Walt Disney World: A Fresh Perspectiveby Gregg Jacobs, contributing writer
My first trip to Walt Disney World was as a wee child back in (gulp) 1972, the year after the park opened. I've been there many times since, trying to get there at least a couple of times per year in recent years.
I've always approached these visits as special occassions and would try to do as much as possible while I was there. There was always a plan to hit our favorite eating spots and as many E-ticket rides as possible. I visited more than most, so maybe this was less true with me than many—but the idea was to go for quantity, rather than quality, since I wanted to squeeze as much out of every minute that I was there.
I knew I'd be down in Orlando for at least a couple of months, so I decided to try a different tactic—to see Walt Disney World through the eyes of a local (a couple of months ago, I talked ahout some big changes happening in my life, including a for-now temporary move to the Orlando area). As opposed to running around all day trying to cram in as much as I could, I wanted to take my time and focus on a few of my favorites each visit, instead of trying to see it all at once. I wanted to take advantage of being here by making quick trips, maybe seeing a concert, grabbing something to eat and then heading home. I wanted to focus on new things as they opened without having to wait and get on a plane. Most importantly, I wanted to explore the place in ways I couldn't before with limited time by trying experiences that were new to me.
I know not everyone can do this. For some people, their Orlando visit is once a year or once in a lifetime, so obviously your goals will be different. It's just that seeing the place from this point of view has opened my eyes to a few things, and I think my experience can provide some ideas, whether you're planning that once in a lifetime trip or live down the street. I'm going to stray from my usual formula here and share these random thoughts that hopefully will get you to think as you plan your visits.
So come with me and my Florida resident Pixie Dust Pass (more on that later) and let's see what I found.
First, I'm going to tackle the elephant (or rather big blue Genie) in the room. Disney Genie, Genie Plus and seprately paid Lightning Lanes are here, for better and for worse. For those who don't know, Genie is the new app/system recently put in place to help guests plan their day at the parks.
For today, I'm going to focus on the Genie+ feature, which essentially replaces the old, free Fastpass system. For $15 per day, per guest, you can, through the My Disney Experience smartphone app, get assigned Lightning Lane times for one of a number of attractions at the park you are visiting. You can get one starting at the beginning of the day (7:00 for Disney resort guests, park opening time for the rest of us poor slobs—though I've tried and gotten them earlier a few times, even as a passholder). You can then get an addtional Lightning Lane time every two hours until park closing.
Is it worth it? In my humble opinion and experience, that depends on the park. As always, your mileage may vary depending on your personal tastes and goals. Below is my take park by park:
Magic Kingdom – Worth It
The Magic Kingdom has volume. By that, I mean it has a lot of rides and a lot of rides means people have many options of which Lightning Lane to go for. This spreads the Genie+ holders out, and as a result, most rides are available on the service until pretty late in the day. I've used Genie+ here several times, and each time, I got Lightning Lane passes for five rides, which is actually pretty good. These included the biggies (the mountains—Space, Splash and Big Thunder), Peter Pan, Buzz Lightyear, the Haunted Mansion, and Pirates of the Carribean. In between my Lightning Lane times, I went to the shows that have short waits, like Mickey's PhilharMagic and the Hall of Presidents. Because of Genie+, I got in a pretty full day.
A few of my favorites that might be worth your time:
- Mickey's Philharmagic – turn your head around to the back of the theater in the final moments of the show when Donald Duck goes flying.
- Carousel of Progress – dated, but a classic. Go if for no other reason than when the daughter talks about a time when people didn't have "car phones."
- Hall of Presidents – political leanings aside, it really is a moving show and provides an entertaining history lesson.
Epcot – Not Worth It
The situation at Epcot is the opposite of the Magic Kingdom in some ways. There aren't as many rides, so everyone who has Genie+ is gunning for spots on the same rides, namely Frozen, Soarin' and Test Track. Remy's Ratatouille Adventure has an individual Lightning Lane entrance you purchase with a separate cost (and doesn't require Genie+), so doesn't count, and this is being written ahead of the Guardians of the Galaxy opening, so not sure how that will impact the equation. I've tried several times, and always found myself able to grab one of these in the morning, but by the time my next two-hour window rolled around, the big rides either weren't available at all or only for very late in the day. The only rides left available for Lightning Lane passes were rides like Journey Into Imagination and Finding Nemo, which, while great, usually have fairly short waits anyway and the Lightning Lane isn't needed.
A few of my favorites that might be worth your time:
- Journey Into Imagination with Figment – I know, I know—a controversial choice, but I still get a kick out of the little purple guy.
- Any of the films in World Showcase – they're funny, beautiful and give a good overview of the countries they represent. At worst, you're getting 20 minutes of air conditioning.
