by Steve Eldridge
The first time I went to Walt Disney World was in 1980 when I was 18 years old. I was in the Navy at the time, and just finishing up boot camp in Orlando. I loved the Magic Kingdom, and I thought it was the most charming place in the world. I will never forget my first time on the Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion. As a boy who grew up on a Connecticut farm, I had never seen anything like it. I must have ridden them both at least 5 times each on the day I was there. I thought that the detail and theming at Magic Kingdom were incredible.
I got married and had children, and, as soon as my youngest was big enough to go on most of the rides (around 1989 or 1990), we started going to Walt Disney World. My family loved Disney so much that we usually went twice a year. We continued to go to Disney World after the September 11th terrorist attacks, and we kept going after the 2007/08 financial crisis. We stopped going to Disney World in September 2017 after being at WDW during the time of Hurricane Irma's visit.
When we visited Walt Disney World, we usually stayed on property in a value resort for 7 nights, usually at Pop Century Resort. We would go to Universal for 2 days and SeaWorld for 1 day during our stay as well. My kids were good students who got good grades, so we would take them out of school and go during the slow season. In addition to our family trips, my wife and I used to come down to Orlando for a long weekend every now and then, always at Walt Disney World.
I would say that around 2012 things started to go downhill, and, by the time 2017 rolled around, I was completely fed up with Disney World. By then, we had reduced our Orlando vacations to once a year and started spending more time at Universal. We shortened our visits to Walt Disney World, and even stayed off property a couple of times, spending less time and less money at Disney, and more at Universal.
The price increases at Disney World alone are not enough to keep me away, but, when you combine that with all the other things that Disney changed that resulted in a negative guest experience, I am done. I have no problem with spending money as long as I have a good experience that's worth what I paid. I believe that if I stayed at Disney's Grand Floridan Resort and Spa for $750.00 a night, my Disney experience wouldn’t be improved in any meaningful way. I would just be in a nicer and more expensive hotel that still lacks something as basic as an in-room coffee maker.
The Disney cast members are not as friendly, the service is not as good, and the parks don’t seem as well maintained as in the past. I noticed that there were less “sweepers” keeping the parks clean, and it showed. You would see full trash pails on occasion, and bits of trash on the ground here and there. Still clean by amusement park standards, but not up to Disney standards. On my last couple of trips, I was surprised to see quite a bit of trash floating in the water around the parks.
As for the resorts, it looks like the hotels switched their housekeeping staff to an outside contractor, and the cleanliness of the resorts suffered. Disney housekeeping stopped adding their little touches to the room, such as little things like folding the towels into a Disney character. When my kids were young, they loved seeing what housekeeping had done when we returned to the room after a day in the parks. Today, staying in a Disney World resort is not much different than a Comfort Inn, except that Comfort Inn has a coffee maker in the room and costs half the price!
On our last visit to Walt Disney World, we stayed at Pop Century Resort. The room we were given had a very large, wet, and fresh spot of vomit on the floor, and the room smelled terrible. We pointed out the problem and they made a feeble attempt to clean it up, but afterwards, the room smelled like vomit and disinfectant combined. We requested another room and the hotel staff seemed pretty aggravated with us for asking. Granted, they were pretty full because of the hurricane, but it was Pop Century that had given us a room with vomit on the floor and had decided that it was good enough. They did eventually give us another room after we spent 3 hours of our time dealing with the issue.
But the worst thing by far, and the biggest change that Disney has made that destroyed the Disney guest experience for me, is the My Disney Experience app. In the past, if you wanted a FastPass, you physically visited the attraction, put your ticket in the machine, and got a FastPass. It required some effort. If you wanted a dining reservation, you picked up the phone and called, or you could stop by Guest Relations or the restaurant in person. This also required effort. Today, you can literally sit on your toilet at home and make your dining reservations 6 months out effortlessly with the flick of your finger. You can do the same to grab your FastPasses 3 months out. Seems convenient right? Not for me. I don’t want to plan my vacation that far ahead, and thus, when I get to the park, there are no FastPasses and no dining reservations left. I am sure that it is cheaper and more convenient for Disney, but it ruins the vacations of people like me.
