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Me vs. the Walt Disney World Smiling Police

Written by
Published: September 2, 2010 at 10:38 AM

Hey, I love Disney World cast members. Heck, I used to be one. But there's one thing that some Walt Disney World employees do which drives me nuts, and I really wish they'd stop.

Here's the scene: My son and I are walking out of one of Epcot's Future World pavilions, just before lunchtime. We're heading over to The Land, but the August mid-day heat's already baking the park. As soon as we walk outside, the hot air slams us and my son just starts to melt. He'd been having a great time, but the high heat and humidity - coupled with a rumbly tummy - are draining him.

We walk past the cast member stationed at greeter.

Smile mask"Hey, you need to smile!" he orders my son, while sporting a huge grin. "No need for a grumpy face."

This comment immediately changes my 10-year-old son's mood from tired and hungry to seriously ticked off. All he wanted to do was hurry across the hot plaza to a nice air-conditioned lunch. But now he's got some Disney World cast member riding him, because he doesn't look happy enough.

I've had Disney employees pull this on me in the past, too. Yes, Disney wants its cast members to smile. And it very much would like its guests to be happy and smiling, too.

But, dear Disney cast members, while it is your job to smile, it's not ours. You are getting paid to be there and smile. We're paying out the wazoo to be there, and can sport any facial expression we want, thankyouverymuch. Your job is to give us reasons to smile - not to order us to do so.

Worse, by telling a guest to smile you are, in essence, criticizing him or her - which was an absolute, you're-getting-a-verbal-now no-no back when I went through Disney University.

I suspect that the Disney University lesson that cast members should try to get guests to smile has morphed into a belief among some trainers that cast members should tell guests to smile. That's a training error that Walt Disney World management needs to address and correct.

I'd like to encourage that greeter to find ways to put smiles on the faces of the hot, tired and hungry people emerging from his pavilion. Wearing that big grin himself was a great start. Asking people if he can help, complementing them on their clothes or souvenirs, or even simply wishing them well all can initiate a positive interaction between cast member and guest.

But telling someone to smile sounds like an order - and that's a negative interaction, something cast members should be working hard to avoid.

I've not ever encountered this demand at other companies' theme parks. I attribute that to Disney's obsession with promoting guest happiness in its parks, shown by mass smiling. While that's a noble goal, giving people a reason to smile and telling them to smile are two very different things.

I just wish that all Disney cast members would recognize that.

Readers' Opinions

From 173.67.50.67 on September 2, 2010 at 10:48 AM
If they really wanted a smile then a Handout of FastPasses or pins would normally do the Trick lol
From 216.110.195.82 on September 2, 2010 at 10:59 AM
Amen! Another thing I don't like - which always happens at Epcot in those breezeways - I don't want to have those big bouncy balls thrown at me. If I want to interact, I'll make it known. Sometimes you just want to relax on your own without the forced smiles! I might not be smiling, but I'm still enjoying myself!
As a former cast member, I never once told someone to smile. I know how I would react to that, so why would I do it to someone else? Annoying!
From Derek Potter on September 2, 2010 at 11:18 AM
Ever have one of "those days" at work, and someone in the wrong place at the wrong time talks to you like the Disney employee? And you just want to throw them out the window or club them over the head with the closest thing you can grab?


Also, for some strange reason I'm getting this visual of R. Lee Ermey in a Disney employee outfit.

YOU'RE IN THE HAP-PIEST PLACE ON EARTH, AND YOU MAGGOTS CAN'T EVEN SMILE? YOU MAKE ME SICK. NOW PUT A SMILE ON THAT FILTHY SEWER OF YOURS BEFORE I...

From 94.168.84.218 on September 2, 2010 at 11:22 AM
Ive never experienced this in my seven visits to Walt Disney World but here here!! I dont think I would like that either!! Its their job to make US smile! And yeah, a free handout of pins or fast passes wouldnt go amiss either! ;o) xx
From Brian Emery on September 2, 2010 at 11:41 AM
YOU should have punched that person right in the face…. The nerve of them trying to get a child to smile at a Theme park.. What is wrong with the world… Who wants to see a kid smile.. Whisky… Tango…. Foxtrot…
I would have demanded my money back…. Plus other restitutions..

(Lighten up Francis..) – It’s a nice way of reminding these over spoiled Kids that they are Lucky and should appreciate what they have… Many folks cannot afford a trip to Disney….