- World Showcase – along those lines, take your time walking around, The archtectural touches are incredible and many of the pavillions have small museums that give an interesting insight into the culture—and see above about air conditioning.
Hollywood Studios – A Qualified Yes (Worth It)
This park has a lot of the same issues as Epcot with Genie+. There are a few rides everyone wants that fill up in the system really quickly. You'll get one of the biggies in the morning (Tower of Terror, Toy Story Mania, Slinky Dog Dash, Smuggler's Run, Runaway Railway), and then maybe get one more in before they fill up. The reason for the qualified yes is that Genie+ may provide your only chance to ride some of these. The wait times in this park have become excruciating on a busy day. The Tower of Terror was always somewhat popular, but I've visited several times in the last couple of months, and I've seen wait times of up to three hours, which was previously unheard of. Ditto with some of the others. Hollywood has some of WDW's best rides, and if you're willing to pony up $15 to skip the line or one of two of them, it's likely worth it.
A few of my favorites that might be worth your time:
- Lightning McQueen Racing Academy – I caught this for the first time on my last visit. It's a must if you have little ones, and it's fun even if you don't, because the technology on the Lightning McQueen Animatronic is amazing.
- Walt Disney Presents – some great exhibits on the company history, models of the parks and sneak previews of what's to come. Worth your time.
Animal Kingdom – A Qualified Yes (Worth It)
I'm going to repeat my Hollywood Studios spiel here. Everyone wants Nav'i River Journey, Expediction Everest, Killamanjaro Safari, and the passes fill up fast. If you want to get to ride one of two of them without a wait, and are willing to pay $15 for the privilege, then it's worth it. That said, there are a ton of wonderful attractions at this park that don't have much of a wait and beautiful scenery, so if you want to skip Genie+, you can still have a great day. Wait the hour for the safari and skip the other E-ticket attractions.
A few of my favorites that might be worth your time:
- Feathered Friends in Flight – seeing this bird show never fails to choke me up - I'm not sure why - just something about seeing these beautiful creatures and hearing their stories).
- The trails around the Tree of Life – I've banged this drum before - the meandering trails around the tree have otters, kangaroos and other amazing creatures with no crowds, because no one knows about them). You also get an up close view of the beautiful carvings on the tree.
- Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail and Maharajah Jungle Trek – beatifully landscaped paths with no lines and no rush. The best place to get up close to gorillas and tigers amongst other wonderful creatures. I see people pouring off the safari and leaving without a second glace at the gorilla trail and it makes me crazy.
When visiting the Disney theme parks, we all have a tendency to do what I call a commando day. We go from dawn to midnight and run from one major attraction to the next, without stopping to see all the cool stuff in between that might not have quite as high a profile. In the last couple of months, I've tried to explore these a little more.
A tiger sleeps at Majarajah Jungle Trek. Photo by Gregg Jacobs.
Things Outside the Parks
Some things you could do outside the parks:
- Hotel pool – spend a day at your themed hotel pool
- Water park – hit a water park. Typhoon Lagoon is my favorite.
- Cirque du Soleil: Drawn to Life – the newest show. I had seen La Nouba (its predecessor) a couple of times many years ago and had forgotten how great these shows are. The acrobats are just incredible, and this one has a sweet story, with just enough of a Disney touch, to go along with it. We grabbed dinner at STK Orlando (was pricey, but food was amazing) and caught the 8:00 show, which made for a fun Saturday night.
- The Boardwalk – take a leisurely stroll. I hadn't done this in a long time and was glad I did. Had a great buffet breakfast at the Cape May Cafe and then walked around Crescent Lake, taking in the beautiful scenery, beaches, boat rides and carnvial games. Made for a nice morning. We were too full to stop at Boardwalk Ice Cream, but you should.
Thumbs-Up in the Parks
- Single rider lines are awesome and getting more plentiful. I've tended to avoid these for some reason, but since I was alone at the parks a few times during this run, I tried them out. Test Track had a posted 70 minute wait - i was on in less than 10. Smuggler's run had a posted 120 minute wait - I was on in 15 (cast member told me she's never seen people wait more than 30 minutes). If you're willing to split up your party, it's the way to go (I wasn't alone for Smuggler's - we just decided it was worth being on separate space ships to save an hour).
- Disney ticket offices at the Magic Kingdom (in Liberty Square) and Disney Springs (in Town Center) are also awesome. If you're having trouble with your tickets, you can visit the helpful cast members at these newish centers and they can generally take care of your issue without a long wait at guest relations or heaven forbid, a two-hour wait on the phone.
- Guest Relations – along those lines, you now see Guest Relations umbrellas manned by helpful cast members all over the parks. They can answer questions and handle the basics for you without having to walk to the main offices at the front of the parks.
