Vacations can be stressful. We want the experience of travel to be memorable, special, and unique. Even a visit to the Vacation Kingdom of the World has the potential for stressful disappointments, especially considering the Disney promise of dreams coming true and magical days.
So much of the onus of creating magical moments seems to fall directly on the shoulders of an often-underappreciated group of people: the Walt Disney World cast members. Not marketers, not accountants, not executives—not even those magic-makers known as Imagineers—but the frontline cast members who serve your food, load your family onto attractions, or take you to your Disney destinations aboard boats, buses, and monorails.
All too often, it seems, guests are quick to criticize cast members for their shortcomings. Internet discussion boards are bursting with complaints about some of the most mundane things: slow service at a restaurant, unenthusiastic responses to those ever-present "It's my birthday!" buttons, forgotten "welcome home" greetings, or—and I kid you not—the thread count found in resort sheets. There are, no doubt, legitimate complaints about cast member service and attitude (most of these issues could be easily resolved by a return to the thorough training once found at the Disney University; training that has been sadly reduced). Nonetheless, I would like to suggest that the Disney community at large cut cast members a little slack.
Here's an idea that is a little unusual: Perhaps guests have a responsibility for creating the magic at Walt Disney World, too. Maybe the expectation that the hard-working, generally pleasant, eager-to-please cast members are solely responsible for creating a perfect visit is more than a little unrealistic.
This suggestion may sound odd, I know, and also a little vague. Some specific scenarios might help illustrate how my proposal works in action and may make your next visit to Walt Disney World even more memorable for you and your family.
Scenario: Your family has reservations for lunch at a Main Street restaurant. After a short wait, you are seated comfortably. Your server arrives. She is obviously tired; the place is busy and clearly understaffed. She is efficient, if not overly friendly, and snaps a little too curtly when we asked for clarification about an item on the menu.
She returns with your meal, and everything is fine with one exception. The children's portions are surprisingly small—so small that you ask if you could order another sandwich a la carte. Again, she answers curtly, this time because she misunderstands and thinks you want more food without an additional charge. When you explain that you are willing to pay for another portion, she agrees.
She returns promptly with the sandwiches. A few minutes later, the chef appears to meet the "kids who needed more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with crust." The kids are thrilled with the chef's visit and the server smiles.
This scene might have played out differently had you complained about the sandwiches or had not offered to pay for the extra serving. It was a simple misunderstanding, and your patience and friendliness was matched by her thoughtfulness. In addition to asking the chef to visit your table, your server didn't charge for the a la carte servings.
Scenario: Without much planning, you stop for lunch at Pecos Bill's Tall Tale Inn and Café in Frontierland at the worst possible time. The place is crowded, noisy, and very confusing. Confusing, because handles are missing on the outside doors, areas around the washrooms are roped off and guarded by cast members to control the crowds, and unorganized lines of people crush around the registers. Half of your party lines up to order, the other half—say, you and two small children—seek out a table.
You spot a table in the area that resembles an outdoor courtyard at night, but struggle to get there because of the two kids, the backpacks, the crowds, and those blasted ropes around the bathroom areas. Still, you get there, a little aggravated but glad to have found a suitable table. You have one problem—you still need two high chairs. You spot a cast member—a young man standing near the condiment table—and ask him where you could find two high chairs. He replies, "There's one over there in the front dining room, and I think there might be another near the entrance." He points (a definite Disney no-no) and with that, walks away to stand idly elsewhere.
Had he stayed, you might have asked for his assistance. After all, how are you going to hold your table, move two high chairs, and manage two small children alone?
Luckily, a guest at a nearby table hears your conversation, catches your eye, laughes with you, and offers to help. You and the guest generously decide that the cast member must have been new, or perhaps assigned a duty that prevented him from helping (although I have no idea what assignment would take precedence over helping a guest). The kind guest helps fetch the chairs, and she and you share your own little "magical moment" that day.
Scenario: Your children received special "guest conductor" passes for the Walt Disney Railroad at the Main Street Station. The engineer tells them that the next time they ride the train, they are to show these to the conductor who will escort them to the back of the train where they will announce "All aboard!" in the microphone.
That evening, you return to the Frontierland Station. Your kids are wearing their new train engineer hats. They've been practicing "all aboard" all day. They clutch their tickets in their sweaty little hands. As you board the train, you mention the "guest conductor" pass to the cast member who opens the gate for you. He replies, "We don't have those anymore." When you explain that you already received them earlier that day, he says, "I'll have to check with the driver."
He never returns.
