When The Worst Happens: Getting Bad News In Walt Disney World

by on February 23, 2012 48 Comments

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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.

My dad, my sister and I on Splash Mountain

My dad loved Splash Mountain. I'm on the left, my sister on the right.

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.

Posted on February 23, 2012

48 Responses to “When The Worst Happens: Getting Bad News In Walt Disney World”

  • Very timely reading for me. My father passed away just two days ago. My 23 year old daughter and I have a long planned trip to WDW scheduled for this Sunday to celebrate some major successes after a some pretty low times. My first impulse was to cancel the trip, but everyone has convinced me that my dad would have wanted me to go and to have the celebration with my daughter. So, we will have his funeral on Saturday and Sunday we will be on a 7 a.m. flight to the one place on earth I know will help start to heal my soul.

    • Sorry to hear about your father. Hope the magic at WDW can help. X

    • Becky, I’m very sorry for your loss. I hope that you find some comfort in WDW- they are wonderful at knowing when a guest needs a little extra TLC

    • Becky, I’m sorry, too, about your father. Don’t feel guilty for having fun. I imagine he would feel awful if he thought you cancelled your trip because of him.

      • Becky, I know this is a month after your post, but I know the pain is still there. I just read it and want you to know I’m thinking about you. I will pray for you through this incredibly hard time.

  • A very moving story. Disney Castmembers were wonderful to us when our son was stung by a bee. Far from your experience but the “love” and “care” the castmembers offer to guests who are hurting is part of the magic we love about visiting the parks.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss, Sarah. I’m sure it made him very happy to know that you were in a safe and supportive place when you learned of his hospitalization. It sounds like he was incredibly proud of the work that you do. Thank you so much for sharing this information with others who might encounter a similar situation.

  • Thank you for sharing this information with us, Sarah. I am so very sorry for your loss.

  • Thanks for taking a moment to share this story, Sarah. My prayers are with your family. Your family sounds wonderful. I have a parent in hospice and we hesitate to make plans sometimes, too. Now I know what to expect if we need support.

  • Thank you for sharing this story. What a nice photo too; sounds like he was an awesome dad.

  • Sarah, I’m so sorry about your father. The picture of you on Splash Mountain is great. He looks like he was a really fun guy. I’m sure it was difficult to share this story but it’s great to know that there is help available if you need it.

  • by Jeffrey Lipack on February 23, 2012, at 8:57 pm EST

    I’m sorry for your loss Sarah.

  • I am so sorry! Thank you for writing this. And what a fantastic photo of your dad. He sounds like he was a great guy. (hugs)

  • I am so sorry for your lost. My hubby always has to think of bad things happening, i just say if something bad does happen what better place to be then wdw. Thank you for sharing cause my first response would be to leave the park, not talk to a cm. Hope i never need this information., but glad to know what to do. Wdw Cm are the best. They really do go the extra step.

  • by Jackie Horvath on February 23, 2012, at 9:02 pm EST

    Sarah – My sincere condolences on the loss of your dear father. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Hey Sarah….So sorry to hear about your Dad….Thank you for sharing some very valuable information because we are all numb from news when we get it…This will give us all a plan should we ever need it…I don’t even think I would have thought to go to a cast member for assistance during this situation. Thank you again for sharing!

  • by Kathleen McIntyre on February 23, 2012, at 9:11 pm EST

    I am so sorry for your loss. I lost my (wonderful) dad too and he, like your dad, was only 60. It has been over 16 years and I still miss him and think of him almost every day, but the happy life that he (and my) mom provided for my sister and me have allowed me to move forward and find great happiness.

  • sarah, we share something in common. two years ago, i rec’d the same phone call about my father…only i was in epcot. and i did not make it home. thanks for sharing your experience.

  • Thank you for sharing the information. It must be tough. Sympathy to you & the family.

  • The Touring Plan team always shares a ton of insight and I am always grateful for having found them. Thank you for sharing a very personal and precious part of your life. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family.

  • The picture you shared is the best. My condolences on the loss of your father.

  • First, I am sorry for your loss. Second, I am so glad that you had the excellent experience that you did with the CM during such a heart wrenching and stressful life event.
    While it was not anywhere close to the level of loss that you experienced, I got a call from my father when I was at the Magic Kingdom to let me know that my former stepmother had passed. We had not remained close after the divorce, but I still felt the pain of the loss in not ever having the chance to see her again. It pretty much killed my day. I went back to my room and made a bunch of calls to relatives to find out what I should do. It was decided that it was ok for me to stay and enjoy the rest of my trip. I decided to write a note and send it to heaven on a big ole Mickey balloon as my own closure while I was there.

  • So sorry for your loss!! And what an adorable picture! My thoughts & prayers are with you & your family.

  • So sorry for your loss. I love the picture of your dad doing the bunny ears! I hope I’m like that at that age, still going on Splash and having a great time! May he rest in peace.

