Normally I blog about writing and author-related matters, but my husband and I recently traveled to Walt Disney World and I decided on day one that I had to write about it. Disney staff, if you happen to stumble upon this, I’m happy to discuss any suggestions included below.
Disclaimer: I am in no way a Walt Disney World expert. However, since we brought a set of fresh eyes to WDW I think that qualifies us to pick up on things frequent visitors may not notice. Please take any advice with a grain of salt. Be warned this will be a long post LOL. If you’d like to skip to the highlights scroll down to “THE GOOD.”
After years of lobbying for us to take a vacation to Walt Disney World my husband finally agreed to go in late 2019. I booked our vacation on December 1, 2019 and we started our visit on January 13, 2020. We planned to visit the four main parks—Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Hollywood Studios—and stay on Disney property at the Port Orleans French Quarter resort.
Day 1 – Resort Check-In
First off, I recommend some rest before you go to Disney. We were lucky enough to visit Sarasota and stay at the beach for a few days prior to our vacation. We rented a car in Sarasota and the drive to Orlando was uneventful until we tried to return our car to the Walt Disney World Car Care Center. What other blogs failed to mention (I read a lot of them prior to booking the trip) was that in order to access the car return you must drive through the Magic Kingdom gate. This was very confusing and when we asked the gate attendant if we were going the right way she smiled and said, “Yeah, just turn left ahead instead of going straight.”
Thankfully when we turned left, we saw the car return. However, there was a gas station adjacent to it and the signage was unclear in terms of whether we should pull into the gas station entrance or just keep going. We kept going and realized we were re-entering the highway away from Disney. My husband decided to jump the grassy knoll on the right and luckily we made it over without getting stuck.
The Car Care Center provided free van transportation to the resort. Had I known it would be a van with just us in it (on blogs they describe a bus) I would have loaded up on more groceries before leaving Sarasota.
Checking into the resort was easy and so was accessing our room. I was amazed that our Magic Bands (wristbands that function as keys and park tickets) did not fail once during the trip. What could have been clearer, though, was that hotel staff would activate them upon our arrival. Nowhere in the customer communication was this stated. I kept trying to activate it myself through the app which didn’t work.
For dinner we took complimentary boat travel to Disney Springs, a shopping/dining hub. When comparing Disney Springs to Universal City Walk which we visited last year Disney Springs is the clear winner. The pathways are wider and there are more shops & restaurants to choose from. Plus, most of it is adjacent to water.
I’d made a reservation at The Edison because it had good reviews and was mentioned often but after this trip I’m going on gut instead of reviews. They seated us upstairs first so we could see the band down below on the first floor. Only problem: my husband is sometimes afraid of heights especially ones behind glass partitions. We asked to be moved downstairs and they seated us near the bathroom behind a wall. We could hear the music which was great (old standards) but couldn’t see the musicians. Our guacamole appetizer was so-so, and our mac and cheese was cold and WAY overpriced. The Greek salad was decent, and our server was a delight (the one highlight of dinner, wish I could remember his name). We tipped him well but wouldn’t dine there again.
Day 2 – Magic Kingdom
We got up early so we would be among the first inside Magic Kingdom. Getting the bus was easy and uneventful, likely because we were on the first bus of the day. Security was a breeze and we got some pictures outside the castle without anyone else in the background (see above). Though they let people into the park before 9 (the stated opening time) no attractions were accessible and were roped off.
Once the ropes were lifted, we were able to do four rides before 11:30 AM. Close to noon, however, the park became overrun with strollers. My husband described it as “stroller city.” Unfortunately, our lunch reservation at Be Our Guest, a Beauty & the Beast themed restaurant wasn’t until 1:55 PM so we got some churros and popcorn and sat down for a bit.
