To Disney or Not To Disney

The mere mention of the word “Disney” can set many travel aficionados’ teeth on edge, but I confess to being a Disney fan, and our family has made several trips over the years to the parks, and had a wonderful visit each time. I grew up approximately 45 minutes away from Disneyland in California, went for the first time just three months after it opened in 1955, and visited many, many other times with my family, with friends when I was a teenager, and with Brett and our son when he was a toddler. Brett and I have also visited Disney World with our son and the girls several times – it was often easier to find cheaper round-trip airfares to Orlando from Portland than to Los Angeles. And, Brett and I have been to Tokyo Disneyland as well, which was an interesting experience. It was Disney with many similar rides, etc. and yet it was still so different. We’ve never taken a Disney cruise, nor have we visited the Disney parks in Hong Kong, Shanghai or Paris, so I can’t (and won’t) speak to those experiences.

Admission to Disneyland plus 10 “E” tickets was only $4.50 in 1967.

I personally don’t understand all the animosity towards the Disney parks. I’ve heard many complain that a day at a Disney park is too expensive (the price for a one-day ticket currently ranges from $99 to $119 per person at Walt Disney World, depending on the time of year or day of the visit, but goes down the more days you visit), and a week’s vacation has the potential to cost several thousands of dollars. The parks’ intense focus on all things Disney, and the gift shops at the end of every ride can seem excessive and cloying. The food is expensive. It costs to park your car, etc. The biggest complaint I’ve heard though is that it’s just all so . . . fake.

What seems to often be forgotten is that the Disney parks are first and foremost amusement parks. They are amusement parks taken to the highest level, and ones where it may take more than a day to experience all that is offered, but like any other park anywhere there are rides, attractions, shops, places to eat, and so forth. Those country pavilions in Epcot are just areas offering a glimpse of a country, and not intended to substitute for and actual visit. Of course they’re fake. They’re in an amusement park.

Park visitors, especially those who try to drop in for a day’s visit, are often disappointed by the experience, starting with the expense. Especially if it’s their first visit (and it’s hot), the long lines for rides can be disconcerting or exasperating. The cost of food for a family can be exhorbitant, or there’s no seating to be had at restaurants. Many leave feeling discouraged and full of animosity toward Disney, claiming it’s a rip-off, and that they’re never returning.

What’s forgotten is the high cost of actually operating a park on the level and size of the Disney ones, the cost of paying the friendly employees, the cost of keeping the parks sparkling clean, the cost of all that electricity (did you know though that Disney World burns most of its trash to help provide much of its own power?), of paying vendors, etc. Quality costs, and if nothing else, Disney provides quality. And lots and lots of people want to have that experience.

Here are some things we learned over time to ensure that even a one-day visit to any of the parks is fun and memorable;

