Walt Disney World fans have a lot of complaints right now, so much so that the Festivus-style airing of grievances has become a year-round tradition. There have been many changes that are unpopular with loyal guests, including cutbacks, temporary policies that have become permanent, price increases, and more. Plus, decisions viewed as short sighted to increase profits and per capita spending, all to the detriment to consumers and the experience.
It’s impossible not to notice this. Many complaints we hear from readers are prefaced with “I’m normally a fan no matter what who defends Disney, but…” or “I don’t normally complain, but…” There have been far fewer fans offering defenses of unpopular decisions with the rationalization that Walt Disney World is a business. There’s also less knocking of those who air their grievances as “so-called fans” and much more agreement and acknowledgement of Disney’s shortcomings.
While I enjoy channeling my inner Frank Costanza from time to time, I’ve also made a concerted effort in the last couple of years to appreciate what I have, savor the little things, and look for the silver linings. A lot of feel good fluff, but it’s helped give me a more positive perspective. That probably hasn’t always been evident because there are times when it has been tough to find the upside in some things Walt Disney World is doing.
Nevertheless, it’s in that spirit of positivity that I’m going to air these grievances fans have with Walt Disney World but also attempt to play devil’s advocate and try to make sense of the decision or justify it from their perspective. Perhaps that’ll make me a “pixie duster,” but Walt Disney World still is my favorite place on earth and I’ve gotta rationalize that somehow.
Anyway, let’s begin. Welcome, new comers. The tradition of Festivus begins with the airing of grievances…
Slow Return to Normal – Just today, the Walt Disney World Railroad officially reopened. Last month, Fantasmic finally returned–the last nighttime spectacular to come back, and a major step forward for normal operations and crowd dynamics at Walt Disney World. Still, a lot of entertainment is gone, as are shows like Jedi Training Academy and Voyage of the Little Mermaid. Much of that may never return.
Earlier this week, the company announced Chef Mickey’s and Cinderella’s Royal Table going back to normal in Winter 2023. Almost every restaurant is back with the recent reopenings of Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, Monsieur Paul, and Takumi-Tei. However, a few remain closed or have scaled back their meal services. Again, some of that may never be back.
Readers of this site have likely tired of hearing “staffing shortages” as an excuse for just about everything that still isn’t back, but it’s true (for the most part). Even then, almost all of this has been exacerbated by Disney’s own decisions, or lack thereof. Staffing shortages exist and persist because Disney furloughed so many people and was slow to recall them. A lot of entertainment still isn’t back because the company waited rather than making modifications early-on.
In a vacuum, it might be possible to rationalize or explain away so much of Disney’s lethargic pace in resuming normalcy. However, once you step back and look at the totality of the circumstances–especially as compared to their competitors and in light of the prices being charged–it’s all much less forgivable. For the purported leader of the theme park industry, they’ve sure been doing a lot of following.
Disney Park Pass Reservations – Even after Walt Disney World raised its capacity caps by significant degrees, the company left the park reservation system in place. Many days, it’s little more than a formality–a pointless source of friction and yet another thing to book as part of the tedium of planning a trip. It decreases spontaneity and many fans argue that it isn’t doing anything on crowded days, so what’s the point?
At this point, the Disney Park Pass system doesn’t exist for keeping crowds low—that hasn’t been the case for ages. It’s to redistribute them and prevent attendance from overwhelming staffing levels and available resources at each individual park. Walt Disney World still is not firing on all cylinders, and is unequipped to handle the same guest loads as in a normal year. I’m no fan of the reservation system in the long term, but it’s a “necessary evil” in the short term given the demand-capacity imbalance.
Nevertheless, this is highly likely to change in January or February 2023. While park reservations will likely stick around for some groups (like Annual Passholders and Cast Members), they’ll become a non-factor for most guests.
No Disney Dining Plan – Far and away the most common reader questions we receive concern the return of the Disney Dining Plan. It still isn’t back, despite assurances from the company that it was only being temporarily suspended and would return “soon” (quite a while ago).
Like many things that have happened (or not) over the last year-plus, the suspension of the Disney Dining Plan was originally motivated by one thing (physical distancing and closures) and that rationale has morphed over time to other reasons (staffing shortages, inflation, per guest spending, etc).
At its core, the underlying reason for the Disney Dining Plan not being offered has always been an imbalance of supply and demand. Like with a few other complaints on this list, this is arguably being done for the benefit of the guest experience. Visitors would be even more outraged if they were allowed to buy a “useless” Dining Plan with credits they couldn’t redeem due to a lack of ADRs. In short, we get and sympathize with fans’ complaints, but ultimately understand why the DDP still isn’t back.
