A Life Story Foundation's Kevin Swan has a rough day with Disney.
Before I get into Kevin Swan's crummy experience May 4 at Disney World, I wanted to temper everything with a personal story.
Forty years ago, I was a college student on spring break who accompanied two of my New York buddies to Florida's version of the Magic Kingdom.
We weren't bad kids, but certainly, we were a pain.
As an example, consider our ride on Pirates of the Caribbean. We were sitting in one boat (for those of you who haven't worn Mickey ears, the boats are connected to a track as they proceed through the ride that makes it look like you are in a river) while the boat behind us only had a young husband and wife and their 4-year-old boy.
Halfway through the ride, my buddy, Danny, decided he wanted the ride to be interactive. He stood up and jumped into the boat behind us (only about a foot separated the boats), looking down upon the couple and their child and yelling, "Arrrgh, I am the pirate of the Caribbean."
The couple looked at him like he was an idiot, which of course, he was at that point. Then we discovered that Disney has cameras inside all its rides. "Sit down in the boat ... sit down in the boat" came the order over speakers.
Danny jumped back into our boat and sat down and the Disney security team was waiting for us at the end of the ride. Since it was very dark and they couldn't figure out which of us had been the culprit ... and we weren't about to give up Danny ... they said they couldn't kick us out. But one more transgression and we would be taking the Goofy tram back to our car.
Disney employees shadowed us the rest of the day, pouncing if we took off our shirts in the 90-degree weather and warning us that we could get the boot if we didn't follow the rules (shirts must be worn at all times).
The bottom line, though, was no employee ever was out of line, and they certainly had that right. All these years later, my story is about how we were knuckleheads, and not about any Disney employee's rude behavior. Those employees were trained well and they made a lasting, positive impression of grace under fire.
I am not recalling that incident because I need to be an apologist for Disney, but it's to offer a comparison from a business perspective. As a businessman or businesswoman, your employees can keep you floating along or they can sink you. They can do permanent damage in one afternoon, or they can create a lifetime of loyalty.
Lake Club's Swan, who founded A Life Story Foundation about his battle with ALS, has been a Disney fan his entire life. He has season passes for the current year and his trip earlier this month with his wife, Shaina, and baby girl, Elliott, along with his friends David and Priya and their baby girl, Kohav, would be his second of 2019. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, he has never had major problems navigating the huge property.
Swan noted he has been to Disney World more times than he can count, while his wife has counted. It was her 33rd trip to a Disney property. Six weeks earlier, they said they had one of their greatest trips ever to the Magic Kingdom.
Without documenting every part of Swan's lengthy and amusing report, the overriding problem was employees who just didn't give a darn about the impression they were making.
While employees in the past always have rushed to help Swan when he struggled to navigate a line or a barrier with his wheelchair, he said Disney employees zipped past with no regard for his needs.
Swan noted the employees were equal-opportunity ambivalent when it came to the moms dealing with their strollers.
The Swan group did cause some of their own troubles by not noticing their tickets were not good on this particular "blackout date." They pleaded to be allowed in the park without having to buy new tickets, and eventually their request was granted.
However, the employee who agreed to allow them into the park scolded them and snipped, "This is a one-time thing."
That would tick me off, too. I would rather have someone turn me down than to kick me on my way through the gates.
Swan said nasty interactions with employees continued throughout the day, some having to do with Swan's need to plug in and charge lifesaving equipment that must accompany him at all times. It had been service with a smile on previous trips, but this day it seemed every request was met with irritation.
Swan also noted he had to use the women's restroom at one point because no family restroom was available. He is assisted by his wife, so their choices were her going in the men's restroom or him going in the women's.
At one point it was raining and the Swan said he asked a Disney employee if there was a protected area to get the power wheelchair and the accompanying medical equipment out of the rain.
"He told us to look for someone in a different blue shirt, because they were the guest services people," Swan recalled. "So we, along with our gear, two babies, strollers and my chair, crowded under a small pretzel concession and waited out the storm."
It was more of the same all day, which Swan called "dismal."
There were other annoyances. An employee kept closing the door of an elevator on Swan's foot, but due to the ALS, he was unable to respond to tell him he was slamming his foot. On one of their restaurant bills, they were charged the automatic tip amount for a larger party because they had six in their group, even though two were sleeping babies.
Swan said employees who said they would take care of things ... didn't. And eventually, they were told they would get a call from customer relations following their bad day. More than a week later, no one has called according to Swan, who said the most alarming thing about the visit was the general apathy all around.
"No one offered to help us, not even to hold open a door," he said. "We weren’t expecting the red carpet, but there was absolutely no sensitivity or thought when dealing with guests with additional needs."
"Disney is seen as a standard bearer in customer service, an expert in the experience they create for their guests," Swan said. "We are hardcore Disney fans, and loyal to their brand. What they advertise to do is no small feat — the place where dreams come true."
But Swan understands he is not the usual visitor and he left that day thinking, dreams come true, but not for everybody.
It was a dream lesson for anyone in business. Your employees, who may be dealing with idiot teens, can make a positive impression that will last 40 years, or they can be apathetic to someone with special needs and ruin a lifetime of loyalty in a day.