If you can say one thing about Walt Disney World, it’s that the place is squeaky clean. This extends beyond its much-ballyhooed “trashcan every fifteen feet” factoid to spookier angles, like the fact that my wife and i couldn’t find cobwebs anywhere. i found myself floating on my back beneath in the lazy river at our resort, beneath a footbridge, thinking that if this were anywhere else, that footbridge would play host to the most terrifying arachnid infestation since Frodo went exploring in Cirith Ungol. But no … no spiders, no webs. It was downright eerie. We figured they must have staff secretly murdering spiders all night, up on ladders vacuuming the most unlikely places, like the pristine bus shelter or the lazy river footbridge.
It wasn’t all immaculate, though. There were aspects of our incredibly expensive stay at Walt Disney World that shocked me, and i think if i had been anywhere else, i would have been a stickier wicket about getting some customer satisfaction.
No Tub for Tubby
We chose the Beach Club Resort because we didn’t want to fork out extra cash for a water park ticket in case the weather was bad, and Beach Club had the best set of pools among the various resorts in Walt Disney World. As luck would have it, the weather was bad, and we arrived in Orlando to 2°C temperatures, which were a few degrees warmer than the desolate winter wasteland we had fled. We also had some bone-chilling rain later in the week, and i was excited to climb into one of the resort’s four hot tubs on a number of occasions.
The problem was that the first hot tub we visited was stone-cold and the jets weren’t working. The maintenance guy sheepishly told us he couldn’t fix it, and invited us to try the hot tub about fifteen feet away from the first. No biggie – we relocated and all was well. The main pool and hot tub section closes every night at 8pm, but there was a quieter pool and hot tub closer to our room that closed at 11pm. On two successive nights, i tried to soothe my theme park-weary chafed thighs and soles in the tub, but it wasn’t working either. After inquiring about it at the desk, the guy (AHEM! Sorry- cast member) threw up his hands and said that only a manager could help me, and that the managers keep bank hours, but i could call someone the next morning at 10am. He went on to explain that this (meaning Walt Disney World) is a very large operation, and that it was sometimes difficult for communication to happen effectively.
No, guy … from the guest’s perspective, this is a singular 300-odd dollar a night hotel, and you convey my goddamn message to the manager yourself. A fellow guest, with no small degree of exasperation, told me the hot tub had been busted all week. Might not seem like a huge deal, but when you choose the place specifially for the water features, those features need to work.
The “cast member” nomenclature at Walt Disney World is a genius stroke of management, and one that i’m not ashamed to admit i applied to myself and my employees when i was running small attraction in Toronto. The idea is that when you are on the job at Walt Disney World, you are acting. It doesn’t matter what kind of crappy day you’re having, or how much a guest is pissing you off … you are a cast member, and so you are playing the role of an ideal, helpful, engaged employee, even when you don’t feel like one.
When i visited Walt Disney World in the mid-90’s, the Cast Member facade worked well. As a friend put it to us, you pay a lot of money at Walt Disney World for people to be nice to you. On this visit, though, i could see the cracks starting to show. Maybe it was the bad weather that was making guests grumpier, but i could hear grumbling by cast members all over the parks and at the resorts. If these were cast members, many of them were bad actors, and i could tell a lot of them were smiling at me while speaking through gritted teeth, and were not at all interested in putting up with my shit. And believe me: i wasn’t throwing very much shit.
Mandatory Acts of Kindness
Some cast members excelled at their roles. The first night we were there, we ordered pizza from a window on the Boardwalk. My picky youngest daughter was very upset because she wanted chicken nuggets and French fries instead, but they weren’t available anywhere on the Boardwalk, and we weren’t interested in making a separate stop for her. While we sat down to (mostly) enjoy our pizza, a cast member popped out from a hidden door and said “i heard someone wanted chicken nuggets and fries?” and presented my daughter with a basket of the same. It was a pretty great start to the week.
A few days later, a little girl stabbed me with an expensive ice cream cone while absent-mindedly watching a stage show at Cinderella’s castle and not watching where she was going. The ice cream was on the ground, and her mom looked at me as if to say “you MONSTER. You horrible, HORRIBLE MONSTER.” Actually, i think that’s exactly what she DID say. Knowing all about the Disney “take five” principle (take five minutes each day to make a guest’s day better) and the discretionary income Disney provides to cast members to spend on guests, i told the mom “don’t worry – a cast member will take care of this.” It was a classic take five moment, so i found the closest cast member, who immediately snapped to buying the girl a new ice cream cone.
That’s why it was mystifying and upsetting for the old-timer at the desk to be so unhelpful about the broken hot tub. Where’s MY goddamned ice cream, old man?
When one of the rides malfunctioned and we were walked off, i started taking pictures of the fascinating behind-the-scenes areas. Near the ride exit, one of the cast members said “please don’t take pictures,” before mumbling “we only asked you, like, a million times.” That was the first time i had heard a cast member ask us not to take pictures. If i had heard what that girl had said to us (my wife conveyed it to me later), we would have had words. And some of those words might have started with the letter F.