  • Do some research before you go!! I can’t emphasize this enough, even if you’re only planning to go for a day. There are whole guides devoted to visiting Disneyland or Disney World, and websites like AllEars.net or MouseSavers.com (among others) are full of good information and tips for how to get the most out of your visit. There’s a lot to see and do, and unless you’re planning to stay for longer than week, there’s no way to see it all, but with planning you can see and do more than you thought you could.
  • If you’re planning to visit for more than a day (and you really should, if you’re going to Walt Disney World), use a Disney-specific travel agent to arrange your stay. You can book your own visit on the Disney websites, but there’s no charge for the Disney-specific agents’ services, and they will make sure your entire vacation is special. They can help get you reservations at a Disney resort without busting your budget, get reservations at the extremely popular character meals or high-end restaurants, as well as arranging other perks. We used Small World Vacations more than once – their service was superb. I highly recommend staying on resort property if you can – there are many, many benefits that include free transportation to and from the airport, free luggage transport, free delivery of items purchased in the parks to your room, and best of all, early admission and late stays at different parks each day. You also have a convenient location to return to during the day for breaks (especially nice if you’re visiting with small children).
  • The portion sizes at the park counter-service restaurants are huge. We found that sharing three meals versus each person having their own provided more than enough food for our family of five, and saved us quite a bit of money. We always also brought in our own granola bars and bottled water to save on snacks (you’re allowed to bring in any food that does not require heating). We found that purchasing the meal plans at Disney World – available if you’re staying at a Disney hotel – also saved us quite a bit, and allowed us to eat at some places we might not have been able to enjoy otherwise (Tip: dinner on the outside patio at the British pub in Epcot was the best place to be for the evening firework show). There are healthy choices available at almost all restaurants, whether sit-down or counter service.
  • Become familiar with how fast passes work, and have a plan to get them as soon as you enter the park in the morning. If you are traveling with with teenagers or other adults, you can assign each person to a particular ride for passes, and then reconnect afterwards to get started on your day.
  • If you can’t get passes, take advantage of single rider lanes if they’re available – they move more quickly than the regular line. We used this feature as much as possible when the girls were older, but they were still almost always seated in pairs, and we always had a designated meeting spot outside for when everyone finished the ride. One time YaYu had to sit alone with another family, but agreed to go after the family promised us they would watch over her. They did, and got her safely to our meeting spot.
  • Be ready to go early in the morning, when the parks open. It takes a while for the crowds to build, but if you can be there when the parks open, and head straight toward your favorite ride(s) you’ll practically have the ride to yourself, sometimes two or three times, before the line begins to build.
  • The best Disney souvenirs are your own photos. Neither Brett nor I care for Disney-branded items, so we never really bought anything more than maybe a sweatshirt for the girls, but our solution for all the tempting gift shops was to give each child their own money at the beginning of the visit – they could spend it however they wished, on whatever they wished, but when it was gone, it was gone. They were not allowed to ask us to buy them anything. It was amazing how less tempting all those items in the shops became when they had to spend their “own” money.

None of us here at Casa Aloha has a desire to go to any of the Disney parks any more – that itch has been scratched. However, we had a more than wonderful time on each the trips we made to both Disneyland and Walt Disney World, made memories that we still talk about now, and Brett and I feel the expense was well worth it, and my parents apparently did as well. If I had it to do over, I’d still take each of those vacations again – they were magical, for me when I was young, and for our own kids. My most precious Disney memory is of five year-old YaYu crying from happiness as we waited for the bus to take us to the airport to go home. She had been with our family, and home in the United States, for less than a year, and her early years in the orphanage had not allowed her to imagine that there was a place in the world that was so amazing and so much fun.

In my opinion, the key to enjoying and getting the most from any visit to a Disney park is remembering that it’s Disney, and that you’re visiting a very popular, high-end amusement park. If you can keep this in mind, and prepare yourself before you go, you won’t be disappointed, and you might be able to enjoy some of the fabulous features and special effects to be found throughout the parks. However, if you don’t like amusement parks, don’t like crowds, and haven’t prepared yourself for the expense or the experience, then you’ll probably end up very disappointed.

How do you feel about visiting the Disney Parks?

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18 thoughts on “To Disney or Not To Disney

  1. Meg B. says:

    I hate all amusement parks, (and pretty much anything that the masses flock to, for that matter.) I won’t spend the money for them. It is not an experience I would enjoy, and we won’t take our kids. And, you’re right….people forget that that’s what these things are….AMUSEMENT PARKS. It’s nothing that enhances our kids’ world view. I really don’t care if they are ever well versed in “comparative roller coasters.” That is not an area of expertise we are prepared to finance!

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    • Laura says:

      Like I said, if you don’t like amusement parks, then you should avoid the Disney parks.

      We didn’t take our kids to enhance their world view; we took them to have a good time. That’s all. They had a lot of fun, made some good memories, and inadvertently learned a lot about saving and being patient. None of them has any desire to go back – they’ve all traveled other places, both in the U.S. and overseas, and done other things, but have fond memories of those family vacations.

