Guest Assistance Pass Unlocks Orlando Theme Park Magic for Kids of All Abilities
Navigating the logistics of an Orlando theme park trip is daunting for any parent. But for parents of children on the autism spectrum, like my son, or with another learning challenge or disability, the task may even seem impossible. I wondered how I could make sure he enjoys himself and gets to see what wants? How would he endure long waits for rides, the inevitable crowds, and noise—none of which he handles very well?
Thankfully, the big theme parks in Orlando offer a service for families like mine that helps minimize stress and maximize the kids' fun: the guest assistance pass.
Get the scoop on how the DAS program works. Photo courtesy of allears.net
I'm using the name "guest assistance" generically as each park has its own name for the pass. Disney World, Universal, Sea World, and Legoland all feature some type of guest assistance pass or service that helps theme park fans who have special needs or disabilities. More than a convenience, this is an invaluable resource, and I wanted to share our top tips so other families can access the pass to shorten wait times and minimize kids' frustration.
The process to obtain the pass is the same at each park. Visit the Guest Relations/Services counter, typically located just outside or inside the park’s entrance gate and register for it. Each park, however, has its own policies and procedures for the pass and within those regulations there are further differences. With these basics in mind, here are some more detailed guidelines from a formerly frazzled parent who has survived theme park bureaucracy:
Walt Disney World Disability Access Service
How It Works: Disney World's policies for guest assistance have changed numerous times over the years, and not always for the better. The current program, called Disability Access Service (DAS), allows guests to request a return time for one attraction. The return time is comparable to the current standby wait, so if it’s 1pm and the wait for Spaceship Earth is one hour, you can enter the ride any time after 2pm. After visiting the first attraction, families with DAS can request a return time for another ride.
Knowing where and how to find additional assistance is an important aspect of visiting the park. Photo courtesy of allears.net
Pros: Return times are coded into your Magic Band, so there’s no card to carry (and potentially misplace). Return times are also open-ended, meaning its valid until the park, or the attraction, closes for the day. Registration for DAS remains valid for up to 60 days. Lastly, if an attraction has a wait time of less than 15 minutes, you are given immediate access. Families just need to inform the cast member on duty that they are registered for DAS.
Cons: Getting a return time for one attraction is all well and good, but what to do in the meantime? I can count on one hand the number of attractions with a wait time of less than 15 minutes, so that’s not much of an option. Ultimately, your child is still going to have to endure massive wait times for most of the things he or she wants to do at this mega Orlando theme park.
Getting Something Extra: We realized right away that the DAS was not going to be adequate to my son's needs, so we visited Guest Services and asked for additional assistance. We explained that his disability limits his tolerance and therefore the duration of his visit. Taking our concerns into account, the cast member issued a special pass which allowed us access to the Fast Pass Lane, or other alternate queue, for three attractions that day, while still being able to use DAS, too. (This feature even worked during the height of the pandemic when the Fast Pass Service had been suspended.) The agent also established a case number for us, so that whenever we revisit Guest Relations, they are able to look up his case and issue the passes. No need to reexplain.
Coming soon: Virtual registration for Disability Access Services. Photo courtesy of the Disney World Resort
Coming Soon: Disney is planning numerous revisions to its DAS procedures, effective sometime this fall. The most intriguing is the ability to register for DAS virtually via live video chat. It appears you'll also be able to select up to two experiences per day and receive a one-hour return window for each attraction.
Enjoying the High in the Sky Seuss Trolley Train Ride at Universal's Islands of Adventure. Photo courtesy of the author
Universal Resort Attractions Assistance Pass
How It Works: Universal has a very similar service to Disney’s DAS, called the Attractions Assistance Pass (AAP), in which you can request a return time for one attraction, and then request another return time once you have visited that first attraction.
Pros: Demonstrating a greater flexibility than Disney’s DAS, the AAP will allow you to enter an attraction through an alternate queue if the wait time is less than 30 (not 15) minutes. Needless to say, this allows you to access many more attractions. And as with the DAS, the return times are open-ended.
Cons: With the DAS, you can ask a Disney Guest Relations staff member, or one of the Guest Experience stands throughout the parks, to book your attraction return time. However, with the AAP, you have to go to each attraction to request it. And so you go to an attraction your child really wants to see and they get all excited, only to be told they have to come back much later. Telling a child with autism that you are going to do something at a certain time and then changing it to another time is both confusing and disheartening for them. Other cons of the AAP are that it is a card, which is easily lost, and it is only good for 30 days.
Light it Up Blue/Autism Speaks, honoring World Autism Awareness Day. Photo courtesy of Universal Studios
Getting Something Extra: As with the DAS, we realized that the AAP was not adequate for our family, and so, as we had done at Disney World, we made our case to an agent at Guest Services. Once again, we were issued us a special pass that allowed us to walk onto any ride using each attraction’s Express Pass Lane, or another alternate queue. (It probably didn’t hurt our cause that my son was loudly reciting an episode of Barney when we visited Guest Relations, or that our agent had experience working with children on the spectrum.) As with Disney, the agent also established a case number for us, which we use each time we return to the theme park.
SeaWorld is a Certified Autism Center. Photo courtesy of Seaworld
SeaWorld and Legoland Florida
Both of these Orlando theme parks offer a pass similar to Universal's AAP in which you are given a return time for an attraction with a wait time of 30 minutes or less. As neither of these theme parks is as crowded as Disney World or Universal, nor has as many attractions, the wait times we have encountered have been less than 30 minutes.
Getting Something Extra: As with other parks, SeaWorld will establish a case number for you, once again expediting the process of obtaining the Guest Assistance Pass.
The discovery of the guest assistance pass was a watershed event in our family vacation planning. For children on the spectrum, the ability to simply walk onto an attraction will greatly enhance the quality of visiting the Orlando theme parks, both for them and their families.