Disney World? A magical park? For the locals that live in and around Orlando, it’s really no big deal. In fact, most of us here aren’t really fond of the mouse at all. After all, we’ve been to Disney more times than we can count. My first trip to Disney was at age five, and I’m pretty sure I’ve been there at least 30 or more times since then. The first few trips are always great. Children dream of riding rides and seeing Mickey Mouse. As adults, we realize that theme parks like Disney are not all fun and games, but masterfully run businesses with vacuums that suck the cash right out of your wallet.
If you’re unfortunate enough to visit one of Disney’s parks during the summer, then you might have a glimpse of what hell may be like. Swarms of sweltering people stand waiting in hour long lines for Space Mountain. The smell of “BO” from the last sweaty guy penetrates your nostrils as you get strapped in. Wait, is that body odor or urine? Thirty seconds later, it’s over, and back in for another long wait. Your aching feet have already carried you 10 miles and your body is soaking wet from the humid air. Sunburned tourists from Alaska turn beet red from the Florida sun and laugh about it as they walk along the crowded paths. You know that when they wake up tomorrow the won’t be smiling anymore. Quickly, the sky grows cloudy and three minutes before it is your turn to ride Splash Mountain, the downpour begins. The ride shuts down for an hour. You wait in the rain, not willing to give up your spot in line. You wonder why you allowed yourself to come here today.
Before you mouse lovers judge me, remember that for many of us who live here in Florida, this is the consensus. Yes, Disney is good for Florida’s economy, but to us locals, it is the ultimate tourist trap!
A Pessimist’s Trip to Disney
Last Monday, I geared up for a dreaded trip to Disney. My wife had arranged our visit in celebration of my daughter Libby’s 7th birthday. While I wasn’t excited for myself, my two daughters were bouncing with anticipation. I decided to smile through my misery and make the most of the day.
We parked around eleven in the morning with my two bouncing girls in tow. As we approached the will call booth, a sweet older lady congratulated us on the PARK HOPPER tickets we scored, compliments of a local hotel. Our hotel previously told us we were receiving single park tickets, so this was a big score for us! My wife and I do enjoy Epcot, so we were happy to know that at some point in the day, we would be able to leave the chaos of the Magic Kingdom for the tranquility of Epcot.
Humans and Technology Working Together
I had read about Disney’s new fast past system and thought we’d explore our options. We found a fast pass station with a short line and hopped in. In about five minutes, we had our own “personal” fast pass planner equipped with an iPad to help us plan the day. For the next ten minutes she educated us about the fast pass process, giving us options, and even changing our times so we could have lunch.
As our cards scanned through her machine, we were booked for three attractions. Honestly, I was pleasantly surprised as I knew that we’d at least see some attractions without fighting the crowds. My stomach was also grateful by this time, because we were starving!
Human Managers Who Cared
After a quick bite to eat, we headed over to one of our fast pass destinations. Mattie and Libby were to meet Rapunzel and Snow White. This was also one of Disney’s new innovations. Instead of having hour long lines to get your picture taken with a character, why not make it an attraction with a fast pass? Thank God for this good idea! Now my girls could meet a princess without waiting for 2 hours! As we entered the lines, two Disney managers pulled in behind us and started talking with us.
As an entrepreneur and marketing consultant. I was curious about Disney’s new changes. I started asking about the innovations Disney was making and learned that the character attractions were in the fourth month of testing. I shared with them my thoughts of this great feature for parents and how my girls were excited. As the girls greeted the princesses, the conversation continued, as I shared where we were from and why we were visiting. Five minutes later, one of them pulled us aside and pinned a big birthday button on Libby’s shirt. Libby gleamed with pride!
These two warm managers then asked my girls if they wanted to sneak in next door and meet Cinderella? Mattie Kate, my youngest daughter, started jumping. My two new Disney friends walked us to the fast pass lines next door and we continued our discussion… but only after I made my two girls hug and thank their new friends. These wonderful ladies were not executives, no they were department managers checking on the appearance of the characters. They could have ignored us! They didn’t have to get Libby a birthday button. While they didn’t have to do anything for us, they did above and beyond to make us feel loved. While it was a small gesture, it made a huge difference in our family that day. They acted with human kindness and it meant my two daughters would get to experience more.
Disney Empowers Staff to Make Decisions – Human Decisions
For the rest of the afternoon, we had an amazing time. Actually, the best time I’ve ever had at Disney. My two girls even road Big Thunder Mountain with me. I was a proud dad. Around seven o’clock that night, we decided to take advantage of our park hopper passes and go to Epcot for the fireworks. As many of you know, the parks are some miles apart, so the journey took us about twenty minutes or so to arrive.
Remember my park hopper passes? Well, guess what? As we tried to use them to get into Epcot, we were told that they were in fact, not park hoppers, but single park passes. The gate keeper smiled at us, kindly asking us in a warm tone to check in with guest services. I asked my wife to wait with the girls while I prepared for what I thought might be a little bit of a battle. I wasn’t angry, but was determined we’d get in as it was the only chance now to see the fireworks. We were tired now and wouldn’t have left the Magic Kingdom had we known the truth about our tickets. I was honestly prepared to ask nicely and if they wouldn’t let us in, I was then prepared to give her some “advice” about customer service and having a strong Unique Selling Point.
I slowly shared my story about our will call booth experience and how our two tired girls just wanted to see the fireworks. I asked for compassion and grace. After all, Epcot would be closing in an hour. Yes, we should have double checked our tickets with the will call booth, but we didn’t. Can we just get in for an hour to see the fireworks? She didn’t call a manager. She didn’t tell me about company policy. She didn’t even make me feel like she was doing some huge favor! No, she smiled and quickly got up and personally walked us to the entrance gate and asked the staff to let us in. She smiled at us again and thanked us for coming to Disney that day. I was speechless and thankful there wasn’t going to be any conflict.
Within minutes, Sarah pulled Libby into a gift shop while Mattie Kate and I prepared for the fireworks. I was so happy to sit down at last. Mattie Kate weary from her adventure, quickly fell asleep on my lap as the fireworks started. As the show started, my heart welled up, as I thought about the wonderful day I had experienced with my family. It wouldn’t have been possible without the human touch and kindness that Disney showed us that day. They didn’t treat me differently because I am a blogger or the CEO of a successful marketing agency. To them, I was just a dad with two kids and a wife! I was the every day guy who comes to Disney and that alone meant I should be treated special.
Yes, Walt Disney was a dreamer, but one that wanted his parks to be magical for every guest. As companies grow, often they lose the spirit and heart of their entrepreneurial leaders. Things change, policies are enforced, and organizations become bureaucratic enterprises filled with policies rather than people who act in human kindness. While systems and technology are great, it is just a bunch of machinery if the human heart is missing. While Disney isn’t perfect, I can tell there has been a positive shift in their culture.