Wishing for the Disneyland HoJo at the Grand Californian Hotel

HoJo vs GCH

So we’re back from our four-day trip to Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. We arrived in L.A. at 8 a.m. last Friday, August 8 (we love maximizing that first day!), and got home Tuesday evening. As always, Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park were awesome and magical experiences. But we never expected Disneyland’s flagship Grand Californian Hotel to leave us wishing for the Harbor Boulevard HoJo.

Not that we aren’t grateful. I’m a longtime Disneyland fan and annual passholder, and hooked Ryan into West Coast mouse house fandom last year. Visiting the resort with me twice in 2013, Ryan learned what I and many others have always known–the Anaheim Howard Johnson Hotel directly across Harbor Boulevard from Disneyland, with its retro look, pretty campus, and smiling staff–is one of the friendliest, most customer-oriented, and most magical places to stay outside of the “Disney bubble.” Twice, the place has saved my Disneyland vacation from disaster (once when my trip dates suddenly changed after Southwest’s 2005 accident at Midway Airport, and last March when Ryan and I were snowed out of returning to Chicago.)

When Disneyland Resort’s Guest Services department gifted us three free nights at the Grand Californian Hotel last December to make up for our super-duper, bi-coastal (Anaheim and Orlando) Premier annual passports not working correctly for several months last year, we were thrilled. We hadn’t asked for any compensation, and knew the offer was pure Disney “pixie dust”. (Disney on both coasts has a history of giving guests surprise perqs when they least expect it.) Money woes made us wait to redeem the free stay, so the offer letter sat on our living room sideboard for months while we waited to be able to enjoy West Coast Disney’s finest hotel. (WDW fans: think Grand Floridian in stature, but modeled after Wilderness Lodge.)

Finally this month we were ready and able to go. We felt a little guilty about not staying at the HoJo–me for the first time in 12 years–but were looking forward to the luxurious Disney magic that the Grand Californian is known for. As I said, our parks experience was as awesome as ever, and made extra special by finally staying on-site, with access to the kinetic and fun Downtown Disney District and the Disneyland Monorail right outside the hotel.

Our trip was made even more special by longtime Southern California friend from my GLYNY days, Buzz, and new local friends Adam and Joe (with whom I connected from my Jewish blogging here on CHICAGO CARLESS), visiting us in the parks on Saturday and spending all day with us riding, hanging, and having an awesome time. (It’s really nice to know when we move, we’ll already know awesome people in the area, too!)

But most of the time we spent inside the Grand Californian Hotel had us wishing we were back at the HoJo. Yes, from the outside it’s an enormous, national parks lodge-inspired masculine pile of arts-and-crafts eaves and timber. Yes, it has an equally impressive soaring lobby of beams and skylights. And, yes, rooms are about $500 a night (to start.) We were paying for a fourth night out-of-pocket (at a 10% annual passholder discount) and had brought a few hundred dollars along as our usual dining/merchandise budget.

Free stays at Disneyland Resort are managed while you’re there by VIP Services,  and we were blown away upon arrival by a VIP coordinator personally sitting down with us on a sofa in the opulent lobby, checking us in on a handheld, and urging us to call the hotel VIP Services number if we needed anything during our stay. (For fullest disclosure, we also had access to VIP viewing locations during our stay for things like fireworks, parades, and shows.)

