Walt Disney World Touring Plans: Animal Kingdom updated with Genie+

Please note: Walt Disney World operations continue to be in a state of flux. For recommendations about visiting Walt Disney World right now please visit WDW Prep School.

Although a visit to Walt Disney World is a vacation, it’s like no other vacation you’ve ever taken. Considering the expense, the last thing you want to do is spend your days waiting in lines. Having a solid touring plan for each park is a must. That way you can prioritize your “must sees” and get the most bang for your buck.

That said, if you are someone who likes to go with the flow and be more casual about planning, Disney’s new free Genie tool will help. Or you can use the excellent TouringPlans system which costs $18 for full features for a year. In essence for either system you put in your “to do” list and it optimizes your plans based on walking, wait times, and real time crowds. I seriously cannot endorse TouringPlans enough and wouldn’t go on a Walt Disney World trip without it. Their app’s wait time accuracy is unmatched, whereas Disney’s free wait time system is often wrong.

Generally, avoid lines means arriving at the parks early. Being there at park opening aka “rope drop” allows you to squeeze in some top attractions before lines build. Conversely, you can usually get on some high demand rides with minimal wait very late in the day right before closing, or during fireworks presentations. These tactics are tried and true regardless of what system is currently in place for Disney park guests. Please note that many parks open upwards of 45 minutes ahead of the posted time, and if you stay on property you can enjoy an additional half hour early entry to any park each day. That means an even more early arrival (I know, groan).

Animal Kingdom is probably my least favorite park. And that’s not to say it’s bad – it isn’t. It’s just an entirely different sort of experience. The highlights here are live animals, not rides. And the lush vegetation makes the park the hottest of the four. It also can make it extremely confusing to navigate. I’ve gotten lost in the park more times than I can count.

There are only a few attractions that garner a long wait here. They are:

  • Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Expedition Everest
  • Avatar Flight of Passage
  • Na’vi River Journey
  • Dinosaur

In my opinion you have two options at rope drope. One option is to head directly back to Kilamanjaro Safaris, which is a great idea since being one of the first vehicles through in the day pretty much gaurantees a very close animal encounter. On last visit we were stopped for quite a while because a giraffe was blocking the way. So fun.

The second option is to head directly to the Pandora area and ride either Avatar Flight of Passage or Na’vi River Journey. This was very new at last visit and I was unable to ride Flight of Passage as a result. The Na’vi River Journey was a very cool spectacle.

Included in the $15 per person per day Genie+ System is:

  • Celebration of the Festival of the Lion King
  • DINOSAUR
  • Feathered Friends in Flight!
  • It’s Tough to Be a Bug!
  • Kali River Rapids
  • Kilimanjaro Safaris
  • Naʻvi River Journey
  • The Animation Experience

The two top tier attractions not included in the pass, but instead will have a one off fee are:

  • Avatar: Flight of Passage
  • Expedition Everest

My initial reaction is to spring for the surge pricing on Avatar: Flight of Passage, and take your chances with the rest. It’s also noteworthy to mention that Expedition Everest offers a single rider line, which if you are willing to ride alone can significantly shorten your wait time on this ride.

One thing that’s nice about Animal Kingdom is that it is more at your own pace. Much of what do here is seeing the animals themselves. I would advise seeing what you can early or later in the day. At peak heat the animals are smartly napping. Don’t forget about the excellent shows here as well.

Full attraction roundup:

  • Kilamanjaro Safaris – Go out in an open air animal safari in a Jeep. Best done in the morning when animals are most active.
  • Gorilla Walk
  • Bird Walk
  • Tiger Walk
  • Na’Vi River Journey – boat ride through Pandora at night
  • Avatar: Flight of Passage – mild thrill ride
  • Take time to explore the interactive features of Pandora – touch the plants.
  • Expedition Everest
  • Kali River Rapids
  • Triceratops Spin – Circular flying dinosaur
  • It’s Tough to Be a Bug – 4D show with 3D glasses in the Tree of Life
  • If you have time: Rafiki’s Planet Watch – barnyard petting zoo – train to it and back – easily an hour long excursion

Shows:

  • The Lion King – Amazing musical production – do not miss. Shoot for a later in the day show.
  • Nemo the Musical – Closed. To be replaced with a new Nemo themed show.
  • Feathered Friends in Flight – A fun bird show (birds often flight overhead)

Adding Magical Experiences: Spa Appointments for Kids and More at Walt Disney World

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve likely heard of the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique. This experience allows your child to get absolutely pampered. Hair, nails, basic make up – the works, and glitter. So. Much. Glitter.

This extremely popular experience is available in the castle at Magic Kingdom (hardest to get and often runs behind), Disney Springs and the Grand Floridian Resort.

We sprung for this for my daughter’s first park experience. There are several package levels starting at $75 on up to more than $450. (yikes!) You can also do a photo package after your little one is dressed up.

We booked my daughter at Disney Springs, which offered at the time a Princess parade for all salon guests for the day. This honestly is what my daughter enjoyed most. Right in the front of the parade with a banner waving to her adoring fans. It also included a free ride on the carousel there. I am not sure if any of this is still included as this was before the redevelopment of the area. We also did the photo shoot because for this trip, we sprung for the photo pass and these photos were included.