Be Our Guest is one of the hottest reservations in Disney and after eating there I’m not sure why. We showed up ten minutes early and the hostess asked us to come back five minutes before. We did and then entered a line to get into the restaurant. That was the first red flag. The next hostess handed us all menus which was again confusing. Since Be Our Guest was so popular, I had wrongly assumed that that meant table service. Nope. Not at lunch. After waiting in line for ten minutes we entered our orders into a kiosk and paid with my Magic Band since the card swipe function wasn’t working. We got a receipt and after that the next hostess (we’re up to three hostesses if you’re keeping track) said, “Sit wherever you want.” My husband and I looked at each other. UM WHAT?! I had made a reservation to sit among the masses? It was unreal.
We managed to find a tiny table for two in the West Wing which did indeed look like the West Wing from the Beauty & the Beast movie, complete with slashed self-portrait and the rose in the glass. The thing was, it was as dark as the West Wing from the movie and we could barely see each other let alone our plates. We were still dumbfounded as to how our food would find us. We found out a few minutes later when a server started walking around with a flashlight to check the numbers on our receipts. Our ham and cheese sandwiches were cold, and my husband discovered he hates French onion soup LOL. My cupcake with the “grey stuff” was delicious but not worth the hassle/headache/weirdness of the whole dining experience.
After lunch we tried to leave to get a nap in and ended up walking into a wall of people waiting for the parade. Note to self: check the event schedule at the beginning of the day. After dodging more strollers, we managed to get to the bus terminal. Our bus was the furthest stop and as we saw it pull in, we started sprinting for it. We sprinted on the bus side and didn’t join the line since everyone was already on the bus. At the door the driver stopped us.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the resort,” I said.
“Where are you coming from?”
“You know, it’s dangerous to run on this side of the queue. We have the markers for a reason.”
My face turned red. You haven’t lived until you’ve been bus shamed at Walt Disney World. He let us board, but I felt embarrassed for the rest of the ride.
We came back later that evening since I had a Fast Pass for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, but in the dark the coaster looked far scarier than in the daytime. I chickened out and we didn’t ride. I did ride the carousel, however.
Day 3 – Animal Kingdom
Because we had spent so much time waiting for the rope to drop at Magic Kingdom, we decided to leave closer to opening time for Animal Kingdom. This was a mistake. Apparently at Animal Kingdom the ropes come down earlier…we entered the park 15 minutes early then joined a mile-long line for Avatar Flight of Passage. This was number one on a lot of must-ride lists and as we waited for an hour we wondered if it would be worth it. Thankfully there are bathrooms in the line, but you lose your exact place which sucks. You can rejoin at the spot you dropped off, but if we’d been allowed to stay in the same spot, we probably could’ve gotten out 20 minutes sooner. The ride was epic and worth the crazy long wait. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but it makes you feel like you’re flying on the back of a giant bird. My husband and I both teared up at the end which was unexpected. It was the music, the visuals, the feeling—everything. I was blown away. If every ride at Disney could be at the level of Avatar Flight of Passage they would blow all competition out of the water.
Animal Kingdom turned out to be our favorite park because of Avatar and the fact that there was a lot of shade and vegetation. Lake Buena Vista had record high temps when we were there (85 degrees, normal is 65). This was good, since we love hot weather but bad because there is only so much standing in line in the heat you can take.
Day 4 – Epcot
We went to Epcot an hour early to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, a benefit of staying on WDW property. Lines for rides were short. We especially liked Soarin’ Around the World and Frozen. The one downside is that the World Showcase area of the park doesn’t open until 11 a.m.
On that day we decided to wear our Harry Potter shirts from Universal (Gryffindor for me and Hufflepuff for my husband). We got shirt shamed at least five times including by Disney staff. We got passive-aggressive comments like: “nice shirt,” “wrong park,” “wrong shirts.” Being bus shamed was fine because that was a potential safety issue. But I should be allowed to wear whatever shirt I want at Disney as long as it’s not X-rated, and not be hassled for it.
The Spaceship Earth ride came off as very dated, however there’s a delightful personalized animation at the end of it.
