It’s said to be “the happiest place on earth.”
But some travelers aren’t thrilled about what it takes to pull off a trip to Walt Disney World these days.
Restaurants can be booked solid months in advance. Timeslots for new attractions can go within seconds of coming online at 7 a.m.
And then there’s the lingo: To avoid lines, FastPasses are out, and Lightning Lanes are in. There’s also Disney Genie and Disney Genie+ (the latter costs extra), Individual Lightning Lanes (not to be confused with regular Lightning Lanes) and photography services like PhotoPass and Memory Makers.
To some Disney super fans, mastering the system is all part of the fun — not to mention a way to reduce waiting times in the parks.
But for casual parkgoers, strategizing a stay can be overwhelming.
“It’s insane how much work has to go into planning a Disney vacation,” said Andrea, who asked that we not use her full name because she works in the travel industry. “I would need a vacation just from planning my vacation.”
She said she joined several Disney groups on Facebook to get planning tips: “Oh my goodness — what a rabbit hole.”
Other travelers turn to Disney-focused YouTube channels, blogs and message boards, where fans trade tips on saving money, hotel pools and navigating the new rule changes.
A post last week on one message board read: “We have been to WDW plenty of times but not the last couple of years and all the new changes are confusing me [to] no end.”
These changes, however, are part of Disney’s continual quest for improvement, a company representative told CNBC.
“We are always listening to our guests and continue to make updates to improve their experience, which includes rolling out new ways to make planning easier and simpler, now and into the future,” Disney spokesperson Avery Maehrer told CNBC.
For now, planning a trip to Disney World is like “an Olympic sport,” Andrea said, adding that many of her friends turn to a Disney travel agent in the end.
“But even that is cumbersome and confusing,” she said.
‘So incredibly complicated’
Jonathan Alder, CEO of the travel agency Jonathan’s Travels, organizes African safaris, wine tours through France and trips to remote parts of Patagonia. But he said Disney World vacations require the most complex planning of all.
“The problem is the system is so incredibly complicated that it requires its own doctorate to really understand,” he told CNBC.
Alder lives in Winter Park, Florida — not far from Walt Disney World — and has visited the parks more than 100 times, he said. Travelers who miss the old days of meandering around without a schedule can still do that, he said — but at a cost.
“There are those that understand the system and those that just go,” he said. The first group approach planning like “it’s a science,” and the second “get very little out of their day.”
The latter group can still have a great time, he said, but they will spend a lot of it waiting in lines. They will leave thinking food at Disney World is a “cheeseburger and a hot dog … which could not be farther from the truth,” he said.
Walt Disney World comprises four theme parks, two water parks and dozens of themed hotels, plus a shopping and entertainment area called Disney Springs. The entire complex is set on more than 40 square miles of land — roughly twice the size of Manhattan, Alder said.
Alder said the pandemic ushered in many of the changes that are befuddling travelers these days.
Before Covid, restaurant bookings opened six months before a visit. Now it’s two months, which has made reservations harder to get, he said.
“People just weren’t very good at planning six months in advance,” he said. “Two months out is a different game. Almost everyone is like … I’ve got to be on this.”
Shortening this booking window was done in response to customer feedback, according to Disney.
How to plan a Disney World trip
Alder recommends booking hotel accommodations first, namely Disney’s Boardwalk or Beach Club Resort, due to their proximities to the parks. They aren’t the most luxurious resorts, he said, but that doesn’t matter because logistics are more important. “At Disney World, your feet are your best transportation,” he said.
From there, visitors should tackle restaurant reservations because “amazing restaurants fill up super fast.”
His top restaurant recommendations in Disney hotels are Victoria & Albert’s in the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (note: children under 10 aren’t allowed), California Grill in the Contemporary Resort and Topolino’s Terrace at the Riviera Resort.
He targets these restaurants for dinners, along with Epcot’s Takumi-Tei and Monsieur Paul, but recommends booking lunches in the parks.
“I highly recommend sit down lunches. I think the quick-serve thing is a terrible idea,” he said. “That air-conditioned, sit-down break is what keeps your stamina up.”
For casual meals in the parks, he recommends — some for the food, others for the ambiance:
- Magic Kingdom: The Diamond Horseshoe, Liberty Tree Tavern or Tony’s Town Square
- Epcot: Garden Grill Restaurant, Connections Cafe
- Hollywood Studios: The Hollywood Brown Derby, 50’s Prime Time Cafe, Sci-Fi Dine-In
- Animal Kingdom: Tiffins, Yak & Yeti
Next, book park reservations based on where lunch reservations are secured, Alder said. This is especially important because “Park Hopper” tickets no longer let travelers “hop” from park to park at will; ticket-holders can only change locations after 2 p.m.
Perhaps more than anywhere else, this is where “you need to have your game plan,” said Alder.