From 65.78.148.68 on September 2, 2010 at 12:56 PM
I'm guessing it was an innocent attempt on the cast member's part to cheer up the child. But yes, that was not the way to do it--the employee was in essence criticizing the kid for not smiling, which is not going to make the kid feel any better--or smile.
From Larry Zimmerman on September 2, 2010 at 1:13 PM
Everyone has a laughin' place... I guess it just wasn't your son's that day!
From Hermione Potter on September 2, 2010 at 1:41 PM
It's worse when the cast members aren't even working and they're still being the smile police! I've got friends who work at Disney World and they are so brainwashed that they fake smile and wish everyone a magical day and demand the same from all others around them while going to see a movie for crying out loud.
I love that they smile on the job- I hate being sniped at for not smiling myself if I'm not on the job myself.
From Nick Markham on September 2, 2010 at 2:10 PM
Robert, I m sorry, but you're being just alittle bit too paranoid about this. He was just trying to be friendly and it was not meant to be taken straight forward or this seriously. This is really something best to just let go of.
From Robert Niles on September 2, 2010 at 2:27 PM
Disney became the market leader in theme parks because it *did* sweat all the little details. "Ah, someone was having an off day" or "Hey, it's just one little incident" aren't phrases that ought to be in the lexicon of any top customer-service business.

I've seen this from cast members enough to know that it's not just a single employee on a single day. This is something that's worked its way into parts of Disney's theme park culture, and it is just not acceptable behavior from a cast member. Sorry, but someone's got to enforce the old-school, top-quality standards of customer service, and if Disney's managers aren't going to do it, I'll try to do that here. :-)

Maybe other folks have money to burn, but when I spend my money to go to a theme park (and I do spend *my* money), I want to have an experience that my family enjoys. I want to get value for that money.

Sure, my family and I have been to plenty of parks, and we both ended up letting this incident go quickly. But if a Disney trip were a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, I could see how an incident like this would leave me questioning why I blew all this cash to watch my child be treated this way. That's why I'm offering this heads-up. Disney's great, but here's one way that its representatives can do even better.

From Brian Creedon on September 2, 2010 at 3:26 PM
Shut up and smile!
And about those balls in EPCOT, I was having a "no smile" day myself... one of those balls came right at me, I stepped into that baby and kicked it clear across the area.
Now that made me smile!
From Michael Owen on September 2, 2010 at 4:13 PM
In my opinion this seems a tad like Disney bashing.

The cast member clearly had the child's best intentions at heart and, in seeing if they would smile or not, could gauge whether they were enjoying their day and, more importantly, whether there was something wrong.

Should you be forced to smile? Of course not. But personally I'd just ignore it and enjoy the rest of my day.

I've had plenty of bad customer service experiences at theme parks around the world which were much, much worse than this and I'm sure almost everyone on here has as well.

From Roxanne Price on September 2, 2010 at 5:16 PM
I can think of at least one *very* important reason for cast members to cut out the "hey, smile!" comments. Hundreds of families every year come to Disney World as a short escape from grief and illness. These are not "spoiled kids" who are not appreciating what they have, but rather survivors who should be left alone if they wish to be.

Cast member: "Hey smile!"

Thirteen year old: "I'm sorry, but my little brother is dying from leukemia."

...perhaps some compassion should be the order of the day...

From Barbara Sims on September 2, 2010 at 5:44 PM
Lighten up Robert. I think there are worse ways you're son could have been treated. Going to WDW would be a once in a lifetime dream for a lot of kids. So, I would consider your son pretty darn lucky.
From Rod Whitenack on September 2, 2010 at 6:06 PM
Wow, Robert, I think you've stirred up a hornet's nest of controversy here, but I think it's a great topic. I've never applied to work for Disney for the very reason that I am unable to smile constantly without looking and feeling incredibly fake, and I reserve smiling for when it's an honest emotion. I suffered Bell's Palsy some years ago which damaged some of the nerves on the right side of my mouth, and sometimes when I smile, it's a crooked smile, which isn't my fault (but would likely prevent me from getting hired at Disney). I also think sometimes Disney employees can appear to be scary robots (not unlike the animatronics on the rides) when they smile non stop for hours, and I'm naturally suspicious of a corporate policy of forced smiling. I think if they could replace all cast members with smiling robots, they'd do it in a heartbeat. I'm sorry about your experience, but I also sympathize with the cast member who was standing outside in the unbearable August heat who still tried to smile through the sweat stinging his eyes when you and your son walked by.
From Adam Wade on September 2, 2010 at 7:03 PM
I think this is blown WAY out of proportion.

The initial comment that someone who said, "Hey, smile!" to a 10-year old and causing them to be "seriously ticked off" is odd but makes much more sense when dad comes home and makes a nasty blog post and further comments about it.

Maybe everyone should just lighten up a bit? Smile back and say, "Long morning!" or something. It was just someone trying to cheer your son up a bit.

