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Vote of the week: Is theme park customer service getting better or worse?

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Published: August 16, 2013 at 10:03 AM

As theme park fans, we love great rides and shows. Many of us phone and email early to get a table at favorite themed restaurants. We queue to meet beloved characters.

But there's one more, very important, factor that affects how well we enjoy our theme park vacations. It's the customer service we get (or don't) from our favorite parks' cast or team members.

Talk to anyone who's built a career in the theme park business, and chances are the inherent conflict between creative and operations will come up in the conversation at some point. The ride designers and entertainment directors thrive on creativity while operations demand command and control. No one wants a creative roller coaster operator -- we want someone who will follow the procedure to get the trains loaded and dispatched safely and swiftly.

But the best operators aren't automatons. They know how to read a guest's needs and how either to find a solution, or, better yet, to head off a problem before it happens. Great work in theme parks isn't simply about moving ride vehicles, ringing up sales or keeping the streets clean. All those tasks are important, of course, but a great theme park operation requires providing great customer service, above all.

So who's doing a good job of that? And who's not? And, more importantly, how is that situation changing? Is the staff at your favorite theme park getting better or worse at customer service over the past few years?

That's our vote of the week.


Please share your best — or worst — recent example of theme park customer service, in the comments. And, as always, thank you for reading, and for being a part of the Theme Park Insider community. Have a great weekend!

Update: Yeah, I'm pushing the leaners by not offering a "It's the same" option. How about this, then? If you think the service at your favorite park is consistently good, please vote "better." If you think the service has been consistent, and bad, please vote "worse." And if you think service has been getting better at some parks and worse at others, vote on the basis of the direction it's heading at your favorite park, the one you care about most.

Readers' Opinions

From Jacob Sundstrom on August 16, 2013 at 10:09 AM
I think this depends on where you're going. At Disneyland and Universal Studios I have gotten the sense that, by and large, it has improved. But at Knott's and (particularly) the two Six Flags parks I have been to this year (Magic Mountain and Fiesta Texas) the service was awful.

I don't mean that to be an indictment of the staff paid minimum wage and treated like garbage, either -- I know cast members complain more than their fair share about how they're "treated" at Disneyland (pretty darn well, actually) but at least their work is valued in a way that it is clearly not at many regional amusement parks.

It's not just about the wage, either. It starts with the culture you're creating inside of your company. Is Six Flags a place that people want to work long-term? Usually no; for most it's a summer gig and /maybe/ they come back for another summer of work the next year. Knowing that, it's up to the leads and managers to create an environment where the employees can be both happy and productive.

Something tells me that's not happening at Six Flags right now.

From Anon Mouse on August 16, 2013 at 10:48 AM
Too bad you don't offer a "stays the same" option, but your explanation is alright.

Disney offers a slightly worse experience even though I felt it has gotten better for individual workers. This is due to Disney's tendency to pack their parks and not dealing with the large crowds in a successful manner. They need to improve their services to match the crowds.

Universal has gotten worse. They don't seem to care much.

Knott's and Six Flags are in the same situation. Customer service was never the concern. Survival is the bigger problem.

Sea World has consistently done the best job. Perhaps the smaller crowds are necessary. They treat their guests and animals in the best way possible.

From 204.128.192.32 on August 16, 2013 at 11:10 AM
When asked where was the best place to eat at Six Flags Magic Mountain, one of their employees recently told us:

"Anywhere other than here....."

Well, at least he was truthful...

From Daniel Etcheberry on August 16, 2013 at 11:28 AM
It's getting worse in Orlando. I find customer service at Disneyland and Universal Hollywood to be much better.
From Tracy Bates on August 16, 2013 at 11:52 AM
Of the parks I've been to this year, most have all been good overall. The only exception to that was May the 4th at Hollywood studios.

Whoever thought up the 'Special T-shirts in one location' idea should be fired. It was over a 2.5 hour wait to buy a shirt because the only place selling the special shirts had two registers and that's all. The line was only partially under a roof, so for at least an hour of that I was standing in the rain waiting in line. During those 2+ hours, dozens of park employees would walk by and go "Wow, that's quite a line." and then walk off. You'd think someone would push over a food cart or something else that has a cash register and use it to ring up stuff, but no. Just the two registers.

Oh.. to make it worse, the line totally snaked around the merchandise so you had people walking through the line to look at what was available, then they had to walk back through the line to get in the end of the line. also, after you paid you had to walk through the line to get out so I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of people sticking stuff in other bags under cover of the line and then just meander off without paying.