To save money, we bought a dress ahead of time. I purchased it at the Disney store on sale. The boutique offers exclusive versions of princess dresses, but my daughter didn’t care. A new dress was a new dress as far as she was concerned. The overall experience was pleasant and the salon attendants aka fairy godmothers kept it fun, but honestly my daughter just wasn’t that into it. It’s not something I would do again. That said, I would absolutely recommend having your child dress up in the parks at least one day as she received special treatment all day when she did so, which added a lot of magic to our trip.

The second salon experience called The Pirates League. Located in Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom this salon was something that was much less known, (and less expensive!) but something my daughter enjoyed much more. And it was open to adults. Sadly, perhaps for these reasons, it closed in 2020, but I am hoping something equivalent becomes available. My daughter got a mermaid makeup application which was very unique. The theming of this salon was fantastic, and really felt like you were right in the middle of Pirates of the Caribbean. In addition, the pirate attendants were great and really hammed it up. At the end you did some initiation and found a treasure. It was a lot of fun, and my daughter absolutely loved it.

There are other more limited spa experiences for both kids and adults available at the Grand Floridian.

Adding Magical Experiences: Dinner Packages and More at Walt Disney World

Please note: Many indoor restaurants remain closed or with limited service. Please check the Walt Disney World website for the latest information.

We’ve already talked about Character Dining, but there are so many other special dining options at Walt Disney World resorts that include more than just eating. Some are complimentary upgrades, and others you pay a premium for.

There are few dinner experiences that are just so unique, they are noteworthy on their own.

Before we had our daughter my husband and I had an excellent meal at Restaurant Marrakesh in the Morocco Pavilion in EPCOT. This restaurant, besides serving excellent Mediterranean food, features bellydancers tableside. So cool! In addition, when we ate there we got priority seating for the Candlelight Processional, a special Christmastime show offering. No additional fee required.

I’ve noticed over the years that Disney World often offers dining packages with priority seating for in demand shows. Sometimes, like in this instance, it is offered for free by taking a less desirable dining time (late afternoon), other times it’s offered up as a premium package with desirable reservation times followed by the show.

The Biergarten Restaurant in EPCOT’s Germany Pavillion offers German fare like sausage and saurkraut along with a show. Oompa music, yodelling and more are showcased at this buffet. I’ve always wanted to do this, but the idea of eating heavy meat and potatoes when it’s hot outside is never appealing. Maybe next visit.

San Angel Inn Restaurante in EPCOT’s Mexico Pavilion offers a unique nighttime dining experience all day long. It appears you are the base of ruins under a night sky. Food here often offers a mixed rating, but the setting often makes up for it.

Be Our Guest restaurant in the Magic Kingdom has been a hot ticket since it opened. And Disney has noticed, making it a premium offering for dinner. The theming of this restaurant is unmatched and truly an experience. In the past, the restaurant was counter experience (read cheaper) for lunch, but that may have changed.

Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge not only offers excellent fine dining African cuisine, but you can also view the Lodge’s Sunset Savanna area which includes Giraffes, Zebras and more! This is included in your experience, no upgrade! We did this on last visit and had a delicious meal with top notch service.

Raglan Road in Disney Springs is a crowd favorite, not so much because of the food, but because of the live music and Irish step dancing. It’s not making any foodie’s list, but the entertainment is enjoyable. I haven’t been myself yet.

If you are looking for dining with a Magic Kingdom Fireworks view, California Grill at the Contemporary Resort is one of your best bet. This is a hot ticket though can and be difficult to get, as the Grill has a sterling, legendary reputation, and perfect views. Narcoosee’s at the Grand Floridian is also an excellent choice. Known for their seafood, they also have excellent steaks.

An inexpensive option is some take away food from Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian and watching the fireworks from a grassy area on the hotel property. We did this and had a wonderful, relaxing evening, complete with the famous Dole whip! The barbecue sandwiches were tasty too.

If you want the best views of EPCOT’s end of day spectacular HarmoniUS, Rose and Crown’s patio in EPCOT is where it’s at. You can purchase a dinner package for a premium and watch the show from your table, or take your chances with a regular dinner reservations. Other options without the premium “package” price tag include La Hacienda de San Angel in Mexico Pavilion and Spice Road Table offering a Mediterranean small plates menu in the Morocco Pavilion.

There are also dessert party packages for both Magic Kingdom and EPCOT shows. At last visit to the Magic Kingdom we did the dessert package, and although it was pricey, I thought it was worth it for a special treat. The desserts are all you can eat and excellent. After you finish eating you sit in a special roped off area in the grass directly in front of the castle. As someone who doesn’t like fighting crowds for anything, this allowed us to relax and spread out. It also saved us a lot of time as some can wait hours staking out the best spots for the fireworks.

I also sat in a premium seating area for EPCOT back when it was Illuminations. I don’t recall how I scored this spot, but it was on my trip with my husband. We were on the opposite side of the lagoon from World Showcase and it didn’t strike me as a particularly good spot. Watching the EPCOT show is not nearly at a premium as the fireworks in Magic Kingdom, so I would skip this.

This is just scratching the surface, there are plenty of other premium dining packages that incorporate show reservations, tours and other unique experiences that can tap into your special interest.

Adding Magical Experiences: Character Meals at Walt Disney World

Please note: That as of writing character meals are being offered in a limited capacity and are not running in a “normal” fashion. This post is created to help future visitors make informed planning decisions.

