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As a mother of a 17 year old girl with Autism and a loyal customer of Disney, I have been reading many of the blogs and comments about the recently announced changes to the Disney theme parks policy regarding “special” access for people with disabilities.

Much of the conversation is around what “typical” (ie non-disabled) people think or feel.  It is unfortunate that so many non-disabled people feel that they are being put out or even cheated because of a policy that really does not have any negative impact on them.  Just think about it: if all people with disabilities who had been receiving special assistance were to join the main line only one of two things would happen:  the wait line would get longer for all, and it would get less comfortable for all (as a developmentally disabled person may actually have a meltdown right next to you!)

Part 1:  The impact on Disney’s non-disabled customers:
We took our daughter Rose* to Disney World for the first time when she was 6.  We made it just a day trip from Tampa.  I had heard about a special needs access pass but wasn’t sure how to obtain one.  And besides, I was still at the phase of thinking ‘one more speech therapy session and she will be all better’ so who needs a special pass? (Admit it, some of you also had that silly thinking too).  We paid full price for our tickets and were able to go on a few rides – we took lots of breaks for sensory overload recovery.  It wasn’t all that crowded when we went but we still had a few lines.  While waiting I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is amazing, look at how well she is doing’.  Amazingly,  I was actually feeling joy in the happiest place on earth. For a few minutes.  Then the mom next to us asked her daughter to stand still in line.  The girl responded, “but that girl isn’t standing still”  and the mom glared at me and said “there is always one in every crowd”.   Ouch.  (Eleven years later and I still feel the punch in my gut).  At 6 years old, my daughter, with little speech, could not have even responded to me the way her daughter did to her mother.  I wish I had said to her:  actually there are 1 in 500 kids her age …. (that was the stat when Rose was diagnosed with Autism in 1998).

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I missed the opportunity that year to educate other parents at DisneyWorld.  The following year we went back, this time for 2 days, and were able to obtain the special needs access pass by bringing a signed note from Rose’s doctor describing her disability.   This time I saw the marketing opportunity and so had printed cards to hand out that said:  Why is this child behaving this way? with an explanation of autism, and a suggestion that they help with a donation to National Alliance for Autism Research (now Autism Speaks) including phone number and website.  With the special access pass we were able to avoid long waits by entering at the Fast Pass entrance along with other people who had Fast Passes.   I also made a behavior chart and awarded Rose stickers for 15 minute time blocks, and she could then “redeem” the stickers for Disney merchandise in the hundreds of gift shops at the park.  Of course there were still challenging moments but overall it was a wonderful experience.

We continued to go to DisneyWorld almost every April with a 2-3 night stay, and the rest of our vacation week was on the Florida gulf at a family home.  We requested and used the special access pass for all our visits.  This did not mean there were not behavior challenges  (it is not a pretty scene when your 12 year old child has a violent meltdown, especially in public.)  But for a few days, we were able to enjoy an experience as close to what a “typical” family was having.   Yet, I don’t think any typical family would want to trade places with us for those 2 days.  And I know they would never trade experiences for the other 363 days of the year.

I don’t understand why people who have advantages begrudge those who need extra support to access what typical people can do on their own.  When I am in the supermarket checkout line and another customer pulls out food stamps to pay, I don’t say “lucky them, I wish I had food stamps so the government can help me buy food”.  Rather, I think, thank goodness I have the skills, education, and good fortune to be able to have a job and afford to pay for my food, and I am lucky to live in a country where we can accommodate those who do not.

The Disney parks special access pass has nothing to do with people who are not disabled.  We families who live with disabilities do not owe an explanation or need to apologize or defend the need for the pass.

Part 2:  Disney as a business and their commitment to their value proposition:  The Happiest Place on Earth.
Is that value proposition only for a select group of people?  Are Disney parks only targeting people who are able-bodied and neuro-typical?  or do they mean to make their parks the happiest place on earth for everybody?  As an experienced marketer myself, I am sure Disney, who is one of the best marketers in the world, knows that the largest minority group in the world are people with disabilities  (even the UN has acknowledged this). And I am sure Disney does not want to miss out on that market segment.

Many children with developmental disabilities are very brand loyal to Disney.  And they grow up to be loyal adults.  My guess is that people with disabilities who are Disney customers actually spend more per capita with Disney both in their youth and through adulthood compared to the non-disabled market segment.  Disney marketers should be calculating the life-time value of their customers.

So I decided to look at our own lifetime expenditure.  The Disney properties in our collection cover the entire Disney empire:  Mickey and the classics, all princesses, TV shows (Phineas and Ferb, Hannah Montana, etc), Disney Movies (High School Musical, Camp Rock, etc), Disney Radio, Disney TV,  Disney theme park merchandise, Broadway, books, magazines, etc.

I tried to take inventory and found for the first 17 years of Rose’s life she has been worth nearly $20,000 to Disney!!!  My guess is that she will be worth about the same in the next 17 years and forever (assuming we continue to go to the park.)  If we don’t go to the parks anymore I would cut our value for the next 17 years to about $5000, or only 25% of what we could be worth.

Here’s the breakdown of our Disney expenditures by Rose’s family 1996-2013

disney moviesDisney videos = 21 x $12 each = $252
Disney books =  15 x $12 each = $180
Disney audio books = 6 x $15 each = $90
Disney CDs = 9 x $14 each = $126
Disney plush toys = 9 x $25 each = $225
Disney games, toys = 18 x  $20 each = $360
Disney figurines = 42 x $2 each = $84
Disney pajamas, t shirts, hats = 10 x $25 each = $250 Disney accessories  = 11 x $20 each = $220 Disney movies in theaters:  10 (?)  x 2 x $11 each  = $220
Disney Broadway: 5 x 3 x $100 ea = $1500
Disney Channel portion of our cable subscription = ?  (it is the ONLY channel she watches!)

Disney park passes = 3 people x 10 visits x 2.5 days = $6750
Disney hotels = 15 nights x $380 each = $5700
Disney food at parks, hotels, Downtown Disney:  25 visits x 3 x $30 = $2250
Disney character meals, Bibbity boppity boutique = $500
The grand total: a very conservative total of  $18,707

Frankly, for me 10 visits were enough, but when you have a child with limited skills and interests, and with a career ambition to perform at the 3 pm show at Cinderella’s castle, then our family continues to make that “investment” in Disney.  I expect Disney to make the same investment in their lifetime loyal customer, and provide her the assistance she needs so she can keep spending money with Disney.

Related blogs and articles

On Parenting, The Washington Post

Cafe Mom: The Stir

Yahoo : Disney World’s Message to the Disabled: Wait in Line

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