The night before leaving for our most recent Disney trip, my excitement was creeping in, just as it had done on countless trips before. Looking for a task to distract me from the anticipation, I sat and mentally prepared for our trip, carefully reviewing our packing list, ensuring that I hadn’t overlooked any vacation essentials. My mind wandered, and I thought back to a Disney vacation my family took in 2012, to celebrate my mother’s 60th birthday.
During that 2012 trip, my mother was staying at the Polynesian Resort (my husband and I weren’t…) and to the entire family’s delight, she was given a free room upgrade upon check-in — a breathtaking, watch-the-fireworks-from-your-balcony, club level room in the Hawaii building. The reason that she was granted an upgrade was a mystery; we could only speculate that the upgrade was convenient for the resort, and maybe the fact that she had stayed at the Polynesian many times before, or that she was a gregarious woman with a winning smile, also had something to do with the generous upgrade.
With my mother’s story in mind, my curiosity grew, and I decided to do some research — was there any way to increase your odds of getting upgraded at a Disney resort hotel?
After perusing the DISboards and some other travel resources, it seemed that others had shared my mother’s experience: When upgrades are given, a smile, celebration, or your Disney vacation history may come into play, but ultimately, the precise reasons why a guest is upgraded remains a mystery — if anything, it’s probably the result of simple dumb luck. Satisfied by knowing that there was little I could do to increase my odds of an upgrade, I put my laptop away, and focused on different aspects of the day ahead.
The next day, my husband and I traveled to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, with virtually no hope that a hotel room upgrade was attainable. Since they appear to be so random and rare, we simply thought: an upgrade would be nice, but it will never happen to us.
Then, Disney reminded us that one should never say never.
On that visit, we were not only given a free upgrade to a Savannah View room upon check-in, but later, we were also granted a late, 1pm check-out as well.
The room upgrade
Too wired with anticipation to sleep late, my husband and I awoke early on the day of our arrival, and reached the Disney property close to 10am. By 10:30, we arrived to the check-in desk. This was my family’s first stay at a deluxe resort — after waiting years (years filled with longing!) to try a deluxe resort, we had finally found the perfect rate and situation to book a stay. To say that we were merely happy and grateful to be staying at the Lodge is an understatement: both my husband and I were glowing. As we spoke to the concierge, we chatted about how thrilled we were to be there, and how we would be spending our entire stay exclusively at the lodge — this was to be a no-park visit.
My husband and I had originally booked a standard room, and after the cast member handed us our MagicBands, I simply inquired: if a Savannah View room is available — and if it’s no trouble to find out — could you tell us what the price difference would be to upgrade our reservation?
The cast member told us that it would be no problem to check, and picked up the phone to talk to her colleagues — a mysterious group that my husband and I now call “the powers that be.” After a few minutes, the cast member said that there was indeed a Savannah View room available. When I asked about the price difference, she simply said:
The difference is Disney magic.
Once it sunk in that the upgrade was complimentary, my husband and I were beside ourselves with joy. We showered the cast member in many effusive “thank you”s, and when she mentioned the catch of the upgrade — that our room wasn’t ready yet (the standard room would have been ready immediately), we quickly responded with: That’s okay! We’re happy to wait!
My family spent the rest of the day in a state of euphoria. We explored Animal Kingdom Lodge with a heightened sense of fascination and enthusiasm, because we knew that even if we stayed at this resort again, it’s entirely possible that we may never again stay in a Savannah View room. We just don’t know what will happen in the future, so it’s best to appreciate the now.
The late check-out
As our night came to a close and we were finalizing our departure plans, I called the front desk to see if the hotel offered late check-out to guests. This was a perk that we’ve experienced at non-Disney hotels, but never thought to ask if it was offered at a Disney property. The cast member — just like the one who had earlier granted us the room upgrade — called “the powers that be” to see what was available. Upon returning to our conversation, he said: you’ve been granted late check-out, please plan to be ready to leave by 1pm. Once again excited and effusive, I thanked the cast member profusely. It was only later when reading the DISboards did it occur to me that late check-out was another generous perk, and that the hotel could have easily denied our request.
We were, again, in disbelief that we had been the recipients of this level of Disney magic.
The reasons why
Receiving an upgrade — any upgrade — at Disney is a special experience. During our resort day, my husband and I often chatted about how lucky we were, and thought deeply on the many reasons that a hotel may decide to upgrade guests. Do they look at vacation history, and figure that they have an opportunity to strengthen brand loyalty by being kind, or to even up-sell you on a future trip by introducing you to a premier space? Do they simply figure that they have the empty room, so why not fill it?
From everything that we have gathered, it seems that only cast members truly know the reasons behind resort upgrades.
Having said that, a few factors do come to mind:
The conditions of our stay seemed ideal
For my family’s stay, we arrived on a Sunday, which seemed like a more popular day for check-out, rather than check-in. We had checked-in early, and only planned to stay for a single night. We didn’t submit any special requests, such as preferred locations around the resort, or placement near other guests. Ultimately, we had simple reservations where arrangements could be easily changed, and had a clean slate in terms of accommodation requests.
We have a rich vacation history
We have been to Disney many times over the last few years, and have almost always stayed on Disney property. We are also a young family. Considering our history, it’s not only very likely that we will be back to the Walt Disney World Resort, but it’s also likely that there are many years (decades) ahead during which we can take more Disney vacations.
Also, my family has a rather “clean record” when it comes to Disney incidents and complaints. While I have no idea if Disney truly updates your account with the various feedback you submit — once, a cast member told me that a record of conflicts is indeed kept — it can’t hurt to avoid unnecessary confrontation, and to give praise when it’s due. Emailing [email protected] with positive feedback a great way to potentially stack your account with favorable notes!
We put our best foot forward
My husband and I were excited, and it showed. We smiled brightly, were patient, and displayed gratitude. We always try to place ourselves in another’s shoes (those who have worked in service industries can especially relate to cast members in public-facing positions), so even if there’s a problem, we understand that the situation isn’t personal — and that it almost never gives us permission to behave badly. If being pleasant doesn’t help in securing an upgrade, it certainly doesn’t worsen your odds.
The Main Takeaway
Ultimately, it seems as if the best strategy to obtain a complimentary upgrade is to simply cross your fingers, be nice, and don’t expect anything. Different degrees of pixie dust can be found all over the Walt Disney World Resort, and “perks” are especially easy to appreciate when we approach our vacation experience with gratitude. So, if pixie dust isn’t sprinkled on you in the form of an upgrade at the resort, look out for other special moments, and never forget that your next trip could be your most lucky one yet!
Ashley S. Cooke is Associate Director at a New York City based lifestyle brand, and often writes on the topics of health, wellness, and travel. You can connect with her on Twitter at @AshleySCooke.