Day 5 – Hollywood Studios
We slept in, because we were exhausted from the prior three days. Also, there were only two attractions we wanted to visit that we had Fast Passes for. Since neither of us had seen Star Wars getting to the park early was low priority – we didn’t want to fight against the diehard fans trying to get on Rise of the Resistance.
The Slinky Dog Dash coaster was a great ride to end the trip. For dinner we ate at the underrated Frontera Cocina at Disney Springs. Not sure what other reviewers’ problems are – we thoroughly enjoyed our tacos.
Now for my overall trip thoughts…
- Magic Band technology. After we booked our travel, they were mailed to us and functioned as our hotel key, park entry, and payment method (if we wanted). They were also used for Fast Pass entry. I was amazed we never had a problem.
- Fast Pass+. This system works and I’m guessing it works even better if you book your trip farther in advance. We had no issues using the system and were able to modify a couple ride reservations during the trip using the app.
- I was expecting to get dirty looks from parents because of blogs like this one. To my surprise no one mean mugged us. If anything, the looks we got were envious.
- The walking/running paths at our resort, Port Orleans French Quarter. If you want to stay active on non-park days (if you have them) you can get a lot of steps in.
- Lyft is a great way to get around if needed. We took a party van Lyft (driver’s description; he had red laser lights and club music playing plus free Wi-Fi LOL) to the grocery store and one to the airport. Disney offers the Magical Express bus for free to and from the airport but after seeing the chaotic line we’re glad we went with Lyft.
- The number of rides we were able to do: 20. During our trip we were able to ride: Pirates of the Caribbean, Thunder Mountain Railroad, Small World, Peter Pan’s Flight, Haunted Mansion, Under the Sea, The Barnstormer, Carousel, Avatar Flight of Passage, Navi River Journey, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Dinosaur, Soarin’ Around the World, Spaceship Earth, Nemo and Friends, Frozen Ever After, Living with the Land, Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros, Star Tours, Slinky Dog Dash. I’m not counting the rides we decided to bail on mid-line because we were too tired, hot, etc.
- Easy access to churros…need I say more?
- The Wi-Fi in the parks is hit or miss (and oftentimes a miss). This is unfortunate since most things are controlled by the My Disney Experience app. I had to turn on data several times which I didn’t have to do when we visited Universal the year prior. Resort Wi-Fi was fine.
- The one downside to Fast Pass+ is you can only reserve three at a time. You can reserve more only after you have redeemed all three. I get it, I think some of the surprise factor is taken away if you plan every second of your trip, but it would be even better if you could reserve five.
- Our room didn’t receive “mousekeeping” during the trip. We were okay with it, since I’d read that you could opt out of maid service and get a $10 gift card. What they don’t tell you is you have to opt out at the beginning of your stay. I explained to the front desk that we hadn’t received housekeeping the first two days, but they couldn’t do the gift card retroactively. At the end of our stay they did take $20 off the bill and left us an apology message encouraging us to visit again.
- At times we were waiting upwards of thirty minutes for buses back to our resort. The return buses seemed to take longer for whatever reason.
- Except for Epcot where you can eat other types of cuisine your park food options are pretty much limited to pizza, pretzels, burgers, and hot dogs. There are healthy snacks available like apples and bananas.
- There are grocery stores that deliver to WDW but for an exorbitant fee.
- Almost every single food item at Disney is overpriced and has no correlation to quality (for example you will pay $15-$20 for a burger and fries and it will be meh). Expect to pay $3-$6 for bottled water. The main healthy options in the parks are salads but when it’s sweltering out a salad isn’t that appetizing.
- The manatees at the end of The Seas With Nemo & Friends ride. That tank is way too small for not one, but two one-thousand-pound creatures.
- How you’ll feel by day 4. You will be exhausted and have very little patience for waiting in line or people in general.
- Avatar Flight of Passage. Riding it is worth however long you must wait.
