Sometimes “The Happiest Place on Earth” Can Get “Grumpy”: A Reflection on Customer Service




The Happiest Place on Earth

Last month my family and I spent a few days at “The Happiest Place on Earth.” By nearly every account, Disneyland was just that. Our time was filled with cheerful celebration, wild imagination, and endless entertainment.

My parents traveled with my husband and me, along with our two daughters. My eldest daughter, who is four recently graduated from pre-school. The youngest, was celebrating her second birthday. We spent our third and final day at Disneyland exploring Fantasyland, Toon Town, and Tomorrow Land. The evening slipped away from us as we were enchanted by Mickey and the Magical Map, “it’s a small world”, and Nemo’s Underwater Adventure. Before we knew it, it was minutes before the acclaimed new “Paint the Night” parade would dance down Main Street. Quickly, we and several thousand others hustled to find a place amongst the tens-of-thousands who packed the parade route.

Goofy and Kids

Goofy and Kids

We were guided by a steady stream of Cast Members with glowing sticks, directing us to walk in a certain direction to keep traffic moving. Despite the Cast Members steadfast attempt to the flow going, the colossal crowd created unintended chaos. Families trying to stick together were separated, individuals were lost in the confusion of one way routes, and strollers were bogged in congestion like cars on a LA freeway.

As the lights dimmed over Main Street, and the tower of neon emerged from the side of Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, we eyed an open spot on the parade route. We swooped under the ropes and for a nano-second thought we had found a safe haven where we could watch the parade.

Enter Disney Cast Member, “Kevin”. Within that nano-second, “Kevin” noticed our plight and informed us the section we entered was reserved. He ushered us out and offered us the options to cross the street into Tomorrow Land or continue up Main Street. We obliged and crawled back out from the under the safeguard of the rope. As we began to move fellow Cast Members started steering the crowd off the street and back into the center of “the Hub.”

Confused and watching the stream of people being navigated in a direction opposite of us, I questioned “Kevin”, “You want us to go.. now?” while green glowing fairies pranced behind him on the street less than three feet away. (The brief thought of trying to move as nimbly, and quickly, with young-ins in tow, steps in front of twinkling performers, up Main Street, with thousands of eyes glaring intently on us and the fantasy that followed in our footsteps was daunting, to say the least.) As he replied, “Yes” as another Cast Member said “No, please clear the walk way, or go under the ropes.” More confused, I replied, “He just told us to come out from the ropes.”

I am not sure what triggered “Kevin,” the fact we didn’t leap in front of the oncoming parade or the conflicting message from the fellow Cast Member, but he retorted “I told you to go – three times.”

His curt response caught me off guard, for several reasons. You see, being in Organizational Development, I am acutely interested in company culture. In the weeks leading up to our vacation, Disney had been a focal point of many conversations; at a recent conference on Engagement (Engage2015); as an example mentioned by several Employee Engagement Software vendors during our conversations about creating a culture of engagement; and, in a presentation on Disney’s Seven Dwarfs Principles of Customer Service for an upcoming All Staff Team Meeting.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]While our constituents may not view local government as “the Happiest Place on Earth,” we interact with the public (our customers) every day, many times in situations that may be confusing or uncertain to others. [/pullquote]

Disney’s culture, and its emphasis on “creating magic” as they call it, has long been touted as being amongst the best -if not, the best. Disney, as you would imagine, has dreamed up a number creative ways to ingrain positive customer experiences into every facet of a guests visit; from products, services, and park cleanliness, to wait times, dining options, and (ironically) crowd control. But above all, they are lauded for their emphasis on Cast Member (staff) interactions with Disney fans, of all ages.  They strive to exceed expectations in every instance. And, until this point, they had done so during our three-day visit to both parks.

Shocked by his tone, and incognizant that our less than ten second, chaotic interchange had evoked more emotion than confusion, I spouted “Kevin, I believe you are supposed to be nice to your guests.”

Perhaps noticing the nature of the conversation and trying to compensate for it, or still valiantly continuing to clear the street for the parade, the other Cast Member (“Debra”) lifted the rope and ushered us under, saying “Please enjoy the parade from here.” She escorted Kevin away.

I am not sure what happened in the first few minutes of the parade.  Detached from the energy and excitement of our prime location, and in a haze, I watched my daughter wave to the characters and dance to the music, while the exchange replayed in my mind, several times.

There was a slight a break in the parade. During the brief break the Cast Members hurriedly shepherded the crowd gathered in the center of “the Hub” across the street, into Tomorrow Land. They fanned fanning their glow sticks and rhythmically repeated something along the lines of, “please keep moving.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]We, as public servants, can exceed expectations by simply listening, understanding what is being said, and the situation our customers are in.[/pullquote]

Amongst the crowd was a father who had apparently lost sight of his daughter in the massive mob. The Cast Member closest to me “Luis” diligently carried out his duties, moving the mob along. The father waived off “Luis’s” instruction and searched the crowd, responding in a thick accent “I need to find my child.” This time firmer, and using his hands to guide the man across the street, “Luis” direct him to keep moving. Growing visibly more upset, the father anxiously surveyed the crowd and responded with a desperate plea “I need to find my daughter.” For a third time, the Cast Member forcefully told the man to keep moving across the street.  It was the tipping point. The father turned and began to yell at “Luis”, shaking his finger inches in front of his face, shouting “I cannot find my daughter.”  Then, as if it had been timed to deescalate the eminent blow, a young girl wiped her hand across the back of the angry man, saying “Papa” and they crossed the street, quickly sinking into the sea of people.

“The Happiest Place on Earth” can get “Grumpy.”

Olaf and Kids

Olaf and Kids

As the next float drifted by, I acknowledged “Luis” and his patience. I complimented him on not matching the man’s anger. I told him he had a tough job. He agreed and thanked me. Over the next few minutes, we dialogued about the incident. He said he could not understand what the man was saying. When I told him what the man had said, and related that while the man was not right in his response, I acknowledged that it is difficult as a parent when you lose your child, in an unfamiliar area, among a very large crowd, in the dark.  He responded by saying he imagined it could be difficult. I asked if he had children. He did not. So I shared this: One day, when you do have your own child, and you lose your child in a crowd, and that hollowing pit in your stomach stops your heart and takes your breath away, you may remember this conversation, and you might be able to relate to how that man felt, for a brief second.

As I left the park that evening, I reflected a lot on the parade. Not on the lights, the glitz and the glamour but what happens on the side lines to ensure the “magic” happens.  I related it back to our work, serving the community, and how we perform our “magic” – keeping our communities healthy, clean and safe, ensuring our streets paved, traffic is flowing, lights are flashing, and commerce is growing, etc.

While our constituents may not view local government as “the Happiest Place on Earth,” we interact with the public (our customers) every day, many times in situations that may be confusing or uncertain to others. And, while we all have a job to do, and we want to do it well, it is important  we not be so caught up in what we need to do that we lose sight of why we are doing it, or that we are here to help.

We, as public servants, can exceed expectations by simply listening, understanding what is being said, and the situation our customers are in. Once we understand, we can be clear about expectations, share why we are doing something, and work together, in concert with our colleagues and with our constituents, to come to a resolution.

After all, we aren’t in Fantasy Land and these aren’t guests. For many that we serve, this is their “Happiest Place on Earth”; it’s their home.

Closing Note: In making sure Disneyland is a place that fulfills Walt Disney’s wishes, where children and their parents can play together, Cast Member “Debra” apologized several times after the two incidents, and extended an invitation to my family to watch the fireworks from the VIP section, in front of the Castle.


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