Walt Disney World has made steps in the right direction thus far in 2024, improving the guest experience in measurable ways with the return of all-day Park Hopping, Dining Plans, and end of park reservations for most tourists. There’s still stuff to fix, and this list covers little-but-big ways to accomplish that.
What we mean by ‘big little’ things to fix is the very minor perks or offerings that often go unnoticed or are overlooked by themselves, but make a major or meaningful difference in aggregate. These are not high level and we don’t get many questions about any of them at this point, but they do matter because it all adds up.
Frankly, this what Walt Disney World is all about. It’s not just the little details in themed design or placemaking, it’s also that attention to detail in the guest experience. Going above and beyond in ways big and small. Enhancements guests may not notice in isolation or mostly wouldn’t mourn if missing, but that collectively make Walt Disney World feel like a well-oiled machine and a world-class vacation destination where every guest is a VIP. Giving guests things they never knew they needed.
Hence ‘big little’ things. That’s why you won’t find Disney’s Magical Express, free FastPass, or Extra Magic Hours on this list. Or even complaints about shorter park hours, missing nighttime spectaculars, or subpar maintenance and ride downtime. Those are all ‘big-big’ things about which we still do hear regular complaints and are very noticeable cuts or issues. That’s the stuff everyone is talking about–and for good reason, as it’s either greatly missed or core competencies.
This list is more under-the-radar things and magical moments that absolutely could move the needle on guest satisfaction, intent to revisit or recommend metrics, especially in aggregate. But individually, almost nothing on this list is at the level that even lifelong Walt Disney World fans are not booking trips or returning as a result of. The absence matters, but most of this doesn’t actively stand out as being an issue.
Hopefully all of this makes sense. Given that regular readers are often longtime Walt Disney World fans who “get” what makes the place special, I suspect it’ll resonate. And if not, we can go back to grousing about the Disney’s Magical Express elimination and whether Epic Universe will “force” Disney’s hand to bring back some of these extinct guest perks in 2025 or beyond. But for now, here’s my list of big little things that Walt Disney World needs to bring back…
Resort Delivery – It boggles my mind that this has not returned. Back in my day, Walt Disney World would magically move merchandise you bought in the theme parks to your resort for pick-up so you didn’t have to carry souvenirs and stuff around all day. This free service was a nice on-site perk, and a great way to not need a pack mule by the end of the day.
Like other things, such as Disney’s Magical Express, this “perk” was mutually advantageous. Walt Disney World’s calculation was that guests would spend more money on merchandise in the parks if they didn’t have to carry their purchases around all day long. And they were correct. I’m not even a big merchandise person, and I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve opted against buying something in the last few years because we didn’t want to lug it around all day. “We’ll just grab it at the end of the night at the Emporium.” (Famous last words that almost never come true–at least for us.)
I understand why Walt Disney World didn’t feel the need to bring this back in late 2021 (when pretty much everything else was going back to normal), as supply chain disruptions resulted in empty shelves and merchandise shortages. So there was really no incentive to offer the perk–the limited selection of items was selling out, regardless.
However, once 2022 rolled around and the bullwhip effect resulted in a ton of overstock…well, that seemed like the opportune time to bring back Resort Delivery to ‘incentivize’ the purchase of that merchandise. Maybe someone forgot about it? Perhaps it was a ploy to increase rental of makeshift shopping carts (e.g. strollers)? Suppose someone at Simon, owner of the Orlando Premium Outlets, is paying a kickback to not bring it back to keep those long lines at Character Warehouse?!
Joking (but are we?) aside, the ongoing absence of things like Resort Delivery suggests to me that either staffing shortages are not fully addressed or Walt Disney World is otherwise not firing on all cylinders. Even though it’s pitched as a perk, I strongly suspect Walt Disney World is leaving money on the table by not offering Resort Delivery. As such, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the absence of this–but then again, I thought the same thing about Disney’s Magical Express…and yet!
Lunch & Breakfast at Be Our Guest – There was a point when moving to the same prix fixe menu for lunch and dinner was the right move for Be Our Guest Restaurant. Table service dining was in high-demand, guests were spending freely as pent-up demand played out, and there were staffing shortages that reduced capacity.
