Thursday, May 5, 2022

Disney: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Spring 2022 Edition)

How this trip came about . . .

In late January/early February 2020, I booked and planned a Disney vacation for our family for the end of June, when school was to let out for the year.  Here in New England, schools usually run into the third week of June and I spent quite a bit of time following long term forecasts as snow days can easily add up and push that last day of school out even further.  And then . . . well, we all know what happened in March of 2020.  In May, there were rumors that Disney was planning to reopen and could potentially be open during our vacation dates, but we were not ready to travel.  I had heard people were receiving credits (instead of cash) for canceling flights and some had experienced lengthy phone wait times and delays with refunds when canceling with Disney.  So we gambled a bit and hoped that both Jet Blue and Disney would cancel on us.  They did and our funds came back to us without issue.

I told the girls we would simply rebook for the summer of 2021 and make it BIGGER and BETTER.  And then . . . we found out Anna had to have surgery to untether her spinal cord.  It was a bit of a process involving different doctors at different hospitals to reach that conclusion.  It started with routine testing in December of 2020 to learning of the surgery in May of 2021.  This surgery was not an emergency and so we planned with her neurosurgeon for an early July surgery.  The recovery process was extremely long and painful, and Anna spent the majority of the summer recovering and healing.  A Disney (or any other) vacation just didn't work for us for the summer of 2021.

In the past, we weren't able to travel during February or April school vacation weeks because Rich had to attend a mandatory board (or bored, as I liked to call it) meeting on the third Tuesday of every month, which always fell on those vacation weeks.  There's also the fact that airfare is ridiculously expensive at those times because of the scheduled vacation weeks.  Back in the fall, the girls' dance studio sent out save the dates for spring competitions and, after checking the calendar, I realized that we had April vacation week open.  Rich started a new job in early 2020 so those meetings no longer affect us, and weather-wise, it's much more ideal to travel to Florida in April than over the summer.  So our long postponed Disney vacation finally came to fruition.

Disney Resorts

One of the first planning tasks I took on, after deciding that airfare at $5,000 was absurd and we would mostly likely be driving, was checking out resort availability and pricing.  For all of our previous Disney vacations, we've stayed at a Disney resort.  Disney wants you to stay on property because once you're in the Disney bubble, you'll likely spend less time venturing off of Disney property, which will equate to more money spent at Disney restaurants and shops.  Disney offers advantages to staying on property versus offsite and while I don't want to go into the detail of that here in this post, I will say that the list of advantages has shrunk over the past couple of years.

We had built up free nights and points with Hyatt that we needed to use, so my initial thought was to stay at a nearby Hyatt for a few nights and then move over to one of the Magic Kingdom resorts.  In the past, we've stayed at the Grand Floridian, the Polynesian, and the Contemporary.  When we stayed at the Poly, it was undergoing refurbishments and it was refurbished again in 2021.  That was my pick of the three but when I punched in our dates on Disney's website, I was told that the least expensive room option available to us was $1,000.  Per night.

I.  Don't. Think.  So.

So began my frustrations with booking a Disney vacation with the "new" Disney.  

I opened up my search to any and all Disney resorts and my options were extremely limited and extremely expensive.  As a family of five, we are in a different situation than smaller families.  Disney does have room options for five people, but now that the girls are older, we do try to book two rooms so we're not spending an entire morning waiting for people to get ready.  I looked at rooms for five people, because we can suck it up and deal with it if we need to, and two separate rooms.  The least expensive option I could come up with was around $800 per night, and, I'm sorry, but we just aren't going to spend that kind of money to stay at a Disney World resort.   