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  2. Hawaii Planner says:

    We actually haven’t taken the boys to either park, but my parents do a biannual trip with each set of grandkids. So, the boys have been three times with my parents. We’ve discussed Disneyworld, and are open to it. I went often with my parents growing up & have great memories! I’m currently at a phase of life where i prefer a more relaxing vacation, but I think the boys would enjoy WDW, and we would stay for a week & plan for/budget for it.

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    • Laura says:

      We had a great time on every Disney vacation, but like you, prefer something more relaxing these days. We planned and saved for each of our Disney vacations (usually for more than a year), and surprised the girls twice. We always traveled during the off-season, so didn’t deal too much with crowds.

      You may appreciate this memory from growing up in California and visiting Disneyland – my parents occasionally surprised us with a visit to the park (we usually visited when we had guests, which was every summer). They would put us kids into the car, and tell us we were going “somewhere.” Disney would be the last thing on our minds, but we’d be driving down the freeway and see the sign for Harbor Blvd, and well, hope always springs eternal. But, we’d be over in the left lane so, no way. And then my dad would suddenly put on the turn indicator and in less than a quarter mile from the off-ramp he’d start changing lanes! I don’t know how he did it, but he always made the exit – it was very exciting. My mom taught high school back then, and often some of her former students worked at the park – they always moved us to the front of the line, like VIPs. That was also very exciting, especially if it was the Matterhorn!

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  3. Janette says:

    We take the grands every other year to Disney. My daughter’s family usually goes to DW, while my son’s lived closer to Disneyland. We leave for DisneyWorld in the beginning of December. We plan on going during parent conference week, missing little school. The “crowd finder” marks the days as 2or 3 (1-10 is the range).We always buy the meal plan and stay on property at DW, because it insures everyone can get what they want and we won’t be stressed over money at the time. The bus from the airport tis a dream come true for young families. Our fast passes are done two months before we leave. This will be the first time we will stay at the Boardwalk and let the parents go in the evening while we watch the sleeping littles. We work directly with Disney for all reservations. They know the current specials and easily work with our retired military status. Thanks for the Disney write up! We agree, they are worth the money.

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    • Laura says:

      We always tried to visit during some week like conference week, when we knew the girls wouldn’t miss school, or only a couple of days, and when we also knew there wouldn’t be huge crowds.

      We stayed at the Port Orleans Riverside resort – the rooms had a little trundle bed that worked perfectly for YaYu, and the price was reasonable. We always talked about staying at the Boardwalk (it’s so close to Epcot!), but it was out of our price range.

      With the meal plan, the five of us would share two of the big breakfasts at the resort food court (they were huge), and use our snack credits for fresh fruit. Then, we would buy three food court lunches, which provided more than enough food for the five of us. We always had reservations at one of the restaurants for a sit down dinner (the original meal plan got you an appetizer, drink, main course and desert – they did away with that pretty quickly, but it was too much food for us). We always had loads of snack credit left at the end, so on the last day we bought things to take home that could go into the girls’ lunches, like cookies or the Mickey-shaped rice crispy treats.

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  4. The One in Debt says:

    I miss E tickets! And the giant Microscope ride and the boats. I hear they are taking the autoban out too. Boo.
    I think my problem with Disneyland now is that the park is Way too crowded and the rides are Always having technical difficulties. Last time I went I was in line for an hour, tech difficulty w/no ETA of being fixed, when into a different line, waited for 1/2 hour, same thing happened. We gave up and went home. But I find that if you don’t use fast passes, really you only go on 3-4 rides for the day. The other is those with annual passes. Which for the local person works out great! (I don’t have one as I would need 2 and they are expensive). But when 5 o’clock comes around, crowds of locals show up.

    Aside from that, Disney has lots of perks most people are unaware of- when you do know about them, it makes the park that much more fun. And I think if you can find them then it would make the Disney experience that much better.

