Undercover at Disney: 'Deplorable' scheme to skip lines
By Jeff Rossen and Josh Davis
(NBC) - TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen takes you to Disneyland to show you what many call a shameful trick to skip the lines on rides.
It's made headlines recently. We all know how frustrating it is, waiting in those long lines at Disney. But now some families are cheating the system. They're hiring disabled tour guides so they can cut right to the front. We went undercover and caught it all on tape.
The rides, the characters: Disneyland is "the happiest place on earth" -- except if you're waiting in those long lines, you and your kids, waiting hours in the heat.
So how did one family get to skip past everyone? They did it ride after ride after ride, escorted to the front every time.
It's the outrageous business few even know about: families bypassing the lines by hiring disabled tour guides with special passes. At most theme parks like Disney, they have great policies: The disabled get speedy access to rides. But now healthy families are abusing the system, paying disabled guides to get them in with up to five guests.
"The parents call them 'black market' handicapped Disney guides," said Wednesday Martin, author and social researcher. "It's almost like a status symbol."
On ads we found on Craigslist, tour guides brag about their disabled passes: "Let's cut the Disney lines together," "access to ... special entrances." So we had our producer and his family go undercover with home video cameras, hiring two of those disabled guides to show them around Disneyland.
First up was a guide named Mara, who said she got her pass after a car accident. "I'm here to make sure everyone has fun at Disneyland and we get on as many rides as possible," she told us.
"And you have a secret weapon that's going to help us?" our producer asked.
"I do. I have a special card that's going to help us beat the lines," Mara replied with a wink.
And she charged $50 an hour to do it. We started at the Mad Tea Party ride. The long line was no problem for us: We skipped ahead, and got right in through a side door.
Our second disabled guide, Ryan, charged our family $200 and got them right through another side door at Star Tours, an attraction inspired by "Star Wars." "I cant believe we're getting past everybody," our producer exclaimed.
The line at Splash Mountain was at least an hour long. But we slipped right in through the back exit thanks once again to that trusty disabled pass.
In fact, over two days, Ryan and Mara flashed their passes and got us nearly instant access to some of the most popular attractions, bypassing the monster line at Pirates of the Caribbean and breezing past all the people at Alice in Wonderland. The guides were happy to take our money while other families had to wait.
We met up with Mara in the parking lot. "You're profiting from this," we said.
"Well, Disneyland's profiting a lot from all the people that enter," she said.
"Will you continue to do this?"
"Yes, I will," Mara said. "We live in a capitalist country, and I don't feel like it's morally wrong."
Mara was unapologetic, but when we interviewed Ryan, he was downright defiant. "Do you think you're abusing the system?"
"No," Ryan said.
"I gave him a wonderful tour," Ryan replied.
"With your disabled pass, where you went through side entrances and exits," we pointed out. "And they're not disabled at all. They're complete strangers. And you charged them for it."
"And?" Ryan said.
"Do you ever feel any pangs of guilt when you're cutting past all of those people who are waiting in line with people who are paying you, who aren't disabled at all?" we asked.
"It's a moral question."
"And that's the question, you don't feel morally --"
"I couldn't care less," Ryan said.
"About those people waiting in line," we said.
But Disney has a big problem with it, telling us in a statement: "We find it deplorable ... We have initiated a review of this abuse and will take appropriate steps to deter this type of unacceptable activity."
So no one's jumping ahead of you this summer who shouldn't be.
Our investigation got results. Disney is cracking down, sending out warning letters to anyone advertising these services online. And if they catch any of these "disabled tour guides" in the act, their disabled passes will be revoked, and they won't be allowed back into the park.
By the way, we also called the American Association of People with Disabilities. They agree with Disney that this practice is abusive and should be stopped.
Here is the full statement from Disney:
"We find it deplorable that people would hire the disabled to abuse accommodations that were designed to permit our guests with disabilities to enjoy their time in our parks. We have initiated a review of this abuse and will take appropriate steps to deter this type of unacceptable activity."
Here is the full statement from Mark Perriello, president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities:
"No one likes waiting in long lines, but exploiting people with disabilities in order to skip to the front is disgraceful.
"While Disney must move swiftly to train their employees to recognize and stop this abuse, it's important to note that Disney has a great track record on accommodating people with disabilities. It's disturbing that nondisabled visitors would take advantage of these accommodations. This situation goes to show that money may buy a lot, but apparently civility and respect are not among those things."