Going to Walt Disney World in 2023

It’s been a while since we last went to Disney; five years, in fact. We were originally supposed to go in 2020, but then, a week before our trip, Disney closed for COVID-19. Finally it was time to go back and boy have things changed. Back when we just had Scarlett, I wrote a blog post about Visiting to Disney with a 2-year-old and another about Visiting to Disney with a 3-year-old. While I don’t intend for this blog post to be nearly as formal as those entries, they do serve as a contrast for this trip. 

First of all, with everyone being old enough to really eat and need a Disney ticket and airline ticket, this trip was MUCh more expensive. I’m not going to get into specifics, but taking a family of 5 to Disney can easily rival the cost of an overseas trip. If you need to save money, only eat at fast-casual dining instead of sit-down dining. While many of the sit-down restaurants were nice (more on that later), they typically cost us almost three times what the fast-casual restaurants did. They also rob you of a lot of park time. That could be a nice rest or it could be frustrating, given the cost of the Disney tickets themselves.

Second, FastPass/FastPass+ has become very complicated and annoying compared to the way it was set up 5 years ago. Here’s what I wrote back in 2015:

We set up all our fast passes before we even left from home. So we purposely chose them through a combination of which rides and photos we were most excited to see as well as putting them in an order that kept us from having to run all over the place. It was a vast improvement that made the park fun again and not a tense experience. It also made the app much more essential for planning with wait times, Fast Pass+ reminders, and letting us know where the characters would be.

Now the overall system is called Genie Plus. Each day you have to buy your Genie Plus for that day if you want to be able to skip lines. Just like the park tickets, it’s subject to surge pricing. So each day, for our whole family, it was about $200 (on top of the ticket price) to buy into the line-skipping. Then, at 0700 we could pick our first Lightning Lane (the new name for the faster lines). Depending on what was available, we’d see which rides we could pick and the times that we would be able to get into the Lightning Lane. In addition to making a Disney trip much more expensive (because – in reality – if you’re not doing any Lightning Lane you’re maybe getting on 3 rides for the whole day), it also makes things chaotic again. Gone is the ability to plan our days out ahead of time – trying to make up a day that makes sense and understanding where and when we’ll be in the faster lines. Instead, my wife (who had all the passes linked to her account) was constantly setting alarms to be able to schedule the next Lightning Lane. This robbed her of some of just enjoying Disney and enjoying the kids’ enjoyment of Disney.

Finally, before I get into how the park visits went, there’s the issue of photography. Currently Disney has moved to a model where the ride photos are free and the character photos cost money. (An inversion of the way it was when I was a kid) Well, to be perfectly accurate, the character photos only cost money if you don’t hand your phone to the character’s handler to take the photos. Most (but not all) of the rides use your phone’s bluetooth (or something like that?) to try and identify you in the photos and link them to your account. I found this to be incredibly inaccurate. Out of 7 (I think) rides that offered this feature, 2 or 3 of them correctly showed me my photo. I preferred the rides where I could find my photo at the end and then tap my ticket (or you could use your magic band or phone) so I would know it was me. When it comes to the character photos, sadly, all the humans have been eliminated. Instead there’s just a computer that’s constantly taking photos. The handler tells you to look at the computer. Afterwards you tap and get the opportunity to pay for your photos (later via the app or website). It’s not the end of the world, but as a photographer, I know there can be (sometimes) a better result when pressing the shutter at just the right time instead of just having shots firing at 10ish second intervals. 

Unlike my previous blog posts, I’m going to go day-by-day. 

