You've been waiting for this (thanks for the supportive comments and emails!), so here it is, the final installment in my most critical review ever. I think I took so long getting to it because I honestly dislike having to give negative feedback. I prefer working through the issues; almost all the people I deal with are responsive; they make it clear that their top priority is customer satisfaction.
Our team divided into two groups--the disappointed, exhausted and totally fed-up segment, and the other made up of college/high-school kids young enough to still be energetic after a 2.5-hour drive over and 5 hours of waiting in line for sub-par entertainment. Obviously, I was not in the bright-eyed, optimistic, we're-going-to-keep-trying-because-things-can-only-get-better-right?! group.
I headed to the front of the park with my team, to speak with Guest Services.
I am, as I've said, very familiar with the park. I know what guest services does, I've known people that have worked there in the past, and I know the kind of people companies look for when they hire "guest relations" specialists: professional, enthusiastic about the company, terminally cheerful and perpetually helpful types.
And this makes sense, because guest services is usually the last place a customer goes before leaving the park, the place you go to when you have a problem. No business--especially no entertainment-themed business!--wants the last person their customer is going to speak with leaving them with a bad impression of that business.
And as we've learned from the power of positive public relations and social media, word-of-mouth counts for a lot. A good reputation is imperative to be successful in this economy. So, by necessity, these, the guest service representatives, are there to try to de-escalate conflict, calm down angry patrons, soothe ruffled feathers and resolve problems.
If you are a guest, then, you should leave Busch Gardens, and in this case Howl-O-Scream, feeling like someone heard what you said, listened and responded to your complaints, and cared about setting things right. And that, by extension, the business is a caring, customer-service oriented company.
But someone completely screwed THAT up during the last hiring phase, because the women working guest relations for Howl-O-Scream that night? They could not have cared less about their job and their customers, and it showed.
They were talking to each other when I came up, and both looked like they could not be more bored without actually sticking earplugs in their ears and texting on their smart phones. I felt like I was intruding on their space just by addressing them.
I later determined their names were Jonell, who I spoke with directly and Sandra, who sat to Jonelle's right.
try to be professional and not resort to general whining or bitching when I do have complaints, and since I had plenty of time while waiting at the Gwazi ride, I'd taken very specific notes.
I started off by saying that I had some complaints about HOS, and asked if they were the appropriate people to speak to about this, and they indicated that yes, they were.
I explained that I had been to HOS before, always had a great time, came back this year to find it had not lived up to past standards in many ways, and I was very disappointed with my experience.
I jumped into my narrative, and brought out my extremely specific complaints.
First, the wait times were outrageous.
They interrupted me to point out that I could have bought a VIP, front-of-the-line ticket, which was true. I indicated that this had never been an issue before--wait times might be long but we'd always been able to go to all the houses in the allotted time.
They said that tonight was a busy night. Dryly, I agreed that it was incredibly busy, and I'd never had to park so far before during HOS. Still, shouldn't attendees have the expectation that the basic ticket would let us do the basic offerings of HOS? Just the haunted houses, if not the Club Zero nightclub or the rides? Or did you have to buy the VIP ticket to see everything?
They said no, but it was a good idea if you wanted to get through everything. Jonell also volunteered that next weekend was supposed to be even busier than this weekend, and everyone better'd get a front-of-the-line pass then.
That attitude, by the way, bothers me. Why even SELL a basic ticket if you have to upgrade to see everything?!
I was struck that neither one still had not asked for any information from me like my name, offered me a complaint form to fill out, asked for a phone number or contact information. Nothing. I asked them if they would like this information from me, and they said no. I mentioned that I thought this was unusual, and if maybe there was a form they could give me to write down my complaints? No, no need. They assured me that they were the people I needed to speak to.
So I went on, sure that as I kept going they'd see there were many reasons why I was so disappointed.
I explained that Nevermore was CLOSED (no explanation or estimated opening time given, vague "come back later"), with no warning, and we'd really wanted to see that one.
We went into Vampire Casino, and had an 1 hour 28 minute wait (I had the specific times to verify this), but we had no idea the line was that long going in, because it snaked around so much and the whole thing wasn't visible from the sign, and anyway there was no indication of the wait time on the sign in the first place--
At this point, I was interrupted, and Jonell said that I was wrong. Not, "I'm sorry, Ma'am, but are you aware...."
But, "Yes, the wait time is posted on all the Haunted House signs." Period.
No, I reiterated, it isn't. I went back and checked after Vampire Casino especially, because the wait was so long.
No. Wait Time. Posted. Period.
At this point, Jonell changed position. Not to, "I'm sorry, they should be posted," though!
