Disney Vacation Club decided to do something a bit different this July 4th – a special 4th of July party at the Top of the World lounge at Bay Lake Tower. The cost: $99 per person (plus tax and gratuity). The reaction? Well – let’s say there was a mob of angry DVC members in the lobby of the hotel, who were not the least bit amused that they were being denied access to the lounge. You see, in years past, the TotW lounge was reserved specifically for those DVC members staying at Bay Lake Tower on special holidays (like July 4th). This was the first year DVC decided to make it a paid event, and as I said, there were A LOT of angry members.
Before I get to my thoughts on all this (and the event), let me give the facts of what was offered for the $99 charge (not including tax and gratuity).
First, this party was limited to 75 people. So, when I say this wasn’t crowded, I mean – it wasn’t crowded at all. The picture below was taken at the start of the event. Just imagine most of the chairs/tables being occupied, and that’s pretty much as ‘crowded’ as this event ever got. No standing shoulder to shoulder, no feeling of being packed in like sardines.
On offer was a small ‘buffet’ of chef-prepared dishes. A charcuterie board, truffle scented potato salad with smoked bacon, watermelon salad, lobster rolls, pork sliders, crab cakes, mac and cheese with braised short rib, tamarind chicken skewers and a variety of small desserts. Beverages included a special margarita, beer, wine, and champagne as well as soft drinks – all complimentary.
The food ranged from good to excellent. Several people commented about how good the lobster rolls were. It was a nice spread, and I wish I hadn’t had dinner before the event (we ate at Artist Point at Wilderness Lodge, and I have to admit – for the second time, it was a VERY good meal). Of course, the highlight of the night was the Magic Kingdom Fourth of July fireworks. I’ve seen them before – many times, and they were – as always- spectacular. If you don’t know, this is a special 180-degree fireworks show, that pretty much consumes the sky between the Contemporary, Grand Floridian and the Magic Kingdom.
The picture above is the view from the deck of the Top of the World lounge (and a big thanks to Jim VanOstenbridge for permission to use his photo!). This vantage point – which felt like you had a front row center seat for the show – along with the very relaxed atmosphere combined with the fact that there was no pushing or shoving to get a good view, made this THE best view I’ve ever had for a fireworks show.
So, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. DVC announced they would be doing this party with about a month’s notice, and inside of 24 hours, the event was sold out. People who had made their reservations 11 months in advance to stay at Bay Lake Tower for the express reason of being able to watch the fireworks from the lounge felt understandably blind-sided. While many of us breathlessly follow every development and announcement online, but some do not. Those people found out about this when they arrived in the lobby and saw a sign saying that the lounge was reserved for a private event. This was a massive failure of forethought and communication on DVC’s part, and that can not be denied or its impact underestimated. While the lounge was open to Bay Lake Tower guests the previous night (July 3rd), and the same fireworks show was offered, it’s still not quite the same as celebrating the 4th ON the 4th.
However (and I say this at the risk of pissing off those DVC members who were affected by this) – this event was one of the best Disney events I’ve ever attended. Accusations were made that this was a ‘money-grab’ on DVC’s part. I have to strongly disagree. Between the lounge and the patio area, this venue can hold up to 500 people. Only 75 tickets were sold because they couldn’t guarantee the weather, and they didn’t want 425 people left standing out in the rain. You don’t think about things like that when you’re doing a money-grab. You try and sell as many tickets as you can and you don’t care about the experience. You need to look no further than Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Oversold Overcrowded Halloween Party for a classic example of a Disney money-grab.
The executives I spoke with openly admitted they dropped the ball when it came to communication with members (especially those with reservations) regarding this event. I was told that in the future, emails will be sent to those with reservations at Bay Lake Tower advising them of any special event and giving them the first opportunity to purchase tickets. I was told that one reason for doing this was the numerous complaints they were receiving about how crowded the space was during special events.
The narrative that DVC doesn’t care about its guests is an easy trap to fall into. More than most, I have been a vocal critic of Disney’s constant decline in customer service over the years. I admit I’ve only been a member for a very short time, so my perspective is based solely on my recent experiences, but in all honesty – I do not see that when I look at DVC. I’ve attended three events since joining – Moonlight Magic at Epcot in May, the Mother’s Day Brunch at the Contemporary, and this event. All three had several things in common – they were not ‘oversold’ or overpriced (in the case of Moonlight Magic, there is no charge), the quality of the product/food was outstanding, the service was superb and I walked away from each one feeling very happy I was a DVC member. There was also a feeling that they appreciated the membership. As I said, I’m a new member – but I’m also someone who has been covering and following Disney professionally for 22 years. I’ve done MANY special events in that time, and I’ve experienced MANY up-charged events in that time. None of them – NOT ONE – has stood out when compared with the three DVC events I’ve experienced.
The 4th of July event at TotW certainly meets that standard. It was relaxed, elegant, and the service was superb. Darlene Cipriano (who is the Proprietor of The Wave restaurant), along with Diane Petit (the Contemporary Resorts General Manager) were on hand serving champagne, and making sure all the guests were enjoying themselves. As a side note, when I left the Contemporary and went to valet to get my car, Diane was there helping out. Let that sink in for a second – the GM of the Contemporary was hands on helping valet. I’d never met Diane before last night and I can only hope her next stop is the Grand Floridian to give that bus wreck a much-needed infusion of leadership.
While I understand the frustration and concerns of DVC members who were blind-sided by this, I think with some adjustments in communication, I’m hoping that we see more events like this, not fewer.