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Tuesday, January 05, 2016

Walt Disney World: The Good and the Bad


So me and my family went to Walt Disney World the week before Thanksgiving. First time doing it and being responsible for myself. We were quite lucky in that we didn't have to worry about money. As long as we were wise, we didn't have a "scrimp everything you can" scenario. But we did a lot of pre-planning, evaluation, organization, scheduling, and general duck rowifying beforehand.

It's been a long time since I'd last been to Florida. A lot has changed since I was a young teenager. And now being the person who pays for this stuff, I thought I'd talk about what I saw.


GOOD: Main Street U.S.A.

I don't know why this place sticks in my head so much. I didn't even remember it being there. Of course, why would I? I wanted the cartoons and rides, not shopping. But here it is, the entrance into Disney World is this massive, immersive slice of 1920.

And there's nothing Disney about it. It's not like there's a "Main Street, U.S.A." movie or anything. It has no rides and no shows. There are townspeople walking around -- a barbershop quartet, a press man with a toy dog, the mayor's wife, the "mayor" who does the ritual opening of the park--all in period costumes. It's bizarre, but beautiful.

Maybe some of my enamorment came from us staying at the Grand Floridian -- designed as a 1900's Victorian beach resort as would have existed in Florida. The staff was wearing golf hats and those socks that buckle to your pants. THAT felt like I was in Bioshock: Infinite.


BAD: Grumpy, Sleepy Kids

This is not Disney's fault, but it's something I wanted to mention as a warning to other vacation planners. My kids were 7 and 5 at the time. I was more worried about behavior or tantrums, but Disney drained their energy for either.

Every day we got up early because there were certain "must-do" rides we had no fast passes for (more on those later). By the time we got back to the hotel in time for dinner (around 5 or 6 PM + 1 hour time change), the five-year-old was pooped. We couldn't wake her up to eat dinner. So if you're planning to see any night events like IllumiNations or Fantasmic!, shift your waking hours accordingly.


GOOD: Cast Members

After my first time on the Seven Dwarves' Mine Train ride, I fell in love with a very strange thing about Walt Disney World -- the efficiency. You look at the wait lines, and you never think that people are getting off and on like Japanese businessmen.

How many in your party? Stand on number three, four, and five. Go all the way to the right, please.  There's staff all around helping people in, out, and through. And they're good at it.

They employ people from all over the world too -- they have their country on their nametags (assuming they're not a character -- that would be weird). Everyone I talked to seemed like a great person. Helpful, courteous. Not just content, or giving the minimal personality as dictated by the requirements, but happy. In Hollywood Studios, we worked with one unfortunate cashier who had transferred over from Animal Kingdom for the day and we were getting all kinds of souvenirs and needed firmer boxes and merch that wasn't the broken on-display kind and she didn't know where anything was and no one would help the poor girl. But even while it took an hour, she didn't break her smile.  (She might have if I was the one working with her and not my wife -- the kids and I went window shopping elsewhere.)


BAD: Dining Plan

I don't know how long this has been in place, but there rarely passed ninety minutes where we didn't ask ourselves or someone else a question about the dining plan. What counts as a snack? Why is a bottle of water the same as a giant cupcake? Which places are the quick-service ones and which are dinners? Doesn't anyone sell fruit? Or something other than sugar?

Thank god the cashiers knew what was what.  The problem is you have your food by the time you're up there. I wish there was some kind of unified menu system or list for which thing is which, but food isn't like that. There's combo meals and a la cartes and desserts and appetizers and they're all called different things. Are Western Sam's "little nibblers" the same as Ye Olde Publique House tidbits?

If you're in a pinch for food (and you usually are since you're rushing all over the park to get to X, Y, and Z) then you need a simpler system. Not to mention that, since there are so many foreign employees, it's difficult to understand them explain what your choices are.

And there are too many desserts. Every meal comes with a dessert and after a while, you get sick of those rich cakes and chocolate milkshakes. You just want a salad, but those are nowhere to be found. I wish you could substitute a side item or appetizer or something.


GOOD: Rides and Shows

I was afraid I'd be disappointed because all my memories of the park are colored through nostalgia. From a time before I had to budget things or make decisions or corral kids.

But everything was even better than I remember. I felt like there's more for adults and thrill-seeking kids than when I was younger. Good rides too, like Mission: Space and Star Tours. Space Mountain is still there, but got a massive revamp (and it was the only ride adult me got sick on). Roller coasters like Expedition: Everest, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Seven Dwarfs' Mine Train. The shows are still good, from classics like Indiana Jones's Epic Stunt Spectacular and the Beauty & the Beast Revue, plus some new ones like Lights, Motor, Action.

Some got improvements, like Spaceship: Earth and The Hall of Presidents. But some lost the kitsch that made them charming, like Journey Into Imagination with Eric Idle and Figment the Jerk. Some are old places that I newly discovered, like Tom Sawyer Island. And some are clearly just taking up space, like Captain Eo. But overall, very pleased with the entertainment available.


BAD: Constant Vigilance

The problem with going on vacation with two children and two grandparents is that everybody has different paces, different energy levels. Now if you're with a bunch of people pleasers who don't like to say no, that means I had to be the bad guy a lot of times. If we ever were going to get from one end to the other, there had to be decision-making and focus on the task at hand.