I was amazed at how poorly this event was planned. You'd think they would know there are star wars fans out there and that they show up for events like this. I mean they have been doing this for years, haven't they? I won't go next year. It's just not worth the hassle.

Good service was at all the other parks I've been to this year.

Magic Kingdom
Animal Kingdom
EPCOT
Busch Gardens Tampa
Seaworld
Universal Studios Orlando - Extra good service helping my disabled wife with getting a loaner wheelchair to get through the queue of Transformers.

From Bobbie Butterfield on August 16, 2013 at 11:57 AM
I am likewise unable to vote because I find that customer service has remained more or less the same rather than having gotten better or worse. As to recent examples of good and bad customer service, I'm not certain as to how Robert is defining "recent." Certainly the best customer service I've ever gotten was at Lake Compounce last month but that doesn't really count for the purpose of this discussion because I went there to do a story and had alerted the park to this in advance, so will restrict my comments to parks I visited without having a specific agenda.

If two years ago is recent enough to be considered recent, the best example I can cite of exceptionally good customer service is that at Holiday World. I got lost on the way to Holiday World because I hadn't looked at a map, relying instead on a GPS - first trip any distance from home driving by myself with little idea of what I was doing - and although I eventually made it there, had no idea how to get from Santa Claus back to Evansville. The staff at Holiday World drew a diagram for me and painstakingly went over the driving directions until they were certain I'd gotten them right. The staff at Busch Gardens Williamsburg was also very good that way last year. (Fortunately, I've since gotten into the habit of printing out Google driving directions from home, then studying maps and committing the routes to theme parks to memory while in flight.)

Probably the worst recent example of poor customer service dates back a year to my first visit to Six Flags New England. I had a metal pillbox in one pocket; after emptying my pockets and going through the metal detector, I was told by a less than congenial park employee to open the pillbox. When I explained that this contained prescription medication, he demanded to know what type of medication. I probably should have asked for a supervisor, as this was uncalled-for and clearly an invasion of privacy. However, I wanted to get into the park as quickly as possible so let it go. (After that I switched to a plastic pillbox.) This was my first impression of SFNE and it was not a good one. I had negative feelings about that park ever since and returned this year only because I was flying to Hartford and the park is only about a 20-minute drive from the airport. I feel more positive about that park after my last visit but it's a shame that one rotten apple nearly spoiled the whole barrel.

From Joshua Conlon on August 16, 2013 at 12:54 PM
My dad actually had a cast member at WDW yell at him last November.
It took all of us by surprise.
From 142.129.163.195 on August 16, 2013 at 1:50 PM
At the start of the summer I visited Disneyland but had to leave right after the fireworks. I usually avoid leaving at this time but, on this evening, had no choice. I joined the stampede down Main Street en route to the Mickey & Friends Tram loading area. Trams were few and far between so I had to wait for about 6 trams to load in front of me before I could get on one. During the 40 minutes I was at this loading "station" there was a blond Cast Member (can't remember her name) who just repeatedly yelled and berated the guests for having their toes go over the yellow line. Even when there were no trams in sight (which was very often), she was still RUNNING up and down the length of the loading station barking at guests in a very loud, obnoxious tone. At first people just kind of laughed at the spectacle she was presenting but the humor wore thin when she yelled at a guest "Don't you know what the color yellow looks like? And told him to pull a foot back behind the painted yellow line on the ground. Then she started yelling at guests for sitting on the railing around the perimeters of the planters separating the individual car queue loading zones. She was a raving tyrant with the guests and was obviously at her wits end. People started talking about how they hoped she didn't have any kids...or pets. When I was about one tram away from actually getting on, someone came and spoke with her and escorted her away...as guests applauded! The tram remained in place for a few minutes until a replacement for her was put in place. I have never seen such behavior from a Disneyland Cast Member and I doubt if she still is one.
From Jorge Arnoldson on August 16, 2013 at 7:46 PM
Universal Orlando's service has improved since Harry Potter opened, Disney World's service has been declining since then, Busch Gardens Tampa has improved, and Dollywood has the best customer service at any theme park. Period.
From 24.218.30.249 on August 16, 2013 at 4:20 PM
We just came back from a trip to Disney World and Universal Orlando. We stayed at the Hard Rock hotel and the staff at that hotel and all the employees in the parks couldn't have nicer or more helpful. The staff at Disney were just ok. We had a few of them yelling at us.
From 66.214.16.22 on August 16, 2013 at 6:41 PM
I am a frequent attendee of Universal Studios Hollywood, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure and I love all three parks dearly. Overall, the customer service at both parks is exceptional, better than you would find in most situations i.e. retail, restaurants, etc. That being said, in my opinion, one of the above mentioned parks stands heads and shoulders above the rest when it comes to customer service.