One of the best upgraded experiences you can have at Walt Disney World resorts are Character Meals, and no, they aren’t just for kids! Adults enjoy them too. Why would you want to have a character meal?

  1. Save time. Waiting in line for character meet and greets eats up valuable park time. With character dining, the characters come to you! They rotate around the room to each table while you dine. Talk about convenient!
  2. Certain characters can only be experienced via meals.
  3. Character meals are available outside the parks and even at select off property locations, making it a great activity on a non-park day.
  4. Character dining food is consistently good. Meals offered via character experiences are truly great, with some food only accessible via character meal. And who doesn’t like Mickey waffles?

I’m only going to highlight a few of my favorites here. For a great overview and the most up to date information about all Character Meals visit this comprehensive listing at the Disney Food Blog.

Breakfast

Breakfast has the most available options by far when it comes to character dining. We have done three breakfast options – ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort, the Cape May Cafe at the Beach Club, and Trattoria al Forno in the Boardwalk. Note that none of these places are inside the parks! That’s by design. Why waste precious morning park time eating, when you can get on most rides?

Each experience was entirely different and unique.

Ohana as the name suggests offers a Hawaiian experience with delicious exotic fruits. Characters you encounter include Lilo, Stitch, Mickey and Pluto. We chose this breakfast because we wanted an excuse to go to the Polynesian, and had heard of the fantastic food. This is a pricier restaurant and thus breakfast was a more reasonable option for us. Unfortunately, recent reports are that the service and especially food quality have slipped here. I hope they improve soon. The food here is served as much as you wish to your table.

The breakfast buffet available at the Cape May Cafe was much more classic in nature including the legendary Mickey waffles. Characters that join you there (complete with adorable beach gear) are the classic characters Minnie Mouse, Goofy, Daisy Duck and Donald Duck. We probably had the most character encounter time at this location with multiple visits by each one.

The Bon Voyage Breakfast at Trattoria al Forno was just starting to be offered at our last visit, and the quality of service and food was spotty. The food offerings which were more brunch in nature, were interesting and different from the norm. It was a prix fixe meal with a few options.The reason we chose this meal is because the characters present are Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder and Ariel and Eric. Flynn was an especially fun encounter. I’m not sure we would go running back, but I would definitely give it another chance considering they have a few years of experience now under their belt.

I would be remiss without mentioning the two most popular character breakfast options Chef Mickey’s at Disney’s Contemporary Resort featuring Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Donald and Pluto, and Cinderella’s Royal Table in the Magic Kingdom featuring Ariel, Belle, Princess Aurora, Jasmine, Snow White and of course Cinderella. Both offer more classic breakfast fare. I have not been to either but I hear Chef Mickey’s can be a bit loud.

Before the shutdown, Disney was beginning to offer some early morning breakfast package options that included early access to the parks or even a no wait access to certain rides. Depending on the price this could be a good value. If memory serves venues included Crystal Palace and Be Our Guest Restaurant in Magic Kingdom, Garden Grill and Akershus House in EPCOT, Tusker House in Animal Kingdom and Hollywood and Vine in Hollywood Studios. Tusker House especially has historically been a sort of “hack” to access Animal Kingdom early before opening. Same for Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom. Something to watch for when character meals fully return.

Lunch

For lunch we’ve done two character meals Akershus House and Tusker House.

Akershus House in Norway Pavilion in EPCOT offers Norwegian food for lunch (they also have a breakfast buffet with more standard fare). Because of this, it’s less popular for lunch, but my adventurous eater didn’t mind one bit. Lots of seafood offerings. This location features what I call Princess Palooza including Snow White, Cinderella, Belle, Princess Aurora, Ariel, Mary Poppins, and Jasmine. Eating in this unique location was a delight for my then four year old and she participated in a restaurant mini parade in her dress with the princesses. Really good memories. We chose a late lunch slot which worked for a great mid-day break in the air conditioning, and if memory serves lead right into a long toddler nap while we pushed her in the stroller around World Showcase. Win!

We’ve eaten at Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom twice, and I would eat there again. The first time we did, we were childless, but the food, along with priority Lion King seating, enticed us. We were not disappointed. It’s a buffet featuring amazing dishes from the African continent. The second time we went with our daughter and it was just as good as we remembered. That time we got River of Light show priority seating. Both times we were visited by Donald Duck, Daisy Duck, Goofy, Mickey Mouse, and Minnie Mouse in their safari gear.

The only other truly noteworthy lunch character experience is the Garden Grill in EPCOT featuring Chip and Dale, Mickey and Pluto. Chip and Dale I hear are especially a hoot. I also hear good things about the food which is served family style to your table. But the coolest thing about this location is that the restaurant itself rotates! You are on the move, slowly, and can enjoy different views of the Living with the Land attraction. It’s on my to do list for sure.

Dinner

We have never done character dinner for a few reasons namely cost, but also this leads into another prime park time, and thus not a great option. Much of what is offered for dinner is similar to what is offered for lunch, just more expensive. One notable exception is the Happily Ever After Dinner at 1900 Park Fare which is supposed to be amazing. Excellent buffet offering featuring Cinderella, Prince Charming, Lady Tremaine (the Wicked Stepmother), Anastasia and Drizella (Cinderella’s Stepsisters). The villain component is what is most appealing here and makes for a great experience. It’s on my bucket list.

