It’s a minute to midnight, and my fingertip hovers over my keyboard, poised to refresh. At the stroke of 12, the elusive meet and greet with princesses Anna and Elsa will go online at Disney’s website, and if I do not snag a time slot for my Frozen-obsessed daughters, our entire upcoming Disney World vacation will turn into a pumpkin.
Well, maybe not, but it sure feels that way.
It was different when my family of four first visited the park two years ago, for what was meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime family jaunt. For a typical vacation, I’d maybe check a few reviews on TripAdvisor or rates on Expedia and call it a day. But like many before me planning a Disney trip, I caught a bad case of Mickeyitis, spiraling down a rabbit hole into the House of the Mouse. There, I discovered the vast underworld of 21st-century Disney fandom, from bloggers who photograph every bite of food or piece of new merchandise, to podcasts and YouTube videos reviewing every ride, to message boards critiquing the resorts’ some 30,000 on-site hotel rooms.
Thanks to the tips gleaned, that visit was planned to perfection. We hit three of the four Disney parks, dined in two castles, met princesses, whooped it up at the Hoop-Dee-Doo dinner show, chased coconuts around ’Ohana restaurant, viewed fireworks from a semiprivate balcony dessert party, and scored repeat wait-free rides on Peter Pan’s Flight, Space Mountain, and Toy Story Midway Mania!
We also did something we never expected: vowed to return. For the next two years, we charged every possible expense onto our Disney Visa Cards, finally earning enough reward points to cover our return tickets this past December. But by then, things had changed. Thanks to the introduction of the new estimated $1 billion MyMagic+ system, an attempt by Disney to up its technological game, many of our hard-won strategies were obsolete. Now, guests tag themselves like homing pigeons with MagicBands, brightly colored RFID-embedded bracelets that allow them to enter their hotel room, buy a Mickey Bar, or hop on Splash Mountain with a swipe of the wrist. Ride photos (that you can buy) plop automatically into your online “Memory Maker” account, soda refills are controlled by chips in the mugs, and guests rely heavily on Disney’s smartphone app to check ride wait times and make changes on the fly.
But, to some, the biggest game changer has been the overhaul of the FastPass system. The original concept was a godsend for parents, who’d rather ride the stomach-churning Tea Cups ad nauseam than try to occupy two hot, bored, squirmy kids in hour-plus lines. In exchange for returning at a later time slot, you printed a free ticket that let you skip the standby line and essentially head right in. Now, FastPass+ offers the same option, only booked ahead of time, online. The catch? Because you are essentially limited to three of these bookings per day, the most popular rides go fast. Once, eager guests arrived before park opening, known as Rope Drop, and hotfooted it to the most popular attractions; now, the land grab begins two months ahead of time, late at night, in your home, on your laptop. If the idea of committing today to be riding, say, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at 11:05 on the morning of May 22, after you’ve already booked lunch reservations six months out, sounds cray cray, then perhaps Disney is no longer the place for you.
Uberfans have given FastPass+ mixed reviews, pointing out that from a consumer perspective the money might have been better spent on increasing capacity by building new rides, as opposed to essentially rationing out existing ones. Admittedly it’s a nice feature for those who are, say, late risers, knowing they have a few short waits guaranteed, but we also heard an earful about wonky apps, vanishing reservations, and other snafus and glitches as the MyMagic+ system was rolled out.
Still the changes haven’t slowed the parks’ popularity — yet. Attendance at Walt Disney World has been rising in recent quarters and topping 18 million annual visitors, despite one-day ticket prices now as high as $105 and keen competition from the “Dark Side” down the road — a.k.a. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Orlando.
But between strategizing ways to stay a step ahead of these crowds and preordaining practically everything down to your potty breaks, planning this vacation can feel less like a daily diversion and more like a chore. And this time, we felt the added stress that all our hard work could potentially vanish into cyberspace with one computer glitch. Would our efforts pay off? My fortysomething husband and I, and our two princesses, ages 5 and 9, headed back to the World, hitting three parks and spending six nights at the Beach Club Resort, ready to discover: Would a Disney gone digital retain its charm?
Will all that planning leave room for spontaneous fun?
The joylessness of pre-booking everything is perhaps the biggest accusation critics have hurled. But if you’re spending up to a thousand bucks a day, you’d be a fool to risk getting shut out of what you want. Still, there were a few last-minute adjustments we were able to make. My husband booked a DiveQuest scuba excursion inside Epcot’s 5.7 million-gallon saltwater tank the night before — likely only available because of the $175 price tag and the certification required. The hosts at the Coral Reef restaurant managed to snag us a front-row table so the kids could watch through the glass while dad did aquatic somersaults before their widened eyes. We also dumped our hard-won FastPass+ for front-row seats at the Festival of Fantasy parade, watching from Liberty Square instead, and coaxed our braver-than-we anticipated youngest onto her first Space Mountain ride instead. And after all the prep work, my daughters’ confessed highlights were two moments I hadn’t planned at all: freely exploring Tom Sawyer’s Island, and winning the Hula-Hoop contest on our “off day” at Stormalong Bay, our resort’s pool complex.
