It was a rough year for Walt Disney World. The parks and resorts were closed for several months, only to reopen with much missing plus projects postponed. In terms of new attractions, lands, or restaurants, 2020 doesn’t compare to last year when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Takumi Tei, two hotels, or the Skyliner debuted.
Nevertheless, we’re all about finding silver linings here, and there were some big ones this year. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the required health safety modifications resulted in Walt Disney World getting creative with many quality of life improvements that will live on well beyond the current era of temporary abnormal.
Several of these involve less Cast Members and guest engagement and more use of smart phones–two things we don’t like. However, those same innovations also remove a lot of unnecessary friction from the park-going experience and allow for greater spontaneity, two things we very much do like. On balance, most are net positives. Before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s take a look at how this year’s improvements and new offerings stack up…
10. Table Service To Go – The takeout business saw a boom this year, and even Walt Disney World got in on the action. After years of aggressively avoiding takeout (most Disney restaurants still require the pretense of a reservation, sitting down, ordering, and then requesting a meal boxed up), Walt Disney World finally relented. At a handful of locations.
Still, progress. We look forward to this being expanded at other resort table service restaurants, particularly those at Disney Vacation Club properties and thematically bland eateries where dining from a hotel balcony might be more appealing and interesting.
Awesome Planet and Canada Far & Wide are solid additions to EPCOT. Both are beautifully shot, amusingly narrated, and will nicely break up your day. No one is going to book trips to watch them, but they’re the kind of supporting lineup improvements that EPCOT has needed. At the other end of the spectrum, Beauty and the Beast Sing-Along is literally the worst attraction at Walt Disney World, and its eventual removal will crack the top 5 on a “best of” the year.
8. Reflections Cancellation & Primeval Whirl’s Closure – Speaking of addition by subtraction, we come to the portion of the list that touches upon that. Our goal here is to find positivity in a sea of negative, so we’re not going to fixate on this too much.
The good news is that Dino-Rama got a little better this year by partly closing! (The new prizes are also really cool.) Likewise, fans of Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness won’t have a rustic-but-modern Holiday Inn crammed between those iconic resorts. There are actually a couple other cancellations at EPCOT we’re okay with, but let’s recalibrate here and focus on the actual positives…
7. Modified Character Interactions – Even before physical distancing imposed a moratorium on hugging characters, we were strong advocates of the “Disneyland approach” to meet & greets and praised how that was integrated into Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at DHS. (Elaborated upon extensively in our First Impressions of Star Wars Land at Walt DisneyWorld.)
Right now, some of the best moments with characters unfold in an organic and spontaneous manner as characters like Mary Poppins, Winnie the Pooh, and Joy from Inside Out wander their little areas of the park. These are great even with barriers between guests and the characters, but will improve exponentially when those are removed and one on one connections can happen. As at Disneyland, these are/will be a supplement to traditional meet & greets, not a replacement for them. So fear not if you want posed photos with your favorites.
6. Contactless Security Screening – For years (years!!!) we’ve been criticizing bag check at Walt Disney World, loudly questioning why the parks didn’t move to the Disneyland Paris or Universal Orlando scanning systems. That this is “only” #6 speaks to how strong the top of this best of 2020 at Walt Disney World list actually is. I hated the previous bag check so much and often went without a bag–even when I would’ve preferred having one–just to take advantage of the “no bags” line.
That might seem like hyperbole, but the old bag check was such an unnecessary point of friction, creating a terrible first impression for guests. You’d often encounter a long line, then watch as another lane breezed through as their Security Cast Member quickly eyeballed items whereas yours meticulously scrutinized every item. It was maddening.
Now, you literally just walk through artificial intelligence scanners and only go to secondary bag check if you set off the system. My camera bag always causes it to beep, but I’ve found that simply holding my DSLR in front of me negates the need for the secondary screening. (Not wanting to end up on some “list” somewhere, I don’t take photos of security areas. As such, above is a stock photo courtesy of Evolv Technology from a different era, when people joyously flocked to security scanners sans masks.)
5. Walk-up Waitlist – This is perhaps the only Walt Disney World prep site that is vehemently anti-spreedsheet and cautions against over-preparing. That’s against our own interests as a planning resource, but we feel strongly about that as fans of Walt Disney World and enjoyers of fun. (See our Being Spontaneous at Walt Disney World for a longer diatribe, including the importance of ‘planned spontaneity.’)