    – In Star tours area, if you just get married, there is a phone there where Mickey and Minnie with congratulation you In Any Language.
    – What about discovering the hidden mickeys on the rides.
    – You can bring food into the part to help eliminate costs, but read the rules about it first. When we go, we bring water and snacks in; eat breakfast before we go and then buy 1 meal there (usually splurging on Blue Bayou)
    – We finally got into the Pin trading fun and you can trade with Disney employees who have pins on them
    – if it’s your bday, on main street there is a place where you can decorate your own mouse cake
    – just found the entrance to club 33! hear its a mega year wait to get a restaurant membership (and found out its 11K annual fee. LOL)
    – you can get an enchanted character call on the park (in any language)

    the little perks, for me took years to learn about. Now with the net it should make it much easier. I can’t wait until Star Wars land is completed at DL.

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    • Laura says:

      The coveted E tickets!

      We’ve always had good experiences at Disney – we could usually find out ahead of time which rides are down, or being refurbished, or whatever, but I agree – being in the middle of a long line and then discovering the ride was broken would be a pain (seemed to happen a lot with Test Track).

      On one trip, we went in January for the girls’ birthdays (two have birthdays a week apart in January, and the third’s birthday is less than a month away in February) – the travel agent made sure the girls had birthday buttons to wear the entire week we were there, and they were treated to lots of surprises throughout the week from the staff. They were big hidden Mickey hunters as well – one girl spend some of her money on the book so she could find more! They also got into pin collected – all three still have their collections!

      A couple of my former high school classmates have Club 33 memberships. Interesting, but not how I want to spend my money.

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  5. Laurel says:

    We’ve been to Disneyworld with our kids when they were young and they loved it. It’s crazy and expensive, but we enjoyed going with them at the time. I can’t imagine going back now, but I have a couple adult friends that go alone now that their kids are grown…they love it that much. That is certainly not me! Too crowded and expensive and definitely not relaxing.

    I did have a couple company meetings there and having a resort hotel paid was kinda fun. But when I save for travel now, that’s nowhere on my list. 🙂

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  6. JJ says:

    I haven’t been to Disney World in about 10 years, only because I don’t have any relatives in that age group anymore, but it was always a fun time. I went when I was a kid a couple of times back in the 70’s and have fond memories of going with my grandparents. I’ve never been to Disneyland so I can’t compare. I just feel like it’s something every kid should experience at least once.

    I agree with Laurel. I’m not sure if I’d go back if I wasn’t with kids. I was actually in Orlando on a business trip one time and was staying at one of the Disney hotels and everyone was telling me I should go on the rides, but it just felt strange doing that as an adult without a kid! So I didn’t. I might consider going to Epcot or something that’s less juvenile though.

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    • Laura says:

      I went to Disney World once with a couple of work colleagues – we were in Tampa for a convention, but played hooky one day and went to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I had a good time, but nowhere near the fun I had with our kids.

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  7. vivian says:

    We had annual passes for several years until it got too expensive. The free parking really made a difference in the costs. What I remember most is their kindness to the handicapped. Before the Disability Act became law, Disney was wonderful. My grandmother was in a wheelchair and rarely went anywhere because people were so mean to her. At first she was afraid to go but we told her Disney was different. She had the most fantastic time, was treated with enormous respect. They would stop rides so Daddy could lift her into boats (It’s a small world etc) She was treated like a Queen and never forgot her visit.
    My father who was a pinch-a-penny always said we got out money’s worth at Disney.
    When I was in college, my class went there on a field trip so I saw a lot of the behind the scenes stuff at Epcot. Truly fascinating to see behind the magic.

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    • Laura says:

      My parents said the same thing – they were very frugal, and a day at Disneyland was a big expense for them, but they always felt like they got their money’s worth.

      The employee culture that guests interact with is very special. Even behind the scenes it seems to be very positive. I’ll never forget a hearing a supervisor instruct an employee at Disneyland how to repair a crack in the sidewalk. His last instruction? “Make it sparkle!”

      I’d love to do one of those behind the scenes tours at Disney. Did you know they have secret doors all around the parks where disruptive guests can be quietly whisked away so as not to disturb others’ experience? I thought that was interesting, although I’ve only ever experienced one rude customer on all our visits.

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