I read once that our reactions to setbacks and disappointments directly affect how others enjoy an experience. So, rather than disappoint the kids, you board the train, take some photos of them wearing their hats and holding their conductor cards, and as the train leaves the Frontierland Station, they shout, "All aboard!" in their best conductor voices. They love it, enjoying the experience for what is was, not regretting what it "should have been."
Scenario: You decide to brave the crowds to watch Wishes, the Magic Kingdom's nighttime firework display. You dutifully find what looks like a good spot early and wait with your family. Twenty minutes later, a cast member walks past yelling at the top of her lungs, "This area is a walkway. Everyone needs to clear out."
The command to move is understandable. You didn't realize that this particular area was going to be converted into a walkway using that ever-present "masking tape on the pavement" routine. Okay, you'll willingly move along. That's not the issue. It's the cast member's tone and attitude. She continues barking at guests.
As you pack up your gear, another cast member approaches. She notices your confusion. She pleasantly says, "There are some nice spots right over there if you'd like." She points, using the Disney open-handed two-finger point.
During the fireworks display, you see her continuing to manage the crowd with grace and politeness.
People skills can be taught. The first cast member needs a refresher course in courtesy. Guests save—sometimes for years—to visit Walt Disney World. They willingly spend thousands of dollars on a Disney vacation partly because of that legendary Disney service. There is no need to yell at guests (unless, of course, their safety is involved). First-time visitors, especially, can be overwhelmed and easily confused. The last thing they need is to be scolded like naughty schoolchildren.
By remaining calm and quiet, however, you're open to the assistance of the second cast member and still able to enjoy the fireworks.
Scenario: It's late. There's one more treasure I simply cannot live without, so I stop at one of the shops along Main Street.
I find my item, but walk around the shop aimlessly for 10 minutes or so trying to find a cast member. When she finally appears, she informs me that the item is the display, and that, "If we have anymore, someone will bring it from the back." She calls someone on the phone and informs me that it will be "right here."
My entire family, including several very tired children, wait somewhat impatiently for me in the store. They wait. And wait. To ease my impatience, I try to engage the cast member in conversation. I notice that her hometown is near my home. She is unresponsive, so I wait in awkward silence.
After 10 minutes, I suggest that the cast member begin ringing up the sale using the display model's bar code. She shrugs and tries several times, but the number won't scan. Finally, another cast member arrives with my item. He is pleasant. He reminds the cashier to open the box so that I can inspect it.
Bad idea. It takes her several minutes—and a visit to a nearby shop—to find a knife to cut the tape. In the meantime, she still can't scan the item and seems completely oblivious to the fact that I'm still standing there waiting.
At this point, my patience is reaching its end. I ask why it has taken over 20 minutes to complete a simple transaction. Perhaps she could enter the UPC symbol manually? She asks me if I'd like to speak with her manager.
This time, my patience has reached its end and I complain loudly.
The other cast member, who has returned my item to its original packaging and is frantically searching for tape to reseal the box, looks up and intervenes. He completes the sale efficiently and sends me on my way. I apologize to the first cast member for losing my temper, but she makes no attempt to be pleasant.
This type of interaction is difficult. When guests are tired and want to catch the next boat back to their resort, their patience is often short. When faced with indifference or rudeness from a cast member, it's hard not to hold one's tongue. In this case, I was disappointed in myself for losing my patience. The cast member was alone in the shop; it was late; she was tired; the purchase was a bit of a hassle because of the box and the barcode. If I expected her to be respectful and pleasant, I should have behaved in kind.
When expectations of a "dream come true" vacation for everyone in the family run high, the reality of less than "magical" days and nights can be very disappointing indeed. More often than not, simple acts of kindness and understanding on the part of cast members can, in fact, make or break a bad situation. Think about the number of interactions guests have with cast members on a typical day. Countless, right? Most, if not all, of these interactions, are positive. Sadly, it's the one bad encounter that breaks that spell of good cheer and happiness that Disney works so hard to cultivate.
Should guests expect world-class service at Walt Disney World? Definitely. Should Disney train its employees to meet or exceed guest expectations? Absolutely. Walt Disney wanted complete control over Disneyland for this very reason.
But should guests expect constantly cheerful, sugary-sweet, over-the-top service every second of their visit without any effort on their part to help create the magic? It may be an unpopular opinion, but I say no. While preparing for a European tour several years ago, I read that travelers should always pack "patience, flexibility, and a sense of humor" in their carry-on luggage. This idea stayed with me and I try—but do not always succeed—to offer a smile, a sincere thank you, or a kind word to the cast members I meet on our Disney vacations. At the risk of sounding a little too much like Pollyanna, I'd like to suggest that you do the same. You'll be glad you did.
(Send an email to Tom Richards)
Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.