I'd be willing to bet MANY more parents would appreciate someone trying to cheer up their kid than wouldn't.

From Bobby Miller on September 2, 2010 at 8:45 PM
Robert, I don't know if this is true but I remember reading that "It takes more muscles to frown, than it does to smile." No wonder I see so many wrinkled faces walking around this old planet of ours. "SMILE" Robert, I don't want to see your face wrinkling up, now how would that make our fearless leader look like? lol :)

Bobby, formally known as Bob & Robert!!!!!!!

From Will Chilcote on September 2, 2010 at 10:00 PM
What a jerky cast member!! Depending on what kinda mood I was in I would have either laughed at him or swore at him and made his smile go away.

BTW, I'm not someone that smiles very often. And I'm usually in a good mood especially when I'm at Disney.

From 75.34.224.103 on September 3, 2010 at 12:09 AM
Dear Robert,
I speak for myself who happens to be a cast member at disney and having gone through extensive training to be a character host, no I don't believe our job is to plaster smiles on our faces as everyone is insinuating, as robot disney cast members. I truly and absolutely love my job!! I see the very best and worst in guests every day and I still smile over the little things like the cutest children on the planet.

This is not an every day job, I work at disneyland and enjoy it because its like nothing else on the planet. we would not work here if we did not like our job. I agree the cast member could have phrased it differently but I have used a similar tact before. For instance I was trying to convince a 13yr old boy that princesses were cool. Mom forced him to take a family picture and I was there to snap the photo. I did say to him "ok grumpy, now for this photo no smiling," he smiled because of the irony that we were with Snow White, it got him to smile.

So yes the cast member should have said something different but it was not a false statement because sometimes it works. Training doesn't tell us to force others to smile and we are not all like that one cast member you encountered, to lump us together as a bad experience is insulting.

If you ever met me your experience would be vastly different and entirely more fun. Therefore I understand your frustrations and that you were a former cast member but the current cast is not all that bad and should nor be judged by one bad comment on a hot day. thanks again for hearing me out.
sincerely, Awesome Character Host

From Amanda Jenkins on September 3, 2010 at 4:56 AM
I have mixed emotions here. Personally, after having worked with children for many years; I see the cast members side in that you would like to see them happy. I know that you have to leave many children alone and not provoke them during the slight meltdowns). Then again, I know myself. I am not one who is going to be smiling nonstop at a theme park, especially if I am concentrating on finding my way to my destination (and even more so if there is food involved). I know that tempers are even shorter during excessive heat, and even the most innocent remarks can become annoying. I don't mind the simple, "Hey smile," but if they persist and begin to question the reasons for my mood and follow me till either smile or laugh(which has happened) then I am in an even worse mood.

Of course, I come from a family and am married into one that if you don't look like the Joker from Batman throughout most of the day, then they think that there must be something wrong with you. A few of us (myself included) are sadly the black sheep of our family.

From Brian Emery on September 3, 2010 at 7:08 AM
First I want to congratulate Robert on a fine thread… Any article that you can clearly pick sides on and create some controversy is great….

Roxy – You are 100% incorrect. Those unfortunate children are there to forget their problems, not be reminded of the inevitable. Actually a positive attitude can often turn an illness around… You just want someone to wallow in sadness until their last breath… Not me, I am going out swinging…

I am not calling every child spoiled who enters the parks…. But every child should realize they are lucky to be in the park….

I guess you have never struggled financially and have no idea how to tell a child “We cannot afford to go”….

And when a child is suffering and with a group of folks that all have T’s on that say “Make a wish foundation” – you don’t think the employees are aware of that….. ??

You are going to an extreme situation… This is an everyday situation...

From Anthony Murphy on September 3, 2010 at 10:07 AM
Yeah, I think you are reading too much into it Robert. I know, you are all suprised where I fall in this debate, SHOCKING!

I think one of the reason they do this is because an unhappy kid at Disney (even the Disney Store) makes cast members very nervous and they want to try to ease any tensions without overstepping their boundries.

Could the Cast Member have said it better, well yes, but you also know better since you were a former Cast Member. I would rather have them tell me to smile than other park employees (cough....Universal....cough.....Six Flags) making fun of me because I am wearing something with Mickey Mouse on it.

Is it me or are there alot of Disney nitpicking lately? I do like the EPCOT Mask Picture too! Very appropriate!

From 69.61.250.162 on September 3, 2010 at 10:25 AM
I think the "Smile Police" thing is a bit of an over reaction. Now, I take the tone of the piece to be totally serious.

If your son had been walking along totally content, but for no good reason not smiling, and someone said - "Smile!". He probably would have. If Buzz Lightyear had seen him and said, "Hey there Spaceranger, you need to smile, that's an order", he might have smiled.