We’re also at least somewhat anti-ADR, or at least bemoan the practice of planning where you want to eat months in advance. That’s why one of the biggest improvements of 2020, in our view, was the addition of the Walk-Up Waitlist in My Disney Experience. While we haven’t taken advantage of this as much as we would in a normal year, we regularly see options like Be Our Guest Restaurant, Chef Mickey’s, Topolino’s Terrace, and other hard-to-book Advance Dining Reservations. All things considered, the last ~6 months have been a fantastic time for Walt Disney World fans who embrace spontaneity.
4. Gideon’s Bakehouse – Making it just under the wire with a soft opening just last week, the award-winning Gideon’s Bakehouse cracks the top 5 thanks to making the best cookies we’ve ever had. (Although judging by comments to our Gideon’s Bakehouse Review, many of you disagree with our assessment!)
There are two other reasons Gideon’s is so high up this list. First, it eschews the tired “rustic hipsters move into an old barn and find some eclectic decor on clearance at Anthropologie” aesthetic that typifies Disney Springs. It’s great to see some ambitious and original design with an interesting backstory that doesn’t feel like an afterthought.
Second, it’s a local success story. Tourists may not know it, but Orlando has an up-and-coming culinary scene, and has a wealth of excellent and inventive dining options. We sincerely hope more find second homes at Disney Springs; local and unique options strengthen Walt Disney World and its place in the community. They’re also great for guests. It’s a win-win.
3. Regal Eagle – Who would’ve guessed as of the beginning of last year that the best counter service restaurant operating in EPCOT at the end of the next year would be in the American Adventure? Certainly not me.
2. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway – Last year was a big one for new additions, and 2020 was always going to be a “smaller” year nestled between the debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World. No one expected it to be this small, though.
In the end, we only got one new major attraction: Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. The second big ride, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, was jettisoned from its summer debut and will now open sometime in 2021. (It would’ve been a distant #3 on this list, for what it’s worth.) Other additions like Space 220 Restaurant and the Play Pavilion presumably could’ve opened at some point this year were it not for the closure.
Our Spoiler-Free Review of Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway offers an in-depth assessment of that attraction, how it stacks up to its predecessor, and so on. The only thing we’ll add here is that we’ve grown more fond of the ride over time. It seems more exposure to those character models has helped, and that ear-worm of a song only grows more endearing over time. It’s a charming experience and an appropriate evolution of Fantasyland dark rides.
1. Magic Kingdom Walkway – We’ve lauded the pathway connecting the Magic Kingdom to the Transportation and Ticket Center (via the Grand Floridian and Polynesian) repeatedly, and already dubbed it our #1 thing of the year at Walt Disney World. Consequently, seeing it in this spot should not be the least bit surprising, even if it does sting a bit to have a walkway above an actual attraction.
However, there’s no hyperbole here. When Walt Disney passed away and his vision for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow died with him, the Florida Project (not EPCOT Center) was tasked with carrying its torch. In fact, if you watch television specials from the 1970s and 1980s, one topic of constant praise is transportation. More than any city in the United States, Walt Disney World had mastered moving large numbers of people in an efficient manner between accommodations and recreation.
Fast-forward to the last decade, and Walt Disney World’s infrastructure was buckling under the weight of exponentially higher guest and resort numbers. There were no innovations during that time, simply more buses thrown at the problem as a band-aid. The Vacation Kingdom had simply followed the (poor) lead of major US cities, rather than continuing to be a transportation trendsetter.
The last several years have made up for a couple decades of stagnation, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent on infrastructure. The vast majority of these projects cannot be marketed to prospective guests (as exciting as a sidewalk might be to me…), but they’re nonetheless money very well spent. This walkway is not necessarily the culmination of all that, but it’s the final project in an unglamorous but essential infrastructure campaign that eased so many transportation headaches. It’s time to finally give Walt Disney World the (overdue) accolades deserved there. Guests won’t book trips due to easier transit and won’t even notice most improvements, but they would miss them if they weren’t done. Kudos.
Have you experienced any or all of these new additions? What would make your best of 2020 at Walt Disney World list? Think Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway belongs at the top of the list, or is the sidewalk in its rightful spot? Where do other changes/additions rank for you? Happy to see certain projects “postponed indefinitely” or cancelled? Do you agree or disagree with our rankings? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!