What's ground zero at Walt Disney World? Guest Relations. It's where visitors go to cajole, connive, and most of all, complain. Guests cry. They lie. Some even collapse to the floor. For these unhappy campers, Annie Salisbury was the power behind the pixie dust. Her tell-all will shock and amaze.
From her unhappy start as a DisneyQuest cast member, Annie worked her way through the theme parks to Guest Relations, and then Magic Kingdom tour guide. Along the way she made friends, she made enemies; she delighted some guests, disappointed others; she discovered the vast gulf behind the public face of Disney and the backstage cauldron of politics, jealousy, and betrayal.
Annie's witty, incisive memoir is a fascinating tale of day-to-day interaction with the people behind the pixie dust, and the pushy public who want some of it, no matter what:
WALT DISNEY WORLD GUEST RELATIONS: WHERE PIXIE DUST TURNS TO ACID RAIN
Annie Salisbury spent 1,164 days at The Walt Disney World Resort and probably ate about 7,000+ corn dog nuggets from Casey’s Corner in the Magic Kingdom. In contrast, she has never eaten a turkey leg. Her favorite attraction always has been, and always will be, the Haunted Mansion. She still remembers what it was like before the invention of FastPass, and thinks of that time as the good old days.
She has a fancy degree in Film & Television and looks forward to using it one day. She currently lives in Massachusetts with her family, where she is enjoying her newly earned non-Disney Look freedom. Annie would like to thank her fishy, her buddy, her princess, and Scotty.
She is the author of The Ride Delegate and Murder in the Magic Kingdom, both available from Theme Park Press.
Annie's training for Guest Relations at Magic Kingdom's City Hall gets off to a rocky start.
Training in City Hall spanned four days. It’s done in a progressive schedule, so the first night I was scheduled to close, the next two I’d work mid-day shifts, and the last day opening. I had no idea what to expect. Even though I had technically been in Guest Relations (GR) for two months, I barely knew anyone. I had spent my days out in the park, so even though I wasn’t the newest cast member anymore, I was still very new to everyone else.
I was told to meet my new trainer inside City Hall about fifteen minutes before my shift started. She’d show me how to clock in (I already knew how to do this), where I could store my belongings during the day (I already knew how to do this, too), and then what to do and expect from a normal City Hall shift.
When you walk into Magic Kingdom, the building to your left is City Hall. It houses Guest Relations, obviously, but not many people actually go in there, or need to go in there during the day. My family and I, during our two-dozen trips to the parks over the years, never went into City Hall for anything. We once went into Epcot Guest Relations to make dining reservations, and we once went into Studios Guest Relations to print out boarding passes for our flight home. That was it. I didn’t exactly know what to expect standing behind the counter at City Hall, because I had no first-hand knowledge of it. Did people come in to talk about the parks? Would I be planning vacations for guests? If someone came in to complain, how was I supposed to handle it? I had no idea. This is what training was all about.
I clocked in (so I wouldn’t be late) and then I just stood awkwardly in the Bank Out Room of City Hall. It’s a weird name for a room, but that’s what we called it. The Bank Out Room. Because that’s where Guest Relations cast members went at the end of their shift to tally their money and actually “bank out” for the shift — seeing as how everyone’s got a cash till. Someone once called it the Bank Out Room, and it stuck forever. That’s where I waited.
And I waited and I waited and I waited. Four o’clock came and went. No sign of my trainer. I awkwardly walked over to ask the general teller — get it, because it was the Bank Out Room, and Magic Kingdom Guest Relations (MKGR) was whole-hog for the “bank theme” (and also the general teller had all of the money) — if they had seen my trainer. They had not. They checked the call-in log to see if she had called in. She had not. So I continued to wait.
Right off the Bank Out Room was another room, the VIP Room. It was a tiny Victorian-style room, slightly in shambles because no one had bothered to renovate it over the years. It’s not like the VIP room was high up on the refurbishment list. And since it got used quite often, MKGR couldn’t just close it down for a week, anyway.
Originally, the room was meant to house “VIPs”, but VIPs never used it. Who did? MKGR cast members who wanted to hide for a few minutes, sit down, charge their phones, and not do anything. It was also sometimes used for screaming, irate guests who began to cause a scene in front of other guests. Parade meet and greets occasionally took place in there as well. It was MKGR’s every purpose rumpus room.
I sat down on one of the green couches and waited. And waited. Around 4:30pm, the general teller called out to me, “Whitney said she’s on her way!” Not bothering to tell me where Whitney had been, and how long it would take her to get to me.
