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End of Disneyland Program for Disabled Sparks Protests

Entertainment: Twice-yearly event attracted thousands. Park officials deny economics was a factor.

March 22, 1997|MARLA DICKERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Disneyland has quietly ended a 20-year-old special event that allowed youngsters with disabilities to enjoy the park at discount prices, a move now being loudly decried by some parents and activists.

Disneyland decided to discontinue its Happy Hearts program, a six-day event that attracted thousands of disabled children and young adults to the Magic Kingdom twice a year.

The action is the latest effort by Disneyland to reduce the number of discounted and free admissions to the park. Marching bands, employees' families and others have seen admission policies tightened as park attendance has swelled to an estimated 15 million annually.

Disneyland officials Friday denied that Happy Hearts was shelved for economic reasons. Disabled groups will still be able to participate in other year-round reduced-price ticket programs offered to many groups--though without the same hefty discount, said Disneyland spokesman Tom Brocato.

"This is about providing disabled guests more opportunities to enjoy the park at more times of the year," he said.

Parents and teachers normally laud Disneyland for its sensitivity to handicapped guests and generous donations to charities benefiting the disabled, but many expressed shock Friday that officials would end the popular program.

They complained that Disney has stalled them for months over the fate of Happy Hearts, and they scoffed at the notion that the park is expanding choices for disabled children by slashing the event.

"It's extremely disrespectful, insulting and just plain lousy," said Irvine resident Marthe Morreale, whose autistic son, Matthew, had been looking forward to the spring fling at Disneyland. "Everything always comes down to money."

Perhaps sensing a major public relations problem, Disneyland officials Friday revised their explanation several times as to why they discontinued Happy Hearts.

Among the other factors mentioned was alleged abuse of the program by able-bodied patrons. Brocato said Disney's liberal policy of granting a Happy Hearts discount to whoever asked for one encouraged people without disabilities to cash in.

"Basically, we had some people who were taking advantage of the system," Brocato said. "It needed to be revised."

But Sid Wolinski, an Oakland civil rights attorney and advocate for the disabled, said he doubts that able-bodied people are posing as handicapped to get a cut-rate ticket into Disneyland.

"That's a cheap shot that's unworthy of Mickey Mouse," Wolinski said. "They should just admit this whole thing is about economics and take the heat."

Launched in 1977, Happy Hearts had become the social outing of the year for thousands of Southern California youngsters with special needs, whether mentally retarded, physically disabled, autistic or born with Down's syndrome.

For six consecutive days, typically in February and then repeated in November, Disneyland offered disabled kids and their families the chance to visit the park at a substantial discount.

Special education classes, group homes and social services agencies--many of which are always in need of money--seized the opportunity to plan group field trips during those weeks. The park remained open to non-disabled guests during the special event.

Happy Hearts patrons paid $18 to enter Disneyland during last fall's event. That knocked more than 30% off the children's admission price of $26, and amounted to a 47% reduction on the adult admission (which was $34 then but has since been raised to $36).

Even with the discount, many groups had to hustle to pay the way. Lois Knudson, a special education teacher at Irvine's Lakeside Middle School, said her 10 charges sold candy and washed cars to raise money for this spring's Happy Hearts outing.

The trip to Disneyland is now on hold. "It's too late to raise the extra money," Knudson said. "I haven't figured out what to tell the students yet."

But some say Happy Hearts had gotten too unwieldy for Disneyland to provide quality service to its guests--disabled and otherwise.

Ann Belles, a Huntington Beach resident and foster parent to nine boys with special needs, said the huge number of disabled patrons prevented Disneyland employees from going the extra mile--which they typically do for disabled kids.

And because patrons in wheelchairs get to jump the line ahead of everyone else, she said the event also tries the patience of non-handicapped patrons.

"It just became unrealistic to provide a good day for everyone," Belles said. "The last time we went you couldn't move down Main Street for all the wheelchairs. We wouldn't do it again."

Brocato said disabled youths and their families are welcome to take advantage of the Southern California Resident's Salute, an off-season discount that allows all Southland residents to get into Disneyland for $26 through May 14.

Additionally, he said Disneyland will encourage special needs organizations to participate in the park's other reduced-price ticket programs. Under those plans, nonprofit groups can purchase a minimum of 500 tickets at discounted prices and resell them at a markup for fund-raising.

However, many small groups would have a tough time unloading 500 tickets. Happy Hearts was a simple, cheap way for special needs kids to enjoy a day at the park, said Pam Sears, executive director of the Intervention Center for Early Childhood in Santa Ana.

And many Happy Hearts participants looked forward to congregating with their peers, Sears said.

"It was the one kind of normal day they could just go and be a family with their disabled child," Sears said. "I don't think anyone felt like a charity case or that it was a stigmatizing event."

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