The free FastPass program, which reduced waiting times on select attractions, ended in 2021. In its place is Genie+ (pronounced “Genie Plus”), a service available through the My Disney Experience app that costs from $15 a day per person, according to Disney’s website.
It allows visitors to book “Lightning Lanes,” which assign a time window for guests to access shorter lines on attractions.
Genie+ has “made everyone’s life even harder,” said Alder. Unlike the now defunct FastPass program, visitors can only book attractions “on the same day, and now there’s a charge.”
It also doesn’t secure spots on the newest rides, such as Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind (“the greatest ride probably ever made anywhere in the world”) and the highly anticipated Tron Lifecycle/Run attraction, set to open Monday.
Visitors can’t walk up and get in line for either ride, said Alder; rather they must enter a “Virtual Queue” (which is free) or purchase an “Individual Lightning Lane,” according to Disney’s website.
Virtual Queues open at 7 a.m. and 1 p.m., and bookings go fast, Alder said. “You have, I’d say, a good 15 to 20 seconds, if you’re lucky, before the ride is gone,” Alder said.
Doug Polzin, who has been visiting Disney World annually for around two decades, said at 1 p.m. “you look around the park and everybody is standing still” on their phones.
“Then you hear an audible ‘yay’ or groan from the crowds,” he, and his wife Lana, told CNBC.
Individual Lightning Lanes, which are one-time purchases that usually range from $9 to $15, also typically sell out in the morning, said Alder. These allow riders to book a ride time for attractions that aren’t available under the Genie+ service, and only two can be used per day, according to Disney’s website.
“Individual Lightning Lanes are much easier to get if you are staying at a Disney property as at 7 a.m., they open up for hotel guests only” he said. “From the minute that park opens, all guests are able to purchase it, and it’s usually gone, if it wasn’t already, in moments.”
If this all sounds like too much, Alder said visitors can book a private VIP tour, using its privileges to do the most popular rides in all four parks in one day.
However, the service runs from $450 to $900 an hour, and has a seven-hour minimum. After acknowledging this goes beyond most budgets, he said “if you are financially able to do it … it is worth every single cent.”
Though Disney does not disclose park attendance numbers, Polzin said: “The parks feel busier now than they’ve ever been.”
He said on his last visit he spent about 80% of the day on the Disney app trying to secure shorter lines for his family on their favorite rides.
“The only time you’re not on your phone is when you’re on a ride or shopping,” he said.
Is it worth it? “Absolutely,” he said.
What’s happening at other parks?
Disney’s other theme parks — known as Disneylands — are smaller, with just one (Shanghai, Hong Kong) or two parks (Anaheim, Tokyo, Paris) in total.
As a result, planning visits to these parks isn’t nearly as complicated, said Alder, adding that the exception is California’s Disneyland, which operates much like Disney World.
Australian Phoebe Morris said she didn’t bother booking restaurants before her visit to Tokyo Disneyland last month.
“Restaurant slots open up one month in advance for certain restaurants, and by the time we realised it was too late,” she said. Despite this “we were able to eat in other locations that allowed us to walk in.”
Another parkgoer, Derek — who asked that we not use his full name — called his visit to Shanghai Disneyland last month “a very flexible experience.”
He said he needed a park reservation and used an app to navigate the visit, but “I didn’t make reservation at restaurants” nor did he buy any skip-the-line services “because [I] went on a weekday when Chinese children are all at school.”
Outside of the United States, Disneyland parks provide a “Premier Access” service, which allows visitors to buy access to a shorter line on one ride, or in some locations, a broader range of attractions, for one fee, according to the parks’ websites.
At Hong Kong Disneyland, purchasing this service for eight attractions costs 329 Hong Kong dollars ($42), though costs for the service at Disneyland Paris are considerably higher.
‘Don’t rush it’
“A great Disney trip, if it’s your first time, is seven to nine days,” Alder said. “Don’t rush it.”
Alder said travelers need at least four days to visit the parks, but staying beyond this allows visitors to see them at a more leisurely pace.
Plus, there is so much more to Disney World than the theme parks, he said. He called Disney World an “amazing spa destination” and said Disney Springs, formerly known as Downtown Disney, has shopping, live music and fantastic restaurants.
There’s also boating, golfing and biking, plus an array of activities called the “Enchanting Extras Collection” which include horse-drawn carriage rides, tequila tastings, helium balloon rides and backstage access tours.
These are the types of activities he said he planned for his own four-day birthday party at Disney World, where he and 35 friends played mini golf, rented Surrey bikes, and booked Animal Kingdom’s “Wild Africa Trek,” which Alder called “one of the most fun experiences ever.”
The group also did a tequila tasting at Epcot, he said.
“That is a super tough reservation to get,” said Alder. “That’s the difference between people just showing up … and really getting into the detailed world of Disney planning.”