I just got off the phone with my old pal, Eric C. Eric's currently down in Orlando, wrapping up a 4-day trip to Walt Disney World with his wife and kids.
Eric C. gave me a ring today to pass along a somewhat bizarre experience that he and his family just had at the Magic Kingdom. It seems that Eric C. & Co. went to that theme park on Saturday. Which -- because it was the very last weekend of the resort's annual holiday celebration -- was absolutely packed. Body to body everywhere.
Anyway ... Eric and his family decided that they wanted to go check out the "Haunted Mansion." So they made their way out to Liberty Square and discovered ... a mob scene.
Now, we all know that the Walt Disney World Resort is famous for the ease in which it moves large numbers of people around. Which is why Eric was flabbergasted by what he saw once he and his family got to the Mansion.
"There was no cast member out in front of the attraction directing guests, Jim," explained Eric. "Consequently, there was chaos. Pushing. Shoving. People cutting in line. Guests getting furious because they had spent 15 minutes waiting in line only to find that it was the 'Fast Pass Only' entrance. It got really ugly."
So ugly that Eric actually decided to get out of line at the "Haunted Mansion" and begin directing traffic. Making sure that the "stand by" guests got in one line, the "Fast Pass" guests got in the other. Which -- after a while -- actually began to clear up the mob scene out in front of the attraction's entrance.
After he'd been doing this for five minutes, Eric was finally joined by a harried Disney cast member -- who then thanked my friend for pitching in and helping to get that unruly mob under control.
"You know, I really shouldn't be doing your job for you," Eric chided the cast member.
The cast member then apologized, explaining that the Magic Kingdom had been woefully understaffed for the entire holiday season. That WDW -- as a result of yet another cost cutting initiative that had come down from corporate -- hadn't hired enough seasonal help to run the park properly this year.
"But that's just awful," said Eric to the cast member. "You guys aren't supposed to cut corners. Disney's the company that's supposed to set the standard for everyone else."
"Again, I'm sorry, sir," said the cast member as he began directing guests outside of WDW's "Haunted Mansion," "But -- if you want to lodge a formal complaint -- I suggest you drop by City Hall."
Which is just what Eric did. Fighting the crowds all the way back out to Main Street U.S.A. just so he could speak with the people at WDW Guest Relations about what had just happened. And their response was ... well ... tepid.
"I mean, the Guest Relations rep that I spoke with was thankful that I'd taken the initiative to personally try and straighten out that mess in front of 'The Haunted Mansion,' Jim," Eric continued. "But beyond that, the people at the Magic Kingdom's Guest Relations office couldn't care less about my complaint about the park's under-staffing. How unsafe it was. They just seemed to want me out the door again so they could get back to having their private conversation."
"Getting that sort of attitude from WDW Guest Relations staff really surprised me, Jim," Eric said. "I mean, what happened to all those Disney World employees who were supposed to go out of their way to try and make guests happy? Who'd bend over backwards just so that people could have a truly memorable experience on their vacation."
This is where I had to break the bad news to Eric (who's been living in Germany these past few years and -- as a result -- has missed out on a lot of the more recent changes at the Walt Disney Company): "The Mouse doesn't do that anymore, Eric. A year or so, Disney decided that courtesy cost way too much. So they began telling the folks at Guest Relations to seriously cut back on the perks that they used to hand out to customers."
Hard to believe, isn't it? I mean, as recently as 2000, Disney's Guest Relations Department was one of the world's acknowledged leaders in customer service. Continually going above and beyond the call to try and make theme park guests happy.
Case in point: Nancy (AKA the woman who puts up with me and my infernal Disney-related writing) still talks about how -- back in November 2000 -- she was exiting one of the events at "Super Soap Weekend" when her purse suddenly burst open. And the entire contents of that purse began rolling down the steeply racked floor of the "Superstar Television" auditorium.
Within seconds, there were WDW cast members on their hands and knees over all that Disney-MGM theater. Looking under rows and rows of seats with flashlights, trying to gather up all of Nancy's belongings.