Universal Studios Hollywood always goes out of it's way to provide excellent customer service. The employees always greet me with a smile, a few kind words it the occasion calls for it and when I have had any questions or issues, they go out of their way to resolve them. One time I was looking for a couple of shirts from the tv show The Office. They didn't have any in the park, but instead of turning me away, they called the store outside of the theme parks and let me know to come back in an hour to check out what they found. They found two great shirts which I enjoyed for years; on top of the fact that they gave me a huge discount.

On the other hand, customer service at Disneyland can come off a little on the fake side, which is fine as long as they are polite and knowledgeable, which they aren't at all times. When you deal with some employees working rides or shops that are not so popular, they tend to drop the Disney act a little bit, becoming more like what you would expect at your local retail store. Nothing wrong with that, but with the huge price of admission and everything else at DL/DCA, I expect top notch customer service, especially when kindness is part of the Disneyland theme. Another thing that rubs me the wrong way, is the fact that the people working the registers, tend to forget to ask you if you have an annual pass, hoping you will forget about that discount you are entitled to; at Universal this has never been a problem. I get the fact that not everyone has an AP and it's most likely Disney policy to not ask, but it would be nice if they did. When someone reminds you that you can keep an extra couple bucks in your wallet after you have spent so much of your money throughout the day, it tends to put a bit of a smile on your face.

I love the service at all of the above mentioned parks, but USH is the theme park customer service star in my opinion.

From 75.92.214.228 on August 16, 2013 at 7:42 PM
Visited Disneyland Paris this year. Wow, it genuinely surprised us how rude the staff was.
From Brandon Townsend on August 17, 2013 at 4:36 AM
Holiday World employees really go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. I think it's hit and miss with most other parks, especially those that have mostly teenage workers. The more mature people at Disney and Universal are almost always friendly. And I like that Disney employees have their "passion" noted on their name tags as conversation starters.
From 213.205.233.121 on August 17, 2013 at 1:39 PM
I've just returned from a fabulous two weeks in Florida and agree that largely customer service is getting better, especially in Universal Parks.

My family and I only had one 'cast member' treat us with anything less than respect. At magic Kingdom, just before the electrical parade a very stressed cast member shouted at us for standing still behind the rope. As reasonably inexperienced disney visitors we hadn't realised that for the 3 o'clock parade you stand behind the line, but for the evening parade you stand in front! She shouted at us to 'watch the next parade if you can't fit In front of the rope' and when my aunt motioned to the children we had with us and stated that 11pm was too late for them, the cast member snapped 'well, you'll be stood in a line waiting for the monorail at 11 anyway'. We managed to squeeze in front of the line to watch the parade but really it was spoilt as throughout the parade we could hear her shouting at other families. I appreciate that she had a job to do and understand that keeping a path clear is a health and safety matter but really manners and respect cost nothing!

Generally though at every other instance the level of customer service we received was exemplary.

From James Trexen on August 17, 2013 at 2:23 PM
I voted worse, but was very much so less inclined to do so than most who probably voted. Reason being that most people in today's culture have developed demanding attitudes that it is tiresome to constantly have to put on a smile and try to satisfy everyone. Thus, I don't blame employees for bad service, I blame patrons who make it hard on everybody in order to get their way.
From 67.181.87.42 on August 17, 2013 at 2:44 PM
Disneyland in Anaheim has always been a family favorite, Our family goes 3 / 4 times a years, being from Northern Cali, it has to be a planned trip. We have had Great experiences as well as bad. I really believe customer service has gotten worse because the customer has gotten worse. Disney needs to get back to being more selective on who is allowed to enter the park, this has ALWAYS been a family and child venue, and some behavior and dress of late does not show that. If you dress and act like an ass you certainly should be treated as one. Customers do not have the RIGHT to treat cast members with disrespect , and it should not be tolerated, this ruins the experience for everyone. In the same respect, cast members should be respectful of everyone...
From AJ Hummel on August 17, 2013 at 4:28 PM
In general, I think customer service is declining, both because the average visitor is getting harder to please and because parks are focusing more on how much money they can make and less on how good of time visitors have. It is not just one or two parks either, but rather all of them. At my local parks in Southern California, I have experienced poor service at SFMM (although that's par for the course there nowadays), Knott's, USH, and even the Disneyland Resort in the past couple of years. While not necessarily unpleasant encounters with employees (which I still find rare) I have run into an increasing number of employees who are not willing to go out of their way to assist you and, especially at Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks, unreasonably slow employees (it should not take three minutes to dispatch an 18 person train with only lap-bars or five minutes to serve a customer at a counter service restaurant when everything is sitting right there). Of the big chains, I've found that SeaWorld/Busch Gardens tends to be the best in customer service, but even they aren't outstanding.