- The Mickey beignets we had were the biggest food bargain at three for $5 and probably among the best donuts we’ve ever tasted.
- I saw lots of parents carrying newborns and pushing two other kids in strollers. Respect, parents, respect. My husband and I decided we aren’t taking kids until they’re at least eight and can carry a backpack and walk six miles without being carried.
- I don’t think most visitors would notice this but as someone who works in consumer marketing I am impressed with Disney’s follow up communication since our trip. It is just enough to make me feel special without being annoying. I received a thank you email message plus a really cool sketch of Mickey in the mail that has our name on it commemorating our 2020 vacation.
SUGGESTIONS for the Disney Parks & Experience Team
- Rethink the Be Our Guest dining experience. There was nothing guest like about it. It was more like, make yourself at home and find a spot? Can this venue please switch to a table service restaurant for all mealtimes? It is mega awkward sitting on top of the party next to you in the dark.
- Allow more than three Fast Passes to be booked at a time.
- Get a better internet provider. The Wi-Fi inside the parks was completely unreliable.
- Have a more organized system for buses to the parks. Oftentimes bus times were not available on the app and only seen in the terminals. Also, getting onto the bus was a free for all at the resort. The terminals could benefit from a formal line.
- Open the World Showcase at Epcot when the park opens; don’t wait until 11 a.m.
- Raise the quality of all rides to Flight of Passage level. For legacy rides use Frozen as a model. That ride excels because of the multiple surprises and soundtrack.
- Give guests a copy of the animation and photos seen at the end of Spaceship Earth. Couldn’t they be sent to the My Disney Experience app?
- Offer more varied quick-service food options inside all parks. Ideas: quinoa/bean bowls, shrimp and rice, fruit salads, grilled chicken.
- Scrap the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros and turn it into a Coco themed ride instead.
- Include photos on every attraction/ride with Memory Maker/Disney Photo Pass. Have photographers wear shirts that say Photo Pass so they are easy to spot or have them hold signs like “Line Ends Here” that are used on some rides.
- Have two separate lines in every gift shop – one for purchases that require wrapping and/or shipping and one for straight transactions.
- Something needs to be done about Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom. That area of the park looks like it’s out of the early seventies/late eighties. We did notice a large coaster being built but the rest of it looks like yesteryear not the future. It also smelled awful in that area for some reason. I think it was exhaust from the Tomorrowland Speedway ride.
ADVICE for Newbies
- Plan your Disney trip as far in advance as possible.
- Check your potential vacation dates against larger events like the marathon, food festivals, etc. We visited right after the marathon but probably would’ve chosen a different week if we’d known it was going on.
- Make a high-priority vs. low priority ride list. Read ride descriptions before going but don’t watch all the videos that are out there so you don’t spoil the fun.
- Install and utilize the My Disney Experience App. It makes it easy to request and manage Fast Pass+.
- If possible, hit the parks at the beginning of the week, not the end. Friday was noticeably more crowded than other days, although it might’ve just been the fact that Hollywood Studios is smaller?
- Hit a grocery store before you get to your resort and/or pack snacks and a food survival kit in your luggage: plastic silverware, plates, napkins, etc. Cereals, oats, and nuts travel well.
- Wear comfy athletic shoes. We walked 38.67 miles at Disney.
- Skip these rides if you’re short on time: Small World, The Seas With Nemo & Friends, Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros, Under the Sea- Journey of the Little Mermaid.
WHAT I’D DO DIFFERENTLY
In retrospect I would seriously consider Disney After Hours to beat the crowds and heat. Had I known about this option ahead of time I think our itinerary would’ve been different. I only learned about it because they started promoting it to me in the app when we arrived.
I would visit for two days instead of four. Four full days was too many but we wanted to see everything. Though I loved the Frozen ride at Epcot and Slinky Dog Dash at Hollywood Studios I think if we visited again I would just do Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. I would also opt out of maid service at the beginning of our stay.
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