No, now she went from saying the wait time was on the sign to, "Well, there is an app for your phone that tells you the wait times. And it is updated in real time! So then you would know." And Sandra backed her up on this.
Well, that MIGHT have made me feel sheepish, if I was just a non-tech-savvy parent. And I'm pretty sure that was the intention, to put me on the defensive. Which is NOT how this is supposed to work. I'm a "guest", remember?
But I'm just savvy enough that I had actually checked into that, and I wasn't sheepish at all, because I KNEW there was no such app linked on the HOS website.
Also, I was getting pissed at the attitude. 'Argumentative' is the word I would use to describe their response.
Just in case there was some misunderstanding, though, I politely inquired how one would get this app with the line wait times? They said it was on the HOS site.
I had ALSO checked the HOS mobile site on my iPhone (while waiting in that 1 1/2 hour line!), so I asked if they could show me where the link was, because I sure didn't see it anywhere when I looked on my phone.
Jonell and Sandra let me know that they weren't really into all that technology themselves, but they knew there was an app for that. It must be on the HOS main site, not the mobile one, they said.
While noting that it was not very practical to have a phone app that you couldn't get to with your phone, I was also able to tell them confidently that NO, there was no app linked to on the HOS main site. I knew, you see, because I had checked out the website thoroughly the day before when I purchased our tickets online. No app. Oh, and I follow the HOS Insider Twitter feed, I've been to the HOS Facebook page. No app there.
They shrugged, said I must have missed it. They were firm.
No. I checked out ALL the links. I was firmer.
Again, the stance was that I was just plain WRONG. Sandra said that maybe the app was in the, the what-do-you-call-it, the place where you go to buy stuff for iphones? From the commercials?
iTunes, I said, or the App store?
Yes, that was it.
I pointed out that there was no sense having an app anywhere if no one knew of its existence. How would anyone know to go to the app store if it had never been advertised or linked from their site?
Again, Jonell and Sandra said they weren't responsible for updating the wait times, and that wasn't their department. But there was an app. They were adamant about that. And people used it, so it was available.
Still no apology. This was getting old. I was losing faith in the system. I AGAIN asked if they wanted my contact info or if there was, please, an official form I could fill out. They assured me, they were "taking notes".
But I went on, to talk about how there were no entertainers in the park from the Moroccan Theatre, in the left side entrance, through Timbuktu, Congo, Stanleyville, and the old Bird Gardens, all the way to the entrance of the Gwazi roller coaster--we had spent hours trudging through the park, seeing nothing. No werewolves, no zombies, no vampires.
They said that there were lots of entertainers in the park, and it was a shame, but I must have just missed them while they were on break or something.
I'm sure they could hear my incredulity in my voice when I asked if they were seriously suggesting that the entertainers were on break in the PERFECT SEQUENCE for us to keep JUST missing them for FOUR STRAIGHT HOURS?!
I had actual times on my phone to show them that yes, that was how long we had gone without seeing anyone: 7:30 pm until 11:26 pm.
Pretty much just shrugs from Jonell. Sandra looked like she would rather be somewhere else at this point.
I mentioned that in the past few years, they'd had both scare zones and wandering performers, and this year we'd only seen them in two locations in the park. Why was that? Jonell said that was a decision they'd made this year, to go in a different direction, but she didn't know why. Fair enough.
I kept going, mentioning that my party of 7 had been charged $3 for each bottle of water we bought, bottles that sold for $2.50 everywhere else, while we waited in that 1 1/2 hour line, and that I felt this was extortionate. They assured me this wasn't the policy and that someone would look into it.
I AGAIN asked if they wanted my contact info, and if they were actually going to do anything with the specific complaints I was giving them.
Sandra again assured me she was "taking notes".
ON HER ONE LITTLE YELLOW POST-IT!
You can see by the length of this post that I had given more information already than would fit on that thing.
No, they didn't. How I was supposed to know if anything was going to get resolved, I couldn't tell you. The .50 sense per bottle was a little thing, too, but obviously they weren't concerned with actually reimbursing me for those, as they still had no clue who I was.
Jonell, at this point obviously just wanting me gone, said, "So, what do you want, you want to come back another night?"
I want to be clear that it was phrased in a very dismissive way. This was not an apology at all. I would have said something like, "I'm sorry for the inconvenience, and I can see your night didn't go at all the way you expected. I can assure you that what you experienced is NOT our typical guest's experience with HOS. How can we set this right? Would your party like to come back another night instead?"
But that's not how it was phrased. Plus, there was only weekend left of HOS. AND, the offer, such as it was, sure sounded like it only applied to me and not my whole party. Remember, they hadn't asked for any names at all.
