Culture

The Happiest Place on Earth... Sort of... Part 1

I just returned from a vacation to Walt Disney World with my family and I took plenty of video to highlight the new changes that are happening at the Orlando resorts that are billed as “the happiest place on Earth.” I doubt I’m the only one who thinks they have been happier in the past.

By way of introduction, we waited until we were 30 minutes outside of WDW (or “Disney” as most people I know call it) to tell our daughters (ages 8 and 4) where we were going. They were in the back of our van on a 20 hour trip without knowing where we were headed because we wanted to give them the magical experience of thinking they were headed to a dreary, dusty-sounding place called “Rattlesnake Ranch” and then be delighted to discover they were in that “happiest place on Earth” instead. That surprise was truly fun.

But imagine after finding out you’re headed to “Disney” that the minute you get there you are turned away like the Griswold family at the fictional Wally World in the old National Lampoon’s Vacation movie with Chevy Chase and Beverly D’Angelo. Seriously. This began my first experience with the Not-So-MagicBands you may have heard about.

I made our reservations months ago through My Disney Experience online. It was all rather easy to do and I was able to book FastPass Plus and dining reservations on the same site. For the most part this was painless. We received our MagicBands in the mail. These are high-tech, brightly colored rubber bracelets with electronic do-dads in them that are supposed to make the Disney parks come alive for you like never before and allow you to leave your wallet or purse in your hotel room. At no point are there any instructions about having to do anything with these bands except “link them online,” which I did. They are your tickets, your room key and your credit card for buying food, souvenirs, treats, and whatever you want in the parks. I even checked into our hotel room online a week before arrival. (This is a service they offer that is supposed to make it a breeze to get your vacation started. But, it doesn’t.)

So we arrived at the Magic Kingdom at 9 a.m. with activated “MagicBands” (or so I thought) and entered the parking lot with the bands and got on the tram to the ferry across the lagoon and then over to the gates with two very excited children. By the time we reached the entrance to “the happiest place on Earth” it was 9:45 a.m. And then this happened.

Major bummer recorded here for posterity (and Disney customer service should they care to watch it).

magic bands

I went over to Guest Services and joined a gigantic line of people baking in the hot Florida sun. Not a canopy or a bench anywhere in sight. Are people allergic to shade and sitting now in 2014, like they are to peanuts and gluten, and is Disney afraid of being sued for making people comfortable while they are waiting to spend money in their parks? My children were dejected and hot and my husband was already starting to blame me. I could feel his anger growing at what he perceived to be something I must have screwed up after he had driven us for 20 hours from Chicago. While standing in the ginormous line with no relief from the heat, I spotted a Disney employee and called him over for a chat.

“Our bands aren’t activated and I did it online. Do you know if Guest Services can activate them?” I asked, hopefully. He looked confused as if he had never seen a MagicBand before.

“Where are your tickets?” was his response.

“These are our tickets. The bands are the tickets! Haven’t you seen these before or are you from 1963?” I replied, becoming exasperated.

“I’ve never seen bands without paper tickets,” he said, dumbfounded.

“I assure you these ARE the tickets. We were not sent anything in the mail other than these bands and instructions on how to ‘link’ them online, which I did. MagicBands are supposed to replace the paper tickets and the hotel keys and even our credit cards,” I explained to someone who should know Disney’s new policies and procedures better than a mom in line with her family melting in the sun.

“How did you buy your tickets?” came next.

“Online,” I replied.

“Where?” he questioned.

“Oh forget it,” I sighed. He turned around and slid into his DeLorean and drove back to the past. I had found the only Disney employee who didn’t know how the Internets work or what MagicBands are supposed to do.

I then dialed Disney corporate and was on hold for about 20 minutes (and still at the end of the Guest Services line) before reaching someone. The woman who answered the phone cheerfully told me that I had to turn around, grab my kids, traverse back across the lagoon, get on the tram, ride to Hook 81, get my car, fold up strollers, buckle in the kids, and ride out of Disney World and back to the hotel. That’s right, I had to go to my hotel first and check in there. It was the only way to “activate” the bands. Keep in mind, this is brand new information that did not appear anywhere on the vacation itinerary that Disney sent to me.

