I don’t post a lot about Disney, at least aside from stuff released by Disney. It’s become impossible to avoid The House of Mouse considering the Disney company owns Marvel, Star Wars, Hulu, 20th Century Television, and so on. I have made frequent additions to The Christmas Spot featuring a Disney special of some kind, but when it comes to the theme parks I have largely stayed quiet. That’s because there’s tons of that out there in the wild. There are plenty of Disney fanatics in the world that have an opinion on the company’s decision to remove Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in favor of an expanded Fantasyland in Disney World’s Magic Kingdom. There are certainly a ton of Epcot enthusiasts who pine for the days of no character representation at the park featuring the big golf ball and absolutely hate the encroachment of traditional Disney IP into their fake world showcase. There’s just a lot of strong opinions and it all becomes an echo chamber.
My experience with Disney World goes back to the 80s. My parents actually honeymooned at Disney World in the early part of the decade when it was just The Magic Kingdom. They didn’t select that as their destination because they were big time Disney fans, it was just a pretty new experience and it was something they had never done. Plus, there were other things to do in and around Orlando, Florida and they probably didn’t have the money to go someplace more exotic. My parents always knew they wanted to have kids someday, so when they were at Disney World and they saw how kids responded to the characters and attractions they basically made a vow to return with their kids in the future. And they stuck to that, bringing my sister and I in 1988 when I was a mere 4 years old. I obviously can’t remember much from that trip given my age. I remember picking out my own set of Mickey ears and Minnie Mouse playing with my sister’s pig tails at a character breakfast aboard a ship. My parents had such a good time with us that my grandmother felt left out and wanted to experience it too so we got to go back to Disney World a year later. We wouldn’t return again until 1998 when my family wanted to do a big vacation. We stayed onsite, and it was the first trip to Disney we went on where we didn’t go see other, non-Disney, theme parks, we just enjoyed Disney for what it was.
Since meeting my wife over ten years ago now, we’ve been to Disney World six times: three as a couple and three with our own children. We’ve also been to Disneyland once. My wife is a bigger Disney fan than I am when it comes to Disney as a brand and as an attraction. I love the classic shorts and films and appreciate the theme parks. I enjoy how you’re able to feel like you’ve exited reality, to some degree, when setting foot in Disney World. They whisk you away from the airport and take you to your hotel with part of the experience being the music on the bus even changing when you hit the front gate. And unless you rent a car, you don’t ever have to leave. There’s so much to see and experience that it’s really impossible to get it all in during a single visit, which for us has always been a week. We do a five day ticket with park hopper and leave one day open to just enjoy the resort, do some shopping, and get some rest since a Disney vacation is not exactly a relaxing one.
Since I started going with my wife, we’ve seen a lot of changes at the parks. Our first trip coincided with the Fantasyland expansion and the main attraction there, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, wasn’t even open yet. We stayed at their newest resort, The Art of Animation, because my wife is a big fan of Finding Nemo. When we returned with our children for the first time, the year was 2019. It was a big, family, trip with my parents and sister’s family and we stayed at the Polynesian resort. My family is comfortably middle class, and to afford the trip my aunt came along who is a retired Disney cast member who worked for years at the Disney Store and receives discounts on hotels. Without her, I can’t see staying at the Polynesian, but it was my dad who fell in love with the idea of being on the Monorail. When we brought our kids for the second time, it was just my family of four plus my parents and we stayed at the Pop Century resort. The year was 2021 so COVID protocols were in place. It was also after the construction of the Sky Liner which could take us directly from the hotel to either the Hollywood Studios or Epcot theme parks. With my kids a little bit older for this trip (5 and 6), it made sense to have that kind of access as they were more into the rides at Hollywood Studios and Epcot was just a great park to return to night after night for food and beverages. This most recent trip we took was in January of 2023. It was another big family trip as my sister had her daughter between our trip in 2019 and now so my parents wanted to do one more. We returned to the Polynesian and stayed for a week once more. It was by far the coldest week I’ve ever spent in Florida with the idea of a pool day being laughable as a result, but it was still nicer than the weather in the northeast.
This most recent trip was easily the least enjoyable one so far. Part of that is my kids are even older now so the magic has started to fade a bit. My daughter was still excited to give out hugs to Mickey, Donald, and all of the rest, but my son and nephew were less enthused. My niece, who is 2 and into Frozen and Minnie Mouse, had a nice time, but she didn’t have that BIG reaction the other kids had when they were around her age. She was still a ton of fun to observe, but maybe not what was expected. We also had our travel down to Florida interrupted when the FAA grounded all flights the day we were traveling. We left the house at 4:30 in the morning expecting to be in Orlando before noon that day. What ended up happening is our connecting flight was cancelled and we had to get rerouted to Chicago. We ended up taking three flights that day and didn’t get to our hotel room until 3:00 AM. As a result, it felt like we were playing catch-up on our sleep for much of the week and that first day in Disney World was rather short since our kids just couldn’t do a full day after going through that.
That certainly wasn’t the start we envisioned, but we made do. The weather wasn’t perfect, but it’s manageable. What compounded things though were the changes we experienced. The first big one was the discontinuation of Disney’s Magical Express. That was the complimentary bus service that took guests from the airport to Disney property. Interestingly, it was one of the things my kids loved the most about our past trips because they would show Disney shorts on the monitors and there was the aforementioned big deal about hitting Disney property. What a nice perk for guests staying at a Disney hotel just taken away. Now, you have to arrange transportation yourself and wouldn’t you know, the company we hired bailed on us when our flights got all screwed up. We were left scrambling to find a cab that could get 11 people from the airport to the hotel, with luggage, at 2:30 in the morning on a Thursday. It was a nice bit of stress to add to the start of a vacation.