So I said, honestly, "Well, if it is only going to be more crowded next week, I can't see why I would want to come back, can you?"
So now we are at an impasse. I then made the point that, although I was here just as a guest and not attending an official press function, I was actually a credentialed member of the press (I just got my press pass the other day, actually. Yay!), and I was going to write a review of HOS, which I had always recommended before, but was NOT going to this year, and did they have anything they would like to say to that? Any official statement?
No, they did not, that was "not our job." Fine, then who would I speak to?
If I wanted to get an official statement from someone, I pushed on, how would I do that?
At this point, Jonelle pulled out an Incident Report form, and suggested that I fill it out. She said someone would get back to me if I did that.
Hey, look, a FORM FOR ME TO FILL OUT! To someone who would actually ADDRESS my concerns and GET BACK TO ME!
Like I had requested.
Which, naturally, I pointed out.
How come, I said, I asked, several times in fact, if they wanted my contact info and if there was a form I could fill out, and each time they'd said no, until NOW?
Jonelle said, "We don't usually give these out."
But...but it was an Incident Report! For official reporting of Incidents! Why didn't they give it to me before?
Because, and again she was clear on this, they don't give them out. We do not give out Incident Reports.
But..but now you are giving me one?
Yes, because you said you were from the press, and you made it "all official."
What? Does that make sense to any of you? It didn't to me.
But just to hammer it home, I said, "So, if I weren't asking you as a member of the press, you would not give this form to me?"
"So you don't let guests fill out Incident Reports AT ALL?
Okay, do I have to explain how disturbing this is? If you are a guest looking for some kind of recourse, you have to rely on people like Jonelle and Carla faithfully reporting your complaints. Even though they don't take down your name or contact information!
That bothers me on a couple levels, because I know that large amusement parks, like Universal and Disney and yes, Busch Gardens, are on an honor system of sorts. You see, they are required report, every quarter, injuries and problems with rides, for example, to state authorities. This is different from small, mobile carnival rides, which are subject to inspection. The big parks are expected to self-police.
I went searching through the archives of places like the Florida Bureau of Fair Safety, Theme Park Insider, past articles of the Orlando Sentinel and Tampa Bay Online and found that for the last few quarters, Busch Gardens has reported no incidents at all. Since incidents that are required to be reported are serious injuries requiring at least an overnight hospital stay (though parks like Disney report even minor issues), this could just mean that Busch Gardens is a really safe park to visit. I just wish it wasn't so hard to find actual hard data to back that up!
I took the Incident Report form, and noted contact information on the top of the form for the VP of Operations, . I told Jonelle and Carla I planned to take the form with me, fill it out and send it to that person.
But of course that is not the end of it!
First off, I found out from the other half of our team that they stayed until ~1:30 in the morning, and in that time they were unable to ride a single ride or get into a single haunted house.
So, another hour plus more didn't do any good, either.
First thing Monday morning, which was the soonest I was told anyone would be there to man the phones, I called the number I'd been given.
No answer at that number; I tried twice. Interestingly enough, the name on the voicemail was not Sarah but Maggie. I left a voice mail at 11:32 a.m.
Then I found the number above 'Contact Us' form on the Busch Gardens Tampa website in the meantime, called it and was connected with Sue.
I asked Sue if she was the right person to speak to about complaints with HOS (I always like to start this way, so I don't waste anyone's time, mine OR theirs), was assured she was, and not to bore you with all the details, went over all the above issues, along with, Jonell's and Sandra's reactions to them.
Sue had these things to say:
Sue repeated that Saturday, the night we went to Howl-O-Scream, was a very busy one, and that the park was expecting even higher crowds next weekend.
Sue also said, though, that she had attended HOS and been able to visit every Haunted House.
I asked if she attended the night I did; nope, the very first Preview Thursday, back in September.
I asked if she had a front-of-the-line pass, and she said, well yes.
So, that's really comparing apples to oranges. I am really thinking that when I DO get invited, as I often do, to press-oriented events, I need to keep in mind that my experience there will be different than the average guest's.
If I went to the front of every line during the HOS Preview (or got free tickets; HOS in Williamsburg was giving them away on Twitter!) and breezed through all the Haunted Houses, like Sue did, I'd probably think HOS was fantastic.
I would have given you all a really positive review--and I'd feel really bad about that, in light of knowing what HOS actually was like on a typical, non-preview night.
A thought occurred to me, and I asked Sue if they were worried that the park would reach capacity during HOS and they would actually have to turn guests away, due to fire safety regulations?
Sue said she was sure the park was nowhere near capacity for HOS and would not be next weekend--however, park capacity is NOT given out to the public.
