Disabled Child “Brought Back to Life” During Disney Trip Denied Entrance to Themed Event By Cast Members Because of Her Disability

in Disney Cruise Line, Featured

A person in a red wheelchair is pictured in front of a fairytale castle backdrop, reminiscent of Disney. The word "NO" is prominently written in yellow across the image. The person, indicative of facing disability discrimination, is wearing casual clothing and their face is not visible.

Credit: Inside the Magic

The Walt Disney Company is known for its incomparable dedication to making magic for fans around the world across a variety of venues and offerings, but one family’s recent Disney experience not only ruined the magic for one young fan on her trip; it may have also sullied the magic for her for the rest of her life.

A vibrant and colorful illustration of a fantastical castle with towering spires and turrets under a dramatic sunset sky, flanked by whimsical street lamps.
Credit: Inside the Magic

So Many Ways to Experience the Magic

Disney fans—be they children or the dreaded “Disney Adults”—have a range of options and offerings when it comes to unlocking and experiencing that famed Disney magic.

Fans can experience the magic when they visit the box office to see Disney’s latest theatrical releases, whether from Walt Disney Animation Studios, Walt Disney Pictures, Pixar Animation Studios, Lucasfilm, or Marvel Studios.

Related: Nearly 95% of Disney’s Irreplaceable Classic Animation Materials Destroyed

A cartoon scene featuring beloved characters from the movie "Inside Out." From left to right: Fear, Disgust, Joy, Sadness, Anger, and another nervous character. They are standing together with Bing Bong, an imaginary friend. It's a heartwarming glimpse inside Riley's mind.

Credit: Pixar Animation StudiosAt Disney’s theme parks across the globe, including the four theme parks at Walt Disney World in Central Florida, Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure at Disneyland Resort in California, and the theme parks at Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney Resort, Shanghai Disney Resort, and Hong Kong Disneyland, guests are treated daily to the magic and wonder brought about by immersive storytelling, thrilling attractions and rides, Broadway-style shows, and world-class restaurants–some inspired by beloved Disney stories.

In addition to those offerings, passengers aboard any of Disney’s five cruise ships–the Disney Dream, Disney Wonder, Disney Magic, Disney Fantasy, and Disney Wish–can experience that signature magic on the high seas.

A large cruise ship named "Disney Dream" is docked at a port during sunset. The sun is setting behind the ship, casting a warm glow on the water and sky. With Disney characters aboard, this once-in-a-lifetime experience showcases the Disney name and logo, with multiple decks visible.
Credit: Disney

At least, that’s what fans are led to believe. And it’s what one young fan and her family believed as well until they endured a real-life series of unfortunate events that left them thinking they’ll likely never take another Disney trip again.

The experience was so entirely opposite of what they’d hoped for and were led to believe would happen that the “magic” so often touted by The Walt Disney Company never fully became a reality for the family’s young daughter—a child with autism who was intentionally excluded from one of the most magical opportunities of her young life by cast members whose explanations, excuses, and rude responses only made the situation that much more heartbreaking.

A Love For–No, An Obsession With–Mickey Mouse

Angel Searle, whose daughter has autism and an adorable affinity for Mickey Mouse, took to social media to document the family’s less-than-magical ordeal online.

Mickey Mouse costume is standing outdoors in front of a pastel-colored building with blue trim, extending their right arm. Mickey is dressed in his signature red shorts with white buttons, yellow bow tie, and black jacket.
Credit: Disney

Searle begins by saying that she and her husband “parted with many several thousands of dollars” to book and experience their Disney trip–something they don’t often do–because their daughter is a huge Mickey Mouse fan.

“I don’t mean, ‘Oh, she has a normal childhood interest in Mickey Mouse,'” Searle explains.

“I mean, Mickey Mouse is her obsession. She must own at least 50 to 100 Mickey Mouse toys and a Mickey Mouse bedding set, and if she gets her hands on three round objects of any type, she’s going to make another one. One of her favorite things to do is have us trace a Mickey head on paper–again, just three circles–and then cut it out. She’ll run around with that thing for an hour in utter bliss.”

Mickey mouse waving in front of a colorful ferris wheel with mickey mouse design at a disney theme park during dusk.
Credit: Inside the Magic

Searle’s daughter also has autism and is mostly non-verbal.

The Trip of a Lifetime

“We prepped her long in advance that we were going to go on ‘Mickey’s boat’ and to see the ocean and maybe even see Mickey himself,” Searle explains. “The big day came, and we headed off to the airport for a flight to Florida and then onto the Disney Dream headed off to Nassau.”

The family had decided to take a Disney Cruise, and they couldn’t have been more excited, especially since the beginning of the experience was exciting–and emotional.

A large luxury cruise ship sails on open water under a partly cloudy sky. The ship, with multiple decks and distinctive yellow lifeboats, has elegant detailing on its hull and smoke stacks. A Disney character on board makes this a once-in-a-lifetime experience, as the ocean water reflects the light of the setting sun.
Credit: Disney

“I don’t think I can even put into words how much [our daughter] loved it,” Searle writes. “Our daughter came to life on that ship. She was so happy, I was literally choked up in tears the day she met Mickey Mouse in person. Seeing her actually run to him and hug him–[she] doesn’t even hug me, her mother.”

Sadly, however, the happiness the family experienced was short-lived.

