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A disabled woman planned a 'once-in-a-lifetime' trip to Disney World. Then the park changed its disability policy.

Lauren Edmonds   

A disabled woman planned a 'once-in-a-lifetime' trip to Disney World. Then the park changed its disability policy.
  • Disney has revised its Disability Access Service program for theme park guests.
  • The updated policy came as some guests attempted to exploit the service.

Savannah spent nine weeks and thousands of dollars planning her family's trip to Walt Disney World.

"For me and my husband, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip," Savannah, 36, told Business Insider.

It wasn't a simple process for the Indiana-based couple, who planned to travel with Savannah's 72-year-old mother. They had to ensure that Savannah, a lifelong Disney fan, could navigate the sprawling theme parks as someone with a physical disability.

"I have had physical issues for the last 10 years that have prevented me from doing a lot of things," she said.

Doctors discovered that Savannah — who asked that her last name not be published for health privacy reasons — had an os trigonum, which is an extra bone found in the back of the ankle, around 2013. Savannah had accidentally broken the os trigonum while running one day and didn't receive medical treatment for eight months.

The incident has continued to cause her pain and affect her mobility. She's undergone 16 surgeries since she was 17, including 12 surgeries on her ankles. Most recently, she underwent a subtalar fusion procedure in August after being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis 15 months ago.

Savannah had accepted that a Disney World vacation wasn't feasible until her physical therapist told her about Disney's Disability Access Service, which allowed guests who could not stand in line due to a disability to schedule rides in advance and then wait somewhere else until it's their turn.

Savannah doesn't lack full mobility but would need frequent breaks to navigate Disney World, so the service sounded like a good solution. She and her husband went ahead and booked a vacation for May 20.

"I got that glimmer of hope again," Savannah said. "Everything finally lined up, and I was sitting on cloud nine. Then, Disney dropped that bombshell."

Disney's new disability policy

The bombshell: Disney announced earlier this month that it would revise its Disability Access Service policy.

Disney's policy previously allowed anyone who had "difficulty tolerating extended waits in a conventional queue environment due to a disability" to participate in the program, according to Fox Business.

Now, the service is more narrow, accommodating "only those Guests who, due to a developmental disability like autism or similar, are unable to wait in a conventional queue for an extended period of time."

Disney's policy change was, in part, an attempt to prevent able-bodied guests from exploiting the service. A Disney spokesperson told BI last year that there's been an increase in people misusing the service to skip lines and avoid crowds. Disability services are now the most requested service at the California and Florida parks, according to The Washington Post.

"Disney is dedicated to providing a great experience for all Guests, including those with disabilities, which is why we are so committed to delivering a wide range of innovative support services aimed at helping our Guests with disabilities have a wonderful time when visiting our theme parks," a Disneyland spokesperson said in a statement.

The Disneyland and Disney World websites include information for individuals with disabilities across different categories, including mobility.

One alternative for Savannah is the Rider Switch service, which allows one adult to wait with non-riders while the remaining group members enjoy the attraction. When the guests return from the attraction, they can swap places with the waiting adult, who will be allowed to board the attraction without waiting in line again.

But Savannah said the Rider Switch service isn't a good fit for her because she intends to explore the park with her husband, meaning her mother would have to stand in the lines. "Does she really need to stand in a line for 75 minutes for me while I sit isolated from my group?" Savannah said.

Disabled fans accuse Disney of discrimination

Now, Savannah and more than 140 others are calling the revised policy discriminatory.

In a formal letter addressed to Disney's top brass — including CEO Bob Iger— the coalition pointed to cancer patients, narcoleptics, veterans with PTSD, individuals with Parkinson's disease, and other groups as people now excluded from Disability Access Services.

"Punishing disabled individuals for the actions of able-bodied individuals who abuse the system is not a solution," the letter reads. "These changes fail to adequately address abuse; people who abuse the system will still lie."

Savannah told BI that the changes have inadvertently pushed a harmful narrative about who is "disabled enough" to qualify. "You're not the right kind of disabled and you don't matter. That's the way that Disney is portraying that," she said.

She and her husband have already saved $4,000 and collected around $400 in gift cards to cover their vacation costs. However, the policy changes — scheduled to go into effect the first day of their Disney vacation — have upended everything.

"I've invested all of this money that you're not going to give me back if I can't physically go," Savannah said. "What does that look like for me? It did not feel like the Disney that I have heard so many good things about."

Savannah added that had she and her husband known about the policy changes ahead of time, they wouldn't have spent their time or money on Disney.

"I absolutely would not have gone to Disney. I would not have chosen to spend my money there. I would have spent my money at Universal [Studios], where they still treat me like a person," Savannah said.