Restricted Park Hopping – Walt Disney World brought back Park Hopping last year, which was a huge relief to anyone who tried to fill a full day at Animal Kingdom sans shows or wanted to spend 1.5 days at Magic Kingdom. However, Park Hopping began each day at 2 pm and required that guests enter the first park for which they had reservations, even if it was already after 2 pm.
I love the freedom to Park Hop, and often used to bounce between DHS and Epcot very early in the day. With that said, I’m going to defend this practice in whole. For one thing, there’s enough to do at any park until 2 pm. For another, it serves a practical purpose. If Park Hopping were totally unrestricted, you’d have busy days when people would circumvent the Disney Park Pass reservation system by booking Epcot but immediately hopping to Magic Kingdom. Disney can’t get rid of the Park Hopping rule until it gets rid of Park Pass. Hopefully they’re both gone by early 2023!
Construction Delays – When the parks closed for a few months, Walt Disney World paused all construction. Contrary to popular perception, this was not mandated by the state–work all around Central Florida continued during that time. Some projects that were near completion pre-closure were held back for months even after being finished and other attractions that were slated to open “in time for” the 50th Anniversary didn’t restart until months after reopening. The resulting delays, in several cases, will be over two years. Other previously announced plans were scaled back or abandoned entirely.
From my perspective, the degree to which this is excusable depends upon the project. While I don’t like it, I can understand Disney sitting on Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, and other things. Theme parks add attractions to incentivize new bookings, and they largely would not have fulfilled that role had they debuted last fall. Universal is the one anomaly in continuing to open new things, and a true kudos to them in going against the grain; otherwise, virtually every theme park operator has held back additions.
This is far less excusable when it comes to the central spine redesign of Epcot–also known as the Giant Epcot Dirt Pit™️. Having the park not be a maze of construction walls isn’t something that’s marketable or excites people into booking trips. No matter how long the closure lasted, its financial fallout, or what austerity measures were necessary, it was patently obvious from the outset that would need to be finished.
Disney squandered an opportunity by not kicking the Epcot overhaul into overdrive during the closure and subsequent reopening when the parks were uncrowded, and should be downright embarrassed by the leisurely pace of work in the year that followed.
Another embarrassment is the speed of TRON Lightcycle Run. The entirety of Universal’s Epic Universe will end up being built in about the same time it took Walt Disney World to construct a cloned roller coaster in a mostly-empty warehouse. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this ride, but I think many WDW diehards are going to be disappointed by its duration and lack of show scenes given how long it took to build. There will probably be a sense of “that’s it?!” when it finally debuts in Spring 2023.
Underwhelming 50th Anniversary – The biggest “limited time” component of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary is statues honoring 50 characters, the majority of which have minimal presence in or significance to the parks. There are two new nighttime spectaculars featuring movie moments and songs. There’s also some other stuff, none of which offers a nod to the past or the rich legacy of the Vacation Kingdom of the World.
In the latter regard, the unequivocal bright spots have been that the merchandising and culinary teams have truly outdone themselves. There’s a wide range of clever and inventive 50th offerings that appeal to a broad spectrum of guests. These items are varied, fun, and celebratory–perfect for the anniversary celebration. But it’s also mildly insulting that the value of nostalgia is limited to the degree it can be directly monetized.
Over the course of its 51 years, Walt Disney World has grown a fierce fandom, fostering huge communities and accommodating a range of niche interests. It has resulted in one of the most lucrative timeshare programs ever and an immensely lucrative Annual Passholder program, the growth of which not even surging prices can stop. Despite this, if you only paid attention to the substance of the World’s Most Magical Celebration, you might assume it was a tribute to the company’s characters and movie intellectual property.
In normal circumstances, none of this would be particularly surprising. Increasingly, people visit Walt Disney World to be immersed in all things IP. Unimaginative as it might be, Disney is giving the park-going public what it wants. During the 18 months of a milestone anniversary and given the aforementioned passionate fanbases? It comes across as out of touch with its own community, unappreciative of their decades of patronage, and unconfident in the strength of theme parks as a standalone product. I was so excited for the 50th Anniversary, but at this point, I’m anxiously awaiting April 2023, when the ‘event’ will be put out of its misery.
Limited Hours – This is one that has improved considerably this year, and hopefully will further improve in 2023. The big change has been earlier opening times for Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT, which have been great–and hugely advantageous for early risers.
As much as I hate the gradual erosion of park hours, which started long before last year, it’s at least in part supported by guest behavior. No matter how crowded in the morning, Animal Kingdom still clears out by late afternoon. Hollywood Studios is not nearly as busy the last couple hours of the day. Future World empties an hour before Harmonious.