This is just "Park Policy".
Although actually it appears to be just a Busch Gardens, Tampa park policy.
The Busch Gardens in Williamsburg is MUCH more open, with a constantly updating Twitter stream that not only reports attendance at their HOS events on Twitter stream, but also when the park closed down due to reaching park capacity because of the HOS attendance.
Just like I said they should! Seriously, this is simple stuff. I am starting to think maybe the Tampa park just needs to hire more people who know what they are doing.
Be responsive to your guests. Doh. Social Media 101, just posting updates to Twitter. I could do that. Maybe I should apply? ; )
So, did they even know how many people were in the Tampa park for HOS? I asked Sue, and she explained that every ticket has a bar code and every attendee goes through the turnstile, where that barcode is read, so yes, they know exactly how many people attended HOS!
So obviously I asked what the attendance was for the night I was there, and Sue didn't know. Someone tracked that, but it wasn't her. But again, she stressed, she was sure they did not reach park capacity or the park would be closed.
What were the procedures for closing the park? She didn't know that either.
I asked if there was a limit for the front-of-the-line or VIP options, because the wait times were so long. If nearly everyone had front-of-the-line, that defeated the purpose, really. It would slow the lines down for everyone, right? Sue felt that the front line privileges might be limited to 500? Again, she didn't know. She did know the Fright Feast attendance was limited, though. But no, she didn't know the limit for that, either.
Sue said I should talk to Maggie (who I had tried to call, and she got the name right, too), and that Guest Relations in the park is not staffed all the time (she spun this like they were walking around the park, helping people, handing lollipops to toddlers and helping little old ladies navigate the traffic), and that might be why I hadn't reached Sarah yet.
But she didn't know if they were there right now because (you won't believe what she said next): She was not even located in park.
Sue said, after I had talked to her for 40 minutes, that she could not help me with the complaints I was making or some of the information I was requested, because she wasn't at the park, so maybe I needed to speak to someone who was.
I was gobsmacked. Not in the park? Where was she, then?
And not only was Sue not in Busch Gardens, she was not even in Tampa.
But if you are thinking I had screwed up (which happens sometimes, I admit) and somehow reached the Williamsburg park by mistake, nope, think again.
Remember when I asked, way back at the beginning of the phone call, if she was the one I should talk to and she said yes? Yeah. I had dialed the right number.
But Sue told me she was talking to me from the Cole Center, in Orlando.
So, okay, why was someone in Orlando answering the phone for the Busch Gardens, Tampa "Contact Us" number?
You can probably guess the answer. Say it along with me: Park Policy.
Sue said that when anyone called the "Contact Us" number, that's who we got. Someone in Orlando, at the Cole Center, over an hour away from Busch Gardens.
BUT! Sue did manage to get in touch with Maggie and tell her I needed to speak with her, and she gave me a direct line to Maggie at Public Relations instead.
I would love to give you that number but it is the number for Public Relations and--this is straight from the horse's mouth, folks!--That number is not given out to the public.
Yeah, I said it. Public Relations does not want its number given to the Public, okay? I guess you guys don't rate.
Say it with me: Park Policy.
Okay, I want to now give some (thank goodness!) positive feedback and a big heads-up to the Big Heads (heh) over at Busch Gardens, Tampa: Promote Maggie right now.
Maggie rocks, okay? Maggie is the only one I'd spoken to at this point who either knew the answers or actively tried to find them out for me, was bright, cheerful, and she was just filling in for someone else while there was an opening; this wasn't even her regular job!
Seriously: Maggie is an asset. Make use of her, because she actually appreciates the meaning of the term "customer satisfaction".
So, went over all my complaints AGAIN, blah blah blah, I'm sure you are all sick of this incredibly long post by now, right?
Here are the answers I got (which don't all make sense, okay, but at least I got some!):
They did away with scare zones this year in favor of roaming entertainers because they wanted to give the impression that the whole park was basically a scare zone this year, and nowhere was safe. This is why the site says the scare is "everywhere you turn".
Maggie apologized (wow!) that we didn't experience that, but that was the intention. Which made sense to me. I said that zombies were popular just now ("zombies are hot," Sarah agreed), and so I could see where the logic was in that approach.
Maggie said that they also do not like to use the incident reports because they prefer to handle a situation right then rather than let it develop into a major problem, and also to share information electronically if necessary, "save the trees and all that!"
Okay, I am not actually buying that's what they do in actual practice, but it is a good explanation for why they didn't give me that incident report right away. Although she did say that I should have filled out the top copy and left it. Like I said, and repeated to her: I didn't feel confident anything would come from it.
