It’s a changed world after all: 9 things you must know if you’re heading to Disney World
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Once you have enough Walt Disney World vacations under your belt, you start to understand the rules of the game. Ride strategy: check. Avoid crazy peak weeks: check. Make dining reservations months in advance: check.
Or, at least, that all used to be true.
Since the parks reopened following the COVID-19 closure in 2020, Walt Disney World trips have evolved … a lot. There are new rules and new ways your trip can fall apart before it even begins. Not only that, but if you don’t want to spend the majority of your day in line, there are new strategies you have to learn or end up languishing.
Some elements of the Disney World vacation are back to the old “normal.” However, some details have become forever-changed realities you absolutely must understand if you want to ensure your trip is a magical success — and not a frustratingly expensive mess.
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You must have a reservation, or you won’t get in
If you don’t have a Disney Park Pass reservation, you can’t get into the parks. This remains true even if you have a ticket.
We’ve covered this in previous stories, but we’ve seen enough social media posts from people unaware of the new ticketing procedures that it bears repeating.
This isn’t just a theoretical problem that could bite you; it’s a very real problem, as the parks have been selling out days — and sometimes weeks — in advance.
Prior to the pandemic, you could purchase a ticket and just show up at the gates of whichever Disney World park you planned to visit that day. In the old days, the parks didn’t sell out, with the exception of a small handful of holidays like New Year’s Eve.
Now, sellouts are a very regular occurrence. In April, many dates were sold out at all the parks. Looking ahead to summer, at least half the dates in June already have at least one sold-out park.
Now, the No. 1 rule is to make a Park Pass reservation as soon as you know your travel dates and have your tickets. Do not wait until a week or two before your trip to do this step, as it may be too late.
Additionally, park-hopping doesn’t begin until 2 p.m. now, so you are set with the park you select to start at until midafternoon. This is important to note as you plan your days.
There is no slow season
A few years ago, you could visit Disney World during the “slow season” and enjoy relatively wide-open spaces and short wait times. Late winter after the holidays, spring (minus spring break weeks) and late summer were fairly quiet most of the time, especially on weekdays when most kids were in school.
Now, it’s hard to find a day when the parks aren’t jam-packed with guests. The two seasons are now “busy” and “really busy.”
This pent-up demand means that even if you’re visiting at a time that historically wasn’t that busy, you probably still need a strategy to manage the crowds and prioritize the attractions that matter most to you. Even if you decide you don’t need a particular plan to avoid lines — such as the Genie+ system which we will discuss in detail below — you at least need to have patience and an open mind to deal with crowds.
You need to plan ahead
Thanks to the lack of a slow season and the need for theme park reservations, planning ahead is essential. If you are planning to visit Disney in the next month or two, you may already be falling behind.
Bookings for theme park tickets, resort hotel stays and vacation packages for 2023 open on June 8, 2022, and the earlier you book, the better the chance you’ll get the dates and resort you are looking for.
If a Disney hotel discount pops up between the time you book and the time of your visit, you can contact Disney (or your travel agent) and they will apply any applicable discounts, so there is really no reason to wait as long as you have the funds available for the down payment.
You have to pay to play
Several things that used to be free (or covered) are no longer complimentary.
You need to plan and pay for your transportation from Orlando International Airport (MCO) since the Magical Express bus is gone. MagicBands are not free anymore when you stay at a Walt Disney World resort. The old included dining plan options have yet to return, and the free FastPass system is a relic for the history books.
Now, you must make a budget in advance to account for all the things that were once free.
Additionally, like at many other destinations, prices for everything from Mickey-shaped ice cream bars to hotel rooms have increased.
The odds are very high that your next Disney vacation will cost more than your last one, even if no other details about your trip change. There are ways to keep the costs down and look for discounts, but you’ll have to work a bit for those savings.
Lightning Lanes are the new FastPass
Gone are the days of the FastPass. Instead, you’ll now find Lightning Lanes.
Many have a love-hate relationship with the Genie+ system that goes with the Lightning Lanes. Yes, it’s an alternative to spending a day in regular lines, but it comes with costs — both financial and mental.
As noted, this is a pay-to-play system at Disney World that will set you back $15 per person per day. Genie+ allows you to make reservations to skip the traditional line using Lightning Lanes throughout the day. The Lightning Lanes themselves are virtually identical to how the old FastPass lines worked, meaning you’ll typically still have some sort of wait, though it’ll likely be shorter than those in the regular queues.
The Genie+ system technically gives you access to almost all the Lightning Lanes in the park (with one or two exceptions per park) for that set $15 price.
However, Disney has recently added verbiage to its website indicating Genie+ users generally get to use it for only two or three attractions per day, depending on if the first attraction is booked early in the day. This implies that many guests are getting less than a handful of uses out of the system.
When Genie+ launched, you could purchase it ahead of time as an add-on to your vacation package, but, much to the chagrin of Type A planners everywhere, that option will soon disappear.
As of June 8, guests who want to use Genie+ must purchase it on the day of their visit, one day at a time, subject to availability. Disney stated it is doing this to “manage the incredibly strong demand” for Genie+, which we assume to mean Genie+ could sell out.
While it hasn’t been a problem thus far, there is theoretically no guarantee that Genie+ will be available on the day of your visit; you can book it starting at 12 a.m. on your park day. Because you can begin booking Lightning Lanes via Genie+ at 7 a.m. on the day of your visit, this means the most continuous sleep you can hope to get is under seven hours if you acted at both of those starting times.
Once you book your first Lightning Lane, you can then book a new attraction as you use your current one. You can also book a new attraction once two hours have passed since your last selection or once two hours have passed since the park opened, whichever is later (in the event you booked your first attraction before the park opened). It is possible to stack and hold multiple Lightning Lanes at once.