That time is over. Be Our Guest Restaurant is no longer as popular as it once was. It’s probably not even among the top 25 most difficult Advance Dining Reservations despite an inherent advantage of being an in-castle restaurant at Magic Kingdom themed to Beauty and the Beast. ADR availability is plentiful, as are spots on the Walk-Up Waitlist. The last time I dined at Be Our Guest, the restaurant was less than half full and the server to guest ratio was surprisingly high.
Suffice to say, it no longer makes sense to treat Be Our Guest Restaurant the same way in 2024 as it did in 2021-2022. This is doubly true since the counter service restaurant and breakfast ‘scene’ at Magic Kingdom is fairly bleak. Not only is it bad, but it’s busy. I don’t know about you, but nothing makes a mediocre meal at Cosmic Ray’s or Pinocchio Village Haus more enjoyable than waiting in a long line or having to hunt for a table.
Not only that, but bringing back the counter service lunch and breakfast at Be Our Guest would be fun–memorable meals that would allow more guests to step inside Beast’s Castle. Be Our Guest Restaurant is still a winner from a thematic perspective, and experiencing that leave a lasting impression on a lot of kids and their families. (And while we’re at it, bring back the dedicated Beast meet & greet for dinner. This smile and wave from a distance stopped making sense 2 years ago.)
Pandora Rangers – Since its opening, Pandora – World of Avatar in Animal Kingdom has been home to some of Walt Disney World’s weirdest entertainment. And I love it for that. It started with these hippie kinda people that were like tour guides that would showcase the flora and fauna. Unsurprisingly, those were very short lived–I don’t think those performers made it more than a few months in 2017. (Could be wrong, but I don’t recall seeing them after that.)
One year later, Disney figured out the perfect solution with the the Pandora Rangers. In particular, when the Pandora Utility Suit walk-around character made its debut in the land. This is like the military AMP Suit counterpart in front of Pongu Pongu, but not evil. Instead, the friendly pilot of this engages in cheesy and fun banter with guests, explaining what he’s learned on Pandora.
Perhaps I’m a sucker for mechs (I am a huge Metal Gear Solid fan), but I always loved the Pandora Utility Suit and thought it added a lot to the land. Crowds always gathered to see this towering performer, which is quite the sight to behold. This specifically makes the list because, for all of its beauty and popularity, Pandora can feel (paradoxically) dead during the middle of the day.
Even as both rides post hour-plus waits and Satuli Canteen is busy, the land itself is quiet and uncrowded…because everyone is in line or eating. Bringing back the Pandora Rangers would help give the land more of a lived-in quality and help guests appreciate the beauty of the land itself that they might otherwise overlook while racing around doing the rides and eating the food.
Brunch at California Grill – I’ll be honest, I don’t think this matters to 99.99% of guests. Brunch at the Top was a very limited experience, and I’m pretty confident that it was mostly popular with repeat guests. That means it was very good, but also that fewer new guests were enjoying it.
Regardless, Brunch at the Top at California Grill was our favorite dining experience at Walt Disney World and we are among this small but vocal minority who would love to see it brought back. Of course, if it does return, it’d probably go the way of Takumi-Tei or Monsieur Paul and have an exorbitant price increase that would likely make it a non-starter for us. (Even if not, having a new baby probably accomplishes the same.) But we’d like to at least have the option and know it’s there.
To make this more widely appealing, I’d also add removing the prix fixe menu at California Grill. This is another meal service that has outlived its usefulness, and there has to be a better solution to the problem of guests wanting ‘free fireworks’ viewing than this. It was fun for the 50th, but it’s gotten old–and become unambitious.
Citizens – It seemed like an inevitability given the cuts over the years, but losing the Citizens of Hollywood at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Citizens of Main Street at Magic Kingdom is such a colossal blow now that we’ve felt their absence for so long. In both parks, these ‘citizens’ are roaming “Streetmosphere” performers who inhabit the entrance area boulevards, giving these streets a sense of life.
It’s always a pleasure to stumble upon one of the characters or their random shows, and the ‘citizens’ ability to single out specific guests and make them feel special or like a star was something special. This is the type of thing that doesn’t show up on guest satisfaction surveys and is an “easy” cut for management obsessed with spreadsheets or whatever, but it makes a world of difference for the people impacted. Those personal connections and little moments are a huge deal.
