Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The real Magic behind the Magic Kingdom: Why we love going to Walt Disney World (part 1)

Last week, my roommate and his girlfriend spent the day at Universal Studios. Universal is Disney’s main competition in Orlando and is renown for its thrilling coasters and dynamic entertainment. I was very interested in the atmosphere of the park (since I haven’t been there in over ten years) and so we talked for a bit about it. What was different? I asked. Was it as nice? I knew the answer couldn’t be yes, and wanted to hear specifics.

His answer was interesting, and it gave me food for thought. At first, he was dismissive, suggesting that it was “not that different,” but when Mike thought about it more, he reversed his position. “You know,” he said, “the people really aren’t as nice. Actually, they were kind of mean, always sort of shouting, hustling us on to the rides: like they were just concerned with getting bodies through.” Was it as clean? “No, definitely not,” he said. Mike works custodial at Animal Kingdom, so he knows what clean looks like.

Working for Disney, that difference becomes clear, when you see people honeymooning, spending anniversaries with us, and taking grandchildren on their favorite rides. Why do families come back year after year after year? What is it about these parks, resorts, and services that kids of all ages enjoy so much? There is no simple answer to this question, because so many different elements have to combine at every single moment for this to happen.

I’m writing from the Grand Floridian lobby: a plush, posh, spacious, gleaming atrium that is filled with comfy couches and brass fixtures. This is the premiere resort hotel, and the cost reflects the luxury. There are several pools, tennis courts, beach-front hammocks, a spa, a gym, and a four-star restaurant on premises (and that’s just what I see walking in). The monorail provides direct access to The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, and there is no favor too big or too small for the cast members here to provide you with.

I point these things out for a very important reason, which is this: when you step into a park, it doesn’t matter whether you’re staying at the Pop Century resort, the Wilderness Lodge, or the Contemporary. Every cast member knows to treat you like you’ve just stepped off the Monorail from The Grand Floridian. One of the hallmarks of Disney service is the willingness to go the extra mile for each and every guest. No, we don’t know the answer to every question, but we also don’t know what “I don’t know” means. It is our job to find out for the guest, and we will do what it takes to find that answer. I think people like going to Disney World because of how first-rate the cast is in that respect. Nobody gets treated second-class. Amazing services like Faspass are available to everyone, and cast members are happy to help you understand it all.

As cast members, we do our best to ensure that guests have a positive experience with us. Nearly 3,000 people ride safaris every hour, and Kilimanjaro is the most ridden attraction at Walt Disney World for good reason. We deliver on the promise to show guests amazing animals that they would ordinarily never have the chance to see, living in as natural a habitat as possible. It’s safe, it’s fun, it’s educational, and sometimes guests have to wait upwards of an hour to get on board one of our trucks. I want to share a story about this particular element of our show, and what it means for guest service.

Obviously, Kilimanjaro is hugely popular, but that can mean that people begin their experience with a sometimes lengthy wait time in the queue. If they weren’t savvy enough to grab a Fastpass early in the day, waiting on standby is their only option. Usually.

I had the opportunity to provide a very Magical Moment for a family some time ago while working at the front of our queue on Kilimanjaro. It was their first visit to Disney World, and Dad expressed his family’s disappointment. They were going home the next day, and really hadn’t had the chance to do much. This is unfortunate but understandable, as any seasoned Disney vacationer will tell you that it takes years to develop a truly nuanced approach to park visiting. They were not thrilled with the thought of waiting nearly 80 minutes for a Safari (Fastpasses were all distributed hours before), and I could tell that I had the chance to turn things around for them on this hot, sunny day in Africa. You see, as cast members, we are empowered to provide during moments like this. If we think it is appropriate, every cast member is encouraged to go the extra mile for guests. I told him that I just wanted to make sure it wasn’t his last trip to Disney World, and made sure he got through the Faspass line with his wife and children. He was extraordinarily grateful for this act because though it was small doing for me, it meant the world to him that they'd be able to go on a safari quickly. Little gestures like this are what being a Disney cast member is all about. Will putting four more people through the Fastpass line effect our system? No, not really – but it will effect how this man views his vacation.

You see, it’s not just about great safaris, or awesome meals, or beautiful fireworks. Yes, Disney World is all of that, but it’s also about making sure guests leave with great memories of being treated well. The difference here is that we don’t forget how important things like that really are. Serving the guests in acts big and small makes the difference between a hot day in Florida and a Magical vacation in the happiest place on Earth.

Until next week, have a wild time out there!