This was back in November of 2021 (five months before our vacation) and at that time, Disney was not experiencing the boom it is now.  It made no sense to me why room availability was so scarce.  I did some research amongst Disney bloggers and discovered that, apparently and understandably, Disney isn't immune to the staffing shortages plaguing businesses across the U.S.  Resort options were limited because Disney hadn't fully reopened all of their resorts or even all of the rooms at their open resorts.  What left me scratching my head was the fact that it seemed like only the more expensive rooms had been made available - club level, theme park views, etc.  What about Art of Animation or standard rooms?  It felt like they had opened up only their more expensive options and raised the prices in an attempt to take as much as they could from guests who really wanted to stay on property.  So we said, "Sorry, not sorry," and booked two rooms at the nearby Hyatt Regency Grand Cypress.    

I'll have to write another post (look at me planning out blog posts!) about our stay at this hotel, but I will tell you that we had no regrets staying offsite and would absolutely do it again.

Disney Dining

Everyone, regardless of where you are staying, can make advanced dining reservations (aka ADRs) at the 60 day mark.  If you are staying on Disney property, you are able to book ADRs for the entirety of your trip.  Those staying offsite need to book each day separately at the 60 day mark for each day.  None of this really mattered because when I logged on right when dining became available, there was nothing.  Unless you consider Mama Melrose's at 9:30 pm to be a viable option.  I'd never experienced anything like this before.  Typically, I can find something and then I usually tweak my plans as other dining becomes available.

I searched for dining every day, multiple times a day, and always came up empty-handed.  And this wasn't me being picky with, "Oh, here's a 1:00 for Brown Derby, but I'd rather have a 12:30 for Prime Time."  This was nothing.  Or 9:30 pm availability for dinner.  Or restaurants with perpetual open spots (Paradiso 37 anyone?) which makes me not want to eat there because why isn't anyone else eating there?

In order to avoid no-shows, Disney requires a credit card when making an ADR and they will charge you $10 per person if you do not cancel your reservation.  Because of this policy, guests do cancel and I knew from prior trips that if you're looking for a specific ADR, you have a good chance of finding it days before or even during your trip.  

My big dining tip is to keep searching in the days leading up to your trip.  Don't give up hope!  I found a 5:05 dinner reservation for Chef Mickey's on Easter five days beforehand.  I also found The Hollywood Brown Derby and Crystal Palace ADRs while we were there.  Staffing issues are definitely at play, as well as more crowds in the parks.  I also feel the need to point out that Disney travel agents have access to the same reservation system everyone else uses.  Disney travel agents are working hard for their money right now, and it's definitely not the same gig it was in the past, but they should not be telling you that they can get you any dining you want.   

I don't really want to throw a dining review in here, but I kind of feel the need because the experience was off-putting and added to the lack of magic feeling.  Disney restaurants are expensive so, naturally, we expect great service to go along with the cost.  The first ADR for our trip was at Chef Mickey's.  The waitstaff was excellent, my diet coke was refilled before it sat empty, the food was tasty and we were asked if we wanted more of items (food was served family style) in a timely manner.  This was exactly how Disney dining should be.  

So now let's compare that to The Hollywood Brown Derby.  Disney isn't known for having extensive menu options in general, but the options at The Brown Derby, when we were there, were very limited.  Because of this, Rich kept going back and forth on what to order.  We were also dining at a very odd time, because that's all that was available, so our appetites were in an odd place too.  It took forever for our drink orders to be taken and then it took forever for our drinks to arrive.  Our waiter seemed agitated that we weren't ready to order when he came back.  We were looking at the menu on our phones and he kept bringing over different paper menus and throwing them down on the table.  We ended up ordering four meals to split between the five of us.  When the food finally arrived at the table, two of those meals were completely wrong.  For example, instead of the tomato risotto, we were handed a tomato and burrata salad.  When I pointed out that two of the items were not what we had ordered, he seemed pissed at us.  We hadn't even eaten yet and I was done with that place.  When our correct meals were brought out, our waiter finally apologized for the mix-up.  Look, I know people aren't perfect and I know there are staffing issues everywhere, but this guy clearly was not just having a bad day.  To top things off, our waiter disappeared for the rest of the meal and we were never asked if we wanted a refill on our drinks.  This is a huge pet peeve of mine.  