The system saved us nearly three hours waiting in line during a recent visit. It was also instrumental in helping us enjoy 38 rides in a quest to see how many we could do in a day.
There’s no denying you can get more done with Genie+ than without. However, you need to be ready to learn the system and smartphone app pretty quickly if you want to beat the stated average of just two or three rides per day.
Some rides are not included in Genie+
Unsurprisingly, there are a couple of rides in each park that are excluded from Genie+. if you want to board these rides using the Lightning Lane, you’ll have to pay extra.
While this list can and will change over time (such as when the “Guardians of the Galaxy”-themed ride officially opens in late May), the currently available pay-per-attraction Lightning Lanes are for:
- Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind (beginning May 27) and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure (until May 31) at Epcot.
- Avatar Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at the Magic Kingdom.
- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
These Lightning Lanes generally cost between $8 and $20 per person, and you can select a maximum of two of these attractions per day.
You do not have to purchase Genie+ in order to book these individual attractions. You can purchase these Lightning Lanes starting at 7 a.m. if you’re staying at a Disney resort (or the Swan, Dolphin or Swan Reserve) or at the time the park officially opens if you are not a Disney resort guest.
Be aware that these typically sell out very quickly in the morning — sometimes, in just a minute or two — but availability is occasionally replenished at some point before noon.
You may be on your phone … a lot
Since the introduction of Genie+, one of the top items on our Disney World packing list is an external phone charger.
Checking wait times and securing Lightning Lane reservations mean spending extra time on your phone. This is especially true when you are still learning how it all works or are trying to really maximize what you do throughout the day.
Bring an external charger, and make sure you fully charge it before your trip. Also, remember to look up from your phone while you are walking between rides — and honestly, during rides, too — as it can be tempting to start working on that next Lightning Lane before you’re even off the ride you just used a Lightning Lane to get on.
Popular dining reservations are still tough to get
While dining reservations are now accepted 60 days out instead of 180 like before the pandemic, the popular spots are still difficult to nab.
Some of the hardest-to-snag reservations are for Cinderella’s Royal Table, Space 220 Restaurant, Topolino’s Terrace, Oga’s Cantina, and Ohana. Keep in mind that it’s difficult to reserve a spot at virtually any restaurant on short notice, especially if you’re visiting during a busy period like the winter holidays.
So, just like you need to book your Park Pass well in advance, the same is true for your restaurant meals. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to use a Disney vacation planner who can take care of some of this work for you.
Extra Magic Hours have changed
The pre-pandemic Extra Magic Hours perk — a time when those staying at a Disney hotel could enter one designated park early each day — has also been reimagined.
In its place is a system that lets resort guests staying on property or in select off-property hotels (like the Swan, Dolphin and Swan Reserve) into any of the four theme parks 30 minutes early to begin enjoying select attractions.
Additionally, on select nights, those in deluxe Disney resorts (and again including those at the Swan, Dolphin, Swan Reserve and Shades of Green) can stay two hours after the parks close to enjoy select attractions with relatively minimal waits.
Usually, Epcot and Magic Kingdom alternate staying open late on select nights. On nights that Epcot is the park open late, this means an extra chance to get a virtual queue boarding pass to ride the new “Guardians” ride for those staying in eligible resorts.
Related: What’s new at Disney World in 2022
Be patient and flexible
Parks continue to trend toward a more normal type of operation, especially now that character hugs have returned, parades are back in action and nighttime shows have begun to appear. However, they’re still not the same as they were before.
The last two years have introduced new challenges stemming from a lack of adequate staffing, customers misbehaving and more. It can be difficult to practice patience and flexibility when you are spending thousands of dollars on a vacation. You’re more likely to have a magical day, though, if you go with the flow and don’t compare the experience to how things used to be.
Your bed may not get made daily, housekeeping may start knocking on your door the last day of your stay quite early, your restaurant may not be ready at the time of your reservation, the ride you have a Lightning Lane for may be down and, odds are, it’ll be much more crowded than you expected.
In fact, during a recent visit, we showed up at Disney’s Hollywood Studios to find hundreds of people waiting at the gates to enter the park. Outside of a special event or new ride opening, we’d never seen the entrance so crowded.
It was so packed that we asked a Disney cast member if something special was going on. The answer was no — the parks are just like that now.
After we realized the wait times at Epcot were much shorter, we made the last-minute decision to hop in the car and head that way instead of staying and rubbing elbows with hordes of parkgoers. Luckily, a Park Pass reservation was available for us to make the switch.
If we had stuck with our original plan, we would have spent most of our day in line. By staying flexible, we were able to get a lot more accomplished and still had time to let the kids run around in some of the fun play areas.
It’s much better to go in with a loose plan of just a few must-do attractions than to plot your entire day out only to have your plains derailed. Even with less on the agenda, you’ll need to be willing to “let it go” and make adjustments on the fly.
At Disney, it really is a changed world after all.
The ragtime tunes from the turn of the century and scents of cookies and waffle cones will still meet you as you walk down the middle of Main Street, U.S.A.
However, there are some other things that didn’t stay the same as the world kept turning.
The old FastPass system has been replaced by the fee-based Genie+ option which requires a bit more action during your trip. Plus, crowds have ramped up to high levels and reservations must be secured as soon as they’re released.
Only time will tell if all of these changes remain in a post-pandemic world. No matter what happens, one thing is certain: If you’re visiting soon, learn all the current rules of the game to avoid getting all the way to Orlando only to be left outside the gates, looking in.
Featured photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy.
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