Disneyland ends event for disabled children Happy Hearts program was run twice a year

March 23, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- Disneyland has ended a 20-year-old event that allowed youngsters with disabilities to enjoy the park at discount prices, a move 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 denied Friday that Happy Hearts was shelved for economic reasons. Disabled groups will still be able to participate in other year-round reduced-price ticket programs already 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 year," he said.

Parents and teachers have often lauded Disneyland for its sensitivity to disabled guests and generous donations to charities benefiting the disabled, but many expressed shock Friday that officials would end the 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."

But some say Happy Hearts had grown 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 tried to do for disabled children.

Pub Date: 3/23/97

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