With kids, you expect some attention wandering, but not grown-ups. I shouldn't have to repeat our intentions five times. Walking slow is not conducive to a theme park where things happen on a timetable. They might have hated me some times, and truth: I was on edge having to keep all the dogies rounded up. But I wouldn't have had to be if people spoke honestyly and weren't so passive aggressive, presenting every question to the group.

So my advice if you're going to a Disney park and you're an adult: don't be afraid to speak up and assert your desires. It's like all the bad dates where you say "what do you want to do?" "I don't know, what do you want to do?"


GOOD: Fast Passes

Well, you can't deny the advantage of a golden ticket that bumps you to the front of any line. No, it's not that cut and dried, but you get segregated into a separate, shorter line for people with that golden ticket. Since we don't plan anything fewer than a few years between Disney park trips, I can say with certainty that it's worth that extra money to make our park time more efficient.

We got three fast passes per day as part of our resort package. My biggest worry was timing -- having to get from one end of the park to another because of the schedule. You get an hour timespan to use your fastpass, and that was plenty. (They even have clocks on the ride so you can tell if you're early or late.) And it wasn't hard to be where we needed to be.

There was even one time when the ride broke down that we had a fastpass for. And we were able to substitute for another. No muss, no fuss, didn't have to sign a waiver or juggle a contract. What you do have to do is either make a schedule, or have access to the DisneyWorld app (which I recommend anyway, more on that later).


BAD: Fast Passes

Yes, fast passes end up on both the nice and naughty list. Despite the implication, a fastpass does not guarantee you get on the ride right away. In fact, for Soarin', we still had to wait 45 minutes. Now that is some bullshit.  And there's nothing in the line for you to do or look at -- its just a long taupe hallway. And the ride isn't even that good.

For Mission: Space, we got immediate seating in the orange (more intense) common line, while there was a twenty minute wait in for the green (less intense) version WITH a fastpass. Isn't the whole point to be able to bypass wait times?

Plus, getting the fastpasses is another exercise in constant vigilance and early planning. Three months earlier, my wife got up at midnight to get the fastpasses we had arranged ahead of time, and still didn't get all we wanted. You can only get three per day, so who's buying up all the fast passes so that you can't get one three months beforehand? Disney needs to nip that bud. Plus, not all the rides need a fastpass, so you can screw yourself unless you do your research.

And I can't let this issue go without talking about the division it makes. Is it fair? Is it elitist? Does it cater to the wealthy? And this trip's expensive enough to begin with. The last thing you need is something else to pay for. But Disney figured out a way for people to give them more money. And it works, because it gives results. But instead of everyone being in line for a medium time, you've got a small amount of people in line for a short time, and a whole bunch of people in line for a longass time, letting the people with money go first. There's a socioeconomic paper lying in there somewhere.


GOOD: The App + MagicBand

Despite some grumbling I overheard from others, I never had a problem with the app or the connectivity. All Disney parks have free wifi, so instead of carrying around a map like f*cking tourist, I could navigate using my phone's GPS like a cool, smooth dude. I always knew my fastpass schedule, could update fastpasses, could track ourselves on the map, preview PhotoPass photos, find characters and rides (with wait times). It had everything I needed at my fingertips.

My only complaint was the navigation was a bit hard -- they separate rides and events/shows so you can't view them at the same time. I used the Shop Disney Parks app a lot too -- especially when I couldn't figure out what a certain trinket was (it was a backscratcher).

Well, it had no label.  What are you supposed to do?  Hang it like a picture?
Same for the Magic Band. God that thing's better than a credit card. As long as you're not stupid about it -- that you're not under some delusion it's free money -- it's a godsend. It covers everything from rides to food to photos, like a little ID that only works in the Disney world. Yeah, there are some shades of "1984" about it... but look! They have little decorations you can put on.  Why aren't we all wearing these things?


BAD: Lines

Yeah, you knew this was coming. Like I said before, fast passes mess everything up for the common man.

The thing is, I remember the lines being more entertaining when I was younger. Maybe that was just Universal Studios, but I remember stuff to do and look at while in line.  Different stations you passed into so you always felt you were making progress. A few places had that, like Expedition Everest and Seven Dwarves' Mine Train. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had such beautiful world-building and architecture I actually regretted the line moved as fast as it did.

But then Pirates of the Caribbean and Journey Into Imagination are just dull. There's some things to look at, but they're pretty static. Which is not good if the line's slow-moving. And Soarin'! Oh, don't get me started on Soarin'. The airport was a better ride than that. And that includes the TSA. At least they provide tension and thrill.

And some of the wait times are just ridiculous. I mean RIDICULOUS. Whoever thinks it's worth it to stand for three hours for a two minute forty-nine second ride has to be certifiably insane. You shouldn't have to sit through the length of The Two Towers Extended Edition to listen to a 90's pop song.



So that's it. Walt Disney World gets two enthusiastic thumbs up from me. I recommend it, so get going while you can. You never know when these small-time businesses will fold.  If people don't support it, it might not last.
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