We always loved doing lunch at Plaza Restaurant in Magic Kingdom, hoping that one of the citizens would drop in for hilarity or hijinks. Likewise, we made a point of watching the end-of-day Funniest Citizen “comedy-off” on Sunset Boulevard. These performers may not be a synergistic IP addition like the Mirabel meet & greet, but you better believe they were a “brand deposit” that embodied the heart and soul of Main Street at Magic Kingdom and Old Hollywood at DHS.
EPCOT Festival Seminars – Probably an unpopular opinion, but EPCOT Food & Wine Festival has been coasting for the last 4 years. It has rested on the laurels of its longstanding reputation, while serving up simplified menus and mostly crowd-pleasing cuisine–but not much else. Last year did get better thanks to the Disney100 booths, but Food & Wine was still the weakest event of the year at EPCOT. It’s popular at this point due to the hype machine and inertia. Which isn’t to say there aren’t fantastic dishes (there are!), but it’s been a shadow of its former self.
This is partly understandable as the event has become a victim of its own popularity, with longer lines and higher demand necessitating simpler dishes that will appeal to more palates. An even bigger reason why it’s the worst event of the year at EPCOT is because it no longer offers something extra.
Think about it–every other festival has food and. Food and art. Food and flowers. Food and holidays. Some of them also have better food. But Food & Wine just has the food (well, and the wine–but that’s part of the food). By losing the seminars & demonstrations, celebrity chef appearances, special meals, merchandise & book signings, culinary panels, and other low-cost or free events, Food & Wine has gone from the largest-scale event of the year at EPCOT to the smallest.
This is obviously criticism–everything on this list is–but this is another entry where I’m willing to give Walt Disney World the benefit of the doubt. Many of the EPCOT Food & Wine Festival offerings with upcharges with astronomical price tags. Disney is leaving a ton of money on the table by not doing them, and if there’s anything we know about the company, it’s that they’re big fans of money. So their absence suggests to me lingering staffing issues or a shortage of space. Here’s hoping that CommuniCore Hall will remedy this (and also, that its construction pace is accelerated and the venue is actually done by this fall).
Aunt Polly’s & Tomorrowland Terrace – Another relatively niche one given that the first of these restaurants was only open a few weeks per year (I’m guessing some of you have never even heard of it). The other had a perpetual identity crisis and got a new menu like every other quarter.
Nevertheless, Magic Kingdom needs more variety on the counter service front and also more capacity. These two things would help improve the guest experience, and lower-traffic locations like Aunt Polly’s and Tomorrowland Terrace could have the latitude to serve inventive and fun food, while also helping relieve the pressure while also improving the park’s cuisine. Two small but meaningful net positives.
Oh, and if Pecos Bill actually is going to be redone as Tiana’s Palace (I’m skeptical at this point), Magic Kingdom will absolutely need more counter service capacity. That’s non-negotiable, unless the ‘solution’ is eating on top of trash cans.
Jedi Training Academy – Even pre-closure, it seemed like there was some desire within Walt Disney World to consolidate Star Wars offerings in Galaxy’s Edge and minimize the off-planet options. I never quite understood this, especially with Imagineering and the Lucasfilm Story Group being so steadfast about the rules and character integrity (another rant for another day) meaning that the land was limited in who and what it could showcase. Star Tours was the one big exception, since they found a way to make The Sacred Story™️ work with the new land.
In any case, it’s absolutely crazy to me that Jedi Training Academy has not returned. The Trials of the Temple interactive stage show was absolutely adored by guests, and was a ‘magical moment’ for so many kids and their families who had the chance to participate. It was the kind of trip-defining experience for a subset of guests that easily justified its existence. One of those things that, if you had the fortune to do, you knew just how special it was.
Even as someone who never got to experience it firsthand or through the eyes of my child, it was easy for me to see that Jedi Training Academy was something special. One of those little ways that Walt Disney World captured lightning in a bottle and turned a simple thing into a “Core Memory.” Stuff like this that has a propensity to forge a new generation of fans is what should actually be sacred for Walt Disney World. While we’re at it, bring back the paintbrush scavenger hunt on Tom Sawyer Island!
Toppings Bars – You might be thinking at this point that Magic Kingdom counter service dining is a sore subject for me. Gee, I don’t know why you’d draw that conclusion, this is only the third entry on the list that pertains to the subject. I could easily rant for a few thousand more words about the sorry state of the flagship castle park’s fast food scene.
