A lost child is every parent’s worst fear.  There is nothing scarier in the world than losing, or not being able to find your child.   If a news story features a missing child, many of us instinctively stop what we’re doing to check on our children and ensure they are alright.

My wife and I have always been very cautious and selective when it comes to sitters and child care facilities.  When it comes to child care, reputation is everything.  That’s why we were especially traumatized that our child would be lost while on board a Disney cruise.

In January, we decided to take our two children on a Disney Wonder cruise.  We went with several other families we knew and expected to have a fantastic time.  While on board, we left our 3 year old son, in their child care facility, the Oceaneer Club (for children aged 3 to 12).

We were happy to see they had a wrist band tracking system, which could identify where a child was on the ship at any time and alert staff if the band went outside the area he was supposed to be in.

So you can imagine our fear, shock, outrage and panic when we came back after an evening with friends, to find our child missing from their child care facility.

Our 5 month old had been left in the nursery that day, so my wife had stopped off to pick him up, while I went with two other parents to the Oceaneer Club to pick up our older son.

We walked into the care facility, which was always dimly lit.  I walked around each of the rooms looking for my son.  I spotted two of his friends and asked if they’d seen him.  They said he was there someplace, so I continued to walk around the facility hunting down my child.

I remember thinking it was a bit of a hassle to send a parent in alone to wander around and try to find their kid.  I began to get a little annoyed as I searched.  Where could he be?  For a split second I even had the thought, ‘I hope he is actually here,’ but dismissed it as silly at the time. At that point, I was more annoyed than worried and decided to ask someone if they’d seen my son.

I returned to the room where I’d originally started searching, and the employee commented that this was the third time they’d seen me there–was everything okay?   I told him I couldn’t find my son, so they started walking around, calling his name. I began looking under draped compartments, behind obstacles, anywhere a child might hide.

At that point, I took a moment to call my wife and asked her to come over immediately because they couldn’t find our son!

When I went to search the bathroom, an employee stopped and told me that ‘parents are not allowed in the bathroom.’ THAT was the point it hit me right in the face—MY KID WAS MISSING!

I don’t know if I can fully describe the feeling when you realize your child is gone.   Everything changed from that moment… I was no longer frustrated, angry, or annoyed, I was scared to death and went completely into FIND MY CHILD MODE, which started with understanding their operating procedures for missing children.

I quickly assessed the staff, the surroundings, and the efforts made so far to locate him.  I told the employee I could no longer assume my child was in the facility and I needed to know what their next steps were immediately.

He said the next step was to check the tracking band system, which would pinpoint my son’s location.   We walked over to the computer and as they pulled it up, everyone got very quiet.  The screen showed my son’s band as ‘UNREADABLE’!!!.

At that moment I came close to losing it, but I had to focus… I had to find my child!  ‘Unreadable’ could mean anything—wandering the ship, taken by a stranger, or worse.   My wife had shown up by this time and was understandably distraught but there was no time for me to console her.

I immediately ran to another care facility for older kids called the Oceaneer Lab.   I asked if they had done any child swaps between care facilities and whether THEY had my son.   They checked their system and said they hadn’t transferred any children between rooms that day.   At this point Carol, a senior team member, came in and also began searching for him.

Realizing that if my son was there they would find him shortly, I ran back to the Oceaneer Club to see if miraculously he’d been found.  One look at the terror on my wife’s face and the pleading look in her eyes told me he was still missing.  I shook my head and she began to sob, calling out for help.  I will never forget that moment.

I was forced to turn my back on her and head the other way to continue the search for our son.  In a display of heartlessness, none of the employees offered her sympathy or consolation.  They literally turned their backs on her and acted like she was irrational and overreacting, leaving her there alone sobbing and shaking.

I ran as fast as I could all the way to the front of the ship and down 5 flights of stairs, to get to the gangway. We were docked in the Bahamas, with people coming on and off the ship.  I told the personnel at the gangway that my son was missing from their child care facility and that they needed to make sure no one else left the ship until he was found.  They gave no indication they would stop anyone from leaving, and were unaware of a missing child, a full 20 minutes after he’d gone missing.  They said if I had a missing child I needed to inform Guest Services.

So I bolted back up 3 flights of stairs and all the way across the ship again to get to Guest Services, where I ran right up to the counter and told them what had happened. I let them know I just got back from the gangway and asked them why no announcement of a lost child had been made yet.

The employee checked a few things in the computer and said that an announcement had gone out to the staff’s ‘wave’ phones, an internal cell phone system. This seemed suspect, since neither the gangway personnel nor this individual at guest services had known there was a lost child until I told them.   I again asked why no announcement had been made and told again that a message had gone out on the wave phone network.   I then asked if they had cameras on the ship, they said yes.  I urged them to begin reviewing the recordings to determine if my son had left the facility on his own, or been taken.

I turned and ran up several flights of stairs again, back to the Oceaneers Club to see if anyone had found my son in the time I was gone.

There was a crowd of people gathered, including all the friends who’d come with us on the cruise.  They said my son was still missing and everyone started searching the halls.

I was trying to imagine where he might go if he left the facility on his own.  He’d shown a great interest in the balcony area of the ship where he could look down at the water.  What if he went to play on the rails and fell??  I found myself walking back and forth several times.  I had to pull myself together and focus.  Panic wouldn’t help me find him.

I turned around and saw Carol coming out of the theater, where she had been searching. I pulled her aside and said firmly and clearly that they had make 20 announcements a day about excursions, parties, and dinner times, but in the 45 minutes since my son had gone missing, not one announcement had been made. Nothing that said ‘excuse me guests, but we have a 3 year-old boy who has gone missing, so please take a look around and see if you spot anyone matching this description.’