Around 4:45, she showed up. She threw open the back door to City Hall with such force, I could hear it bang against the opposite wall. “Where is she?” Whitney barked at whoever was standing in the Bank Out Room at the time.
Someone must have pointed at the VIP room, because moments later Whitney’s head came through the door. “I forgot I was training you. Are you ready?” she asked, not bothering to apologize for being so late, not bothering to ask if I had been mildly traumatized after waiting for an hour, not bothering to do any of the normal things I bet a normal City Hall trainer with do with their trainee at the start of a shift.
I nodded, and followed Whitney out of the room.
I’ll save you the struggle of having to figure this out on your own: Whitney hated me. To this day, I still have no idea why Whitney hated me so much. She hadn’t forgotten about training me in City Hall, she purposely decided she didn’t feel like doing it. Someone else told me later that day that Whitney had been down in the Mousekateria enjoying a long lunch and when it came time to start my training shift, she just decided not to do it. Finally, after the general teller called a manager, that manager then called Whitney to ask her why she wasn’t handling her trainee.
I feel like her intent was to scare me away from Guest Relations so I’d wind up leaving my spot and heading back to Great Movie Ride. It was as if Whitney was intentionally sending me into awful situations, not to prepare me for what was to come later, but to terrify me. Most of it worked. The four days I spent with her were hell. But then again, it better prepared me for later.
That first night we didn’t do anything. I was still incredibly eager to get in and learn everything. Whitney had her heart set on not teaching me much, and also taking a two-hour lunch break. There were required readings for GR, so she sat me in the break room upstairs with a big binder, told me to read everything cover to cover, and then disappeared for two hours. When she came back, she asked me if I had taken my dinner break, and I was like, “Um, no, you told me to read all of this and also instilled lots of fear in me, so I didn’t take my lunch break.” Whitney rolled her eyes, huffed, and said, “Take it now, I’ll give you fifteen minutes.”
I was supposed to split my training: half out on the counter, half learning things from Whitney through virtual training and walks through the park. I know this is what was supposed to happen because I watched other new GR cast members do it. They looked like they were having fun and learning a lot. Meanwhile, I spent a much of my training sitting alone, in the breakroom, waiting for Whitney to come back.
For Guest Relations, I needed to know everything. Absolutely everything. I needed to know the answer to every single question that a guest might ask, and if I didn’t know the answer, I had to figure out where I could find it. I can only imagine what would have happened to me if I didn’t come to the position with a ton of Disney knowledge. Whitney taught me jackshit.
Continued in "Would You Like Magic with That?"!
So Pirates of the Caribbean goes down. While waiting for "evacuation", a young guest pees in his pirate ship. Next port of call? Guest Relations!
In 1993’s Jurassic Park, Dr. John Hammond is complaining that everyone is giving his park, Jurassic Park, a hard time. He yells, “This just a delay. That’s all it is. All major theme parks have delays. When they opened Disneyland in 1956, nothing worked!” And yes, Jurassic Park hilariously gets the opening date of Disneyland wrong (it’s 1955).
In response to this, Dr. Ian Malcolm (played wonderfully by Jeff Goldblum) replies, “Yeah, but John, if the Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”
When an attraction goes down in the Magic Kingdom, it’s broadcast over the radio system for the park. The code is 101. So, if Pirates goes down, it’s broadcast as “Pirates, 101”, and then the time. If it’s a bad enough downtime situation — guests on the attraction are being evacuated — then Guest Relations gets a call about the downtime, too.
When Pirates would go down, and guests would come in wondering why it was down, I always used to tell them it was because the pirates were eating the tourists. You’d be surprised by how many guests do not find this joke funny.
On a serious note, if Pirates does go down, Magic Kingdom has a problem. You don’t want Pirates to have any downtime.
The rule of thumb for all attractions is that it can sit “stalled” — basically, just hanging out, waiting — for roughly 20 minutes before an evacuation is ordered. If you get stuck on the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, you will sit there in that Heffalump dream for 19 minutes before the manager of the attraction says, “Okay, lets get them out of there.” It’s just assumed that most attractions can be fixed within 20 minutes, and the ride will resume.
However, at 21 minutes, it’s time to get the guests out of there. Usually, it’s an easy process with just cycling the attraction through: no more guests board, and the ones still on exit safely. Sometimes the attraction can’t cycle through, so cast members have to walk to each vehicle and personally escort each group of guests off.
