Disney defeats lawsuit claiming Disabled Access System violates ADA, discriminates against autistic children


Disney had a big win in court today when a Judge agreed with the Mouse and dismissed a case that claimed the park’s Disabled Access Card (DAS) violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Not only was a summary judgement granted, but the court will also require the plaintiff in the case to pay Disney’s legal costs.

I am not a lawyer, but I understand that summary judgments are difficult to appeal, although I’m sure the plaintiff will try, if just to get the legal fee issue reduced. Deadline spoke with the plaintiff’s attorney who said, “The opinion is unsound, and we continue to evaluate our options.”

This was one case brought against Disney on behalf of a resident of Orange County, FL living with autism by their mother. The plaintiff alleged that he was “incapable of deviating from consistency, order, and routine” because of his impairment and asked for Disney to make accommodations that adapted to his specific case. When in 2014 Disney switched from the GAC to the DAS, the plaintiff’s routine was disrupted to the point where they had to leave the park.

In my reading of the judgement, not only did the Judge find inconsistencies with the Plaintiff’s stories, she found that the ADA does not require exact accommodation, only accommodation that is equal to or better that of the regular public. The DAS, when used efficiently is better than the system regular guests use, said the judge.

To be honest, it sounds like the judge was fair in this case and that the plaintiff did not actually present a strong case due to inconsistencies (for instance: claiming he couldn’t deviate from a set course, and yet he did deviate on the day the litigation was concerning).

My one quibble is that it’s not clear the judge made an effort to understand the nature of autism and how differences in routine can impact their ability to enjoy or experience an event as she mostly disregards any mention of that. For example, the Judge equates riding in a car over long distances to waiting in queue at an attraction. Those might be two completely different experiences for the plaintiff, but the Judge lumps them together as if the plaintiff does not have autism.

But that’s really a minor point in an otherwise well argued judgement for Disney.

The original case with 16 plaintiffs was split, so there is a potential of other similar cases out there, and no guarantee a judge will rule the same way in all of them, but it’s a fairly strong indicator, for sure.

Do you think the Judge was justified in granting Disney’s motion to find the case lacked merit? If you’ve used the new Disney DAS, how did you find it?

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12 thoughts on “Disney defeats lawsuit claiming Disabled Access System violates ADA, discriminates against autistic children

  1. Patricia

    I hate to admit it, but I’m a lawyer. The standard for summary judgment is fairly high – to win you must show that all the evidence, taken in the light most favorable to the non-moving party (in this case, plaintiff), shows that no triable issues of fact exist – issues of fact being those that are considered by a jury. Summary judgment decisions get overturned on appeal more often than people think, but you’re correct, it is not easy and based on your synopsis of this case, it is doubtful that it will be overturned. I also think the judge made the right decision here.

  2. Eric

    I too am a lawyer (and actually proud to be one) who specializes in federal civil litigation and appellate work. The standard of review for summary judgment on appeal is “de novo” which is Latin for “anew,” meaning the case is newly considered by the appellate court without any deference to the lower court’s ruling. Disney’s lawyer’s job in this case would basically be to defend the lower court’s ruling. It is a second bite at the apple however for the plaintiff to prove that contested issues of material fact exist. It is when you lose on appeal that your options become severely limited, as rarely is there a right to appeal to the US Supreme Court – you have to be selected out of thousands of cases. Tom Brady is finding that out now.

    I’ll also say that Judge Conway is a conservative judge, and her opinion kind of reads that way. Two of the three judges on an appeal panel could have a totally different view towards autism and ADA claims, and since they aren’t bound by Judge Conway’s decision, could end up producing a different result vis a vis the facts on record regarding wait times and plaintiff’s special needs. If they affirm, however, the attorney fee granting might be the hardest to overcome. I am sure the standard of review for that determination is “abuse of discretion” which is much tougher putt than “de novo.” Ok back to work.

  3. Jave Ryan

    Our son’s girlfriend has a rare case of MD. We go regularly to Disneyland/Disney’s California Adventure and have found that Disney and its cast members go out of their way to help those that are disabled. Even in DCA where the park had was built with disabled guests in mind! Sometimes people just have to understand that a company, any company, cannot just accommodate EVERYONE’s special needs! And I think it is crazy to think otherwise! Judge made the correct judgement!