Another unique character offering for dinner is Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. Dopey, Grumpy and the Evil Queen also make an appearance.

As you can see, no matter what character or cuisine you like, there is something for everyone in character dining. I’d recommend at least one character dining experience each visit. Enjoy!

Is staying on property at Walt Disney World worth it anymore?

This question is looming large for anyone planning a trip to Walt Disney World. It’s always been a big, rather complicated question, but with a loss of many perks during the pandemic, staying on property with the premium that goes with it, is less and less appealing. Let’s unpack this as I compare my experience planning now versus my last visit in 2017.

Hotel Cost

The cost of hotel stay seems to have gone up considerably since our last visit to Pop Century when we paid $135 a night on average. Now it looks like we would pay $195 a night. That said, that’s without a discount. Since we want to go in a lower season, a discount may become available, likely saving us $20 a night.

Off property hotels are often cheaper at first glance but most Disney Springs hotels now charge resort fees to the tune of $25-35 a day. Disney properties (for now) do not charge resort fees. Upper scale hotels off property seem to offer much more than the Disney Deluxe Resorts as far as amenities go, for less cost. Less expensive and Value options are more of a gray area and I need to investigate further.

Theming

We have stayed at the Pop Century Hotel twice and enjoyed both stays. Is it a bit cheesy? Yes. Am I obsessed with the theming like other guests? No.

Many Disney fans fawn over the theming of Disney hotels. Many Deluxe resorts tell a sort of story and if you are a sucker for theming and details, it’s all there. However, when it comes to my family theming is secondary to a comfortable sleep and a good pool.

The “Bubble” Factor

Is it nice to be in the Disney “bubble” upon arrival?

Yes. There is something to be said about having a fully immersive Disney experience that you never leave. It allows a level of escapism.

You also have access to that famous and excellent Disney customer service. On one visit with my family, both my daughter and I got terribly sick with a 24 bug in the middle of the night. Housekeeping was prompt, kind and had our sheets changed no problem. The front desk sent sick care packages up to us and coordinated and rescheduled all our reservations. Looking back the incident was a blip in the vacation when it could have been absolutely devastating.

In addition, all Disney properties (at least before pandemic times) offered free kids activities including games, dance parties, movies and simple crafts. This is not a babysitting service but a nice little perk for those non-park days.

Guests who stay on property have the ability to send souvenirs directly back to your hotel for free. This is not a big deal to my family, but it may be to you.

Magicbands

Magicbands used to be included with any Disney hotel package stay. No longer. That’s a loss of $60 value to my family.

Transportation

This is huge. Beginning in 2022, Disney Resorts are ending their excellent complimentary Magical Express bus transportation from the airport. When I recently looked up costs of transportation from Orlando’s airport to the hotel it looked to cost anywhere from $50-100 for the half hour ride. That’s not a small chunk of change considering you have to pay it twice (to and from).

Driving yourself is an option, but Disney Resorts now charge $15-25 per night for parking. So for a week that’s another $90 in accrued costs. Off property most nearby hotels also charge for parking usually around $25 a day, or $150 for a week.

Renting a car just for airport transportation may make sense for off property guests as there are rental offices located directly in some hotels. One in Disney Springs and one in the Bonnett Creek area. We did this strategy many moons ago and it was convenient enough, but with rising rental costs it may not make sense anymore.

What staying on property does provide is the convenience of direct park transportation service which is mostly buses, supplemented by monorail, boats and most recently skyliner. This is complimentary and included in your stay.

However, off property hotels also offer free transit to the parks. How good/bad it is really seems to depend on time of year and hotel. Once you are on a Disney property you can take full advantage of their free transportation system between their properties including restaurants, hotels and parks, regardless of where you are staying.

Location, Location, Location

Ultimately, in my humble opinion, the advantage of staying on property is the ease and access to the parks. In some cases, you can literally walk from your hotel to a park. Being nearby allows you to take an afternoon break, which we absolutely like to do. The farther away you are, the more time you spend traveling, and the more inconvenient it becomes. And you pay for that privilege, dearly.

That said, some non Disney hotels are actually closer than Disney properties including those in the Disney Springs area and Bonnet Creek. Coupled with reliable free transport to the parks, it may not be much of a tradeoff to stay in one of these properties.

Park Benefits

Disney resorts are no longer offering Extra Magic Hours. Instead, they are offering a 30 minute early entry each day to all four parts for resort guests. Basically it allows you a one to two ride headstart each day. If everyone heads to the same rides it may not be much of a benefit. Time will tell. Guests in Deluxe resorts can gain two additional hours on select evenings. As someone who took advantage of the Extra Magic Hours usually in the evening, this is a bit of a loss for me.

In addition, those who stay on property will be able to book Genie+ ride reservations at 7 a.m. instead of at park opening like everyone else. This seems like a marginal benefit to me of little value. For more on Genie+ and what it is click here.

Bottom Line

If you are someone looking at the Deluxe price range, unless you are nostalgic about a certain property, I would take my money and go to the Waldorf Astoria or other four star property. Those of us in the Moderate and Value range have more of matrix of things to consider based on personal preference, with a lot of it hinging of mode of transportation. After going over all these factors, there is no doubt that the perks of staying on property for these customers has significantly diminished in the last few years, with the biggest blow being the loss of the Magical Express. With increased rack rates, increased transportation costs and increased ticket costs, it’s a tough pill to swallow to the tune of several hundred dollars.

Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary Celebration

On October 2, 2021 the Magic Kingdom celebrated 50 years of operation. Walt Disney World Resorts are incorporating special offerings, events and attractions as part of the celebration. Some seem to be regular updates that just coincided with the anniversary, and others seem anniversary specific. In any event, these special offerings will be available on a rolling basis throughout the celebration slated to last 18 months. I will update this post on new offerings and related developments.

50th Anniversary Glow Ups

The iconic symbols of each park – the castle in the Magic Kingdom, the ball in EPCOT, the Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios, and the Tree of Life in Animal Kingdom – all are getting a 50th Anniversary overlay including light projections Disney is calling Beacons of Magic. In some instances, the transformation was more dramatic like with the castle which got a new color paint, and ribbons added to the spires. The ball in EPCOT is especially beautiful with an enhanced LED light display. I call it a win.

There is also a smattering of decoration here and there throughout the parks like retro posters in the tunnels at Magic Kingdom.

New Shows

The Magic Kingdom and EPCOT both launched brand new end of day shows with music, pyrotechnics and light projections. Magic Kingdom’s is entitled Enchantment and features original music. The castle serves as the centerpiece for projections. In EPCOT it’s HarmoniUS which uses a barge system to display LEDs and fountains. Images portray an international vibe with signature Disney branding and original music.

Animal Kingdom launched KiteTails, a new daytime offering in the lagoon. However, this show at writing has been plagued with errors to an almost comical proportions and may be short lived.

Outside the parks in Disney Springs, Cirque Du Soleil’s new show, Drawn to Life, will make it’s debut in November 2021. I saw the last show there, and am looking forward to seeing this new one.

New Rides

The much anticipated Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in EPCOT’s France Pavilion opened as part of the 50th celebration on October 2, 2021. Because it is an in demand experience, Disney World is currently operating it with a virtual queue. In it riders occupy a vehicle that looks like a mouse and experience the world from a mouse’s point of view.

Signature Song

The 50th Anniversary has a signature theme song which is featured prominently throughout the parks including in shows and cavalcades.

Statues

There are 50 golden character statues that have been placed among all four parks. These statues are rumored to have an interactive, augmented reality sort of element to them that work with premium MagicBands and apps. This interactive component has not launched yet.

Food

Of course there’s a food element. Throughout Magic Kingdom some classic dishes from 1971 have been brought back for an encore. There also are some signature cocktails honoring rides past. Mostly, however, the 50th Anniversary theming has been added to desserts in decoration. There are more than 150 different new food offerings in all.

Merchandise

There has been a ton of new merchandise launched for the 50th Anniversary including pins, ornaments, apparel, toys and sippers. At the moment, these items are the hottest ticket in town. However, I anticipate after a few months go by these items will be readily available.

Characters

Mickey and Minnie and the gang of course have special outfits on for the occasion. You can meet Mickey in his new digs at Hollywood Studios.

Breaking Down the New Genie System at Walt Disney World

Update: Disney Resorts announced the new system will be launching on October 19, 2021 and released new details. This post has been updated.

A few months ago Walt Disney World sent shockwaves through Disney fans by announcing the retirement of the free FastPass+ attraction system, and the introduction of a new Genie system including a paid line skipping program. What that entails remains to be seen, with a launch set for October 19, 2021. In this post, I will attempt to breakdown what the new system is and what it means for your Disney World vacation planning.

Disney World has slowly introduced new technology over the years, the biggest of which was the MagicBand, a system that allows you to use a bracelet for admission, to check in for reservations, and pay for items in the parks and other Disney properties. The app that partners with the MagicBand is called My Disney Experience. This app allows you to see a map of the park, check and make reservations, check wait times, and order food ahead of time. This app’s next feature is called Genie. This upgrade should offer everything listed plus some sort of augmented reality features.

In addition it will offer a service called Genie+. Genie+ is a $15 a day per ticket upgrade line skipping privilege that will work on approximately 40 attractions across the parks. These attractions were previously part of the FastPass+ system including Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, Splash Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Spaceship Earth, Tower of Terror, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.

There are also two top tier attractions in each park that will not be included in this pass system, but an additional premium line skipping program that will work with surge pricing model. Cost is thus, TBD, but these top tier attractions include:

  • Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Space Mountain in Magic Kingdom
  • Frozen Ever After and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure (which currently has a virtual queue) in EPCOT
  • Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance (which recently canned their virtual queue option) and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railroad in Hollywood Studios
  • Avatar Flight of Passage and Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom

Both line skipping programs will use “Lightning Lanes” that were previously FastPass+ line queues.

Is it worth it?

Is it worth these upgrades? On the surface, time is money when it comes to Disney parks and I am always oriented towards reducing line waiting. However, I can see a scenario where if you plan well enough with a strategy of going at lower crowd times you may not need the Genie+ system, outside of perhaps the top tier attractions. Thinking back to my lower crowd dummy day in Magic Kingdom in November via the TouringPlans system, the only attraction that reached an unacceptable hour long wait was Seven Dwarves Mine Train. A few others had a half hour wait, which is still longer than I would like, however, it could be combined with a snack break, making it tolerable. Thus in this scenario, I can see springing for the Seven Dwarves Mine Train and skipping the rest of the Genie+ experience.