Day 1: Epcot

We arrived at EPCOT more or less at “rope drop” or when it opened. We had a goal to ride the Ratatouille ride and so we headed straight for France with very little delay. We only stopped for a few minutes for the kids to do KidCot (which replaces the passport) in England. KitCot involves the kids decorating a Ziploc bag with stickers from each country and getting an information card about that country. The kids had a blast doing that throughout the day. Because of the fact that we missed Canada, we ended up walking through the countries twice. Overall we did about 10 miles of walking that day. By the time we got to France, it was already an 85 minute wait. I think this could be because of the fact that guests can now enter EPCOT near France as well as at the front of the park. So we moved on, doing KidCot in each country and our first ride was the 3 Caballeros-themed ride in Mexico. Eventually we rode the Ratatouille ride and it was a neat ride – similar to Spider-man or Hogwart’s Castle over in Universal Studios Orlando. We had a Lightning Lane for the Frozen ride. Last time we were at Disney it was broken, so this was our first time riding it. Disney seemed to have retained the same track as the old Norway ride (with the 2 drops) and just redecorated the inside. The new (cheaper?) system where they project faces onto the robots instead of having moving mouths and eyes looked very odd on Anna and Elsa. The animated skin was just a completely different color than the body skin. 

Guardians of the Galaxy had a virtual queue – and that was the only way to ride it. You couldn’t choose to just wait in line for a long time. I got into the virtual queue around 1930 or so and Sam (surprisingly!) decided to go with me. (We haven’t watched GotG at home – he had no idea what it was) It was one of the best, most innovative roller coasters I’ve been on. It was neat that they were projecting a video onto a screen that conveyed the plot while the roller coaster zoomed about and the 70s soundtrack was a lot of fun. Apparently the song is random each time. For us it was Earth, Wind, and Fire’s September. Sam did not enjoy the roller coaster, but he was fine while it was happening (that is, he wasn’t freaking out, yelling, or crying) . He just told me afterwards that he didn’t want to do it again.

Overall, the kids had fun since it was the first day and they were still excited. Stella wanted to take photos with all of the topiaries. 

We ate at the Coral Reef restaurant for lunch. I had the Mahi Mahi and it was quite delicious. Scarlett ordered the prime rib and enjoyed that. Danielle did not like the ravioli – which was the vegetarian choice. For dinner we ate at Garden Grill. That’s both character dining and All You Care To Eat. The food was incredibly delicious and we all couldn’t get enough of the spoon bread. 

Day 2: Magic Kingdom

Due to how crowded the monorail line was, we had to take the boat, so we didn’t make it for rope drop. (We were maybe 10 minutes late) Our first ride was Buzz Lightyear since the Seven Dwarves was already a 2 hour wait. Magic Kingdom felt a lot more crowded than EPCOT had felt, perhaps because the pathways through the park are a bit narrower. Overall, we ended up doing all the rides that weren’t roller coasters nor the Jungle Cruise. The kids were pretty tired after having walked 10 miles the day before. (I don’t remember how much we walked this day, but for the whole trip it ended up being 50 miles) So we started to leave around 5:30. By the time we got to the front, took the monorail, and got to our car – it was already 6:30p. It turned out to be a good thing we got to the hotel early because we put the kids to bed early and they slept in (something they NEVER do at home no matter how late they stay up – even if it was a travel day)

We only had one sit-down restaurant on this day: Be Our Guest (Beast’s Castle). We got to sit in the West Wing. It was neat to see how they decorated it, but it was the darkest room in an already dark restaurant. It took 2 hours from the time we sat until I was done paying the bill. This meal turned out to be a big disappointment for the family. Scarlett and Danielle ordered the filet mignon, but did not like the taste. They also didn’t like the french onion soup or the desserts. I had some fish, which was fine.

Day 3: Hollywood Studios

We arrived at 0830 for rope drop. Our first experience ended up being the Muppets 3D show. The kids loved it even though they have no idea who the muppets are. It was pretty funny at the end when a hole has supposedly been blown in the theater’s wall and the folks looking in are wearing 1990s clothes (since that’s when it was filmed). After that, we looked at the lines for all the rides and did Star Tours. Star Tours is now (naturally) based on the final (as of this writing) trilogy of Star Wars 7-9. Instead of a robot who is new to the job, C3PO ends up driving us around. It also now requires 3D glasses. Was that always the case? I don’t remember it being a 3D ride originally. 