However, Magic Kingdom’s hours are not nearly as defensible. It opens late and closes early by historical standards, with the park frequently having 9 am to 10 pm or 11 pm hours at times when it operated from 8 am to 12 am in the past. On busy days, that 9 am opening time is especially unfortunate, as rope drop is unpleasant and offers minimal strategic upside. On top of that, the colossal crowds lingering on Main Street a full hour after park closing are a pretty good indication that the park should stay open later.
Most likely, this is a staffing issue. Magic Kingdom’s hours are limited by available Cast Member shifts, making it difficult to add another 2-3 hours per day. With each passing month, this feels less like a compelling justification and more like a lame excuse.
Catering to the “Rich” – There have been no shortages of examples of this–or at least, decisions that have prompted this refrain among Walt Disney World fans. Price increases are the big one, but so too are the proliferation of pricey upcharge offerings, VIP tours, After Hours events, and more.
Disney is trying to squeeze the middle class, not exclude them. That might offer little solace, but it’s an important distinction (more so than a “defense” of the practice). The rich are not booking motel-style rooms with exterior hallways at the Value or Moderate Resorts, let alone the many nearby off-site budget hotels that Disney relies upon to fill the parks. Rite of passage vacations among the affluent are certainly a thing, but not nearly enough to sustain Walt Disney World.
Simply put, Walt Disney World is a middle class vacation destination. Even on the high end, it doesn’t offer the caliber of service, amenities, or general quality the affluent expect of real world destinations. This is why Disney “outsources” that to Four Seasons on the hotel side. There are low-volume niche experiences at Walt Disney World aimed at the wealthy, but they’re relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things. Disney’s bread and butter is still the middle class…and the current trajectory doesn’t change until that group says “enough is enough” and pulls back in its spending and splurging.
Paid FastPass – Roughly 14 months later, Walt Disney World retiring free FastPass and replacing it with a paid alternative continues to be one of the biggest fan grievances we hear. From the outset, our position on this inevitable change was that it “could’ve been worse” and offers downside and upside. This has not been well received by fans, many of whom consider us Disney apologists as a result.
On the plus side, Genie+ has improved in several ways big and small this year. (However, it did take over a year after launch–to add a modify button, the most basic of features. On the downside, Walt Disney World introduced date-based pricing, resulting in a spike from $16 per day to nearly double that. For peak dates, the service currently costs ~$31 after tax, which sure feels like infringing on my right to celebrate new holidays.
With that said, we’ll have to “agree to disagree” on a lot of the other complaints. Getting up at ~6:50 am on vacation stinks, but that’s already par for the course if you want to beat the crowds. At least in theory, having some Individual Lightning Lanes incentivizes construction of new headliner attractions, which can be directly monetized. FastPass+ might’ve been beloved by hardcore fans who always stayed on-site and knew its quirks, but it created its own losers (anyone off-site or learning of its existence upon arrival). FastPass+ was stretched to its breaking point and a change was needed.
Genie is very far from perfect and should’ve been more like MaxPass, but it’s not as bad as it’s made out to be. It will hopefully improve over time, and even simple UI and reliably fixes, plus booking prompts will improve the overall Genie+ experience. Not everyone will love it, but not everyone loved paper FastPass or FastPass+ either.
Too Much Screen Time – Refreshing Genie+ for better Lightning Lanes. Mobile Order for counter service restaurants and Merchandise Mobile Checkout to buy stuff. Constantly checking Walk-up Waitlist for new table service availability. Checking wait times and showtimes. Joining the Cosmic Rewind virtual queue. Reading restaurant menus. Playing the MagicBand+ mini games or the DuckTales World Showcase Adventure.
One of the fastest-growing complaints we’ve heard this year is that visiting Walt Disney World involves too much screen time. We see this as a double-edged sword and, honestly, a bit overblown (sorry!). Refreshing Genie+ is similar to doing the same for FastPass+ to obtain 4th (and beyond) ride reservations. Mobile Order, Merchandise Mobile Checkout, and Walk-up Waitlist are not required–they’re optional offerings that can cut down waiting at restaurants (and are increasingly common in the real world). Same goes for the minigames in the Play Disney Parks app.
As a general matter, we do agree with this criticism. One of our core ‘theses’ was that Walt Disney World leaned too heavily on technology (ironic, since it’s something the company is objectively awful at) and not enough on tactile experiences. To paraphrase my favorite Walt Disney quote, “it’s people that make the dream a reality.”
The best memories are formed as a result of interpersonal moments, and so much emotional resonance is derived from guests connecting with Cast Members. Even if people can’t put their finger on it, so much of what differentiates and defines the appeal of Walt Disney World is the ‘little things’ that connect them to other people and the environments around them. Sure, ‘sexy’ rides like Cosmic Rewind get people to take the trip, but it’s the myriad little things and those connections that convince them (even subconsciously) to return.