In the past, other ways to skip lines and get premium access and seating included dining experiences. My family has booked off time dining to gain free access to the famous Candlelight Processional. We also have paid for the dessert buffet at Magic Kingdom to have great seats for Magic Kingdom Fireworks. Many have used the same strategy for great seats for Hollywood Studio’s night show Fantasmic which is currently on hiatus. Strategies like this can save you hours of waiting and gain you prime seats.

One other item to note on dining, is that for quick service, or take away restaurants, you can now order ahead for pick up via the app. This convenient feature was not available when we visited the parks before, and though we often didn’t wait too terribly long for food, it’s a nice feature to shave off a few precious minutes here and there.

How does it work?

So how will this new Genie+ system work? Many are skeptical (including myself) of the rollout, as systems as large and complex as this tend to be rocky, and Disney IT doesn’t exactly have a smooth reputation. However, those of us familiar with the FastPass+ system have a whole new system to learn.

For starters, if you opt for the Genie+ pass with the 40 attractions, you will have theoretically unlimited access to the attractions. You can purchase ahead of time for the length of your entire stay, but most will purchase per day beginning at midnight. Attraction reservations can be made each day of beginning at 7 a.m. for Disney hotel guests. All others will be able to access the system at park opening each day. Selections can be made one at a time. Times cannot be selected, and instead you will be given the first available time. You will not be able to book any additional attractions until you check into your first, or 120 minutes have passed.

Those of us used to the FastPass+ system where you could pick the time and select three attractions at once will have a lot of adjusting to do. I certainly am not keen that they automatically give you the first available time, and would much rather reserve a specific time that fits my plan and schedule for the day. In theory the system will work around your plans to see a show at a specific time. Perhaps if you had your entire itinerary in the Genie app conflicts can be avoided, but that is making visits less flexible, when the entire promotion around the app is flexibility. I have a feeling there will be a lot of tweaks to the system over the next year.

When it comes to the two top tier attractions in each park, guests can only purchase one Genie+ pass per attraction per day. In other words, you will not be able to book the Lighting Lane twice for Seven Dwarves Mine Train.This seems like a temporary restriction to me that may lift as they system rolls out.

Bottom Line

In all, as a Disney fan I’m a bit perturbed to have to pay for a privilege that was previously included in my guest experience, and it’s a tough pill to swallow along with ticket price hikes, but at the same time it is on track with industry trends. If your family opts for the Genie+ upgrade it could add considerable cost to your trip. It may all come down to personal preference and how you like to experience the parks. We like the flexibility of the parkhopper passes, and others think it’s a great waste of money. It’s all up to you. For me, I remain cautiously optimistic about the new system. Time will tell.

Beyond Rides: Walt Disney World Entertainment Offerings Part 2

Yesterday I discussed how devastating the pandemic was for Walt Disney World park entertainment. Massive layoffs, and safety requirements have resulted in an uneven and stilted park experience. I touched on each park’s signature events as well as character experiences. Today I want to talk about the rest of the park offerings – parades and other shows.

Parades

Parades have become another victim of the pandemic in the world of Disney and in this case, I believe its more of a business decision, than a safety one. As I noted above, some of the evening shows have returned, but the parades haven’t. Why? Probably because parades require a lot of entertainment staff to run.

Magic Kingdom

In Magic Kingdom there were a few regular parades. The first was Festival of Fantasy which was a spectacular, puppet based parade with dancing and was an absolute fan favorite. I continue to hear grumblings from guests wondering when it will return. I agree, it would be a shame to see this parade be a victim of the pandemic or budget cuts. It was amazing with excellent costumes and choreography. Will it return? Time will tell.

The second most famous parade at Magic Kingdom was a nighttime light show parade. Originally it was the Main Street Electrical Parade, and then later with updated equipment SpectroMagic! It was a stellar and dazzling show which last ran in 2016, and I’m glad I got to see it. There is a lot of speculation about a return to a nighttime parade at Magic Kingdom, but taking a purely business view there is no argument for it since the park is already packed for the end of day fireworks display. I think this may be a case of it being lost to Disney history.

The last genre of parades at Magic Kingdom generally fall into what I would call a generic character parade. Basically the main goal being that guests see as many characters as possible, with some not even offering meet and greets in the parks. I would bet my house this type of parade returns. How TBD, but there are a few ideas. In the past, one format was a dance party format where the characters actually stopped and guests could dance with them. We did this with my daughter and it was an absolute delight. This is a simple endeavor and likely a less expensive option. The second is along the lines of Celebrate a Dream Come True, which was a float based character parade with a uniting theme. This did incorporate more fanfare and dancers than the simple dance party parade, so it may be a delayed endeavor. The existence of these parades seems directly coupled with minor classic character based shows that pop up in front of the castle throughout the day in Magic Kingdom, as I think they use the same cast members to run. My best guess is they will both return in Spring of 2022 likely with a 50th Anniversary theme.

One more add to parades in Magic Kingdom are the seasonal offering parades which are part of their after hour special events. These parades are Halloween and Christmas themed respectively, and are returning this year for their events.

EPCOT

EPCOT has not had a parade for many years, and I don’t anticipate one returning. EPCOT is currently undergoing a several year make over however, so I suppose anything is possible.

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom has not had a parade since 2014 when it retired Mickey’s Jammin’ Jungle Parade. This parade was a festive one that was based around puppets and percussion. It was enjoyable. However, the park is very narrow and basically shut down traffic for the whole park during the parade. I don’t foresee any sort of parade element returning to this park.