MagicBands — a force of good or evil? Luckily, the horror stories of MagicBand glitches requiring hours of time wasted in guest services never materialized for us. Using the bands wasn’t quite as simple as a wave of the wrist, but after a little experimenting with lining it up just so, they did let us access our hotel room, enter FastPass ride lines at the parks, and pay for items at gift shops. I loved the freedom of popping down to the ice machine or gift shop without having to scramble for a room key or wallet. Within a day, the bands went from feeling cumbersome to natural; the kids wore them to bed; we kept them on in the pool. By the trip’s end, awed by their awesome line-skipping ability, the kids would hold them together and shout “Mickey Power!”
Will FastPass+ transform your wait times?
Commando Disney fans love to hate on the limitations and restrictions of this new paperless system. And yet, the hard-won Frozen FP+ I’d scored by staying up late two months earlier allowed us to waltz past a 130-minute line on our first day at Magic Kingdom. We dodged a persistent hourlong wait for the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster and skipped a 40-minute wait for Peter Pan’s Flight’s ever-charming three-minute flight over London. In the Hollywood Studios park, we boarded Toy Story Midway Mania! shortly after park opening at 9:21 a.m., when the wait had already escalated to 95 minutes. We got to ride Epcot’s Soarin’ and Test Track (on two different mornings) with no wait. In all, we never waited more than 20 minutes for any ride. Not bad. And when a waiter at the Hollywood Brown Derby saw our unexpectedly looooong meal caused such distress that his tip was in jeopardy, he smartly issued us a bonus “Use-Anywhere” pass, the ultimate score.
Is there a dark side to FastPass+?
When you have a FP+, life is good. When you don’t, not so much. Once your three daily pre-booked passes are used up, may the force be with you. Keen observers claim the new system has created longer waits on rides like Pirates of the Caribbean that were once walk-ons. This rings true. Compared with our previous trip, we accomplished far less: We simply ran out of time for several old favorites. Worst of all, the stress of keeping those hard-won times sent my cortisol levels spiking. For example, while waiting for our slot to ride Mine Train, my daughter and I jumped on a short line for Haunted Mansion. Suddenly our forward progress halted and a check of the Disney app revealed the ride had broken down. By now, anxious about potentially missing our hourlong ride window, I yanked us off the line and dragged her like Cruella de Vil back to Mine Train.
Can you really conjure more FastPasses+ on site?
Disney’s promised option of getting additional FastPasses+ after all three are used was elusive, at best. For now, this functionality is still only available at a kiosk, where the wait for another pass is often the same as the time saved on the next line, making it a wash. Ultimately what worked best was a hybrid strategy: old-school Rope Drop for popular rides like Space Mountain, Test Track, and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (speed walk if you must but don’t run, lest you get scolded by a cast member), followed by FastPass+ as crowds build. Doing that, on a lightly attended morning, we rode Space Mountain once, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin twice, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad three times, Splash Mountain twice, and Mine Train, all by around 10 a.m.
Will you feel digitally handcuffed to your smartphone?
Between constantly checking ride wait times, rescheduling FastPass+ times, checking restaurant menus, and pulling up advance dining reservation confirmations, not to mention taking photos and texting to find family members across the park, this was hardly a device-free vacay. Our phone batteries were toast by midafternoon — and good luck finding an outlet to recharge. (Some do exist, but they are few and far between—be sure to bring an external backup charger.)
Is Disney’s technology all it’s cracked up to be?
Would the money spent on tracking guests have been better spent updating the actual attractions? On both trips, we had rides break while we were waiting in line, about to board, or even on them (ever been evacuated from Splash Mountain?). Spaceship Earth and Carousel of Progress felt sadly dated, and let’s not even mention the resuscitation of Michael Jackson’s ’80s-era 3-D sci-fi flick Captain EO. Our fierce collective nostalgia is a challenge: Disney faces opposition every time it tries to so much as add a Starbucks. I was dismayed to find my favorite Epcot ride as a child, Journey Into Imagination with Figment, had been overhauled, the post-ride game room dismantled. And we’ve got just as cool technology on our Wii at home. One of the hyped benefits of MagicBands, that a character like Minnie Mouse would personally greet our daughters by name, never materialized.
