ORLANDO, FL–A magical Walt Disney World family vacation was ruined last weekend by the stringent policies and protocol of the Walt Disney Company.
"They call Disney World 'The Happiest Place On Earth,' but being there was oddly stressful and upsetting," said David Mahaffey, 36, a Dover, DE, insurance-claims adjuster who, along with his wife and two children, endured a four-day visit to the Orlando theme park. "Why did Disney have to ruin the Disney magic for everyone?"
Plagued by everything from park rules strictly governing conduct to wildly overpriced concessions, the Mahaffeys had hoped to lose themselves in a wonderland of fun, but were thwarted at every turn by the entertainment giant.
The Mahaffeys' dissatisfaction began soon after their arrival. Despite being in a huge, open park with dozens of attractions, the family was unable to roam freely, confronted at every turn by signs commanding them to remain on the clearly delineated brick-paved paths. This thwarted an unspoken but keenly felt sense of wanderlust in the family.
"There was a lot of gorgeous greenery, but most of it was roped off," said Amy Mahaffey, 34. "You could only leave the path if you wanted to go into a shop or café. It made me imagine some behind-the-scenes pencil pusher wanting to save the company a few bucks on sod and petunias, or to ward off potential injury lawsuits. I wanted to be a kid again, but I might as well have stayed at work."
The family also found itself put on edge by the passive-aggressive friendliness of park employees, or "cast members."
"They were always wearing these hollow, insincere, glued-on smiles, whether they were selling you a $6 croissant or strapping you into the 'It's A Small World' ride and genially ordering you to keep your hands by your sides at all times," David said. "The creepiest example was the guy outside Space Mountain who said hello to us with a big grin on his face as he was on his hands and knees cleaning up vomit."
An encounter with Mickey Mouse further deepened the family's malaise. After an awkward tour of Mickey's "Country Home," a structure with roped-off, dimly lit rooms, the Mahaffeys were led to a darkened chamber where they had a brief audience with the iconic rodent.
"Hugging Mickey was weird," said Abby Mahaffey, 8. "He didn't feel like a cartoon. He was big and scary. It was like hugging a pile of laundry. Then they took our picture, and they said we were taking too long. They said everybody gets 30 seconds with Mickey, no more."
The Mahaffeys were reluctant to return to the park on the second day, but they decided to soldier on, determined not to waste the $832 they'd spent on four $208 "Park Hopper" four-day passes.
"Jake and Abby went on a bunch more rides, but you could tell they were just going through the motions," David said. "Then Amy had to take Abby back to the hotel because she became frightened by the Country Bear Jamboree. I guess the animatronic grizzlies and the murky sound from the PA system were too much for her."
Reflecting on their vacation upon returning home Tuesday, the Mahaffeys said they wished the Walt Disney Company's definition of fun had been more consistent with their own.
"We thought a Disney family vacation meant laughter, relaxation, and release from your everyday cares," Mahaffey said. "Well, I guess we were wrong. Apparently, it means over-stimulation, the Disney logo absolutely everywhere, and $15 keychains."
Upon learning of the Mahaffeys' less-than-positive experience, Disney spokeswoman Jennifer Caldwell expressed regret.
"We endeavor to make our theme parks the ultimate in family fun, and if this was not the Mahaffeys' experience, we are deeply sorry," Caldwell said. "Perhaps we can make it up to them with four complimentary tickets to the upcoming feature film Pirates Of The Carribean, based on one of our most popular Magic Kingdom attractions. Don't miss this exciting swashbuckler, in theaters nationwide July 9."