The fact is, Mr. Greeter, doesn't have any idea of your current state of mind. He was probably good-intentioned.

You know, there are mornings, I come in and say to a fellow co-worker "good-morning" with out really thinking much about it or meaning too much. Sometimes, I will get a response like "WHAT'S SO GOOD ABOUT IT???". I think you're being the what's-so-good-about-it guy in this case.

From 66.233.135.76 on September 3, 2010 at 11:16 AM
I am not a ten year old child but obviously an adult and this has happened twice to me at WDW. I am a rather serious person - I enjoy Disney and fun as much as anyone but I don't always show it on the outside. Once I was walking from one area of The Land to anther, and a cast member seemed to be putting up ropes to block an area. I asked if I could cross, and he replied "Only if you SMILE!". I gave him a puzzled look, and he said "You're in Walt Disney World, you have to SMILE!". I turned around to take another path rather than dealing with this. Why should he care if I smile or not?? As I left he yelled after me "You can come though here! I was just trying to make you SMILE!!"

The second time was exiting a ride which I was thinking about in terms of show and presentation and am certain I wasn't grinning ear to ear. The cast member said "Didn't you enjoy the ride? You need to SMILE!".

I can understand how some people would appreciate this and just think it's part of the show but as Robert says, there's a point when it becomes more of an order than a friendly comment. Guests are in the park to enjoy the experience on their own level. I can imagine some cultures being offended or angered by being told to "SMILE!"

Interestingly, I visit DLR much more frequently than WDW and I've never seen the SMILE police at DLR. Maybe they're there too, I've just never seen them.

From 168.114.240.150 on September 3, 2010 at 12:14 PM
Miss Manners addressed this issue in March of this year. Her answer follows:

It is indeed both common and rude to command others to smile, as if this conferred a favor by improving their outlook on life.

Miss Manners was once told this by a stranger on an airplane, although she was dressed in black from head to toe, on her way to attend a funeral. Later she regretted that she had restrained herself from bursting into tears.

Still, your chastising the offender was rude. You could have conveyed the point politely by asking, "Why? Did you say something amusing?"

From Larry Zimmerman on September 3, 2010 at 1:25 PM
On second thought, Robert, I believe Grinches belong in Uneventful Studios/Islands of Advertising.
From Anthony Murphy on September 3, 2010 at 5:09 PM
The smile police are at the DLR for sure!
From Adam Dodds on September 4, 2010 at 9:23 AM
As a Cast Member, I'm insulted by some of these comments. As for the smile thing, it works 90 percent of the time in achieving a smile. For the whole dying of cancer comment...are we supposed to assume everyone is dying at the parks and that going to WDW is part of a grieving process? What a strange notion. The people who are there from Make a Wish are the ones who already are smiling non stop.

As for those who say we are all smiling robots...how can you manage to not notice the mass of lazy and grumpy cast members? They are plenty of them. I personally find that my shifts go faster if I smile and am happy about it. Like most Cast Members, we are happy seeing others happy. If this in inhuman, unnatural and strange to you, then maybe Disney isn't the place for you.

From Rod Whitenack on September 4, 2010 at 12:38 PM
Here's a question to fry your brain! Is the cast member playing Grumpy (of the 7 Dwarves) smiling inside the costume?
From 66.233.135.76 on September 4, 2010 at 3:43 PM
"I personally find that my shifts go faster if I smile and am happy about it. Like most Cast Members, we are happy seeing others happy. If this in inhuman, unnatural and strange to you, then maybe Disney isn't the place for you."

Very true, perhaps Disney isn't the place for everyone. Although the company spends millions trying to convince us otherwise. It is wonderful that you are happy if you are surrounded by other happy people. Perhaps a greater goal would be not to judge your happiness by the happiness of others, but by treating others with respect to their behaviors and personalities.

And if you are so happy at your work, why are you interested in your shift passing quickly? Wouldn't you want it to pass as slowly as possible so you can enjoy more happiness?

From Larry Zimmerman on September 5, 2010 at 7:01 AM
Well, frankly, Scarlett, as a stockholder, I don't give a darn whether or not that guest is smiling. What I'm grateful for, and what has ME smiling, is the fact that said grumpy guest is already INSIDE that park, and will be buying souvinirs, drinks, snacks, lunch and (hopefully) dinner (or is paying rack rate at one of the grossly overpriced resorts for the privilege of "free dining") and will keep my dividends rolling in. And if that Cast Member is vested in the company employee stock plan, he should be smiling right along with me.

So go on, America, and visit WDW or DL. Smile if you want to -- I sure am!

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