  • this was an absolutely moving story.. thank you so much for sharing..

  • Although I wasn’t at Disney to receive bad news, we did experience a great loss last year before our trip. My family had scrimped and saved to take a trip to Disney last June. My beloved father in law fell in in April and passed away in late May. We knew we still needed to go for our children’s sake but we didn’t want to leave our mother in law. We asked her if she’d go with us (told her we’d pay!) and she agreed. So that night, one night before our trip, I got on the phone with Disney and got the most amazing CM EVER. He got my MIL in a room right next to us a POP, made all of the arrangements and even choked up a little bit right along with me. I will FOREVER be grateful for that CM for helping me through this and seeing that our whole family could be together even at a time of terrible loss.

  • I’m so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing a very difficult time with us. I love that picture – the expression on his face (and yours) is priceless!

  • Losing your father sucks. I’m so glad you got to see him before he passed and in the weeks and months to come when the sadness becomes great, just think about how great a man and father he was and what traits of his that you have, and you’ll realize that a part of him is always a part of you.

    We too were in Epcot during the 2nd day of an 8 day trip when my sister called with “dad is dying”. However I’d gotten that call from her several times in the past, but this one seemed more dire. I was ready to rebook flights, but my husband said let’s just play it day by day and have your sister update us if things change. Things did change for the better, so we were able to enjoy the rest of that trip. It was the beginning of the end though and he passed away 5 months later while I was in Las Vegas. It really was key having people around to help and hug. Due to an airline meltdown all flights that day were booked and I couldn’t get out until the next day. I wish you hugs over the Internet!

  • I was at Disneyland with my three-year-old (at the time daughter). She managed to get sick all over herself and I did not have a change of clothes (it was a day trip). She was messy enough that I couldn’t get her through the nearest clothes store without her rubbing against and touching their clothes, so I called to the nearest cast member and explained my predicament. I asked him if he could grab something in her size and bring it to me at the door so as not to disturb the other guests. He brought me a complete outfit (pants, shirt, underwear, socks) – value was about $60 total – and told me that there was no charge per the manager. I thanked them profusely, went to a nearby “parenting room” to clean her up (I was the only dad in a den of moms with kids), and got her set. We had annual passes, so we were free to go home and not feel like we had missed anything. Disney made the best of a difficult situation for me and I was and remain so grateful that I happily pay the often somewhat pricey fee to buy things, confident that some small portion goes toward others in my situation. Well handled, Disney!

  • I am so sorry for your loss and am so happy the CM’s took care of you.

    I do want to share so people know there can be another side to a similar situation. When I was at MK (same place as you) sitting eating breakfast and looking at the castle I too got a life threatening phone call from my mother back home that my younger brother was just taken into emergency brain surgery due to a blood clot. That was on our last full day but we were leaving the next day. I sadly did not find any comfort from the CM’s.

    I did not know what to do and as I am sure you experienced you kind of go into space cadet mode and don’t know what to do or think. After that phone call my son and I walked out of the park with me crying and not knowing what to do. We sat on one of the benches out front as I sat and realized that as my mother said there was nothing I could do for him so I should just stay there and she would keep me updated.

    Anyway, I decided not to scare my son anymore and asked what he thought we should do and he said lets go back and ride a ride for Uncle. So we went back inside MK and in my confusion I used a one day ticket for both of us that I was supposed to save instead of our last day on a 10 day ticket we used that trip. I went to guest services and explained the situation and why I was confused and was told they were sorry about my situation and that they could help me at Pop Century where I was staying. So when we went back to Pop I went to guest services there and explained the situation to a man who was obviously not having a good day and he curtly told me there was nothing that he could do for me and instantly called for the next person. I stood there and just started sobbing since everything that happened just came to a head. He kept telling me I needed to leave so another CM went to get management who told me they were so sorry about all that happened but there was nothing they could do for me. So that was basically the end of a very sad day at MK for me and my experience with some not so helpful CM’s. I am very glad to hear that there can be helpful CM’s in that situation however.

    My brother did make it through surgery in the end but it was a long recovery for him and sadly he passed away a few years later. One good thing is that when I look at the castle now I think of my brother every time in a good way remembering his smiling face.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience, and my condolences on your loss. The photo is wonderful — he looks like a man who loved having fun. 🙂

    When my husband and I were on our honeymoon, my father-in-law was suffering brain cancer; he had not been able to attend our wedding, and we had debated whether to even take the honeymoon. But we did, fearing that we’d get the call you got. We didn’t; he passed several weeks later. Now with our 3 living parents all of advanced age and facing various health concerns, it’s reassuring to know that if the worst should happen while we’re at WDW, we will be in kind and caring hands.