I have encountered an interesting trend however, one I've begun to notice as I've visited more small parks in the past couple years. In general, the smaller the park the better the customer service has been. I can't remember the last time I've gotten great service at a major park (I've gotten good service, but nothing noteworthy), but I've been to a number of smaller parks where I've received excellent service (Holiday World, Dollywood, Waldameer, Lake Compounce to name a few). I think as parks become more corporate, they just seem to care about making money and as long as their attendance doesn't decline it doesn't matter if guests are satisfied or not.

From Eric G on August 17, 2013 at 4:28 PM
James Trexen - You couldn't be more wrong. Patrons are not to blame for poor customers service. That's such a BS excuse.

Poor management and lack of training is the cause. In fact, it's always the root of the problem. If the owner doesn't value good service then he won't require it of his management and employees.

Patrons are not difficult to please and especially when you have exceptional service!

From 50.10.243.91 on August 17, 2013 at 5:12 PM
As a theme park worker, if you are an ignorant, rude, and slothful guest, you deserve to be told as such.
From 98.116.233.203 on August 17, 2013 at 6:22 PM
As a family that has visited Disney World for 33 years now, we have watched how the service at these parks has steadily deteriorated over those decades. In fact, the service this past summer of 2013 was the worst ever.
Gone are the days where disney cared about each family....gone are the days where WDW personnel address and solve problems.....gone are the days where WDW personnel are interested in whether your room is in working, clean condition.....or your park experience was a pleasant one....and gone are the days when WDW employees smiled and triedto be pleasant.
It is now all about how much mediocre service can we get away with before anyone notices and complains.
We continue to watch poorer service, more employees rude and impatient ....and remember back to those years when going back to Disney World was truly like going home.
Uncle Walt....what has happened to your company?
From James Trexen on August 17, 2013 at 10:14 PM
Eric G, perhaps I should make myself clear. I too notice when inadequate training/expectations of what constitutes as proper customer service is applied and will call out companies for allowing themselves to slide. However, as Mr. Hummel mentioned, guests are becoming harder to please. I agree. People like you and me are the exception as the average Joe will arrive late, complain about the wait times and make it clear that they paid a lot of money and deserve their worth. It is the people like those who make it hard on employees. If guests like these were the exception, then I'd expect more patience from customer service. However, it is becoming the norm and as such, it gets hard to please everyone to the point that a previously satisfactory solution can no longer be feasible.

There, I hope that puts my side of the argument into a little more perspective.

From Mark Kausch on August 18, 2013 at 7:02 AM
I have never, ever had a cast member at the DLR forget to ask me if I was AP in the last two years or so (at least where it would have applied). This is true even if I am in the process of handing it to them so it's gotta be pretty ingrained.
From robert morris on August 18, 2013 at 8:04 AM
Not sure if its gotten worse or as I get older I've gotten more cynical or more aware of the flaws in the system.

Much like when I was a kid I didn't notice chipped paint because I was just happy to be there.

Another factor could be that there are only some many people who can handle front line guest service at the volume the year round parks demand on a daily basis and with the expansions that has further diluted the pool of employees who give great guest service.

As for regional parks with exception to the Holiday Worlds and alike....if your Six Flags hiring for a few months at a time, do you really expect to get the "best of the best" waiting for you each summer or are you trying to make due with seasonal employees

From 71.180.185.250 on August 18, 2013 at 8:30 AM
I always wanted to spend one year of my life working at Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld, each of the WDW parks and both of Universal's - just to do it. It would be an interesting eight years

However, watching the eroding behavior of the people that go to the parks over the ten years or so has convinced me I'd lose it and smack some family that thinks they're entitled just because they bought tickets

And the first people I would smack with a stale churro are the ones that believe the smoking rules don't pertain to them. And then the lazy, overweight ones that rent the damn scooters. And the stroller moms that wield those things like the tip of a spear to cut through whatever lines they want