We've eaten at The Hollywood Brown Derby in the past and all of us thoroughly enjoyed our meal.  Now, I have no desire to eat there ever again.

Theme Park Reservations

With the "new" Disney, you now need a valid theme park admission and a theme park reservation in order to enter one of the Disney World theme parks.  The theme park reservation system was put in place last year, but was really just a formality for guests until February of 2022.  Leading up to Presidents' Day weekend, these reservations suddenly filled up and the boom has continued into the spring.  Although, it does appear to have slowed down a little bit. 

When I first heard that Disney had set up this reservation system, I naively thought they were limiting the number of guests in such a way that the parks would never be at high crowd levels.  Disney did have a system in place to monitor crowd levels and it was well known that if you planned to visit the parks between Christmas and the new year, you could very well expect for parks to fill and admission to be cut off.  I purchased our theme park tickets in February after I saw what was happening with President's Day week and made our reservations as soon as I had my confirmation number.  At that time, reservations for all parks were fully open and I had no problem.  As we rolled into March, all of the parks for our dates became completely full.

I don't want this to turn into a "how to book your Disney vacation" but I will say, for those who are new to Disney or haven't traveled there in years, that you need to check the theme park reservation system for availability prior to booking your vacation, and then book your reservations as soon as you have your confirmation number.  The theme park reservation system is on the Walt Disney World website - anyone can check it out.  Personally, I'm not a fan of this new system as it makes your vacation less flexible.

If you're visiting a park on a day when reservations are full, expect it to be freaking crowded.  Like wall to wall people, lines for the bathroom, 90-120 minute stand-by line for rides, get out of my way crowded.  We've been to Disney during moderate summer crowds and this was so much worse than anything we've ever experienced.  And that leads me to my next point - no one can predict crowd levels right now.  No one knows what it will be like in August or November.  The estimated crowd calendars of the past relied on wait times and other information from previous years.  Everything is so unpredictable now.  We traveled during the third week of April, which is when spring break crowds are supposed to be dying down.  And that's exactly what Disney bloggers were predicting back in the fall.  And they were all wrong.          

So let's talk about park hoppers for a minute.  Hoppers used to be a fairly inexpensive (in the grand scheme of Disney pricing) add-on, especially when spread across four or five days of park tickets.  Now, however, those prices have increased fairly significantly.  For example, if you want to add a park hopper onto a four day ticket, that's a $90 increase.  Remember above when I stated how I originally (and stupidly) thought that Disney was limiting guests to comfortable levels with this new theme park reservation system.  Ha!  At 2:00 in the afternoon, anyone with a park hopper can hop around to any park they would like.  No reservation needed.  

When Disney makes changes, it's usually for their benefit so I'm convinced that this new theme park reservation system is a way for them to anticipate expected crowd levels.  

Genie+

Or perhaps it should be referred to as "Genie minus."  I don't have enough personal experience with Genie+ so I can't tell you whether it's a complete rip-off or something you should definitely do.  I can tell you people I know in the real world, who have used it, were not happy with their experiences and have told me they felt like it was a waste of money.  

Disney is already so expensive, so to take away the free FastPass system and add a paid service, which is complicated to use and doesn't guarantee anything, is infuriating.  It would cost a family of five an additional $75 per day to use Genie+.   

We weren't planning to pay for Genie+ but I joined a social media group where people give their experiences, tips, etc. because I wanted to see if maybe there was a way to master the system, so to speak.  I consider myself a fairly intelligent person, and I admit that I haven't spent a significant amount of time on it, but a paid service should not be so difficult to use.  Whenever I start to read game plans and what people did and what people think you should do, my eyes glaze over.  Why is this so complicated?    