Toppings bars made Cosmic Ray’s and Pecos Bill palatable. It also helped that they had better and more ambitious menus back in 2019, before cutting corners and switching to meat suppliers that sell whatever the grade is right above dog food. This is a point we already belabored in The Death of Pecos Bill, so I’m not going to beat a dead horse (hopefully the meat supplier follows my lead).
I will just add that I’m skeptical this is even saving Walt Disney World all that much money. Sure, it reduces guest abuse of the toppings bar–but the current approach is much more labor-intensive, and labor isn’t cheap anymore! There’s gotta be a middle ground compromise (staffed toppings bar?), because the current outcome is that two of Magic Kingdom’s biggest restaurants are serving only marginally-edible cuisine.
Cinderella Castle Dream Lights – I would argue that this is not a ‘big little’ thing–it did and would cause fans to book trips–but I think Walt Disney World might disagree. Regardless, I’ll never pass up the opportunity to sing the praises of the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights. Those icicle lights were one of our favorite things about Christmas at Walt Disney World for the decade-plus prior to them being cancelled in 2020. We spent many a late night on Main Street, simply gazing down at those resplendent lights, savoring the scene. I lost count of how many times we did this over the years–probably over 100.
For those who have never had a chance to see the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights, they are nothing short of spectacular. Some of you cynics might think such a physical light display is quaint or antiquated, surpassed by the ease and flexibility of projections. That those of us who miss the Dream Lights are simply clouded by nostalgia and sentimentality, ignoring the daytime visual blight, installation, and simplicity of the physical icicle lights.
I wholeheartedly disagree. No projections can match the more than 200,000 tiny white lights that illuminate Cinderella Castle and transform it into a veritable ice palace. The Dream Lights would stop you in your tracks, with the resplendent physical display being an absolute jaw-dropper. Words, photos, and video absolutely cannot do it justice. I’m not normally one for the flowery language in Disney’s press releases, but even the company’s marketing teams undersold the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights. Whatever praise you’ve heard about the Dream Lights, it’s true. All of it.
And after seeing the underwhelming ‘Frozen Holiday Surprise’ (I don’t think we ever covered this, but how did Disney spend so much effort and energy and end up with unanimated projections that were worse than the temporary ones they did in 2020?!), I’m even more convinced of this. I’m not much for conspiracy theories, but I’d love to believe that someone purposefully made ‘Frozen Holiday Surprise’ bad so that it’d be easier to justify cutting it and bringing back the Cinderella Castle Dream Lights. Here’s hoping!
The Kiss Goodnight – I’m a firm believer that first and final impressions matter a lot for Walt Disney World, which is why I’m such a fan of the improved arrival experience and streamlining of bagcheck with those Evolv whole body scanners. It’s a night and day difference for the old process–or current one at Disneyland. (Seriously, it is. We complain about the bad–but it’s also important to praise the good!)
While this isn’t as impactful (figuratively) for as many of guests, the Kiss Goodnight is one of those ‘big little’ things that left such an indelible impression on the guests who saw it that it could help turn them into lifelong fans. Once again, words, photos, and even video cannot do it justice. We nevertheless tried, singing its praises in “The Kiss Goodnight: The Greatest Thing Most Guests Don’t See” and “The Kiss Goodnight, Revisited.” (Two articles about something that lasts only a couple of minutes–that should say everything that needs to be said!)
The Kiss Goodnight was one of those if you know, you know magical moments. It was an emotional powerhouse for so many people because it’s the culmination of a fun-filled visit to Magic Kingdom. During this moment of pause, you let your guard down and Disney’s careful tugging at your heartstrings “gets you” as you’re already simultaneously drained and satisfied at the end of a long day in the park. This is Walt Disney World at its best, and the kind of ‘big little’ magical moment that the company should recognize is much more important than it might seem. Especially if there’s no intention of bringing back Disney’s Magical Express, free FastPass, Extra Magic Hours, etc!
What ‘big little’ things would you like to see Walt Disney World bring back? Think it’s these magical moments and other smaller-scale things that have a way of making every guest feel special or going above and beyond that are the heart and soul of Walt Disney World? Which of the entries on this list would you like to see return? Do you agree or disagree with our choices? 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!