Families who've booked once-in-a-lifetime trips to Walt Disney World Florida have been shocked to discover parts of their luxury resort hotel will be undergoing major renovations, with some facilities closed and "noise disturbance" expected – and many more who'll be affected have yet to be told by their travel agent.
Described on the Walt Disney World website as a "tropical paradise" with pirate-themed rooms and "colonial architecture", the 2,000-room, 8,000-capacity Caribbean Beach Resort hotel caters for visitors to the world-famous theme park.
But last week Disney revealed the hotel is to undergo a large-scale refurbishment, to start on 1 May 2017 and run until late June 2018. The hotel's food court, restaurant, bar and shop will be closed, while guests have been warned "noise will be heard while our resort is reimagined".
While those who booked directly with Disney have been notified of the disruption and offered gift cards as compensation, plus the chance to move or cancel their booking, some British holidaymakers who've booked with a travel agent have yet to receive any official notification.
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What's Disney doing?
Disney sent those who've booked with it directly an email in late February. It states: "Please be aware that Old Port Royale Food Court, Shutters at Old Port Royale [a restaurant], Banana Cabana Pool Bar and Calypso Trading Post [shop] will be closed for refurbishment during your visit. There will be a variety of dining options available to you for breakfast, lunch and dinner."
The email continues: "Please note that noise will be heard while our resort is being reimagined, but noise should not be heard from your guest room between dusk and 9am daily."
Disney has now outlined to MoneySavingExpert.com what it's offering affected customers – it says ALL those with existing bookings, regardless of who they booked with, can get compensation (in the form of gift cards) or be transferred to an equivalent hotel, subject to availability (see below for full details).
It told us it informed UK travel agents last week of the renovations and the remedies on offer to customers, and provided them with a template email modelled closely on its own to send to their affected customers.
However, many who booked with travel agents have complained this week that they're being left in the dark, and are only aware of the renovations because they've read about them online. Virgin Holidays says it is now in the process of notifying customers, while Thomson says it "will be contacting customers... as a priority".
'Left in complete limbo'
Holidaymakers with existing bookings have responded furiously to the news. MoneySavingExpert has received emails from a number of affected customers, with one woman telling us: "Customers like myself who booked through a UK agent have been left in complete limbo as the travel agents don't know what is going on."
Another said: "I haven't even had the courtesy of being advised by Thomson that there is a major refurb going on. I found out through an online forum."
A third complained: "I am due to fly to this resort in May and the lack of communication is so frustrating and worrying, even though we are aware that this holiday is now not what we had booked."
The hashtag #nopixiedust has also emerged on Twitter as customers expressed outrage at the disruption and how the news has been communicated:
— Becky Simmonds (@beckylsimmonds) February 25, 2017
The hotel is also set to house the winners of a competition, launched by Ant and Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway, to send two families to Disney World to see the show broadcast live from Orlando.
- If you're happy to keep your existing room booking...
On arrival and check-in at the Caribbean Beach Resort, ALL guests – those who booked direct with Disney and those who went via a travel agent – will automatically receive a Disney gift card worth $75 (about £61) per room, per night. You won't have to complain to receive this – it will be issued proactively by the hotel.
- If you want to move hotels... Disney says you can switch your booking free of charge to another 'moderate' graded hotel at Disney World, subject to availability. You can also ask to move to the Art of Animation resort (which is graded 'value') or, if you're a large party, you can request one of the cabins (housing six to eight people) at the Fort Wilderness resort. These options again apply regardless of whether you booked with Disney or a travel agent.
- If you want to cancel... Disney told us it will make no charge for you cancelling Disney hotel bookings, passes to Disney World or any Disney dining options as a result of the renovations, meaning you'll get a refund on these elements of your holiday. However if you booked through a travel agent, there's a chance it may charge you.
Disney told us anyone with general enquiries about the impact of the renovations can call 0800 169 0730. If you booked direct with Disney, you'll also be able to manage your booking using this number – but if you booked with a travel agent, you'll need to contact it to request hotel changes or cancellations.
What are travel agents saying?
A Virgin Holidays spokesperson told us earlier this week that it was planning to contact customers "in due course" – and it appears it's now started doing so.
A spokesperson told us on Thursday 2 March: "We're aware of works scheduled to take place at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort and have a number of customers that may be affected by this.
"We always want to do the right thing by our customers and are contacting them directly to update them on the situation and the additional measures we're putting in place during this time."
Thomson told us: "We're sorry to hear of the customers' experience and understand the frustration that instances like this can cause. We rely on our partners in resort to advise of any maintenance work and regrettably this has not happened on this occasion. As we are now aware, we will be contacting customers to discuss their options as a priority.
"We would like to remind our customers that we closely monitor the progress of work at the hotels we operate to and that situations such as this are rare."
I'm affected – what are my rights?
If you've booked a package holiday (typically where flights and a hotel are booked together) with a UK firm, you're protected by the Package Travel Regulations.
Section 4 of those regulations state that a package holiday must be as described, or the consumer will be liable to receive compensation.
Disney told us in the UK it only sells stays in its resorts through bonded travel agents (typically with travel trade body ABTA), offering customers an extra layer of protection.
If you booked with a firm that's a member of ABTA (that includes Virgin, Thomson, Charter Travel and the Walt Disney Company), the firm will be expected to abide by a code of conduct which has lots to say on the subject of building works.
The code gives you the right to be informed without delay of any building works which could "seriously impair" your enjoyment of the holiday. And if your tour operator makes significant changes to a trip you've already booked, you've a right to comparable "alternative arrangements" or cancellation and a full refund.
Whether or to what extent the renovation works will affect your enjoyment of the holiday, or constitute "significant alteration" of your arrangements, is of course a subjective matter.
But if you're at all concerned about the impact on your holiday, you should contact your tour operator in the first instance. If you're unsatisfied with its response, you may be able to escalate the complaint via ABTA's dispute resolution service.
Some customers may have bought through firms bonded with alternative organisations such as the Travel Trust Association, which will have separate rules governing this sort of issue.