UGH! I feel as though I just finished the annual running of the bulls at Pamplona. And I am well and truly trampled.
OK, not literally, obviously. But figuratively that's what the annual frenzy to book Epcot Food and Wine Festival events has become for me.
For those of you who don't know, every year Deb Wills and I attend a variety of the Festival events, both to report on them for the AllEars.Net website and AllEars newsletter, and because well, let’s face it, we really enjoy food and wine!
We book these events just like you do, because, you may be surprised to learn, we pay for these events ourselves. (Yes, sometimes we get an invitation to attend something as a media guest, but those occasions are in the minority, as we really do try to maintain an independent perspective when we’re reviewing, not just the Festival, but anything Disney.)
We set our alarms and dutifully call 407-WDW-FEST at precisely 7 a.m. on the designated day(s). We get the panic-inducing ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY message and go through the infuriating phone tree. We wait an inordinate amount of time on hold (a long-distance call, by the way, not a toll-free number) listening to "It's a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow" while thinking, "Yeah, maybe, but right now today really stinks."
Once we get through to a real, live human being we endure as they slowly scroll through the computer screen searching for the event that we have asked about ("Is it at 1 p.m.? I don’t see anything with that name..."). We can practically hear our chances at reserving the event whoosh past us as a hundred other guests book our coveted lunch or dinner. I often imagine myself reaching through the phone and taking over the cast member’s computer, channeling Woody in Toy Story and screaming in exasperation, "Oh, give me that! Plus is positive, minus is negative!" If by some chance an event that we request is open, we hastily recite our Disney VISA card numbers and listen impatiently to the spiel about nontransferable, nonrefundable, yada yada yada, eager to move on and book the next event.
So, I’ve just concluded the 2014 bull-running, er, booking experience. I was attempting to reserve events for two trips: one for the first weekend of the festival, for research purposes, and one personal getaway weekend in October with my husband. Yes, I was planning on spending a lot of money, and I had my Disney VISA all warmed up. But after spending 45 minutes on hold on Tuesday, I was unable to book any Festival event that I wanted, save one. Today, I wasn't even able to get past the "ALL CIRCUITS ARE BUSY" message and gave up trying after 20 minutes of speed-dialing. Fortunately Deb Wills, who somehow managed to get in the phone queue ahead of me on both days, saw my frantic emails detailing my situation and was able to book several events for me while scheduling her own. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't be attending ANY of the festival events that I wanted.
Now I'm left here wondering, just as I did last year, and every year for the last 10+ years that I've been "running with the bulls," WHY? WHY does it have to be so frantic and infuriating? Why does a company that prides itself on providing excellent customer service consistently get this wrong?
Oh, it's not that Disney hasn't tried to expedite this process. They've put a selection of events online, so that you can conveniently book them yourself at your leisure. And they have implemented several "early booking" dates for certain guests -- those with Tables in Wonderland memberships, Annual Passholders, Disney VISA card holders and residents of the Golden Oak Community. Since I qualify for three of those categories, lucky me, I can book some of these events a few days ahead of the general public. So why am I complaining? That sounds like a good solution, right?
No, what that really means is that now I can call on TWO days, wait a half-hour each time, maybe more, and find myself STILL shut out of the events that I want to attend. Yeah, lucky me.
I know that by now some of you might be saying, "What’s she complaining about? At least she can afford to go to these events -- they're too expensive for me." I know. First World Problems, as they say.
But I'm not alone. There are plenty of people who really enjoy the Food and Wine Festival and look forward to it as much as I do -- and dread the cursed "booking day" just as much, as well.
While I'm on interminable hold, feeling my normally low blood pressure skyrocketing, I'm surfing the Internet, reading message boards and Facebook. I see many folks chattering about the same thing. Some are triumphant: "I got through! And my cast member actually knew what she was doing! I got everything I wanted!" But most aren’t: "I was on hold on two phones, my cell and my home phone, for 45 minutes! By the time I got through, the reserved seating for the Walt Disney dinner was gone." "I couldn't get the tequila lunch I wanted." "The cast member couldn't find the Eat to the Beat package, and put me on hold for another 10 minutes. When he came back, he said it wasn't in the system yet! By then, everything else I wanted to book was sold out."
So what IS the answer? How can Disney avoid leaving a bad taste in so many people's mouths? And more importantly, how can we all reserve at least some of the events we want without having to go through this annual feeding frenzy?
Is the problem understaffing? Are there simply not enough cast members working at 7 a.m. on "booking morning" to handle the call volume? When I call exactly at 7 a.m. and am told that my wait time will be "more than 30 minutes," I suspect that to be the case.
Is the problem insufficient training? I recall last year when a cast member told me that he could see the event I wanted in the system, but he didn't know how to book it. How is that possible? This year, a cast member told me that he couldn't find the thing I was asking about in the system. (This actually has happened to me almost every year.) It took five full minutes before the cast member located the event. And believe me, those five minutes are precious when you're competing with hundreds of other guests for a spot at a limited seating dinner. Needless to say, by the time he found it, the event was sold out.
I can't put all the blame on the cast members handling the phones, though. Some of them are wonderful -- extremely competent and pleasant, on a day that must be awfully stressful. I'm sure it's terrifying to have thousands of calls light up your phones at 7 a.m. on Food and Wine booking day. They probably feel like they're being thrown to the wolves as they have to deal with thousands of cranky callers, some of whom are probably not as nice and patient as I try to be when hearing repeatedly, "No. Sorry. Not that one either. Sold out. Sorry." I don’t envy them at all.
I do have a few suggestions that might streamline the process. Like, if I'm calling WDW-FEST, which is presumably a phone line dedicated to festival events, why do I have to go through the usual Disney Dining phone tree? That takes up valuable time. Maybe there could be dedicated phone lines for specific events, so that people calling to reserve the Signature Dinners -- which have very limited seating and can be unbelievably pricey -- wouldn’t be competing with people wanting to book the Food and Wine pairings.
But the truth is, I don't know what the ultimate solution is. I only know that, as a consumer, this annual Food and Wine Festival frenzy is what I would call A Very Bad Customer Experience.
Still, by the time September rolls around and I'm biting into my first sample from an International Marketplace, I probably won't remember how frazzled I'm feeling at this moment. The Epcot Food and Wine Festival is truly THE event at Walt Disney World that I look forward to and enjoy the most every year, so I know that once it starts I'll get caught up in all the new tastes and experiences. I'll plunge headlong into sampling as much of the Festival as I can and will enthusiastically report on everything I experience for AllEars.Net readers. It's what I do, every year. And I love it.
It's just that until then I'm left with this "trampled by the bulls" feeling.
Good thing I have six weeks or so to recover.