And then…

  • When we arrived, our AC was broken.
  • The maintenance supervisor sent by the front desk to fix it gave us an earful about how much he didn’t like the hotel or his job and how he didn’t understand why anyone would stay there since it was such an awful place, lied about fixing the AC, and left AC condenser gunk in our toilet.
  • When we realized the AC didn’t work very late after returning from the parks the first night, we had to stay up two extra hours (past midnight) to wait for maintenance to finally fix the AC, keeping us up for a grand total of 26 hours since we had left Chicago, and making Ryan miss EMH the next morning. (Disney hotel guests get an “Extra Magic Hour” each day to explore the parks before they open to the public.)
  • The next night after midnight, a roach crawled out from under one of our beds. (Not a Disney roach, either–it’s not like it was animated, or wearing big white gloves, or singing a song.) I covered it with a glass, put the glass with the live roach in a ziploc bag, and went down in history as the first guest to bring a live roach to the Grand Californian front desk. They immediately offered us another room. It took three hours to pack, move (including moving the eventually freezing cold room service we had ordered right before we found our uninvited guest), and unpack in the new room. We didn’t get to sleep until 3 a.m. and we both missed EMH the next morning.
  • The next morning after missing EMH again, we realized the refrigerator–which we always use when we visit DLR–was broken. (The fridge door was literally bent so that it couldn’t close.) We told the front desk about it and they said they would send someone up, but we asked them to wait because we were showering and getting ready to leave. Maintenance came anyway and walked in while I was naked in the shower.
  • When we made it to the parks (we headed to California Adventure first), we headed for our VIP reservation to see the popular Aladdin stage show. We had made the reservation a month ahead, but our names weren’t on the list. (No this isn’t a Grand Californian snafu, and yes, we’ve already seen it before–but, boy, it sure didn’t help things.)
  • That night, feeling like all we wanted to do was check out–even though the stay was mostly free–and go to the HoJo, we decided to have a drink at Hearthstone Lounge, the lobby bar. After waiting 15 minutes to be served, we decided to leave, which apparently angered one of the wait staff who finally came over and was very rude to us for daring to leave instead of waiting for him to take our drink order. (I kid you not.) When we complained to the manager, he walked away.
  • On our final night, the hotel closed the entire laundry room for maintenance and we had to pack our luggage with dirty clothes (which isn’t our practice) to fly home.
  • It’s worth nothing, too, that everything in the hotel beyond the lobby seemed worn or just worn out. The elevator interiors, the hallways, the room walls and fabrics, the furniture–everywhere we looked there was tarnished brass and missing finishes, peeling wallpaper, chipped wood, and in both of our rooms multiple mismatched items of furniture (in our second room we counted seven different types of wood and furniture styles). Not to mention caked dust along every baseboard–and in the headboard details immediately behind the pillows where we laid our heads in both rooms. (Yes, yuck.)

Someone on the DIS, a popular, bi-coastal Disney parks fan board that I love, noted that our experience was like a “a planets aligning, walked under a ladder, broke a truck full of mirrors sort of bad luck situation.” Perhaps. But if you read reviews of stays at the Grand Californian there or on TripAdvisor (as we didn’t before but now have done), you can find lots of stories like ours.

Granted, things like this can happen anywhere. But when you’re permanently an emotionally invested inner-twelve-year-old at Disneyland–which is exactly how Disney intends you to be while you’re there!–experiences like ours can be very jarring. On our third day after missing EMH again, I’m not ashamed to tell you that I sat down in the hotel room and cried, and then called the VIP desk and asked if this was all some punishment for having complained the year before about our passes breaking.

I told that to Guest Services in an email after we got back. I also told them about the one thing that salvaged our hotel stay. That is, a woman named Terri–a VIP Services cast member at the hotel. The morning of our final day at the resort–after the AC, and surly staff, and roach, and missing reservation–I went down to the front desk and asked to speak with VIP Services. I wanted to tell them in person what I told the front desk manager the night before. That is, the story of our stay. Off in a corner of the lobby, I told Terri all the things that had happened. I also told her how grateful we were for having received the stay in the first place, how we did not ask for it or expect it, and how much we had been looking forward to it all those months that we weren’t able to even afford airfare to take advantage of it.

I let her know, as well, that I was a lifelong Disneyland fan. It isn’t as if we won’t be back. Not at all. It’s just that considering how much we love Disneyland, the whole experience left us feeling kind of heartbroken. And I told her all I really wanted at that point was for someone there to really listen. Just to listen and understand what our “pixie dust” stay ended up feeling like as it imploded around us.

And Terri did listen..and then she cried, like I had done. Right there in the lobby, she was heartbroken with me. And she apologized. And she told us not to worry about our final night, or our remaining dinner reservations. It didn’t change anything that had happened. But it did stop my unexpected feeling of disillusionment about Disneyland. Terri was the first person at the Grand Californian who didn’t make us feel like we were being taken for granted. I commended and thanked her in my post-trip email to Guest Services. I told them  she was the only good thing I’d remember about the place, and that she helped mend the heart of a lifelong Disneyland fan in one moment of listening.

After all of the “we’re sorry” credits that ended up being added to our folio, in the end we actually came home with more money than we left with. That means we were essentially paid to stay at the Grand Californian Hotel–and that means I can tell you with some authority that you couldn’t pay us to stay there again.

If you’re paying attention, that also means Disneyland Resort was saying “we’re sorry” for the way they first said “we’re sorry”. And by our calculation, our $1,700 spent on annual passes last year has now come back to us three times over in terms of admissions, discounts, and credits over four different Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World trips. So we’re pretty much square about the whole experience.

But we’re still left with memories of a magical Disneyland trip tarnished by systemic infrastructure and management failures at the resort’s allegedly flagship hotel. It’s not our fault we expected it to be a magical experience. That’s supposed to be the whole point of the place, after all. In the end, we found ourselves wishing we were somewhere else during our four-night stay at Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel. Mostly, we wished we were back at the Harbor Boulevard HoJo. In fact, we wished that a lot.

I think that says a lot about both hotels.

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