The Magic Comes to a Screeching Halt

In a Cinderella and the clock-strikes-midnight-type scenario, Searle, her husband, and her daughter, who had been transported from everyday life to a carefree feeling of wonder, were quickly cast back into the challenges of everyday life.

An ornate clock tower is illuminated at night against a dark blue sky, reminiscent of a Disney character's magical world. The clock face shows the time as 11:50. Small parts of the tower's detailed architecture are visible, while its dark silhouette stands out against the night sky.
Credit: Walt Disney Animation

“It was Pirate Night, our day at sea, and there were going to be fireworks, so we headed up to the party deck,” Searle writes. “Because our little one is prone to running off and disappearing forever, we had her in a mobile assist device very similar to a wheelchair for the entire trip.”

Searle says that though her daughter can walk, the device helps to keep her safe and deters her attempts to run. She explains that no one onboard the ship knew she didn’t need the device for ambulation and likely assumed it was related to a mobility need. She recounts that evening in detail:

There was an elevated ‘deck’ on top of the party deck where almost everyone was gathered to watch the fireworks. I found the wheelchair ramp and started pushing my daughter up there to join them when one of the staff members stopped me and said that we weren’t allowed up there. I stared at him blankly, “Uh, why not?” Because pretty much everyone else was up there, and it was the only place from which she would be able to get a good view of Mickey and the others dancing and interacting with them. He gestured to her mobile assist device and said ‘that’ isn’t allowed up there.

A group of people in pirate costumes, including a beloved Disney character, cheer and celebrate under fireworks on a ship deck at night. The atmosphere is festive, with bright lights and lively expressions.
Credit: Disney

The young mother was shocked and responded, asking, “Then why in the heck is there a wheelchair ramp?” She says she challenged the cast member, thinking to herself, “This is Disney, and they’re excluding disabled children from the best spot to see the action?” She was understandably upset and confused by what she was told.

Cast Members Become “Cranky” and Offer No Solution

But according to Searle, rather than remaining calm, the cast member was instantly “cranky.”

“He practically shouted that [the assistive device] wasn’t allowed,” she claims. “I was upset at that point that my disabled child was specifically being barred from the party deck and turned around and started retreating immediately.”

Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse, beloved Disney characters, are dressed as ship captains, with Mickey in a blue uniform and Minnie in red. They stand in front of a large structure featuring the Disney Cruise Line logo, smiling and holding hands, alongside a joyful child with disabilities.
Credit: Disney

Searle says that another cast member quickly stepped in to attempt to diffuse the situation and keep things calm. But the second cast member explained to Searle that the decision was for her daughter’s safety, an explanation that Searle says didn’t make much sense to her.

“I knew [my daughter] would be upset if she could see Mickey but not be close to him, so we went back to our room and missed the party,” she writes. Searle notes that she was prohibited from bringing her daughter to the top deck in the assistive mobility device despite the party deck being equipped with ramps for such devices, wheelchairs, and the like.

Related: There’s An Easy Fix For Disney’s Recent DAS Pass Debacle, If Disney Will Just Do It

A man in a wheelchair, followed by four smiling women of varying ages, is coming down a ramp leading from a large Disney cruise ship. The group appears to be on vacation, dressed in casual and summery clothes, with some wearing sun hats and sunglasses, enjoying an inclusive getaway without any hint of disability discrimination.
Credit: Disney

When she and her husband talked to another cast member to lodge their complaint and ask why her daughter couldn’t go up to the party deck, Searle says she never got a straight answer.

The cast member did arrange for a tray of snacks and treats to be sent to the family’s stateroom, along with a stuffed lion, a model of the Disney Dream ship, and candy. The delivery was accompanied by a note with an apology to the family as they were “inconvenienced.”

A Sad Conclusion is Drawn By the Girl’s Parents

Though Searle says she doesn’t regret going on the Disney Cruise, she and her husband came to the conclusion that “Disney actually isn’t very inclusive.” She explains the basis for that conclusion in her post, writing:

We had to have [our daughter] with us 24/7 because their Oceaneers Club and ‘buddies’ (babysitters) weren’t Autism Certified. The elevators are way too small for wheelchairs and we had to wait for an empty one to go anywhere, and they don’t allow crutches/wheelchairs, etc. onto the main party deck for some weird reason no one could explain.

Furthermore, we had to spend most evenings in our room instead of enjoying the shows because our daughter was too loud and we had to leave mid-show, which really seemed to annoy our steward. I know they use the show time to clean, but his tangible annoyance made us feel bad.

Related: When It Comes to Disney’s Animated Films, “Inclusion” Doesn’t Mean “Everyone”

Children and adults enjoy interactive games on a light-up floor in a brightly lit room with a ceiling designed like a large compass. The children, including a child with disabilities, and a staff member in yellow shirts are smiling and engaged in various activities.
Games aboard the Disney Dream/Credit: Disney Parks

“I don’t regret the cruise,” she explains. “It was wonderful, and months and months later, my little girl still frequently yells, ‘Mickey’s boat!’ So I know she remembers it fondly. But I doubt we’ll ever do another Disney vacation–not until they become much more inclusive to children with special needs.”

Have you or someone you know experienced a situation at a Disney park or on a Disney Cruise in which you feel that you or your loved one was excluded because of his or her disability? Tell us about it in the comments section below.

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