  4. Ross

    I am not a lawyer, but I did happen to work on the DAS project when I worked for Disney. There was so much abuse of the old Guest Assistance Pass that something needed to change. For example, only one in four families who visited DHS had the chance to experience Toy Story, while the holder of a Guest Assistance Pass rode an average of three times. I don’t have a child with autism and I am sure it is a challenge, but clearly there was a need to be fair to everyone visiting the parks. Also keep in mind that the families filing the lawsuits represent a VERY small minority of families with children who have autism visiting the parks. Most of them are fine with the new policy and appreciate that an accommodation continues to be made.

  5. Jan Vincent

    I don’t know all the details of the case, but based on what I’ve read so far, it feels as if the plaintiff expects it to be Disney’s job to make sure her son’s experience is based on his routine; instead of it being the mother’s job to help fit her son into the Disney experience. It would be virtually impossible for Disney to try and fit itself for every special need that might exist. I feel Disney does go above and beyond in their effects to accommodate as many special needs as possible. The change in ADA system at Disney was due to the huge number of healthy people who cheated the previous system. I guess you can’t please all the people, all the time.

  6. Jean Ledyard

    My daughter also has autism. We had to stop going to Disney because of the change, but I would never think to bring a lawsuit because of it. She’s also blind and we started having more meltdowns with the new pass. Our solution was to start going to Universal Studios. Their system works much better for us.

  7. Jennifer

    My adult brother that has severe autism no longer goes to Disney because of their changed rules. We can not simply help him to “fit” in to the Disney experience as someone ignorantly suggested. Unfortunately if you don’t have a child that is autistic or a family member, you obviously don’t know what your talking about. Which is quite evident from a lot of these comments (as well as the Judge). Personally I’d rather see the law changed so that people could provide a doctors note, that would work better in stopping healthy people from abusing the system. Most parents of autistic kids are only asking to be allowed to go through the exit or in to the fastpass lane. These kids don’t understand hours of waits in lines, with screaming kicking unbehaved kids (frankly that part neither do I appreciate). A lot of them will get stressed and act out themselves. Ripping off clothes, screaming, hurting themselves etc… How would you like to see that in line? These families aren’t looking to cheat a system, they’d love to have a “normal” child who will have a normal life that goes well beyond standing in line at Disney. I’m sure there are people that would just say they should stay home, rather then let them enjoy the one place they love most to visit. Because those kids going through the exit obviously burdens you so much. Sad, sad that people lack such compassion.

    1. Sarah

      The current system gives you a return time and allows you to go through the FP line. There’s no waiting for hours to in line unless you choose to do so. Before bashing people for defending the system, you should read up on how the system actually works. It’s a good system.

  8. David Seidel

    After using the GAC (old system) for a few years with my severely disabled daughter (rare chromosome abnormality), we stopped going to WDW after being there the week after the DAS was instituted.

    In Oct 2013, WDW went from being a place my daughter could enjoy to a place where CMs made my wife cry as she begged for some type of accommodation for our daughter (who clearly is much worse off than a child with autism).

    We went back recently for the first time in over two years. The Magic is back. They have tweaked the DAS, incorporating it with MagicBands and FP+. It worked for us, but most importantly, the CMs treated my wife with respect and my daughter with love.

  9. Patricia

    Our family has traveled to Disney many times with my brother who is physically and mentally challenged. He cannot walk and is confined to a wheelchair. In all the times we’ve been to Disney, we’ve never used the old or the new assistance system. My dad and brother would wait in a different area until the rest of the family made it through the queue. In this case, I think the judge made the right decision. It would be impossible for Disney or any other theme park, to apply different rules for different disabilities.

  10. Sarah

    Just my two cents worth, but, I have used both the old system and the new one. I prefer the new system. I’m not, nor have experience with autism so I can’t speak about that aspect. But, I have other health issues that make standing for long periods difficult. I visited Disney on the old system while having to use a scooter. It was a nightmare! The system was inconsistent and not everyone on every ride had us do the same thing. Some allowed us to use the fast pass line, some rides we went in the exit, and others had us transfer to a wheel chair and wait in the regular lines. I witnessed first hand some guests being extremely rude to cast members over the discrepancies in the old system. I learned, by talking to some of the cast members, that many people abused the system to jump the lines. Even paying to ride with a family who had disabled members!! The new system is much more organized and fair to everyone involved. It’s not as much fun as skipping the lines, lol! But if people had never abused the old system there would have been no reason to change it. The new system requires the disabled guest and their party to get a “come back time” for the ride. It’s a time equal to the current wait time on that ride. Im sure people aren’t happy that they have to wait. The new system is just like a fast pass. Then when time is up we go through the fast pass line and enjoy the ride. Again, it was fun having a sort of universal fast pass, but the new system keeps butt heads from abusing it.

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