience to guests with disabilities.  If a park were to refuse to allow a disabled guest to use his/her own straw on the basis of a “no straws” policy, that might raise a potential violation of the ADA (but, even that would depend on a lot of facts and circumstances of the particular case).

To me, this is really a guest service issue more than a legal one.  Parks may find it prudent to keep a small stock of straws available for use by guests with disabilities as a matter of guest service and enhancing their experience at the park.  That makes sense and there are lots of similar disability issues out there.  For example, several parks have recently obtained the IBCCES Autism Center certification.  There is no legal requirement for many of the services and programs that come along with that certification, but parks are doing it because it makes sense from a guest service perspective.  On a smaller scale, straws raise the same issue.  It may be nice to offer them, but there’s no legal requirement to do so.

A big thank you to Erik Beard of The Legal Roller Coaster for that detailed response! In summation, if you’re upset that paper straws have replaced plastic ones at your favorite theme park, that is totally fine. However, when you present an argument, just make sure you have your facts straight.

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