She was so impressed by the extraordinary effort that the crew manning the "Superstar Television" auditorium had made on her behalf that Nancy actually dropped by Disney-MGM's Guest Relations desk to commend them. Thanks to their quick thinking (one of the cast members actually physically held back the audience -- that was itching to get into the next "Super Soap Talk Show" -- so that the rest of the staff could make a complete check of the auditorium floor), these WDW cast members were able to recover every single item in Nancy's purse save one: a single roll of 35MM film.
Upon hearing Nancy's story, the Guest Relations rep at Disney-MGM excused herself, then disappeared into the back office. Moments later, she returned with a single roll of 35MM film. Which the Guest Relations rep then handed to Nancy to replace the one that had been lost in the "Superstar Television" auditorium.
This was typical of what Disney's Guest Relations staffers used to do. Going that extra mile. Doing whatever they could to make the guests' visit to the theme parks extra special. Making people like my Nancy a true believer in Disney Magic. All for the cost of a single roll of 35MM film.
Sadly, those days seem to be gone for good. Thanks to cost cutting measures that were put in place while Paul Pressler was still in power, now a guest like Eric C. who goes into the Guest Relations office at any Disney theme park looking to complain about and/or compliment something would be hard pressed to get much of anything out of the staffers there.
To hear one Disney Guest Relations vet (let's call him Bort) tell it: "These days, you'd pretty much have to come in with a bleeding head wound -- which you'd then have to prove was caused by Mickey himself -- before we're officially allowed to fork over so much as a coupon for a free ice cream bar."
What brought on this radical change in Disney's attitude toward the public? As mentioned earlier, cost savings did play a large part in this decision. But then there's also the fact that the Walt Disney Company has grown tired of being taking advantage of by some extremely greedy guests.
Disneyana dealer extraordinaire Arlen Miller (AKA Dreamfinder) tells this great story (which he swears that he heard from a WDW Guest Relations vet) about the guest who tripped and fell while getting off the ferry at the Magic Kingdom a few years back. Within seconds, WDW cast members were all over this guy. Helping him to his feet, asking him if he was hurt, trying to find out if there was anything that they could do to turn this awful situation around.
The guest pointed out that he had tripped on a piece of uneven pavement right in front of the ferry's off-loading ramp. So clearly Disney was at fault for his fall.
It was at this point that the crew of the WDW ferry said "Why don't we take you over to our Guest Relations office and see if they can't straighten this situation out?"
This gentleman then turned into the customer from Hell. WDW's Guest Relations did everything they could to make this guy happy. They arranged for free admission to the park that day for him and his family. They also comped all of his meals for that day. And -- when this gentleman turned up back at City Hall later that day complaining of stiffness because of his fall -- they even arranged for a room for that night for this guy and his family at the Contemporary Resort.
You'd think that would be the end of the story, wouldn't you? Well, it isn't. WDW's Guest Relations called the next morning ... just to make sure that this guy was okay before he checked out. As it turns out, he wasn't.
What was the problem this time? Evidently, the crack cleaning crew at WDW's Contemporary Resort had left a single M&M out on the balcony. After he checked into the hotel the previous night, this problematic gentleman had stepped out on the balcony and discovered this M&M covered with ants. Which (he said) caused him to have horrible nightmares all night long about giant man-eating ants.
Long story short: In order to try and make this guy happy yet again, WDW Guest Relations gave him and his family another free day at the Magic Kingdom. They picked up the cost of all of the entire party's meals that day. Disney even gave them another free night at the Contemporary (but not before sending a second cleaning crew through their new hotel room just before check-in, to make sure there were no nightmare-causing M&Ms left behind this time).
When this gentleman tried to continue his con for a third day, WDW Guest Relations politely but firmly told this guy that the party was over. With that, his party promptly packed up and left the Contemporary ... then probably headed over to Sea World or Universal to see if they could run the same scam there.
You see, it's people like this who took advantage of the system that made the folks back in Burbank feel that they were justified with cutting off the flow of freebies.
Mind you, the behavior of some obnoxious annual passholders hasn't helped the situation either. I can't tell you the number of times that I've heard from Guest Relations staffers (both at WDW as well as the Disneyland resort) who gripe about that relatively small number of APers who continually *** and moan about everything.