  • What a sad, yet comforting, story. Disney is all about caring and it touches my heart that what I feel to be true about them is actually so. I am very sorry about the loss of your dear father, and will offer prayers up for your family, as you get used to life here without him.

  • Wow what a moving story. I laughed and cried, your Dad looked so happy in the photo and your account of how Disney helped you was incredibly moving. Thank you for sharing this, I can’t imagine how hard that day and the days to follow were for you and your family.

  • Sarah,
    I am so very sorry for your loss. My Dad passed away unexpectedly this summer, a month before our planned WDW vacation. My husband and I chose to keep our reservations because of our children and went ahead with the trip even though no one’s hearts were into it. There were many tears while there, but also many good memories of my Dad at WDW to comfort us, and cast members seemed intuitive about going that extra mile despite us never saying a word. Your picture of your Dad is wonderful- my Dad also loved Splash Mountain so we gave his big “thumbs up” sign on each ride, just like he would have. I’m sure your post will help someone else during such a difficult time- my thoughts are with you.

  • This article brought back some powerful memories for me. I was at WDW around Christmas back in 1998. Since it was the pre-cellphone era for me, I called my home answering machine to hear a panicked message from my aunt telling my my mother was in the hospital after a stroke and not expected to make it. She left no details not even the name of the hospital. So here I was in Florida and had to get back to Arizona. I had the presence of mind to call the airline who helped me get on the next flight. After that I talked to the hotel staff (I was staying at the old Institute (now SSR). The staff was more than willing to help me if I needed it with airlines and things. I was staying on a vacation package, but they were able to prorate the package and give me a refund for my unused days. It was the little things like that which I appreciated during that very difficult time in my life. I was able to make it home and find my mother and see her before she passed later that week.

  • I am so sorry for your loss. I know what it’s like to lose your father.

  • My sincere sympathies on the loss of your father. I lost both my parents over the last six months. The photo you posted is priceless and is a great reminder of your father’s spirit!

    This is a good opportunity to highly recommend travel insurance (Disney’s or other).

    A friend of mine recently declared that she had no interest in visiting Disney because it is expensive, crowded, mind-controlling, whatever… but I can’t think of any other entertainment destination where you would be treated with such care (random CM’s excluded).

  • I think it is a tribute to your upbringing that you took this difficult and personal experience and shared it with others so that their lives may be better. It looks like your father did a good job =). My condolences to you and your sister on your loss.

  • A heartfelt so sorry for your loss…my thoughts and sympathies go out to you and your family. Thank you for sharing your story albeit a painful one. It brought things into perspective and you are very brave.

  • Sarah, I am so sorry for your loss, but thank you so much for sharing your experience with us.

  • I’m sorry to hear about your loss.

    Last year I was in Barcelona when my mother contracted MRSA and had to have emergency surgery. I’m thankful that I didn’t truely understand how bad she was (my family toned down the message to me). It was still very stressful knowing that my Mom was sick and had had emergency surgery while I was on the other side of the world and I needed to sit on a 8 hour flight home.

  • Sorry for your loss. My Dad passed away after battling cancer for 20 months on the 3rd day of our week long Disney Vacation (January 30, 2012- he was only 57.) We had decided to go ahead and go, figuring we would do better celebrating his life in such a fun place and remembering the fun times I’d had with him as a little girl, when he first took me.

    Our phone call came early in the morning and woke my 4 boys (all under age 6) early for the day. It was kind of surreal for me and I did spend a fair amount of time sitting on benches in Epcot crying while one of my little ones napped on my lap.

    Our only issue was getting myself and my husband home for the funeral without too much unnecessary interruption of fun for my in-laws and little ones. The flight was expensive and the airline was totally un-accomodating AND we just found out that they charged us twice for our tickets too, so we get to wait a month to be reimbursed. (Don’t fly US Airways if you can help it?)

    Glad to know Disney is so helpful in such situations and in the future, I’ll remember to talk to the Cast Members whenever we have ANY troubles… though hopefully, they’ll be minor compared to the most recent one.

  • Wow. I am so sorry. xx

  • Thank you for sharing your story. It’s nice to hear the CM’s were so kind to you. My dad doesn’t come with us to Disneyland anymore, but my favorite memories are with him taking me on a lot of my first rides, especially Splash Mountain, where he gladly waited in line with me for 3 hours when it opened.

  • I am so sorry to hear about your loss. Great to hear how wonderful Disney was to you, and I hope you have many more visits with many more cherished memories.

  • May your father’s memory be a blessing. Treasure the memories…and from that photo from Splash Mountain, it seems that there were a lot of good ones. Thank you for helping your readers prepare for the unexpected.

  • I am so sorry for your loss. Thank you for sharing that information with us. I hope to never need it, but I am grateful to know about it

  • I just wanted to say that I am so sorry for your loss.I lost my dad at age 61.I am sending prayers and hugs whenever you need them.Your dad would be very proud of you.