Another perk for Walt Disney World resort guests, beyond never-working hot tubs, are “Magic Hours.” In the mid-90’s, resort guests could access the Magic Kingdom an hour before the seething masses any day of the week, which was a great opportunity to get on that one slammed ride that would otherwise have a 75-minute wait time. (My friend and i idiotically chose Peter Pan’s Flight, which remains one of my least favourite entertainment experiences in the world, even worse than the scrotal torture of It’s a Small World.)
On this visit, the Magic Hours were all over the place, and generally confined to one park at a time. Sometimes, Animal Kingdom was open a few hours later, and other times, you could get into Epcot an hour earlier. On our second day, we woke up early to visit Epcot at 8am, one hour earlier than the public could, with Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure being tops on our list of Things to See at Epcot. Imagine our dismay, then, when we were told that the kiosk wouldn’t open until 11am. We ambled through empty streets down to Future World and tried to hop on a few rides, but they wouldn’t be open until 9am. When we asked what was open that early, we were given a possibly three-item list that included a gift shop, a pretzel stand, and a bakery in the France pavilion. The story was the same when we visited other parks during “Magic Hours.” One gift shop in the Magic Kingdom didn’t open until 10 in the morning (by an employee who, it seemed, had slept in), and was a required stop in our Treasure of the Seven Seas scavenger hunt game.
i thought it was pretty audacious to advertise exclusive extended hours that guests couldn’t use to access attractions.
Experimental Prototype Shitty of Tomorrow
If i have any regrets on my death bed, i’m sure one of them will be that we spent more than zero seconds visiting Epcot. The place is a ramshackle dump of an 80’s rec room that hasn’t been updated since it opened. My wife is convinced that Park-Hopper passes subsidize the place, because no one in their right mind would choose to spend a day there for its own sake. One of the most galling things about the place was that nearly every attraction was sponsored. The Chevrolet Test Track? Isn’t admission to this place ninety bucks a ticket? One Disney die-hard weirdo at our hotel told me that the ride in the Norway pavilion, which i remember being the only exciting thing about Epcot, was no longer there. i asked why, and he said “i guess Norway pulled their sponsorship?” i had no idea the World Showcase pavilions were sponsored.
“Attractions” at Epcot included an exhibit on tornado-proofing your home, a demonstration of home insulation, and a 45-minute discussion of renewable energy sources narrated by Ellen DeGeneres. When we saw the empty entrance to the video sermon on the environment hosted by Timon and Pumbaa, i very nearly ran out of the place. If the Magic Kingdom is the Happiest Place on Earth, then Epcot is the Most Dreary Concrete-clad Snoozefest for Dumb Unimaginative Old People Place on Earth.
The Illusion of Security
The very first people who “greet” you when you enter a Walt Disney World park are a battery of security guards who search your bags for “dangerous” items. My wife was extremely nonplussed at having her extra-absorbent tampon-crammed knapsack rooted through by a guy with a high school education, and i can’t blame her. i know the idea is that the world is a shitty place now, and you don’t want people to shoot up your theme park, but i asked a security guard at Animal Kingdom what was the most dangerous thing he’d ever found in someone’s bag, and he answered “a coupla cans of beer.” (This, in a theme park that serves alcohol.) Disney’s idea of danger is a missed beverage sale.
Through careful costuming, the high school-educated security staffers were duded up to look as much like stereotypical police officers from a Blues Brothers movie as possible: black peaked caps with shiny badges on their blue shirt pockets and black holstered radios reminiscent of service weapons. Security theatre at its utmost.
The cast members were generally knowledgeable about fannish Disney things (they could, for example, tell you the number of straight-to-video Cinderella sequels), but were surprisingly out to lunch about details that mattered, like how to get back to your hotel in the dead of night.
We missed a dinner show reservation because one cast member told us to get on the wrong bus. When i asked a staffer for directions to Fort Wilderness Lodge, one of the resort locations, she thought i was talking about Tom Sawyer Island. After dinner at one of the other resorts, four hotel desk staffers conferred about how we could get back to our resort (take a bus from here to Epcot, and from Epcot to your resort). They were wrong. There was no bus from Epcot to our resort. As the operational hours of inter-park transportation waned, one driver took pity on us and took us back to our hotel. i asked our desk clerk to call the other resort and make sure all their staffers knew that there is no bus to Beach Club from Epcot.
Every restaurant bill at Walt Disney World has a recommended 20% tip. This, to me, is outrageous … i tip 15% maximum as a rule, and look forward to the day when restaurant staff are paid properly so that tipping is abolished. After one of our earliest table service meals at Walt Disney World, i tipped the waiter 15%. When he passed me the receipt, he had a face like a slapped ass. i tipped 20% for the rest of the week.
It may sound like a lot of split hairs and service nit-picking (and please believe that i’m a very laid back traveler), but when a trip to Walt Disney World costs triple what you would pay for another vacation, your expectations tend to be elevated. In these instances and more, my expectations weren’t met.
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