I told her if she didn’t make an announcement immediately, I’d be forced to break down the door and make the damn announcement myself!  She promised she would make an announcement, but wanted to finish searching the theater first.

I turned and ran back to the Oceaneer club, where I was flagged down by one of our friends.   My son had been found and was okay.  I was lightheaded…could barely breath… and exhausted… I stood against the wall and began to cry from shock and relief.

Out of nowhere, a stranger came up to me with tears in his eyes and gave me a supportive hug.  Having a son of his own, he empathized with what I had gone through.  He said after what just happened, he was already considering leaving the ship with his family and flying home.

I went inside and they told me that my son had crawled into a ‘tunnel’ of stacked chairs and fell asleep, not to be found until 45 minutes later.

Later that evening, someone came to our room with a bottle of wine and a printed apology card.  But as my wife and I discussed what had happened, there were still too many concerns and unanswered questions to let this drop:

  • How had our son been able to craw away and fall asleep without anyone noticing?
  • Why were the employees unable to find him for nearly 45 minutes?
  • Why was his security band unreadable?
  • Why did everyone ignore my wife and make her feel so alone and terrified?
  • Why did none of the ship’s crew seem to be aware there was a missing child, despite the wave phone message which seemed to be their primary form of communication?
  • Why was no announcement made on the ship at any point?
  • Most importantly, why was there no apparent protocol in the event of a missing child considering this is Disney, a world-class organization that builds it’s reputation on the happiness of children?

We felt that there were too many things that went wrong for us to simply accept a bottle of wine and a printed apology card.  We wanted to make sure someone in charge knew about these problems–we wanted to speak with the Captain.

So I made a call and asked to meet with the Captain, at his earliest convenience, to discuss what had happened. I was told that someone would contact me shortly.  We were never allowed to speak to the Captain, but it was arranged for us to meet with the Cruise Director instead.

I really did not want to go into this meeting angry.  My primary intention was to help them better understand what went wrong, identify things that could be improved, and the overall way the issue was handled.

During the meeting, I made it clear that while we were relieved that our son was eventually located, he HAD been missing for 45 minutes while in their care.  The fact that he was found didn’t change the apparent lack of a clear plan to find him, or the lack of urgency exhibited by the cruise staff.

I was given the following answers and assurances:

  • They were aware the lighting was too low in the care facility and they plan to renovate it the next time the ship dry docks.
  • They do have a process for handling lost child emergencies, however since that hadn’t been apparent to us, they would look into that and address it.
  • I was given an apology for the lack of empathy shown to my wife by the crew during the crisis.
  • They would definitely investigate why the tracking band was unreadable.

Near the end of the meeting, the Cruise Director asked me what they could do to make it up to us. I told him I didn’t have a specific remedy in mind, but something needed to be done, especially for my wife since this cruise had been booked to celebrate her birthday.  What happened essentially ruined her birthday and spoiled the entire trip for her.

I mentioned that we had a dinner reservation for her birthday, and I thought to myself that maybe the Cruise Director or the Captain might come by to wish her a happy birthday and apologize to her in person. At least to show that they do value their customers and that truly cared for what had happened to us.

Later, I spoke with my wife and we agreed that the best outcome would be not having to pay for a vacation that was ruined.  So I sent a note to the Cruise Director and then headed to the restaurant.

Dinner was alright, considering we were hardly in a mood to celebrate after what had happened.  Disappointingly, no one came by to apologize or offer birthday wishes.

When we returned to the room that night, there was a printed note from the Cruise Director saying someone from their corporate office will contact us after the trip.

A few days later, we received a call from Rebecca, an executive from Disney’s communication team.  After I told her the whole story, she  was apologetic, but said there was no way they would refund our money.  All she could do was to offer us a two-day Disney World park-pass with limited access.

I was stunned by her response, as she attempted to analyze the exact number of cruise days that were ruined. She told me that since our son went missing on the third day of the trip, we had enjoyed the first two days and only the last two days were ruined. Therefore, they were only willing to offer two day park passes as compensation. Adding insult to injury, the last thing she said before she hung up was to call her back if we changed our mind about accepting her offer.

Considering I have two little boys, we would most certainly have booked other Disney vacations and cruises in the years to come.  But this experience—the loss of my son, the poor response to the crisis aboard ship, and the uncaring, calculated corporate response afterward—has changed all that.

“Disney” should be synonymous with making fantastic memories—that famous ‘Disney magic.’  But for my family, we will always associate Disney with our horrific experience of losing our child and a serious lack of customer service.

Would refunding our money or offering us another cruise have made up for their mistakes and lack of empathy during a child crisis?  Not really, but would have said they cared enough to try.

Where is the Disney ‘magic’?  For me, it’s been lost.  Where is the customer service Disney is supposed to be known for?   Nonexistent.  If you choose to cruise with Disney, you may be forced to ask one more question–“Where is my child?!!!”

EDIT: Based on some comments, I wanted to clarify one important element, which is that we did not go to Disney with a request for a refund. Rather they asked us what they could do for us to make us feel better about the experience we had. We simply said we prefer not to have to pay for a ruined trip. Once they started getting into the calculation of how many days they had ruined, I was done.

Upon publishing this article, we had no expectation of any sort of refund, no expectation of Disney contacting us again (they never even followed up in the month since that call to check on the situation) and we would not accept any form of refund or compensation at this point anyhow, as it would not be right.