A recording of the original setup of Star Tours

As time has passed, Hollywood Studios (formally called MGM Studios) has become less about learning how movies are made and more of a normal Disney park. I could definitely see them eventually dumping all of the Hollywood pretense and just becoming a fully Star Wars/Pixar Park. So the ride at the Chinese Man’s Theatre, which used to be about the history of Hollywood, is now a ride based on the new Mickey Mouse shorts (which combine the older 1920s/1930s black and white shorts with a Ren and Stimpy sensibility). It was a lot of fun and quite an original ride.

For lunch we ate at the Roundup Rodeo BBQ. The food was great, but it was way too much food. We couldn’t finish our meat entrees, much less take advantage of the All You Care to Eat aspect of it. I definitely recommend it if you’re a fan of American BBQ food.

Day 4: Rest Day

The day of rest was my wife’s idea. She’d read about it on various Disney blogs. I doubted we would need it, but I didn’t fight it. It turned out she was right on point. It was very, very useful. The following day the kids (who had started to ask to leave the Disney parks a little after lunch (only a very slight exaggeration)) were better able to handle the park the next day. 

We spent the morning at Disney Springs, casually perusing through some of the stores, especially the LEGO store. For lunch we ate at Morimoto. The food there might work for some, but it was a strike out for us. We’d had better ramen elsewhere (especially in Oahu, Hawaii), better Dim Sum in NY, and better Chinese spare ribs at our local Chinese restaurant. That made the high end restaurant price of the food hurt a bit.

Day 5: Return to Magic Kingdom

We always do Magic Kingdom twice whenever we have the chance. We went in and immediately got in line for the Snow White and the Seven Dwarves ride. The line was already extending all the way to the little Mermaid ride. (Look at a map of Disney and you’ll see how ridiculously long this is)

I stood in line first while Danielle took the kids on some ride. Then she stood in line while I took the kids to ride the Goofy roller coaster that sits over near Dumbo. Sam surprised me by actually liking it. Eventually we rode the Seven Dwarves ride. My feeling: it’s a bit redundant with Big Thunder Mountain. This makes me wonder if they’ll end up removing Big Thunder Mountain – especially since it doesn’t align with any Disney property and it’ll look out of place if the outside of the Tiana nee Splash Mountain ride is changed to no longer be that orangish rock exterior. I think I’ve seen some articles expressing this sentiment, but so many of the Disney articles tend to be click bait, so I haven’t actually read it. If they did remove it, that would be a bummer because Scarlett liked Big Thunder Mountain more than the Seven Dwarves ride.

Overall, I prefer not splitting up in theme parks, especially when it’s just the immediate family, but this was the first (and only) day we did it because Danielle and the twins didn’t want to do roller coasters (and that was mostly all that was left to do from what we hadn’t done the first day) Scarlett loved Space Mountain while we were riding it, but later complained of headaches and attached the cause to the ride. We closed off our Disney trip with one final ride of Small World.

Food-wise, I thought it would be worth mentioning that they tweaked the Pecos Bill recipes to be much spicier. I was OK with it since I don’t mind spicy food (and often enjoy it), but it was not the easy Tex-Mex solution for the whole family that it used to be. 

Overall, it was a fun trip, but it was just a bit too much. By the end of the trip (we also did Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure on our last day in Central Florida), I felt done with theme parks for a while. I felt that Disney was just a bit too much of a hassle with the current Genie Plus/Lightning Lane situation. I also felt that, for the money, I’d rather take the family to see more of the USA or see some other countries in the world. We had originally intended for this to be our last Disney trip for a few years, although we’ll see what happens since some of the Disney bug is bound to get into some of the family members and they might advocate for another trip. I know that if you’re not a Florida local, there’s a lot of pressure to cram as much Disney as possible to make up for the cost of the flight (Disney sells up to 10 day tickets), but when I look at how I felt at the end of this trip, how the kids felt near the end, and how we used to do Disney trips when I was a kid living in Florida – I feel that 3 days in a row at the most is about the the most Disney I can handle before it all starts to drag for me.