What Disney IS doing right

Because Anna has spina bifida (and all that goes along with it), she was able to use the Disability Access Service (DAS) provided by Disney.  Disney has revamped their disability services over the years to try to keep people from scamming the system.  (This is why it's usually not easy to find detailed information about DAS online.)  In the past, we've been able to use our stroller as a wheelchair so that Anna would have somewhere to sit while we waited in line.  During our last trip in 2018, I made good use of FastPasses to avoid long wait times.  Neither of these scenarios are options for us at this time.  We were very happy and pleasantly surprised with the Disability Access Service (DAS.) The cast members were all extremely friendly and helpful, and the service was easy to use.  

DAS is not a skip the line service.  Instead of waiting in line, you wait somewhere else.  You can also only have one DAS "reservation" open at a time.  Once we figured out how to use it, we planned our time wisely and eliminated crossing back and forth across the parks.  Stand-by wait times were ridiculous and there was no way Anna would have been able to spend the day waiting for rides for 90+ minutes.  As it was, the walking alone was very tough for her.  Being able to use the DAS was a game changer for us. 

Parting Thoughts (many of them)

With the recent passing of my father and the girls' 15th birthday days prior to our departure for Florida, I was tremendously thankfully that we had followed through on this vacation.  The girls will be wrapping up their freshman year of high school next month and will be graduating in three short years.  Each year, they pick up more responsibilities and our availability for family vacations becomes more and more limited.  We had a lot of fun while we were in Florida and memories were most definitely made.  

Planning this vacation was frustrating in ways I hadn't experienced in planning prior Disney trips.  There was also this underlying sense that Disney was trying to get as much money as possible from us.  There's no better way to describe it other than it just felt yucky.  I didn't let this impact my feelings while we were at the parks, but every time I saw a dad wearing a Most Expensive Day Ever shirt, I jokingly pointed it out to Rich.  I also have to add that the cast members and characters in the parks were fun and friendly, and even though almost all of the lines were long, it was all very well organized.  

We did have an issue with our tickets and Rich and two of the girls visited Guest Relations at Disney Springs.  Rich is pretty easy-going and the most non-confrontational person I know.  For him to come back and say that the two cast members at Disney Guest Relations were rude and unpleasant was a shock to me and it really added to that yucky, Disney just wants my money feeling.

I know some may read this and think I'm being a Negative Nelly.  I'm not - I promise.  I really just wanted to give you my real thoughts and feelings, and not just some fluffy, look at how great my vacation was post.  Disney is a different place now.  I'm so very grateful we had the means to go on this vacation, but it had it's moments.  Having the best day ever when the parks are packed requires a certain state of mind.  You need to end the day remembering the happy, fun moments and forget about the frustrating parts.  And by "frustrating parts" I'm talking about the crowded walkways, long wait times and lines for the bathroom.  (Please also remember, I walk fast, talk fast and have very little patience.) I will say that Disney with three teens is a completely different ballgame.  In a good way.    

Should you go to Disney in the near future?  Is the magic still there?  Is it worth it?  Cost is subjective, so a $3,500+ trip for one family may be no big deal, but for others, it may be a once in a lifetime vacation.  If you've never been to Disney and you have young children and you believe you will have the chance to go later, personally, I would wait.  Like I said earlier, Disney is constantly changing right now and there's no way to predict crowd levels.  Imagine paying all that money, spending 8 hours in a hot park with little kids and only being able to do a small fraction of what the park has to offer.  The magic is still there, but it may be a little different if you've experienced Disney beforehand or if you're experiencing it for the first time during a heavy crowds.   

As I wrote this, I checked resort availability for the summer and there are definitely many more options now than there were when we booked our vacation.  Also, dining seems to be more available as well.  So maybe the tides are beginning to turn.  No one really knows what the crowd levels at the parks will be though and to me, that's an extremely important factor. 

Surprisingly (or maybe not so surprisingly) enough, I do have more thoughts on this topic but this post (a straight up OG long form post at that) is about to turn into short book so I'll have other posts hopefully soon.  Life's a tad bit busy right now.  I want to give you my full thoughts on staying offsite and talk a bit about strategy in the parks, especially if you do not want to purchase Genie+.  Thanks for reading and see ya soon!

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