Disney World starts banning third-party tour guides

Disney World starts banning third-party tour guides

In the 15 years she has worked as a Disney travel planner and tour operator, Melinda Hanks has built a host of ways to keep her youngest clients enchanted while they explore Disney World.

She carries plastic jewels in her black fanny pack, ready to be thrown in the air once Ariel starts showing off her treasure-filled grotto on the “The Little Mermaid” ride at Magic Kingdom. And with fake cobwebs all over her blond hair, Hanks has kids convinced she tussled with a ghost at the Haunted Mansion.

Hanks has worked with hundreds of families through her third-party tour and planning company Create a Dream, organizing their Genie Plus line-cutting service and escorting them around restaurants and rides. She has carried infants on their first trip to Animal Kingdom, then watched them come back for years. Some got married and eventually brought their own children. So, when Hanks was issued a trespassing order on Oct. 2 that prohibited her from reentering Disney World, she feared losing those connections.

In recent months, Disney has begun cracking down on independent guides such as Hanks who have made a living by helping visitors navigate the Florida parks, as Insider first reported. The Washington Post spoke to eight third-party tour operators and company owners who have received trespassing orders at Disney World; they said they know of dozens more guides who have received the same. This has left operators looking for new jobs, moving out of Florida and adjusting their business models to focus on non-Disney tour operations.

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Disney said in an emailed statement that it is taking additional steps to enforce its rules that prohibit commercial activities, such as tours provided by third-party operators, because of a “significant increase in these rule violations.” It said some operators have sold unauthorized Disney services, including in-park offerings such as Genie Plus line-cutting services, the Disability Access Service, and the park’s dining and lodging reservations.

“When this activity happens, it impacts the experience of other guests following the rules — including our guests with disabilities — and impedes our theme park operations,” a spokesperson wrote. “Just like Starbucks would not permit a third party to come into their stores to sell coffee to their customers, Disney does not permit unauthorized commercial activities in its theme parks.”

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Third-party tour operators say they have worked for years — sometimes decades — in the Florida parks without issue, despite not having a formal agreement with Disney. As parks have become more complex, visitors rely on guides to design itineraries, coordinate line-cutting tickets, arrange accommodations and escort visitors, often at a lower cost than Disney’s tours.

“No one ever thought this would happen,” said Alayna Crutchfield, who owns Elevate Amusement. “We would like a seat at the table. They’ve really knocked out every bit of ability that we have to fight this.”

Many third-party operators who spoke to The Post found out they were banned while trying to enter the parks, either on their personal vacations or with clients.

Hanks was waiting in line to enter the park to meet her clients, who were inside. When her annual pass wristband turned blue, meaning entry to the park was denied, she texted that she was delayed. That delay would take several hours at guest services, where she was eventually told to leave the park.

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“I’m not some criminal,” Hanks recalls telling security officers as she pleaded with them to reconsider the ban. She moved to Orlando from Wisconsin with her husband and family to be closer to Disney World, which she has been visiting since she was a child. Her sons celebrate their birthdays at the parks; she and her husband do the same for their wedding anniversary.

“Disney is everything to me. It’s my entire life,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

Crutchfield, who worked as a personal assistant and nanny through her company, said she was in line with a friend on Oct. 5 when her wristband turned blue. She was prompted to go to guest services, where she said she was met by several Disney managers, including security personnel, and officers from the Orange County Sheriff’s Office. She was told that she would be banned from the park for at least a year because of her previous employment at another third-party service, Stone Vacation Services.

An Orange County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said in an email that trespass orders are issued at the discretion of the property owner. Once it’s determined that the person or company requesting the trespassing order has the authority to do so, the standard procedure is to issue a warning. Failure to comply can lead to additional law enforcement measures.

“We don’t inquire about someone’s occupation, reasons why the person is on the property or any ancillary information,” the spokesperson said.

The ban extends to all Walt Disney World properties, including “Theme Parks, Water Parks Resorts and Disney Springs,” according to the trespassing notices. Tour operators said they haven’t heard of trespassing orders being issued at Disneyland in California.

After contacting Disney in hopes of lifting the ban, Crutchfield received a notice in the mail, dated Oct. 23, that she could appeal to lift the ban in a year.

“We reviewed your request and the information concerning the conduct that resulted in the trespass being issued against you. Regrettably, we decline to lift the trespass at this time,” the letter from Walt Disney World security vice president Linda Reid said.

Similar letters have been sent to operators who have attempted to appeal their cases. Crutchfield feels as if Disney has treated her and other tour guides like “criminals.”

Several operators are looking into potential legal options to lift their trespassing orders, but they have said that the annual pass contract waives their right to file a lawsuit.

Tour services at a lower cost

Tour operators say their clients might use third-party services because they are often cheaper than Disney’s private tour rates, which range between $450 to $900 per hour, depending on the season. Most third-party services typically range between $150 to $300, depending on packages and companies, according to Rachel Ratliff, who has worked as a third-party operator for the past two years.

Disney fans have complained that Disney World has become increasingly complicated and expensive in recent years, with ticket prices rising and extra fees for services that were once free. Now visitors turn to webinars, message board communities and guides to figure out how to navigate the parks.

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When Murray Krasnoff founded Suntastic Service in 1997, he said, he remembers being one of the few third-party operators offering services in Disney World to families who needed help navigating the parks. Over the next 13 years, the 56-year-old would see hundreds launch their own companies and each evolve into their own area of expertise.

Independent guides are an option for those who need more personalized attention, such as visitors with disabilities or health conditions or senior citizens. In 2013, Disney tightened the rules for its program that allowed visitors with disabilities to bypass ride lines, after several reports of able-bodied people abusing the program.

Ratliff said she has acted as a caretaker in her role, carrying strollers and bags, taking care of small children while their older siblings ride roller coasters and shepherding families through crowds.

“We’re a much-needed service for these families,” she said.

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Providing tours was Ratliff’s main source of income, coupled with a part-time job as a real estate agent. Now she has taken extra shifts as a part-time sales associate at Target while looking for hospitality jobs.

Crutchfield has since had to close her business and accepted a job as an administrative assistant at a real estate company in Little Rock, but she was torn over having to leave Orlando, her hometown. Hanks said that some days she has made peace with Disney’s call but feels anxiety about having to reroute her livelihood in a matter of weeks.

“It almost just feels like this was taken away from us,” she said. “I love Disney. I want to work with Disney.”

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