Finally, Maggie told me to call Jill (yes, I know, ANOTHER person to talk to!).
Jill is the Senior Manager of the Communications Department, and she really had her act together, too. Jill is good at her job. Thankfully, because I was exhausted by this point (we'd gone from Saturday to Wednesday in my timeline at this point).
Jill got down to the business on that App I'd been told about, and it wasn't on the website or anything. Which surprised her, as Jill was apparently the one who was charged with updating the app with the real-time wait estimates for the lines. But she said they were trying to get a Blackberry and an iPhone version up, and that's why it wasn't on the site, and she thought maybe it was on the HOS maps.
Since I didn't have a map (because I was familiar with the park, I hadn't grabbed one), I will take her word that MAYBE an app was listed there, although one in our party did get a map, and she said she did NOT see it on there. So, again, people were not getting this app at the website and using it.
I did suggest to Jill that if they KNEW the wait times, at the very least they should be sending entertainers over to the longest lines, werewolves and vampires and zombies, to help entertain the very disgruntled guests waiting to get into the Haunted Houses, and she said she would pass that along. I DID get the impression that she meant this, too, as she was also checking into things and getting answers from other people while we were on the phone together.
About attendance and park capacity:
Jill, for the first time, also told me that they were expecting LESS PEOPLE to attend the following week. This was in direct contradiction to what everyone else had already told me. She also said that a Fire Marshal was on hand for every major event, including HOS, so she knew they did not exceed park capacity for fire safety regulations. If parking lots are full, they do issue alert bulletins. And yes, that information on attendance and capacity was proprietary "for competitive reasons."
Okay, so that sounds good. Actually, the following Thursday and Saturday WERE more crowded, but for some strange reason, Friday wasn't at all. So, basically, it varied, and I can't blame anyone for not knowing that. And they had somebody on hand to make sure it was safe, even with the heavy attendance, which is all I could ask for.
Jill said they actually conducted surveys of people coming out of the park during HOS and the feedback was "very positive" for this year's HOS, especially for zombie mortuary (which we were unable to see), and that she felt she could say that it was a "great event this year" which was only "born out in attendance...one of the most successful in terms of attendance" they had ever had.
While I am not denying that they had a LOT of people there, I know a lot were excited by HOS initially, as I was, but were later disappointed. I'm a little surprised by the positive feedback reports.
I checked Facebook, and found that there was actually a lot of positive feedback, but it was mostly from employees and people who didn't go on the night I went, or any of the typically busy, Friday and Saturday nights.
Here are what THOSE people (the ones who were there when it was most crowded) had to say:
Buddy Poston Went yesterday.. Lines were way to long. 6 1/2 hrs in lines. 2 houses and 1 ride, so 10 mins worth of attractions. but the 2 1/2 hr wait for cheetah run was worth it. Sunday, 11/23
Jacqueline Thats it Wasn't sht. Haunted houses were ridiculously long, and rides were long too. The least popular haunted house was an hour wait, in tht was when the event started. The rides lines were 30 minutes to 90 minutes wait. I got there at 8 and left when the park was closing. Only got to ride 3 RIDES, and waited in 2 that ended up shutting down. Didn't even think to touch a haunted house cuz time was fckin limited.
Friday at 7:34pm
Just got back from HOS tonight. Was more crowded than any year I have been. Could you please start limiting tix sold for Thursday night events. People were smoking all over the park. Probably the worst trip I have ever made to HOS by no fault of the park itself. The production this year was outstanding, but when there are so many obnoxious people around, it takes a lot of the fun away from it. Friday
Finally, after Jill and I had talked for a while, she hooked me up with the pictures I posted on the very first installment of this review, and she also asked me how we could reach some kind of satisfactory resolution.
I thought about that, and how the kids I'd taken with me had been so disappointed. I'd really been excited to share HOS with them, and they'd been excited too, and we were all deflated now, and I felt responsible.
I really wasn't sure where to go from here. HOS was done for this year.
So, Jill, who as I said is really good at her job and has her act together, set us up so we could all go to HOS again for free one night next year.
Which worked for me. I personally couldn't have gone that last weekend, anyway, as it turns out, as Jonell had sorta kinda offered, because even if I'd wanted to drive across the state again the very next week, my husband's aunt passed away and sadly we had the funeral to attend.
So next year at HOS works.
But I did want to be fair, so No VIP or front-of-the-line access (unless we paid for them), because we didn't have that this time, and that wouldn't be right. I specified that.
And when we do go to HOS next year, I will report to you all what it is actually like, for the average guest, just like this year.
And if I DO think we need to purchase VIP upgrades, I will let you know, and I'll tell you much it all costs and what you can REALLY expect, okay?