“Are you kidding me?” I said. “Check-in isn’t until 3 p.m. and it’s now 10a.m. and we decided it was stupid to check in before 3 p.m. when we could just go straight to the park and have fun! Are you telling me that here at the Magic Kingdom they can’t activate these stupid ‘magic’ bracelets or that in the year 2014 you can’t push a button on your computer right now and do it?”

“No, I’m sorry,” she said. “There’s nothing I can do to help you.” And I won’t even try, I imagined her saying in my head.

My girls, hot, miserable yet waiting patiently

My girls, on the verge of heat stroke, miserable yet waiting patiently

This was the moment when I almost had a major breakdown as I stared at the forlorn and sweaty expressions on my children’s melting faces as they watched other children go cheerfully through the gates while my husband increasingly grew to hate me for somehow fouling this all up. A Disney employee should never, EVER utter the words “there’s nothing I can do to help you.” This is simply unacceptable. Walt Disney would be ashamed by the behavior of staffers in the park that bears his full name. I can’t recall one other vacation where I would spend $5,000 (before I even hit the gift shops or restaurants!) and the staff wouldn’t be bending over backwards to help me. Only at Disney can such a sum be treated as a pittance and the people willingly paying it as lepers. I immediately asked for a supervisor. A chipper fellow named Niles came on the line. I explained my situation to him and he said, “I’ll be glad to fix that for you. I just need to call the hotel and have them activate the bands.”

Well now, so much for “nothing they can do to help me,” eh? The lesson here is, never, EVER take the person who answers the phone’s word for anything. Always escalate your concern to a supervisor. (Although to be fair, this was the same supervisor who also uttered the phrase “Sorry, there’s nothing I can do to help you” when I had a problem with the FastPass+ system the week before. But I digress. Today he came through.)

“Niles, just to clarify, I’m in line at Guest Services. If I stay in this line will they be able to fix it here?” I inquired, just curious.

“I’m not sure. Probably not, but stay there anyway,” he replied honestly.

Probably not? Sigh. How is this possible? This is Disney! These are the “Magic”Bands designed to enter the Magic Gates. How can they not remedy this situation AT THE GATES? The tickets are paid for. My credit card has been charged. Everything is done online and we live in the age of instant everything and yet they want you to go personally to the hotel to activate these stupid bands like it’s still the Carter administration?

“Niles, one other thing. Why did I do online check-in at the hotel if I’m not really checked in? Why offer that?” I asked.

“Oh, well, that’s so you don’t have to wait in the really big line when you get to the hotel. You get directed to a shorter line instead,” he explained.

“So, I’m not really checked in, am I?” I asked.

“No,” he said, sounding slightly embarrassed. We’re just screwing with you and trying to make your husband and kids hate you, I finished in my head for him.

Niles then informed me that the tickets were activated and everything should be fine, but if I attempted to use my dining plan (another extremely expensive option) it would not work because I needed to set up a pin number for it and he couldn’t do that over the phone. Double sigh. However, things began to look up when he said I could go straight to City Hall right inside the gates and set up a pin there. (You can’t activate your tickets to Magic Kingdom at Magic Kingdom, but you can set up a pin for your dining plan inside the gates where you can’t get without active MagicBands. Sure. Great plan. Totally “magical,” if by “magic” you mean “frustrating insanity.”)

