Charles Dickens' immortal novel, A Tale of Two Cities, opens with the famous line: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…" Throughout the course of the novel, the "two cities" of the title—London, England and Paris, France—provide contrasting settings for this unforgettable story.
After writing for this website for almost a year now, I've come to realize that "tales" of Walt Disney World vacations tend to fall into two disparate categories as well: the once (or twice)-in-a-lifetime vacation or the frequent visit.
How did I come to this conclusion? Mainly through reader comments to my articles as well as those of fellow writers. For example, readers seemed to love or hate my suggestion that it is possible to spend a week or more at the Walt Disney World Resort and never enter a theme park. It struck me that the strong reactions for and against this idea were the result of differing vacation patterns. Fellow writer Steve Russo's recent piece, "Switching Resorts," provoked a similar reader response; just as many readers wrote in praise of the resort-hopping itinerary as those that railed against the idea.
A brief look at the two types of vacations will provide an explanation for these strong opposing feelings. Unlike the starkly different "best times and worst times" of Dickens, the benefits of both kinds of vacation strategies will emerge.
When the "vacation kingdom of the world" opened in 1971, it ushered in a new era of family travel. Just as Disneyland transformed the "amusement park" into a theme park, Walt Disney World took the concept of "family resort" to a previously unheard of level of excellence and innovation. The scale and ambition evident in the planning and building of Walt Disney World was something the "family entertainment" industry had never seen before—or since, for that matter.
For the first 20 years of Walt Disney World's existence, it was seen by most families as a once (or twice)-in-a-lifetime vacation destination. The original resorts—the Contemporary, the Polynesian, and the Golf Resort—were booked years in advance, so a trip to Disney World required early reservations and, in most cases, financial planning as well. Even guests who returned for frequent visits typically planned their trips two to three years apart.
This concept of Walt Disney World changed as the resort grew. More and more resorts were added, in differing price ranges that made frequent visits viable for many families. More theme parks were added, creating the need for longer stays. Water parks and entertainment districts appealed to a broader range of vacationers. The creation of special events, such as Disneyana conventions, Star Wars Weekends, Soap Opera Weekends, events at Disney's Wide World of Sports, the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, Walt Disney World Marathon, and the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival, also encouraged frequent visits. Last (but definitely not least), the opening of the first Disney Vacation Club Resort—Disney's Old Key West Resort in 1991—guaranteed that some guests would visit Walt Disney World once or more a year. With the ongoing expansion of the Disney Vacation Club, the numbers of repeat visitors increased exponentially.
Guests pack differing expectations for their vacations. As a once infrequent but now frequent Walt Disney World guest, I can speak to the experiences of both groups.
The do-it-all-while-we-have-the-chance vacation – early in my traveling career, there were long periods between Walt Disney World and Disneyland visits. When Walt Disney World trips occurred every five to 10 years, I was the epitome of the "rope drop to closing" theme park guest. I appreciated the beauty of the resorts, but I very rarely made time to take advantage of the many amenities offered there. I enjoyed a good sit-down meal or two, but more often than not longed to be back out in the thick of things enjoying attractions. Shopping was fine, but limited to Main Street's Emporium and maybe a World Showcase shop or two. Did I want to see the new attractions that had been added since my last visit? Sure. But the focus, honestly, was on revisiting my favorites, seeing every parade, every firework spectacular, and wringing every single minute out of my multi-day park-hopper.
There's much joy in this approach to Walt Disney World, and in some ways, I miss the frenetic excitement of those early visits. To give you some idea of how fast-paced those visits were, there was one memorable night in the early 1990s when we watched the 9:00 showing of the Main Street Electrical Parade at the Magic Kingdom, enjoyed EPCOT Center's "Illuminations" at 10:00, and made it to Hollywood Blvd. in time for a performance of "Sorcery in the Sky" at the Disney-MGM Studios at 11:00. Afterwards, we returned to the Magic Kingdom for a few more rides on Big Thunder Railroad and Space Mountain.
I appreciate readers who comment that their main focus is on theme park experiences. That's what brings most of us to Lake Buena Vista in the first place. These guests may baulk at suggestions of tennis, nature hikes, leisurely meals, high teas, and horseback riding—pleasures that can be experienced at home or at locations other than Walt Disney World.
I enjoyed those special sporadic visits, but there were drawbacks. As an infrequent visitor, I expected that all major attractions would be open and operational. When they weren't, I would be genuinely disappointed. When we did splurge on an expensive sit-down meal, I had high expectations that were often unmet. I was often discouraged by the lack of unique, interesting merchandise at a time when buying Disney products was truly a special treat that couldn't be replicated at the local mall or on the internet. And, of course, there's that sense of exhaustion that sometimes comes after pounding the theme park pavement relentlessly day after day.
