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On January 23 of this year, I was enjoying the last day of my trip in the Magic Kingdom. I had just walked into the Harmony Barber Shop when I got the phone call that would change my life – my dad was in the hospital, and things were bad. The nurse was blunt – she told me that if I wanted to be there for his last few days, I had to come home now.
It’s very surreal to get that kind of news in such a happy place. I was in shock, and what’s more I had no idea what to do next. My flight wasn’t until that evening – should I try to get it moved? How did I even do that? Who did I need to notify? What was I going to do for the next few hours?
It turns out that Disney, as per usual, has a plan even for this kind of situation. I hope that you never have to deal with this, but in case you ever need to know, here are the steps I went through:
Talk to the closest Cast Member. I was in Harmony Barber Shop, and the parade was starting. My first thought was that I needed to call my sister, and I needed a quiet place to do so. The barber shop CMs were great (I’m sorry I don’t know anyone’s names – I was pretty out of it). First they offered tissues (greatly needed) and sympathy, and second their phone for any calls I needed to make. There was far too much happy noise around for talking to my sister, however, so they pointed me to my next step.
Head to Guest Services. A quick walk across the street and I was in the hands of the professionals. As soon as I explained the situation to Guest Services they ushered me behind the counter and into a private room. I had access to a phone, a computer with internet access, several boxes of tissues, comfortable chairs and couches, and — most importantly to me — privacy and quiet.
Spend time talking to family. If you’re ever alone during a family emergency, finding a quiet spot with a phone is the best thing you can do for yourself, even before you start handling details. No one knows what you’re going through like your own family. Disney was great about giving me the time I needed. They locked the door so no Cast Members would walk in accidentally and just let me have the room to myself. I was able to let my sister know what was going on and talk about arrangements with her – she reminded me of several things I would need to take care of, and we both just took some time to cry a little together. I was in there a good forty minutes to an hour, and was never disturbed.
Handle travel arrangements. When I came out of the room, there had actually been a shift change at Guest Services. I was ready to explain everything again, but I think looking at my face was really all it took to get the gist – the woman I talked to was quick to be as helpful as she could. First, the ever-present tissues. Then we talked about how I was getting home. I did have a flight later that day, but she told me airlines have emergency policies that could get me on an earlier flight – possibly even with another airline if needed. We could look up the number and handle arrangements right there. It turned out that because of the lateness of the day and the fact that I needed to pick up my sister who was also flying home, my current flight was still the best for me.
Close out your current vacation. As I was already on my last day at Disney, there wasn’t much I had to do here. The CM (whose name I really wish I could remember) asked if I had already checked out (I had) and if there was anything remaining on my tickets (I had an Annual Pass). Be sure to ask what happens here if you believe you’ll be entitled to a hotel or ticket refund.
Figure out what happens now. When we’d finished with the details, the CM asked me an important question. “What else can I help you with?” There’s always odds and ends that need to be taken care of in situations like this. In my case, I hadn’t eaten all day, and I still had an hour before I needed to leave for the airport. I decided that if I had to be alone, worried about my dad, and waiting for an hour I’d rather be in the Magic Kingdom than the Orlando Airport. So I told her thank you and that I was going to go eat something.
Here’s what she did: first she wrote up a pass for me to get $25 worth of food at any counter service. Then she put my name and address down and told me to check with Guest Services next time I was in the parks – “We’ll set something up for you – tickets, fastpasses, ice cream…hugs…” (I may have suggested the hugs.)
Of course, I would never say that this is standard policy and everyone should expect free stuff when they’re having a bad day in the parks. But I for one was very grateful for the thought, and it makes sense that Disney doesn’t want a bad day to keep you away for good. It was kind of nice, in a blurry, tear-stained kind of way, to think about coming back when things got better.
I spent an hour more in the park. I ate the same food I remember eating when my dad used to take me to Disney World as a child. I rode one of our shared favorite rides, the PeopleMover, over and over. Then I got in my car and drove to the airport to face the real world. You never want to be on the receiving end of a call like that. And I used to think it would ruin the good memories I had if I was in a place that I loved. But if I had to be by myself, out of town, and getting that news, I’m so glad it was while I was in Disney.
Sarah’s dad, Gary Blagaich, passed away on January 27, 2012 at 60 years old. He was so proud that his daughter worked for TouringPlans.com. When Sarah got to the hospital, she found that every doctor and nurse there knew exactly what she did for a living. He is greatly missed.