For a decade and a half, we could visit Disney World and decide what park to go to on that day. We could make our dining reservations at Guest Relations when we arrived, go get a FastPass for the busiest attraction, and have a fun and relaxing day. We always got to do everything we wanted to do, and eat in every restaurant we wanted to eat in. But no more. I am not interested in planning every minute of my Walt Disney World trip 6 months in advance. I don’t want to create a schedule that I am a slave to when I am in the parks. I am on vacation! If someone wants to do that, that’s fine, but you shouldn’t be forced to in order to do basic things like eat (I am talking about restaurants like Liberty Tree Tavern or 50’s Prime Time Café) or ride the attractions. Remember, those of us who do not want to plan 6 months in advance are paying the same money as everyone else and we should have the same experience. That’s how it was before the My Disney Experience app, and that is how it should be today. Since the infernal My Disney Experience app was implemented, my Disney experience has been mostly an exercise in frustration and disappointment.
I believe that this is pretty easy to fix. Change the app so that you can only get a FastPass when you are physically in the park, and change advanced dining reservations to phone or Guest Relations only. Only allow reservations on the day of with the app.
Personally, I think that Disney should scrap the FastPass system altogether and switch to something like Universal’s Express Pass. I firmly believe that FastPass makes the lines longer for everyone, even people who have a FastPass. Why? FastPass is free, so everyone gets them, as evidenced by the long FastPass lines. With so many FastPasses getting priority loading into the attraction, the standby line backs up and gets longer. In contrast, Universal’s Express Pass is expensive and far fewer people have it. There is usually no waiting in a Universal Express line, so the few people who have it have less impact on the standby line, enabling the standby line to move faster. At Disney, for free, you can save time in line for a couple of attractions with a FastPass. Then, you lose that time saved, and more waiting in longer standby lines for all of the other attractions that you ride. Sacrilegious, I know…but I really believe that if Disney killed FastPass for a one month test, they would find that their guests spend less total time in line at the end of the day than they do today.
Disney also needs to stop building resorts until they get a handle on crowd levels. The best way to lower crowd levels is to build 2 more parks. One park dedicated to the thrill rides and motion simulators that teens and young adults seem to favor, and another park that will be attractive to the fans of the Magic Kingdom. A King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table version of Pirates? A Nightmare Before Christmas version of The Haunted Mansion? Disney villains? A river cruise full of mythical creatures? Dragons!
Here’s the thing that Disney and a lot of their fans seem to miss: there are other options - good options - like Universal. I can stay at the beautiful and luxurious Portofino Bay for 5 nights with park to park tickets for the price of a moderate resort at Disney. The stay at Portofino includes priority dining, so I don’t have to worry about advanced dining reservations, and Express Passes, so I can go on whatever attraction I want whenever I want without standing in long lines. I don’t have to be at the park at rope drop, I don’t have to stay until the park closes. I can sleep in or relax by the pool, and still be able to do everything I want. The parks are spotless, the rooms are beautiful, and housekeeping is fantastic. The team members are wonderful. Universal team members seem to be more invested in their jobs, and appear have a greater ability to think independently and make decisions on their own when compared their peers at Walt Disney World. It all adds up to a relaxing and fun vacation, without so much as a second of pre-planning, and no schedules. I have stayed at The Hard Rock, The Royal Pacific, and at the Portofino. They are all beautiful hotels, but Portofino Bay is my favorite. We are Universal annual passholders. A Universal annual pass costs less than half of what a Disney World annual pass costs. Universal should also be credited for proactively investing in and building another gate, before their crowds get so big that people stay away.
I truly hope that Disney changes so I can start going there again and enjoy myself. I miss the classic Disney dark rides, and I miss the World Showcase at Epcot. I miss the old Disney that was truly magical. I would love to experience the new and upcoming attractions. Unfortunately, I won’t be going back until Disney starts improving things and starts considering the guest experience of all of their guests. I know it’s all about the bottom line, but when enough people get fed up and walk away, the bottom line will suffer. When you charge a premium price, you need to offer a premium experience.
The recent Disney Skyliner incident is a good example of how bad Disney is getting. What if that had happened on a hot and humid July afternoon? Hundreds of people sitting in the hot sun in what amounts to a tin can with no air conditioning, for over 3 hours? It would have been horrible. It’s very possible that they would have been doing much more than a rescue, they would have been recovering the bodies of people who died of heat stroke. Babies and the elderly are particularly at risk. Think about that. I hope that Disney realizes this. The fact that they put so much effort into minimizing the incident doesn’t give me much faith that Disney is going to change anytime soon.
In conclusion, I really do hope that Disney gets it together and starts fixing things. I miss Disney, but I don’t miss the Disney of today, I miss the Disney that was. The Disney that was truly the most magical place on earth.