Has the human touch been banished from the kingdom?
By our last day in the park, despite many trip highlights, I’m still not convinced this trip surpasses the perfection of — or at least my hazy perception of — the first. We hit the Main Street gift shop for souvenirs, where my youngest requests an Anna doll, which she promptly begs to free from the box, over dad’s practical objections. Sure enough, 10 minutes later, emerging from a dark ride into broad daylight, calamity strikes: Anna is now missing one of her tiny green shoes. Cue: a vindicated father, a desperate mother, and a child in tears. The closest Frozen gift shop is, naturally, only steps away, so we enter and gingerly ask whether a replacement shoe can be procured. The male cast member removes the doll from my hands. “You’re not Cinderella,” he chides her. “Why’d you go and lose your shoe?” Then, without so much as a request to see a receipt, he whisks her into the back, purring, “Let’s see what I can do.” Minutes later, we’re on the monorail headed to the parking lot, then on to Orlando International, a brand new Anna in a tightly sealed box, a beaming child. Now I am the one in tears, heart bursting with parental gratitude. “Don’t cry, Mommy,” my youngest comforts me, seeing my sadness at having to leave this place. “We can still have fun at home. We all have each other.” This, exactly this, is why despite all of the flaws and frustrations in the World, I have a sneaking suspicion that we’ll be back.
10 TIPS TO THE PERFECTLY PLANNED DISNEY VACATION
To the naked eye, I don’t look like a Disneyphile. I didn’t wed at Cinderella’s pavilion. I don’t collect or trade souvenir stick pins. I don’t even own a pair of sparkly Mouse Ears. But I’ve lurked on enough Disney message boards to know the secrets of those who do. Here’s how to plan your own trip like a true Disney diehard.
1) It’s All in the Timing: The most important Disney decision you’ll ever make is when to go. When first-timers return home vowing never again, it’s a safe bet they went during Christmas break. Avoid crowd-pleasers, from Jersey Week in November to February break, and aim for a “slow time” like September or January. At the risk of ticking off educators, we’ve had luck pulling our elementary-age kids out of school during the first two weeks of December. But with seasonal events like Epcot’s food and wine festival, deals like free dining, and a seemingly steady supply of international visitors during the offseason, Disney has all but eliminated this edge, so that this traditionally slow week felt far busier than before.
2) Pick Your Parks: Disney vets like to reminisce about the days the entire clan would wake up and decide on a whim which of the four parks to hit. Reality check. Today, you’ll need to schedule where you’ll be and when with Black Ops military precision, using a crowd calendar that details which parks will be lightly attended and why. The best is found on the delightfully snarky easywdw.com, produced by Josh Humphrey, coauthor of The Easy Guide to Your First Walt Disney World Visit. (Like all tips Disney, this comes down to zigging when others are zagging. For example, Humphrey says to avoid parks that are offering Extra Magic Hours like the plague — the feature tends to draw extra heavy crowds.) We went to Magic Kingdom on one of his “unadvised” days and paid the price. Lesson learned. And though you want to cram your trip with as much family fun time as possible, book a break day in the middle. Your aching feet/cranky kids will thank you.
3) Book your Restaurant Resies: Why do you need to know what park you’ll visit each day of your trip? Because if you want sit-down meals inside those parks, instead of chowing fast food all week, you should select where you’ll be eating six months in advance. Yes, really. (The only exception: If you buy Park Hoppers, an added expense which allows you to visit multiple parks on the same day, also giving you many more restaurant options.) Those who get exactly what they want set an alarm for 6 a.m. EST, 180 days before their arrival date, when advance dining reservations are released. The hot ticket fluctuates — once upon a time it was Cindy’s table at iconic Cinderella Castle — for banquet-quality food served with the princesses. Today it’s Be Our Guest, a meal at the Beast’s Castle that gets lukewarm reviews, with one notable caveat — it’s the only dinner spot in the Magic Kingdom that serves booze. Disney insiders know to scoop up the premier tables: viewing the nightly fireworks from a window seat at tony California Grill or slipping inside the park before it opens to pose for a picture on an empty Main Street by making reservations to eat breakfast with Pooh at Crystal Palace. Book away — just don’t forget to cancel by midnight the night before to avoid an onerous $10 per person fee at some restaurants for those who bail.
4) Forgo the Dining Plan: It’s a sucker’s bet, unless you are among the few families that can take advantage of Disney’s annual fall promotion, free dining (say, by booking a moderately priced room with four adult diners). Once a good value, it’s now almost impossible to make it come out in your favor without obsessing over snack values, ordering steak nightly, and stuffing your face with too many desserts. Instead, enjoy the financial freedom of ordering a la carte, getting what you want, and paying as you go, and you’ll come out roughly the same. Can you dine well at Disney? We ate schnitzel at Germany’s Biergarten, Neapolitan pizza at Via Napoli, tuna sushi at the California Grill, and porterhouse at Shula’s.