The patrons ARE the cause

From 69.153.116.169 on August 18, 2013 at 8:33 AM
I agree with the point the commenters made about the crowds not being the problem, but I must agree that the average Joe is getting so, so much more, and that is adding to the problem. Our family plans on crowds. We factor that in, get up early, use tools such as fast pass systems, and the like. We have planned out when and where we will eat before the last minute. Accordingly, at the big parks like Disney, the service has been amazing. We go to Six Flags once a year, and the service is always terrible. If I had to rank the service (and I have been to Universal the least), I would rank them as WDW, Disneyland, Universal, Sea World, then a huge gap followed by Six Flags. Some of the service at Magic Kingdom has been mind boggling good. That being said, you have customers that think if they yell, curse, and throw tantrums, they will get stuff for free. Once at Disneyland, I was behind a customer that ordered a coke. They gave her a coke, and she yelled at them saying she ordered a diet coke. The clerk politely said, "I am sorry, but I thought you ordered a coke." I then said, "You did order a coke." The customer was still rude, and they politely replaced it. At WDW they would have replaced it with no question, which is the best way to do it, but occasionally the punks are going to get to you. People are getting much worse. Going to the movies used to be easy. Now it is filled with people bringing young children and toddlers to R rated movies, texting, checking facebook, and talking on the phone during the movie. People now do not expect good customer service. They expect a lot of product for very little money. Seen a full service gas station lately?
From N B on August 18, 2013 at 9:25 AM
I can't speak for Disney as it has been years since we visited, but I think Universal definitely has their act together when it comes to employees, particularly at the on-site hotels.

From 71.228.49.244 on August 18, 2013 at 3:13 PM
During spring break I was able to attend Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, and Knott's. Universal was the worst experience in a theme park I had in a while. Disneyland was excellent and far better than what I remember from Walt Disney World the previous summer. Knott's employees were the average bunch I've experienced for years at Cedar Point and Michigan's Adventure (my regional parks). My experiences at Six Flag's Great America have always been below par and left an uninviting feeling for the rest of the parks in the chain.
From Max LaZebnik on August 18, 2013 at 3:46 PM
Six Flags generally has extremely underpaid employees, yet we are also paying insanely much for food and those "flash passes" that are not nearly as efficient as disney/ universal fastpasses.

I feel like Universal's had consistently good service with always funny studio tour guides and people delighted to be at work.

Disney World doesn't have the greatest service, but I really feel Disneyland's service has improved a notch since George Kalogridis became the resort's manager 5 years ago. I remember when I was a kid/ teenager around 1999-2005, I remember employees at DLR just looked so miserable at their jobs and several bad attractions opened. Since they began to rechristen DCA, I feel like employees have become more cheerful and talkative around the resort, and just two years ago had a conversation with a friendly Disneyland janitor at the smoking area by the Matterhorn.

From 71.194.68.189 on August 18, 2013 at 5:00 PM
I would have said the same, but I was leaning towards going to the better. We had a fantastic time down in Disney World and Universal Orlando. Also, SFGA has not been too bad this year.
From 64.12.116.206 on August 18, 2013 at 10:45 PM
I voted worse, but I wouldn't say it's substantially worse. The problem is that the parks are more often crowded, and the staffing is thus frequently spread too thin to give you much individual service. That's the fault of management, not the front liners.
From Michael Hudson on August 19, 2013 at 6:21 PM
My wife and I continue to enjoy our experiences at the SeaWorld parks over any of the other big parks. We live closest to Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA, but have recently been to Orlando's SeaWorld, Tampa Bay's Busch Gardens, and even Sesame Place in PA. And in all cases, we noted how you just "know" you are in a SeaWorld park because of not only how well the places are kept, but how nice and fun the employees are. And when you're trooping around 4 kids, its a pleasure to have someone interact with your kids pleasantly, even when they aren't being the best behaved. Excellent all the way around.

We've also recently been to 3 Six Flags parks recently (MD, NJ, DK in CA). DK in CA was probably the best, but its not saying much. The worst..worst...worst... customer service. The food preparers are the utmost worst. They never seem to know what they are doing, nor do they care about what you're ordering, nor do they care about how slow they are when getting you your food. Their new dining plan is almost not even worth it because of the low quality of food, and the poor service.

Recently, of the Cedar Fair parks, I've only been to Kings Dominion in VA. We plan to go to Cedar Point in the next week or so... Kings Dominion is ok with customer-service. Better than Six Flags, but not even close to Busch Gardens. But they know (just like in Six Flags America in NJ), that the draw is the extreme rides... and that for many of roller coaster fans... we'll just "deal" with the lackluster customer service as long as we can get our thrill on. Sad but true.

From 162.119.64.112 on August 20, 2013 at 2:20 PM
I've been to almost every theme park and I found Dollywood and Busch Garden in Willamsburg VA to have the best service. I was surprised how clean Busch Garden was.

Six flags has the worst that I've seen in a long time. Dirty,and trash everywhere.

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