When I went in 1998, there was no such thing as Fast Pass. My family and I endured some incredible lines to get on the most popular rides. We were teens though and my parents were still shy of 40 so we could handle it. When I went with my wife for the first time, we got to benefit from the Fast Pass system. We would go to a ride, get a pass, and return when we were supposed to. It was easy enough to manage and there was plenty to do in between. When we returned in 2019 with our kids, the Fast Pass system had been moved to the app. It required more planning, but my wife is the type that likes to plan out her Disney experiences so it wasn’t much of an adjustment for us. We were able to get our kids onto all of the rides we wanted to experience and overall it worked really well. In 2021, the Fast Pass system was gone. The parks weren’t operating at full capacity due to COVID so it was back to the old line system, and funny enough, it was fine. I don’t think we waited in a line longer than 40 minutes for anything. The longest line was probably Rise of the Resistance, which was brand new at the time, though it also could have been Peter Pan that we waited the longest for. I’ll never understand why that ride always has a crazy line, but it is what it is.
If you’re a Disney fan then you can probably guess where this is going now. For 2023, we got to experience the Genie+ system. Prior to this thing being invented, the Fast Pass system was always part of the experience and included with every park admission. Genie is not. Now, if you want to make sure you get onto a certain ride you have to pay extra. It’s a per ticket fee, and it just gives you the right to book a Fast Pass on Disney’s app. I’d tell you the fee, but it changes from day-to-day depending on how popular a day Disney thinks it’s going to be. I think some days it was 7 bucks per ticket and others it was 12 or 15. Mind you, a ticket to any Disney park these days is well over 100 bucks whether you’re a kid, adult, or senior citizen. Adding to that expense is just asinine. Never mind that you’re going to pay plenty of money to either stay at a resort hotel, park your car, pay for food, and whatever else comes along. Disney is really good at extracting money from its guests, but this is their most naked attempt at doing so. Oh, and if you want to ride the most popular rides you have to pay per ride. Rise of the Resistance and The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train are on the Lightning Pass system, or whatever it’s called, so you get to pay extra. Your Genie+ for the day is only good for some rides. How senior citizens figure this stuff all out must be interesting.
A lot of these changes occurred under the recently ousted Disney CEO, Bob Chapek. He has been replaced with a returning Bob Iger who has started to undo some of the changes his failed successor made. He has not undone the Genie+ system and I don’t expect him to. And why? Because people use it and pay for it. Let’s face it, for a lot of people Disney World is a once-in-a-decade trip. Maybe even once-in-a-lifetime for some. It sure feels like they’re moving to that with how expensive it’s all become, and if you want to experience as much as you can you’re going to have to bite the bullet and pay for this thing. I try to tell my kids how lucky they are to have been three times already in their short lives, but they’re kids so they can’t even wrap their heads around that. I also told them to make sure they see everything they wanted to see during this trip because I don’t see us returning anytime soon. And we had to skip on some stuff, because you just do. Disney has successfully sapped a lot of my enthusiasm for the parks with these changes. In addition to the added expense is the added time sink. You better get up before 7 AM on your vacation to purchase your Genie+ add-on and start making reservations as soon as possible if you want to get the most bang for your buck. And you probably won’t if you have small kids. I think we only used 2 to 3 Fast Pass selections each day. Our kids can’t go from morning until night at the parks and we didn’t want to run them into the ground since we were there primarily for them.
I don’t know if I would classify myself as a Disney Die-hard. My wife is, and I’m something approaching that. I really enjoyed the parks each time I went, and when the subject of a vacation comes up it was always my default selection because where else am I going to have that much fun with my kids? Leaving at the end of a vacation was always a sad event, but this time I felt none of that. And now I think I’m kind of done. I’m sure I’ll go back someday, but right now I couldn’t even make a guess. If my kids become fans of the brand and its past then maybe we’ll do a trip to Anaheim if they would appreciate seeing where it all began. For now though I feel worn down by Mickey. If I had any advice to share with Bob Iger it would be to keep Disney in reach for those with modest incomes. Stop trying to court the wealthy, which is what it feels like Disney is out to do with crazy additions like the Star Wars hotel experience. And get rid of that stupid Genie! Making people pay extra to skip lines is just creating a multi-class environment. If you must, make aspects of the Fast Pass system exclusive to those who are staying on Disney property like a longer window to book reservations. The system they had in place when they first moved it to the app was pretty great and it didn’t need to be changed. And also get rid of the stupid Lightning Lane. About the only change I thought was a good one was the new virtual queue system for extremely popular rides. That’s where you get into the queue in the morning if you have a reservation for the park the ride is located at, and in this case it was the new ride based on Guardians of the Galaxy. In reality, very little about the queue is virtual since it works like a Fast Pass in that you have a time to show up, but unlike a Fast Pass you’re just getting in line to wait for the ride. I think we waited for close to an hour. Was it worth it? To a point, since it was a new experience and the ride was fun. Would I do it a second time? No. Which is the same answer I’d give to someone who said to me “Hey, you want to go to Disney World in 2024?” And that surprises the hell out of me.
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