Wednesday, June 29, 2022

What Makes Disney World Such a Complicated Vacation?


For many vacations, including other theme parks, you can plan when you're going to go, book your hotel and then just show up each day.  For guests visiting Walt Disney World, this is absolutely not true.  Blogs like this one (and many others!) wouldn't exist if it were really that simple.  With all the rules and exception to rules, planning a trip to Walt Disney World is one of the most complicated things you can get yourself into.  Combined with how tiring it is, the running joke when you return is that you need a "vacation from your vacation."

Does it have to be this way?  What makes Walt Disney World different from other similar destinations (in large part including Disneyland in California, though that has some of these issues we'll discuss below as well)?  What does Disney gain from making guests jump through so many hoops just to visit?  We'll take a look at these questions in this post and see if we can make things simpler for everyone.

First we have to discuss some of the ways in which a Disney World vacation is complicated.  This has been true for many years, but in recent months, there have been a lot of guest complaints online, so I thought this was a good time to look at some of these things.

Advanced Dining Reservations:

In the real world, some restaurants take reservations and some don't.  But I would guess that even if you do call for a reservation, you do it within a few days of your visit.  Not so at WDW!  In order to ensure you get the restaurant at the date and time you want (if at all), you need to book these in advance 60 days (plus the length of your stay) ahead of time, preferably right at 6:00 a.m. Eastern Time the first day they are available.  

You think that's bad?  Before the pandemic-related closure, the rule was 180 days in advance!  That's right, you basically needed to know where and when you wanted to eat six months before it actually happened.  Of course, there are cancelations and changes, so not EVERYTHING had to be booked that far in advance, but it certainly was advantageous.  If I'm being honest, I liked the 180 day time frame - fewer people had vacations planned that far in advance, so it gave me that much of a better chance of getting what I wanted.

In any case, at 60 or 180 days, this can be a burden on guests.  Some people are unaware that this is even "a thing", and show up at the parks expecting to eat in any restaurant they want.  I heard an anecdote about someone on a plane overhearing the people in front of them talking about how they were going to Cinderella's Royal Table the next day, even though it was clear they had no reservation.  I worry that the child in question would have been heartbroken when they couldn't get in.

None of this even mentions the glitchy app and unbelievably fast sell outs for the most popular restaurants.  Even being prepared might not be enough.  This in and of itself is a complicating factor when planning your trip - you have to remember what day to log on, and then have backups ready in case something goes wrong.  Not everyone is prepared for that.

Disney Transportation:

A famous Walt Disney quote often comes up when discussing the initial purchase of property in Florida - it had the "blessing of size" as opposed to the park in California.  With every blessing there is a curse, and in current times, that curse is that navigating the parks, resorts, Disney Springs, etc, is a byzantine maze that often requires a reference guide just to comprehend.  Here's a good interactive map that looks like a NYC subway map (and that's not necessarily a compliment when we're talking about ease of use). 

At a place like Universal Orlando (and at Disneyland in California), the parks are close enough together that once you get to a central hub, you can just walk in one of two directions and be at your destination in minutes.  Again, this isn't the case at WDW.  Depending on which resort you're staying at (assuming you're on property - offsite is a whole other issue), you might be able to get to the parks by bus, monorail, boat, Skyliner or even on your own two feet.  Can you name which resorts have which transportation options off the top of your head?  If so, you probably don't need this blog.

If you can't, then you're like most guests who visit the parks.  "How do I get from here to there?" is one of the most common questions a cast member can get.  I love the fact that there are some great options that aren't simply buses, but there are a lot of permutations to figuring these things out and it's very easy to get lost or waste a lot of time backtracking needlessly.

Park Reservations / Park Hopping:

I'm including these two together since (at least for now), they are tied together.  Back in the old days (say, three years ago), there was no such thing as a park reservation.  Nowadays, though, when you purchase your tickets, you are instructed to select the park you will be visiting on any given day.  This can be changed if your plans change, but not always easily - if reservations fill up before your trip, you are locked into whatever park you selected, probably months earlier.

In the early days of the reopening phase, the park reservations were a way for Disney to limit the number of guests in their parks each day due to social distancing and safety concerns.  This really isn't an issue anymore, yet park reservations continue and seem to be here for the foreseeable future.  Why is this?

Well, Disney uses the information it gets from park reservation data to determine how much staffing is needed on any given day and park.  This is a good way for the company to be efficient and cost effective with its cast members but it can be a burden on guests who don't want to have to decide far in advance what park to pick each day.  And despite the warning all over the Disney website, I've heard stories of many guests showing up at a park without a reservation, which won't allow them to get in (it's likely I end up behind people like this all the time, as I always pick the wrong tapstile, but I digress).