By this time it was 10:50 a.m. My children had been watching happy families enter the Magic Gates for over an hour while they roasted in the Florida sun with the rejects in the Guest Services line. I pictured budding authors 20 years in the future going all Christina Crawford on me in a tell-all about how “Mommy Dumbest Ruined Disney.” I gathered up my girls with a plastered smile on my face and cheerfully directed them to the gates for a second go, studiously avoiding eye contact with Mr. Fox who was still shooting daggers my way. Thank Heavens (and Niles) it worked and we were in. Luckily we were right on time for the 11:00 a.m. “Celebrate!” parade. I set them up on the corner of Main Street with their dad while I went to City Hall to straighten out the dining plan pin. The pin worked, and I was able to join them in time for the first parade of the day. I have to say, as annoying as Disney can be (and this is just one of several instances) there’s pretty much nothing else on Earth that can make you feel as good, as fast, as a gorgeously performed Disney parade.

online check in

Upon arriving at the hotel, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, Natalie, who checked us in, took one look at our reservation and said, “Oh, you had trouble with your bands today?” I assured her this was an understatement and she replied, shaking her head, that this happens all the time. I appreciated her honesty, if not the reality that this happening to people at Disney was seemingly as common as poor experiences at your local DMV.

“It’s a problem,” she honestly admitted. “They don’t take into consideration all the people who drive here and only consider the people who fly and come straight to the hotel. I hope they fix it. It’s very frustrating for guests.” It was only then that I was vindicated of all wrongdoing in my husband’s eyes. I could see him visibly stiffen as he now understood I actually had done all the right things (as I claimed) and that Disney had messed it up. The Mouse did it, not Mrs. Fox. No one who has just paid thousands of dollars on a fun experience wants to find out their money is being spent on bad training, stupid systems and utter failure. But in new Disney style, nothing was offered to compensate us for their failings, no amends were made for my children sweating for two hours in the sun while they stared hopelessly at the main gates that were closed to them for no reason, and hardly any apology was given either. It isn’t that we just want stuff for free, but when you’ve been inconvenienced through no fault of your own it’s a nice gesture when a company cares enough to offer anything as an apology. That used to be the gold standard of customer service that Disney was once upon a time known for.

It really needn’t be anything large. But a small token of apology goes a long way in customer service. Especially when families spend the kind of money it takes to vacation at Disney (that it took us five years to save). A free dessert, some drink tickets, a coupon for bowling, a one night reduction of the hotel bill…anything. But Disney doesn’t seem to do that sort of thing anymore (or feel they need to). They simply look at you and repeat this line: “I’m sorry your experience hasn’t been a good one.” And then they stare at you blankly until you go away.

Forgive me if that doesn’t make me feel better. “Sorry” doesn’t mean much without reparations. It reminded me of the time my parents took the entire family to Disney five years ago and when they were met with serious challenges to our room situation and other things they were promised and didn’t get, Disney did the exact same thing. They offered nothing but empty apologies. My parents spent $17,000 that trip. It was a once-in-a-lifetime event involving my two sisters and their families as well as my own. Can you think of any vacation where you could drop that kind of money and not be treated like the queen of England (or at least Michelle Obama)?

walt_disney

Disney gets a lot right, and there are more reviews coming from me that will highlight the best things about Disney too, but I would like to start with some fixable fails that Disney can and should work out. After all, “Disneyland is a work of love. We didn’t go into the idea of Disneyland just with the idea of making money,” is a famous quote from Walt Disney. Walt loved people (so much so that he insisted everyone call him “Walt” and not “Mr. Disney”) and his company needs to do a better job of following his example.

I know it’s not a family business anymore and is currently dictated by the whims of shareholders and idiots with Harvard MBAs, but if Walt’s name is still slapped onto the resort then it should at least make some kind of effort to echo this marvelous man’s attitude toward his “guests.” When you love people and spend all your resources making them happy like Walt did, the money will come. When you take their money and care nothing for their happiness…well, I hope they never find out what happens when that attitude spreads like a cancer throughout the Disney empire.

Do better, Disney.

We really do love you but we simply will not be put through an experience like this again. What bothers me here is not that the Mouse tried to do something new and dropped the ball and has failed spectacularly, but that they failed and hurt families and they no longer seem to care. This is the kind of stuff that makes Mrs. Fox see the Mouse as more of a Rat… and I liked things better in “the good old days” when something like this would have never, ever happened in what was truly “the happiest place on Earth.”