5) Don’t Delay on Tickets: If you’re not booking a package through Disney, consider ordering your park entrance tickets ahead of time through the mail from reliable discount broker Undercover Tourist. (Visit Mousesavers.com and subscribe to the e-mail updates, which link you to this and other deals.) Remember, you’ll need them early enough to pre-book ride times two months in advance. Time crunched? Buy them at any Disney Store near your home and link them to your online account. Don’t forget popular hard-ticketed events that sell out, such as the fireworks-viewing dessert party, the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party.
6) Consider Location: Some say the Disney charm can only be found on property, happily paying Four Seasons prices for convenience and interior design touches like “Hidden Mickeys” in the carpet. Others boast they can rent a five-room bungalow down the road for a fraction of the cost. The battle grew heated last year as Disney gave its on-site guests a 30-day headstart in FastPass+ picks. Savvy irate off-site visitors, shut out of popular rides weeks ahead of time, resorted to booking controversial “throwaway” rooms, cheap and left unused, just to access those perks. Another good option to consider: the on-site Swan/Dolphin, which offers nearly all the FastPass+ perks, with more moderate prices. Or try the newish Art of Animation, which gets high marks for its family suites at value prices. Booking more than six months ahead is a savvy move so that you can strategically make restaurant reservations (six months out, remember) that best fit your location.
7) Leverage Thy FastPass+ : Until this policy shifts, gung-ho guests stay on-site and log online at midnight 60 days in advance to book their rides. What’s hot will likely change — on our last trip to the Magic Kingdom it was Enchanted Tales with Belle; when it opens in 2016, Epcot’s Frozen ride (replacing Maelstrom) will likely top the list. For now, it’s Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster, the new Festival of Fantasy parade, fireworks viewing, and, of course, meeting Frozen’s Anna and Elsa. Missed your chance? You have three options: Obsessively stalk the My Disney Experience app or website throughout the next two months (try at least 45 days out, when full deposits are due), hoping an elusive reservation will appear; get there at Rope Drop; or resign yourself to a wait.
8) Get Ready to Tour: Once your plans are set, head over to TouringPlans.com, where you can create and print out your own free, personalized agenda, literally down to the minute, from a 9:10 a.m. dash to Peter Pan to lining up along Main Street for the 9 p.m. Electrical Parade. Are you kid-free and can go like a commando, crisscrossing the park? Or got grandma in tow and need to reduce walking time? The site can take all that into account. Finally, don’t forget to download the app, My Disney Experience.
9) Make Your Band: At least a month ahead of time, on-site guests get to customize their MagicBands, picking colors and engraving names. They’ll drop ship in an extravagant box to your doorstep around three weeks before you leave, so if you’re trying to surprise the kiddos, be on high alert. While you’re on Disney’s website, create a free, customized park map printed with your family’s name as a memento.
10) Stay Vigilant! Your room, your meals, your rides are all set. Time to relax? Wrong! Disney has a habit of changing things up, so periodically check sites like WDWmagic.com, allears.net, and disboards.com, where news breaks first: Your favorite ride will be down for rehab, or park hours may have changed, ruining the advantage of a scheduled pre-park breakfast. Sometimes, the news is good: Two months before our trip, we were tipped off that Orbitz was running a 15 percent off sale on top of Disney’s 30 percent off rooms at on-site hotels, so we switched our reservation accordingly.
WHAT’S THAT YOU SAY?
To do the parks like a native, commit this jargon to memory.
> ADRs Advanced Dining Reservations, which can be made 180 days before your trip. Those staying on site get a slight advantage: They can book reservations six months before their arrival date for up to the first 10 days of their stay.
> Cast Member Every park worker, down to the snack vendor, is part of the show.
> EMH Extra Magic Hours — an extra hour in the morning or two in the evening when the park is open only to guests staying at on-site hotels.
> FastPass+ A new system that lets you pre-book three rides per day. Love it, loathe it, but choose wisely or pay the price.
> Imagineer The coolest job around, in-house ride or attraction designer.
> MagicBands Chip-embedded bracelets are clever, but is Big Walt tracking your every move?
> Rope Dropping Showing up when the park opens, or, ideally, a half-hour before, to be first in line to enter. In other words, waiting in line to avoid waiting in even longer lines later.
> Touring Plan Your tick-tock agenda for the day, which you can set up via the Disney app or on the Touring Plan website.