In all my years at Disney World, between visiting and working, I was only ever evacuated off of one attraction, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure. It was a pretty boring experience.
Pirates, on the other hand, is a much more exciting experience, and also pretty daunting.
For starters, the attraction is made up of boats. When an evacuation of pirates is ordered, you’ve already been sitting on that boat for 20 minutes, maybe even longer. And more than likely your boat is nowhere near one of the platforms needed to exit. Because you’re on a boat. You can’t just step out of the vehicle and start walking away, because, boat. Your boat has to make it to one of the platforms along the ride, where you can actually step out of the boat, safely, and walk to an emergency exit.
What happens if your boat isn’t near one of these platforms? Well, that’s where the cast members come in. If Pirates breaks down, and there are boats out in the water nowhere near an exit platform, the Pirate cast members have to put on those pants you see people wear in cranberry bogs and wade into the water. The water’s only a foot-and-a-half deep, at most, but they’ve still got to walk through it to get to your boat.
Once arriving at your boat, wearing their cranberry waders, the cast members then have to push your boat to an emergency exit. This is a task that requires at least two cast members per boat, and they have to do it one boat at a time. It’s not an easy thing to do, and could take awhile.
So there you are. Stuck on Pirates, and it’s being evacuated. You’ve already been sitting there for twenty minutes, and you’re the sixth boat in line to be evacuated. You could easily find yourself sitting in a stalled pirate boat for upwards of an hour if every factor is working against you.
Were you planning to be stuck on Pirates for over an hour? And that’s not even including the 15–20 minutes you spent waiting in line, too. Suddenly, a half-hour attraction is turning into an hour and a half, maybe even more.
It’s never a good day when Pirates goes down.
It was late one summer evening, and Guest Relations got the call. Pirates was down, and the guests were being evacuated. It was more of a courtesy call than anything else, to let us know that guests might make their way down to City Hall to complain about the downtime. But there was one other thing mentioned in this phone call, and it was that one little boy on Pirates had an accident, where he just couldn’t hold it any longer, seeing as how he had been stuck in the attraction for an hour and a half. Someone else in the boat happened to have a plastic baggie (since, I guess when you’re stuck on a pirate boat, you become friends with everyone) and this little boy relieved himself into this bag. He was only four, so it wasn’t a huge deal. But still. The little kid had to go to the bathroom on a stuck boat, into a plastic bag, and this isn’t exactly something the Walt Disney Company likes to hear about.
The phone call from Pirates told the general teller that the dad of this little boy was coming down to City Hall to have a talk with us.
Very quickly, City Hall became a ghost town. Every other cast member disappeared from the counter, and I realized I was the only one standing out there. There was no use in trying to hide myself, because I would be discovered, no matter what. This was my destiny. I was here to talk to the dad whose son had just peed on Pirates.
Less than five minutes later, the dad showed up. I knew it was him. He walked forcefully into City Hall and looked right at me. “Can I talk to you?” he asked. He wasn’t rude or mean about it. He really wanted to know if he could talk to me about what had just happened on Pirates.
I needed to confirm it first. “Did you just get off of Pirates?” I asked, a little hesitant.
“Yes.” Dad walked over to me at the counter.
“And do you have a son?” I didn’t want to ask, but I had to ask.
“So you heard I was coming down here, huh?”
“We got a call from Pirates.” Dad went to say something else, but I cut him off. “Are you OK? Is your son OK?” I was genuinely worried.
Dad didn’t expect me to ask that. “Yeah, we’re fine. Well, we’ve been better.”
“I’m so sorry you had to experience that. It’s … well it’s not something that we hope for every day here, you know?” I grabbed the needed paperwork in front of me and put them in front of Dad. “I can only imagine what you guys are going through right now.”
“The wife is furious. I’m doing a little bit better. I don’t think my son even realizes that what he did was odd,” Dad laughed. In hindsight, for him the situation was a little bit funny. I mean, it’s not a hysterical situation. But the kid peed on Pirates into a plastic bag because he really had to go, and he was stuck on a boat. It’s kinda funny.
I wasn’t here to fight with Dad. I wasn’t here to argue with him about how his family had to resort to this weird situation to help their son out. I totally got it. It was still just, you know, weird. And it wasn’t his fault, or his son’s fault, by any means. It wasn’t Disney’s fault either, since downtimes and evacuations happen. I just needed to fix this situation, so no one ends up really at fault, and Dad leaves happy.
Continued in "Would You Like Magic with That?"!