So while we won’t point to Genie+ or any other new feature in My Disney Experience as being “bad,” like many fans have done, we very much agree with the generalized sentiment that spending a day at Walt Disney World now nudges guests towards spending way too much time with their faces buried in their phones. These new features are great in isolation, and benefit the company by improving efficiency and cutting costs. However, the totality of all of this amounts to Walt Disney World effectively leaning into its weakness and away from its strengths. And that’s worthy of a pretty big ‘grievance,’ if you ask me.
Cutbacks & Charges – This is already getting really long, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge all of the cutbacks and charges for things that used to be included. Want a MagicBand? That’ll cost you! Bread to start your table service meal? Prepare to pay extra! Evening Extra Magic Hours? Upgrade resorts! Want to see a parade or stage show? It’s behind an After Hours paywall.
I’m not a fan of nickel & diming. I don’t want to give this major grievance only cursory treatment, but there’s just not a ton I can add here that hasn’t already been said. There are arguably some scenarios–like cutting back on plastic waste with MagicBands or hiring more housekeepers being nearly impossible–where some of this is understandable. By and large, it’s just a way to improve margins. It’s an effective approach because each is minor in isolation, but there’s a reason why “death by a thousand cuts” is a saying. The totality of these cost-cutting measures has become very noticeable.
End of Disney’s Magical Express – We knew it was coming, but it was still difficult to believe that Walt Disney World would actually follow through and end Disney’s Magical Express this past January. Even until the very last minute, many fans felt the company was playing hardball and would extend its contract with Mears. That did not happen.
To this day, we still hear from readers holding out hope that Disney’s Magical Express will return in 2023. Given that there’s no basis for this belief, it’s one of the more surprising common questions we’re asked. Although its spiritual successor is still operated by Mears and there’s another fun train-themed alternative, Walt Disney World does not offer airport transportation.
Even more than paid FastPass, this has garnered the most backlash and confusion among fans. A year later, I still cannot make sense of this one. Retiring DME is the equivalent of pulling your ace starting pitcher throwing a no-hitter during the World Series. Sabermetrics somehow justifies it, but it makes no sense to anyone in the real world. It’s analytics gone awry, justifying decisions that diminish the overall quality of the experience. The fun is being sucked away by people who don’t actually love the game, armed with computers that have deemed those decisions to be “correct” and “good.”
It seems like the decision to eliminate Disney’s Magical Express was arrived upon in a similar manner, and I can muster no defense for the move, whatsoever. Like stupid sabermetrics decisions that are hurting baseball, I fear Disney is doing something similar with an overreliance on analytics. Perhaps these will bring short-term gains, but also, unknown long-term pain.
Eliminating Disney’s Magical Express is short sighted and will cost the company hotel stays, visits to other theme parks, meals outside the resort complex, and more. One of Walt Disney World’s greatest strengths was its bubble, and the company has voluntarily punctured that. The captive audience that was viewed as advantageous for years is gone–and at a time when Walt Disney World’s #1 competitor keeps growing and getting stronger. Make it make sense.
The thing is, I’m sure there is a business justification for the decision, with complex calculations performed. It all makes sense, if you’re a computer. And yet, it does not pass the simplest of smell tests for humans. (I don’t want to give any false hope, but I still think Walt Disney World might find itself reversing this decision once Epic Universe opens.)
This encapsulates my biggest fear for the future of Walt Disney World. More decisions by analytics, fewer by real people. Less that’s interesting and unique, more that’s beholden to brand deposits and dictated by accountants. Beyond some of what’s listed here, I also see this mentality reflected in entertainment like Disney Enchantment. That nighttime spectacular is easier to explain as something assembled by algorithm, predicated on Disney+ marketing targets or viewership data. I also see it repudiated in things like KiteTails, which is why I love that chaotic and unpredictable show.
Above all else, Walt Disney World should be fun and creative. Its leaders should never lose sight of that, and realize that a decision is only as “good” as its resulting guest satisfaction. They should be cognizant of the fact that everything has a cost, including short-term financial gain. The price paid for guests returning from trips feeling deflated or devalued should be deemed too high, no matter what per capita spending might have to say. Walt Disney World is a business and always has been. It’s also innovative and imaginative, an ambitious endeavor built not by MBAs and accountants, but by creative visionaries–it should be treated as such by those who now lead it. Guests have long known that the company was after their money, but never before have they felt that was the essence of Walt Disney World.
Have any grievances of your own to air about Walt Disney World? Do you agree or disagree with our airing of grievances? 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!