Hollywood Studios

Hollywood Studios has never really been known for its parades. There have been a few show lived ones over the years to highlight the popular thing at the time like Frozen or Star Wars. The longest lived most recent parade was Stars and Motor Cars, a character focused parade that was revamped a few times for anniversary celebrations. I don’t anticipate any new parades for this park unless again it’s a marketing focused highlight.

Other shows

My last category here are other shows in the parks. Some are fan favorites, and are do not miss. Others are more focused on your specific tastes and age.

Magic Kingdom

Mickey’s Philharmagic is a 3D interactive movie. And it’s here to stay as it just underwent a recent update that included music from the movie Coco. There are a few other “shows” that consist of animatronic characters and to my knowledge all are open including the classic Tiki Room, Country Bear Jamboree and the Hall of Presidents with the recent inclusion of President Joe Biden.

I mentioned earlier about short daytime character based shows in front of the castle. These are still suspended as far as I can tell, but I would expect them to return.

Enchanted Tales with Belle is an audience interactive show that is a must for any Belle fan. It is currently shut down, and because of the nature of the show I don’t anticipate it opening until Spring 2022 at the earliest.

Lastly, The Dapper Dans, a barbershop quartet can be seen wandering Main Street USA. They are a Disney fan favorite.

EPCOT

The entertainment charm of EPCOT for me is the various cultural shows in World Showcase including bellydancers, drummers and acrobats. At writing, some are performing and others have yet to return. The Music of Mexico, Matsuriza (Japanese drumming) are currently available as well as the excellent Voices of Liberty in the American Pavilion. I have heard rumors that much of the international performers and cast members have not been able to come to or remain in the United States due to the pandemic. For me, as an epic EPCOT fan, this is a huge highlight of any trip and a true loss. I hope this is resolved and these cast members return soon.

Finally, American Experience is another one of those animatronic shows, as is The Carousel of Progress. Both are operating. Neither is a must, but both provide a good place to take a break in air conditioning.

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom has several shows, some of which are open. A Celebration of Festival of the Lion King has re-opened and is a must see. Sadly, I watched the premier and many of the original elements that required specialized talents are missing including the acrobatic monkeys and the flying element of the birds. I suspect budget cuts, but I hope this is a temporary change. Still an excellent show to watch.

Finding Nemo The Musical an excellent production with puppets and original score remains closed. I was sad to learn that it will not be returning. However, my mood brightened when I learned they intend to revamp it. My best guess? Much of the cast was original from when it premiered and they will be replaced, instead opting for a whole new cast and show that incorporates elements from Finding Dory. Premier date TBD.

Feathered Friends in Flight! is an educational and entertaining bird show. Many skip this but it’s something, in its older iterations, that my family has always enjoyed. It runs a few times during the day and is open.

I already mentioned the new kite show called Disney KiteTails! that is open but experiencing multiple issues at the moment. It’s a brief 10 minutes and may make for a good mid-day break, though I don’t recall much shade there and it could be very hot.

Lastly the Tam Tam Drummers of Harambe are always great. I don’t see evidence of them on the Disney website, so at writing they don’t seem to present. I hope they return.

Hollywood Studios

Beauty and the Beast Live! on Stage is a fan favorite and recently returned to Hollywood Studios. As has the comical and entertaining For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-a-long Celebration. I would recommend seeing both unless you aren’t a princess fan.

For those with little ones, Disney Junior show is occurring multiple times a day with an emphasis on dancing with characters.

Voyage of the Little Mermaid was a puppet based and live action experience. It has its fans, but has become quite dated over the years and I don’t anticipate it opening again.

Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular is just as described, and a lot of fun, but currently remains closed. It has been reported that the cast has been called back and there is an anticipated opening in late 2021.

TL/DR

In all, although more is opening, there is still a lot missing from the Walt Disney World Parks in the entertainment category including two end of day shows and most character experiences. For me, it’s enough to hold out visiting until things return to “normal” and hope that the parks don’t permanently close some of my favorites.

Beyond Rides: Walt Disney World Entertainment Part 1

One of the most difficult things during the pandemic park re-opening is the lack of entertainment offerings. Some of it is practical, for safety measures. Others seem to be offline indefinitely due to business decisions. There were massive layoffs during the park shutdown and they have not brought back many of the cast members. For this reason, I would caution against a park visit at this time until at least more of these offerings have returned. Here are some of my favorite entertainment highlights and their current or predicted status in each park.

Character Experiences

Character meet and greets as well as character dining have been suspended. This to me is one of the most heartbreaking park casualties of the pandemic. Character experiences are some my most treasured memories and I honestly can’t imagine a trip without them. From my daughter comparing her wings to Tink’s, to a restaurant wide Princess parade these are some of my most magical park moments.

What Disney has offered instead is a sort of socially distanced wave scenario from balconies as well as character cavalcades, basically a small parade where characters walk down the street. They are brief with little fanfare. Good in a pinch, but not exactly an adequate replacement.

It’s not a matter of if, but when these experiences will return. At writing, the virus has mercifully begun to wain and I am optimistic for a return of character interaction in the Spring of 2022.

Signature Shows

Each park has and end of day nighttime spectacular to cap off your visit. Each is unique from display to medium, making each one a must see.