"90%, 95% of the annual passholders are just great, Jim," Bort (that veteran Disney Guest Relations staffer, remember?) said. "They're nice people who come out to the parks just because they love the place, not because they're looking to find fault."
"But those 5% ... they ruin it for everyone," Bort continued. "They're the ones who are constantly in City Hall complaining about something minor. Always raising a stink with the hope that we'll eventually cave in and give them something to compensate for all of their alleged trouble."
"It's this small percentage of annual passholders who have given APers such a bad reputation, Jim," Bort concluded. "They -- and the scam artists -- are the real reason that Disney Corporate told us to toughen up on the customers. Not to comp meals or hand out comp tickets as freely as we used to do in the past."
Putting it plain and simply, the Walt Disney Company is doing everything it can to contain costs these days. But more importantly, the corporation is tired of being taken advantage of. Which is why the flow of freebies has slowed to a trickle.
Which is a shame. Because -- if you were in the right place at the right time -- sometimes WDW's Guest Relations department could really pull some truly impressive rabbits out of its hat.
Case in point: It's October 1996. The very start of WDW's 25th anniversary celebration. Michelle (AKA the Fabulous Disney Babe) and I are still married at this time. And we had a half dozen or more of our friends in town -- Jeff, Flo, James Alan, Bruce, Robert, Harold and Michael -- who are all down at Walt Disney World that week expressly to take part in the first week of the anniversary festivities.
If I'm remembering correctly, there was some unfortunate mishap en route to the Magic Kingdom one afternoon. The ferry across Seven Seas Lagoon was temporarily out of service. Or the monorail broke down. Something like that. Either way, our group's arrival at the theme park was unnecessarily delayed. So -- while I tended to Alice in her stroller -- Michelle popped into City Hall to complain.
To this day, I don't know what exactly it was that Michelle said to the Guest Relations staff at the Magic Kingdom. All I know is that it must have been impressive. For she emerged from City Hall clutching a parade pass for the bench on the Liberty Square bridge.
"So what's the big deal with the bench on the Liberty Square bridge?," you ask. Well, when Disney is running a parade through the Magic Kingdom, they normally rope off this bridge (You know? The one that allows guests to move directly from the Hub down into the Colonial American themed section of the park?) for safety reasons.
So the only people that Disney ever allows to have stand on the Liberty Square bridge are those who have been awarded the golden ticket -- (Oops. Sorry. My mistake. I guess I must have "Willy Wonka" on the brain. I caught that Gene Wilder classic on ABC this past Sunday night. It's still a great movie. Anyway ... ) -- that parade pass.
Anywho ... to gain access to the bridge, you actually have to escorted through the ropes by a WDW Guest Relations rep. Who -- after making sure that your entire party is seated on the benches at the mid-point in the bridge -- reclaims the pass and then disappears.
And after that ... WDW's 25th anniversary "Remember the Magic" parade began. Now picture this: You've got Cinderella Castle towering up over you. Not another tourist in sight. And -- because you're the only people in sight for a hundred feet or so -- the characters and the parade performers have no choice but to come over and interact with you.
As you might imagine, it was a pretty magical moment. Particularly since the WDW parade crew has been taught that whoever is seated on the benches on the bridge must be treated like VIPs. My daughter, Alice (who was two at the time), has never had so many Disney characters come up and directly interact with her. After a while, she actually began to get overwhelmed by all the individual attention and began covering her eyes. As if to say: "Thank you very much. That's enough parade. I'm full now."
These are the sorts of perks that Disney's Guest Relations staff used to be able to regularly hand out to guests before Pressler started pulling on Mickey's purse strings.
Still -- in spite of the less-than-enthusiatic response that Eric C. got from his recent complaint to WDW's Guest Relations office -- there may be some reason to hope. Lately, I've been hearing that Jay Rasulo -- the guy who succeeded Paul Pressler as the new head of Disney Parks and Resorts -- is looking to restore much of the magic that used to be part of the Disney theme park experience.
So here's hoping that Jay eventually is able to get those freebies flowing again. And that someday soon, you too may get a shot at sitting on a bench on the Liberty Square bridge as the latest parade at the Magic Kingdom rolls on by.