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Trial over disability access at Disney World ends with delayed decision

Victory over Disney is a long shot, but mother of autistic son says trial is ‘right thing for our kids.'
ALLIE GOULDING | TimesGuests walk down Main Street with Cinderella's Castle in the background at Magic Kingdom on Wednesday, May 1, 2019 at Disney World in Orlando.

ORLANDO — As a long-awaited federal civil trial against Disney ended Thursday, the plaintiff’s attorney shrugged as he acknowledged he has essentially worked for free for years on the case. His client, Donna Lorman, isn’t suing for money. She just wants her son, a 27-year-old with autism, to regain better access to Disney World rides, she said.

U.S. District Court Judge Anne Conway, who oversaw three-day bench trial, didn’t immediately make a decision in the case that’s been fought since 2014. Both sides have 30 days to file briefs since the attorneys did not give closing arguments Thursday in the courtroom.

Lorman’s case is the first of nearly 60 similar federal lawsuits to be tried, said her Tampa attorney, Andy Dogali, who is also handling the other cases in Orlando and California.

Lorman acknowledged winning against Disney is a long shot. Disney paid one expert witness $575 an hour to testify, for instance.

“We understand our chances wouldn’t be very good because we don’t have the funds,” said Lorman, the Orlando mother who is also the president of the Autism Society of Greater Orlando. “But it was the right thing to do for our kids.”

The case stems from when Disney World changed its policy in 2013. Before, Lorman’s son, who can handle 15 to 20 minute waits, would be immediately allowed to stand in the shorter FastPass line for a ride instead of the standby queue.

Then came a series of viral stories about rich tourists cheating the system by hiring people with disabilities to accompany them in the parks so they could also cut the lines. Disney called it “abuse that was, unfortunately, widespread and growing at an alarming rate,” on its website.

Shortly after, Disney rolled out its DAS Card, which stands for Disability Access Service.

Now, when her her son visits a ride, he is given an advanced reservation and told to come back later, like he was in a virtual queue, to go back into the FastPass line.

Earlier in the week, Lorman recounted how in December 2013, the first time they visited the park after the change, the Jungle Cruise attraction posted a 40 minute wait time. Her son, who stands 6’5 and over 200 pounds, froze and blocked the line. Lorman worried he was going to have a meltdown. Her son, diagnosed with autism around age 4, has the developmental capacity of a child.

Disney acknowledges on its website that it works individually with guests when the DAS Card is not enough.

Lorman said she isn’t seeking any money from Disney. She just wants to increase the number of re-admission passes her son receives to 10, which allows them into the FastPass line without making an appointment. Typically, he gets five, she said, when they visit the Magic Kingdom, which has more than 20 rides.

Lorman testified that her son needs to follow the same clockwise route through the Magic Kingdom on every visit.

But Jill Kelderman, a neuropsychologist and expert witness for Disney, criticized parents who appease certain extreme behaviors such as feeding their children chicken nuggets for every meal, because, she said, it reinforces bad behavior.

Outside the courtroom, Lorman alluded to how autism has long been misunderstood: “We have gone back 40 years: It’s the Mom’s fault.”

Kelderman called Lorman’s son’s desire to follow the same route at the park on every visit a “strong preference,” but questioned whether the behavior required special accommodations. She said such a scenario is different from a guest who uses a wheelchair and needs a ramp to access rides.

Disney’s old system gave disabled people immediate access to rides, she said, adding that a “downshift from that level of entitlement is challenging for some families.”

In cross-examination, Kelderman, the expert who is currently paid $575 an hour, said she has been involved in the roughly 60 Disney lawsuits since 2015. She has rendered the same opinion in all the cases: The DAS Card provides people with autism access to the parks.

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