Luckily, I had an opportunity to revisit my marathon vacation mode a few years ago. While studying at Cambridge University in England, I took a weekend trip to Paris, France. Friends and I spent one wonderful day in the City of Lights, and then, on my insistence, spent the other full day at Disneyland, Paris. Knowing that it would be a while before I returned, I reveled in the chance to Disney Park until I dropped. But I also came to appreciate the way my family and I experience Walt Disney World now as frequent guests.
The slow-down-and-enjoy-the-ride vacation – there is so much more to the Walt Disney World Resort than theme parks. Through a series of fortunate events, I have been able to spend lots and lots of time at Walt Disney World over the past fifteen years or so. As a frequent guest, I am lucky to have opportunities to enjoy the plethora of activities that Walt Disney World has to offer.
There's a special pleasure in visiting theme parks with a less hurried, more relaxed attitude. When you remove the mania to "get to as many attractions as possible," to "get there first thing in the morning," and to "go until you drop," there's time to enjoy spontaneous pleasures of Disney parks in a much more relaxed way. Smaller attractions like Tom Sawyer Island become a possibility when you eliminate the pressure to visit the big attractions as many times as possible. If a favorite attraction is closed for refurbishment, the disappointment is assuaged by the fact that attraction will be up and running by the next visit. Leisurely meals, visits with artists and performers, and lingering over treasures at shop become realistic possibilities for the frequent visitor.
Frequent visitors also tend to have the time to make the most of the myriad activities available at resorts. By taking time to enjoy the unparalleled facilities (from pools to tennis courts to bike riding trails to boat rentals to spas to shopping), frequent visitors have the opportunity to slow down. Theme park experiences become more meaningful when there's down time between them. Some of the most memorable moments of vacation often take place in unexpected places and at unexpected times. Having time to enjoy the many sitting areas at resorts, the beautifully landscaped walkways, the enjoyable transportation options (boats and monorails come to mind), and visits with cast members and fellow travelers alike enhance the vacation experience immeasurably.
Frequent visits also enable guests to focus their vacation—spending the bulk of their time at Epcot's Flower and Garden Festival, for example, or partaking in the Magic Kingdom's Christmas parties and parades. When you remove the pressure to see it all, there's a much better chance that you'll be able to enjoy those little unhurried moments.
There are some downsides to this approach to Walt Disney World vacations. For example, frequent guests might expect something new and different each visit. Without the addition of special events or new attractions, some frequent guests complain that their incentive to visit again decreases.
Others fall into the opposite camp. They complain when favorite places or special classic attractions are changed—I know that I do. There's a certain comfort in knowing what to expect when visiting a place like the Magic Kingdom, so when Disney service slips, when cast member courtesy is not as consistent as in the past, when favorite attractions or places are removed or altered, some frequent visitors will be disappointed. Other complaints registered by frequent visitors concern the lack of unique merchandise, the blandness of the menus, or the lack of consistent maintenance—things that have always been hallmarks of Disney parks. Familiarity does breed contempt, and frequent visitors are often the most demanding and difficult to please.
There is a real possibility that frequent guests become the most vocal critics of Disney parks. Much of this originates from a very good place: a deep love and respect for Disney. Disney enthusiasts are a passionate group who genuinely care about their beloved theme parks.
These observations are in no way meant to imply that the "magic" of visiting is ruined by frequent visits—there are many more positive than negative reasons for regular visits to the resort in my opinion. But the effect of frequent visits does change the experience.
There is no right or wrong way to visit Walt Disney World. I understand that people have strong, often angry opinions when it comes to vacation planning. I appreciate that passion, because it is one that I share. Nonetheless, I think it's safe to say that whatever approach guests take when visiting the Walt Disney World Resort, the great expectaion is the same: a memorable vacation experience.
The individual ways to achieve that goal are as varied and as valid as the number of individual guests streaming through the turnstiles every day at every Disney theme park. My hope, in this season of good cheer, is that we all remember to respect and value one another's opinions. When a friend suggested sitting on the front porch of Disney's Beach Club Resort for several hours, I thought she was mad. Now, however, I've learned that while different isn't always better, it certainly can be an enriching experience. And enriching experiences are at the heart of all vacations, be they fast-paced or restful and relaxing.
I learned that lesson sitting on a porch.
(Send an email to Tom Richards)
Tom Richards is a life-long admirer of Walt Disney, something of a Disney historian, and a free-lance writer. His Disney interests include but are not limited to: Walt Disney World, classic Disney animation, live-action films made during Walt's lifetime, and Disney-related music and art.