The Happiest Place On Earth

Walt Disney World likes to bill itself as “The Happiest Place on Earth”, and it may just live up to the title.

I’ve just returned from spending a week trolling the grounds at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and the Disney Studios. I’ve been to Disney before as a kid, but this was my first time as an adult, with my better half by my side.

There are many reasons that Disney is a fun place to go on vacation. There are thrilling rides (Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain, Expedition Everest, Mission to Mars, Test Track), fun shows, quick blasts of international culture and cuisine at Epcot, water parks, fireworks, concerts (yes! Los Lobos at Epcot!), daily parades, great shopping, and slower-paced experiences for when your feet get tired (many of the Fantasyland rides, the African safari at Animal Kingdom).

All of these things might get Disney a reputation as the funnest place on Earth, but not the happiest. In fact, there are things that weigh heavily against that “happy” part: stifling heat (even in November…I can’t imagine what it’s like in July), crowds, long lines, overtired children crying, closed attractions (my wife was denied the experience of the Hall of Presidents for the fourth time in her life). Worst of all, there’s the monstrosity of the It’s A Small World ride, an attraction that would be made considerably better if you were allowed to throw baseballs at the marionettes singing that wretched song.

What allows Disney World to effortlessly overcome the unavoidable annoyances that can cast a damper on a vacation is simple: customer service. The overwhelming hospitality that greets people everywhere they turn can not help but make you feel good. Our plane was delayed by several hours and we arrived at the Animal Kingdom Lodge a little after two o’clock in the morning. We were tired, hungry, and cranky. The lobby was an immediate pick-me-up: huge, decorated in an African motif, with artwork, a fireplace, comfortable seating. It was immediately apparent that a considerable amount of thought and care had been put into this. It helped that we were the only people in the lobby at that hour, which gave us a good opportunity to appreciate the size and scope without a lot of hustle and bustle. Within seconds of our arrival we were greeted with a huge smile by the woman behind the registration desk. She asked about our travels, sympathized with our delays, and took a bit of time to talk to us. As bedraggled and cranky as we were, this little dollop of hospitality made us feel like we’d been welcomed home. As someone who’s stayed in hotels all across the country, I’ve rarely been greeted with anything other than monosyllables and perfunctory acknowledgements. It was the difference between “Hello! Let me help you!” and “Hey, you want to check in?”

And of course, it didn’t stop there. For the next week we were greeted with warmth and smiles by everyone from hotel maids to ticket takers to waiters to shop keepers to bus drivers. Not just a few people. They all did it. Whatever their personal feelings and emotions may have been, when they interacted with us the Disney staff was never less than happy and helpful. They took the time to make small talk, to answer questions, to walk with us if we didn’t know where we were going. They were happy, and the feeling was contagious.

My wife knew people who worked at Disney and we took them out to dinner one night. From talking to them I realized that the smiles and warmth that Disney employees show their guests is not artificial. It is far more than being told that their jobs depend on keeping a smile plastered on their faces no matter what happens. Disney invests in their employees. They don’t simply hand out the Kool-Aid and tell their workers to drink it. No, the happiness is real because the company does their best to train their employees and keep them happy. Disney has figured out that happy employees mean happy customers.

This is called “customer service” and it is, I fear, a dying art in modern America. Too many retail stores are staffed with people who seemingly could not care less whether you can find what you’re looking for. Too many hotels think their obligation to you begins with the reservation and ends with cleaning the room. Too many bus drivers take your ticket or your money, grunt, and avoid eye contact at all cost. Too many waiters and waitresses make no effort to make your dining experience a little more enjoyable just by talking and asking you how your day is going.

There’s a bar near where I live that has a slogan: “Where the customer is always an inconvenience.” It’s a funny slogan, and in a long tradition of self-deprecating bar slogans (another bar near me had the tag “Purveyors of warm beer and lousy food”). But I’m seeing this becoming more of a reality all the time. We all know what happens if we have to call customer service for our cable company or cell phone provider.

Disney World stands in stark contrast to this. It is the triumph of customer care. Disney World is the Happiest Place on Earth precisely because it is the most hospitable place on Earth. By treating every guest like friends and family, they give a respite from a world filled with bad news, overbearing bosses, messy commutes, rude people, and poor customer service. It’s a lesson that needs to be learned by a lot of other business out there.

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