- 50th anniversary merchandise –I had to stick something about merchandise in hear somewhere, so will give Disney the thumbs up in that they've made good on their promise to keep rolling out new 50th anniversary merchandise over the course of the celebration. I've seen new shirts, shoes, watches and both basic and high end merchandise continually popping up. I'm usually in a park at least once every week or two these days, and I'm almost always seeing something new. Also love the new 50th Coke bottles.
- Trackless rides – I love the new breed of rides with trackless technology. Remy's Ratatouille Adventure (yes, it's been in Paris for a while), Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway and Rise of the Resistance, with increasing complexity, all blew my expectations away (Railway, in particular, puts a smile on my face every time). Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is next, and I can't wait.
- Character meet-and-greets – I know I'm old, but I stil love the character greetings. I applaud Disney for finding a way to bring the characters out during the pandemic (selfie anyone?), but am glad the hugs are returning.
- Kevin – a shoutout to Animal Kingdom and the Kevin animatronic. The movements and noise she made were terrific.
It's Kevin! Photo by Gregg Jacobs.
- Generic park merchandise – my very first article for Mouseplanet, way back in 2016, was about how Disney was finally moving away from generic park merchandise and making more interesting items, especially those that pertained to specific attractions. All I can say is what happened? There are still some great items, but more and more I'm seeing the same things over and over again at every shop. I rode Dinosaur in Animal Kingdom the other day, and didh't see an single dinosaur item in the gift shop. Even worse, I went to the shop in Chester and Hesters and again, not one dinosaur item, just a bunch of generial WDW merchandise. No theming at all. The shops should be part of the theming and overall experience. You're going backwards on this one Mickey.
- Kite Tails/ampitheater space – you need to do something with that giant ampitheater you built in front of Expedition Everest. Kite Tails? Really? I so wanted to like it, but it was 10 minutes long and involved three kites pulled by cast members on jet skis. They should have just had half an hour of the guys on the barge playing the drums, who were great. You can do better, Mickey.
- Nighttime parades – I am so happy the Festival of Fantasy Parade is back (the fire-breathing Maleficent dragon is amazing). Time to bring back the nightime parades (loved Spectromagic).
- Annual passes – open up the other annual passes. My Pixie Dust Pass has come in handy (weekdays only), but ready to be able to visit on a Saturday. I know the pass freeze and park reservations are part of crowd control, but they're inconvient for your guests, so as things continue to normalize, please bring your admission media back to normal.
- Upkeep and maintenance – this last one is going to be a diatribe and needs more than a bullet point…
…The lack of upkeep and maintenance in the parks is getting to be noticable and is not OK. I've had roughly a dozen park visits over the last couple of months, and there wasn't a single day where several attactions didn't go down for extended periods of time. I waited over an hour for Remy to have it break down when I reached the front of the line. Same with Frozen and Test Track. My first Rise of the Resistance experience was getting up at 7:00 am to book a 7:00 pm Lightening Lane, only to have it break down when I arrived (I also loved the cast member who told me there were no Genie+ refunds if the ride breaks down—not true, but still).
Even when I do make it on to the ride, a lot of the time some of the effects aren't working. I rode Rise again to find the lightsaber effect where the top of the ship is cut open wasn't working. I rode Splash Mountain, and the audio was out for the back half of the ride. I know I said that the rides are getting increasingly techologically complex, and you can argue that's why this keeps happening, but I suspect it's something else.
My background is in financial planning and analysis. That makes me the accountant-ear in my industry (banking). For the last 30 years, I've been the finance guy the business people hated, the one who kept reminding them about budgets and to keep their spending in check. I was also the bad guy who sometimes had to tell them to cut costs and that they couldn't always do everything they wanted. The point is that I understand the need to make a profit and make investors happy. But it also means I can smell budget cuts a mile away—and my strong suspicion is that Disney has cut its maintenance budget in a big way.
My increased visits of late have shown me that a down attraction wasn't just me having bad luck, but have rather, an everday experience. Rides break down, trash cans overflow and shows are cancelled at the last minute.
Disney is a premium experience with a premium price tag, so we have a right to expect a certain level of service. Again, I can go back the next day, but the Star Wars fanatic who saved all year and spent thousands of dollars to visit Galaxy's Edge has a right to be angry if Rise or Smuggler's Run goes down for the day. If that person starts spreading the word and doesn't come back attendance drops and that's not good for the bottom line, either.
Disney has been through these periods before and has seen the light and come back. I believe they will again. And there's still so much to love here, and I'm glad I'm getting this opportunity to explore Walt Disney World in ways I haven't been able to before.
I hope you've enjoyed my slightly different perspective, and I've given you a few tips that will help you on your visit. See you real soon!