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Court: Visitors with autism can proceed with lawsuits against Disney World

Thirty lawsuits claim Disney's programs don't do enough to avoid long waits or allow guests with autism to keep scheduled routines at the parks in Florida and California.

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There are at least 30 lawsuits accusing Disney theme parks of not adequately accommodating visitors with autism; and last week, a federal appeals court gave the green light for those visitors to proceed with their cases against Disney parks in Florida and California.

The lawsuits claim Disney's program to accommodate guests with autism does not do enough to help guests with autism avoid long waits for rides or keep a scheduled routine in the parks.

Since 2013, Disney's current program for people with cognitive disabilities has provided benefits like scheduled ride times to prevent guests from standing in long lines for more popular rides, while also allowing them to immediately hop on rides that have short wait times. The program was created to replace an earlier program that was being abused by guests, including those who did not need special accommodations.

The Lakeland Ledger reported a lower-court judge had previously granted summary judgment for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, which meant ruling without holding a full-blown trial. The judge ruled Disney policy changes were not necessary because the program already accommodates guests with disabilities.

But on Friday, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sent the case back and said some issues still needed to be resolved in a trial. That court said the plaintiffs could proceed with the lawsuits alleging violations of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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In the 65-page ruling, the appeals court said parents testified about children with autism having "meltdowns" when they had to wait for rides or when their pre-set routines were disrupted.

Disney's Disability Access Service (DAS) program allows guests with disabilities to obtain a DAS card that prevents them from having to physically wait in the normal line. Those with DAS cards are given return times for rides -- similar to Disney's FastPass+ program -- and can immediately get on the ride at that return time.

The plaintiffs testify in the court's ruling that while the act of physically waiting in line has been eliminated, they still have to wait until the return time to get on the ride. The plaintiffs claim in the report that their children or relatives with autism cannot comprehend the concept of time or wait.

The appeals court last week said the plaintiffs are seeking maximum wait times of 10-15 minutes for all the parks' rides.

In a statement, a Disney spokeswoman told 10News: "Disney Parks have an unwavering commitment to providing an inclusive and accessible environment for all our guests. The lower court concluded that we fully complied with all ADA requirements and dismissed the claims. the appellate court ruling sends the lawsuits back to the lower court for further proceedings. We are reviewing the decision and evaluating next steps."

Information from the Associated Press and Lakeland Ledger was used in this report.

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