Magic Kingdom

In Magic Kingdom there is the fireworks at the castle. On October 1, 2021 Walt Disney World premiered their new 50th Anniversary Celebration fireworks show called Disney Enchantment. Using a number of projections on the castle and surrounding spires, as well as Main Street USA buildings, the show combines music, pyrotechnics and images to dazzle crowds. Die hard Disney fans have given the new show a mixed review, with many citing that a historical celebration should give a nod to Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse – neither of whom appear in the show – but I think most guests will enjoy the display. This show will presumably be in place for 18 months during the 50th Anniversary Celebration which places it all the way through 2023.

EPCOT

In EPCOT, they launched a soft opening of a new nighttime spectacular called HarmoniUS that takes place in the World Showcase Lagoon. Reception to this show has been universally warm, and having watched the live stream myself it is indeed, impressive. The show uses large floating barges with LED screens and fountains, along with pyrotechnics and music to celebrate all the cultures and continents in the World Showcase. In my humble opinion, it is a worthy replacement to the much beloved IllumiNations show.

Animal Kingdom

In Animal Kingdom, Rivers of Light is a nighttime show also on water using a series of boats, and fountains that are utilized as screens. Combining lights and music it’s truly a spectacular display that I saw myself and loved it. This show has not returned since re-opening however, and it was recently announced it is being discontinued. My best guess is there is a new show in development, unless Disney has entirely given up on their nighttime experiment at Animal Kingdom that seemed to have never really taken off. In the meantime, they are offering guests a short ten minute daytime kite based show in the same venue called Disney KiteTails for the 50th Anniversary Celebration. Unfortunately, the show is off to a rocky start with kite entanglements and wave runner accidents. Watch this space. At writing there is no evening show at Animal Kingdom.

Hollywood Studios

Which brings me to the final park, Hollywood Studios. On our last visit Hollywood Studios was offering not just one, but two separate nighttime shows. The first is Fantasmic, which was really Walt Disney World’s first attempt of combining water and storytelling. It’s a Disney classic and remained in high demand ever since its premiere in 1998. This makes it the most dated of all the nighttime shows. Since it is not expected to return until 2022 at the earliest, I think it’s safe to say it will return with some updates, if it returns at all. Seems logical after this prolonged, multi-year shutdown to re-imagine the show into something else that better reflects the direction that the park is now going, which was entirely different in 1998.

The second show was a pyrotechnic spectacular with projections on the Chinese Theater that was Star Wars themed. This was always intended to be a short lived show, but I’m glad I got to see it. The new pyrotechnic show is entitled Wonderful World of Animation which premiered in 2019 and returned in August 2021. It combines animation from both Disney and Pixar with music and pyrotechnics.

Tomorrow I will continue this discussion including parades and other shows.

Step One: Time of Year

Choosing the time of year you want to go to Disney World should be your very first step in planning. Disney World hosts a variety of seasonal events throughout the year that are included with admission, as well as special premium ticketed events. If you are someone who has been to the parks before, it may benefit you to go during another time of year to gain a different experience. Whenever you decide to go, know there is no way you will be able to fit in all the things you want to do, but good planning will help you make the most of your experience.

Winter

Starting with the beginning of the year, you are likely to see the least amount of crowds, but as a result you are also likely to see many attractions closed for refurbishment. This is the slowest time of the year in the parks and Disney takes full advantage of this doing annual maintenance and more. Now 2022 may be a little different considering that the parks had an unprecedented longtime shutdown in 2020/2021, but unless you are someone who frequents the parks a lot and doesn’t mind missing a few key attractions, I would not recommend visiting during this time.

Spring

The next season is spring, which features the fantastic Flower and Garden Festival at EPCOT. There are all sorts of presentations, a walk through butterfly tent, and beautiful topiaries. In addition, there are extra food and wine experiences throughout EPCOT featuring all sorts of sweet and savory treats. We have attended and it was a great time to visit with lower crowds, pleasant weather and excellent food offerings. Probably my favorite time to visit the parks.

Summer

The summer season is when most people visit the parks and thus it is hot and crowded. Growing up this is the only time available for my family to go, so this is when we went. You may be in the same boat. If so, planning is going to be absolutely critical for you to be able to squeeze in the experiences you want. Managing the heat and staying hydrated is critical to a good experience as well. Fortunately, the parks offer plenty of opportunity to cool off in the air conditioning.

Fall

Fall is close second as best time to visit in my mind. You have cooler weather and fewer crowds. EPCOT’s Food and Wine Festival, the sister festival to the spring festival, is occurring with great culinary features. If you are a fan of Halloween, you’ll enjoy the extra fall decorations that show up in September. There is a special, extra ticketed, after hours Halloween themed celebration. Just a fun time in the parks.

Holiday

The holiday season at Disney World Parks is just magical, and it’s why I want to visit again during this time. At the beginning of November, the Halloween decorations go away and by the second week of November it’s fully Christmas mode at the parks. It’s truly spectacular with extra lights, trees and more providing a festive atmosphere. The holidays like Thanksgiving week and Christmas week are notoriously some of the busiest days of the year in the parks, but if you plan it right you can enjoy low crowds and all the holiday features. This time of year also has an after hours special ticketed event.

I hope that gives you a decent idea of what each season is like at Disney World and helps you decide when is the right time to go for your family.