Even if you have a park reservation, though, what about park hopping?  In the old times, you could hop anytime you wanted, and as many times as you could in one day.  Now, though, hopping is limited to after 2:00 p.m., and you have to tap into your first park before being able to park hop (so no sleeping in and blowing off your original reservation - you won't be able to get into the "second" park that way).

So to recap, you need a park reservation for each day you want to visit, and you can only hop after 2:00, assuming the second park isn't at capacity (which it almost NEVER is, but still).  This is a lot of hoops to jump through - certainly gone are the days of waking up and deciding where you wanted to go that day.

Genie+ / Individual Lighning Lanes / Virtual Queues:

I've written plenty about these topics in the past, so I won't rehash everything again here.  But the fact that there are so many posts about this one topic, here and on other blogs, should be a big red flag - this system is far too complicated for most people.  It takes time to figure out how they work and many people simply don't want to invest that time.  On the other hand, if you DO put in the "work" ahead of time, your experience will be better for it.

But this post is about how complicated a Disney World trip can be, and the Genie+ situation is certainly the most complicated current aspect.  Under the old FastPass+ system, a guest could make up to three attraction reservations in advance.  Guest feedback dictated that this was too complicated of a system (similar to advanced dining reservations, which I wrote about above) so when they had an opportunity to introduce a new system, they ... made it even more complicated?!?

A large part of my frustration with Genie+ is actually that there ISN'T a way to book attractions in advance.  If there's going to be stress in vacation planning, I'd rather it be done months in advance rather than at 7:00 a.m. in my hotel room.  But assuming I'm in the minority here, there are still plenty of problems with the system as constructed.

One of the major complicating factors is based on how many attractions you can book at once.  If you book attraction one at 7:00 a.m., you can either book attraction two after you've tapped in to attraction one, or two hours later, whichever comes first.  Oh, but it's not two hours later - it's two hours after the park opens, and that time varies from park to park (and sometimes day to day).  This gets even more complicated when you have multiple reservations "stacked" - the two hour rule comes into play after you make your most recent reservation, not your oldest.  Sometimes it's impossible to tell when you can next make a selection (though Disney is nice enough to tell you in the app - though of course, this also isn't always accurate).

Just rereading the above paragraph makes my head spin a little, and I actually know how to use this system.  For the average guest, this is just needlessly obtuse and not user friendly.  Individual Lightning Lanes (ILL) complicate things further.  To the average person, if you were told that you had to pay to have better access to rides, you might grumble but do it anyway.  Imagine then when you want to make a reservation for the "best" ride in the park, only to find that this has to be purchase separately and isn't included with Genie+.  What might their reaction be?

I think ILL's are a bridge too far when it comes to Disney nickel and diming its guests but based on the sales, it seems like people are purchasing them anyway, as a way to beat the crowds.  I can't blame them.  But it makes it especially difficult if you don't know what rides are a part of what system.  There is a reason Disney cut it down to one ILL per park - guests were angry that they were being shut out or put behind a separate paywall, and they complained about it.

Making this even MORE complicated is that certain rides, usually the newest and most in demand, use virtual queues.  This means, for example, if you want to ride Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, you either have to get into the virtual queue right at 7:00 a.m. OR purchase an ILL at 7:00 (or 1:00, or sometimes 6:00) in order to ride it.  Forget showing up and just waiting in a standby line - that's not an option.

I understand why Disney uses this system.  But in addition to Genie+ and ILL, there are sometimes three or four different possibilities for how you want to ride an attraction.  This is overly complicated and frustrating for many guests.  Defunctland did a tremendous video a while back on the evolution of the FastPass system - the whole video is worth watching, but there is a section at the end that "explains" in rapid fire fashion, how "easy" it is to book rides at Disney World.  I find it funny, in that "if you didn't laugh, you'd cry" kind of way.

So why does Disney make everything so complicated?  You probably won't like this answer but ... because they can.  As long as guests keep showing up and spending money, they will do everything they can to maximize efficiency and therefore profits.  Getting people to spend money on Genie+, tailoring staffing based on park reservations, etc. are just additional ways to part you and your money. 

It's easy to say "just don't go", but that defeats the purpose of a discussion like this.  Disney has experienced an unprecedented period of economic growth in the last decade plus, and they have made decisions with short term gains in mind, no matter how convoluted or short sighted they may seem.  With a possible recession looming, it will be interesting to say if and how they adapt to that kind of environment, as it's something that most of the people in positions of power now have never had to deal with.

Whatever Disney does next might not make things less complicated, though some tweaks to Genie+ and park hopping rules would go a long way to a better, easier experience for most people.  As of now, though, if you want to be a savvy guest, keep reading blogs like this one, as we try our best to get ahead of any changes and make it make sense to someone who thinks of a Disney trip like learning a second language.  

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