Walt Disney World, Part 2: Report Card

A run-down of the trip I took over a month ago

For years, Disney and I have had this implicit agreement: I would spend a considerable amount of money to go to their theme parks, they would ask me repeatedly to fill out a survey describing my experience, I would treat the survey like a solemn obligation and give my detailed feedback, Disney would politely discard the results.

I don’t know what happened to that arrangement for my once-in-a-lifetime birthday trip this year, because it’s been a month since we got back and I never got a survey. So now I gotta take it to the internet, I guess.

My overall review: it was an excellent trip that satisfied something I’ve wanted to do for almost literally my entire life. Disney World has been hugely important to me at key times throughout my life: some of my best times with my family, hugely inspirational for my career at every step, and the site of some of my best work experiences. For as long as I can remember, I’ve dreamed of being able to take an extended vacation there. It’s amazing that everything finally fell into place to make it possible.

It also made me realize how fragile the “magic” of a Disney vacation is: when everything is working together, it’s outstanding; when something goes wrong, it sets off a cascade of failures that can make it all come crashing down. To be clear, I don’t have any patience at all for the people who constantly complain about how expensive everything is at a Disney park. I mean, you knew the cost going in, so if you’re still whining about it — especially if you’re asinine enough to wear one of those “Most Expensive Day Ever” shirts — then you’re just trying to drag everybody else down to be as much of a miserable chode.

But. When you’re surrounded by examples of Disney cutting costs, or giving a diminished experience and blaming it on COVID, and still charging the same amount as they did pre-pandemic, it can be extremely disheartening. There were a couple of days when I set out in the best mood, with the highest expectations, and had so many things chip away at me — slow or shut-down transportation, no parking lot trams, no shade, not enough places to sit, not enough air conditioning — that I was already in a foul mood long before they charged me five bucks for a small plastic cup filled with Powerade.

Since the rest of this post is likely to come across as hyper-critical, I’ll say again that it was a great birthday trip overall, and I’m fortunate that everything came together for us to be able to go. It satisfied my curiosity for an extended Disney World vacation, and I think I’ll be happy limiting future Disney trips to a couple days at a time. (And yes, this will be a food-heavy report, both because I really like food and eating it, and also because there were few attractions available that I haven’t been on dozens of times before).

The view from our ridiculously long balcony

The Beach Club Resort: A
I’d originally booked the Dolphin hotel for the biggest part of the trip, since it’s in a great location and significantly cheaper than any Disney-owned hotel in the area. But the Beach Club is one of my two favorite hotels on property, and I’ve got so many good memories attached to it, and Disney did a 30%-off promotion, so I decided to splurge.

It was a good choice. It’s such a nice hotel, with such a laid-back attitude, a five minute walk from Epcot, and the best pool of any of the hotels. We got a room on an upper floor with a King bed and an absurdly long balcony. Sitting out on the balcony and having morning coffee, looking out over one of my favorite places on the planet, was really nice. (Even in June, when it was too hot to sit outside and have coffee). Having breakfast in the Solarium was a relaxing start to every day.

The only reason I give it an A instead of an A+ is because our room didn’t have a window, making the room feel a little too dim and too plain for a deluxe hotel.

I didn’t take photos of strangers at a pool, since that’s creepy, but the top of the water slide is at that ship’s mast to the right

Stormalong Bay (Beach Club Pool): A
The pool at the Beach Club has a reputation for being one of the best on Disney property, and it’s well earned. It’s huge, with multiple sections connected by bridges and lounge areas. Much of it has sand on the bottom. There’s a water slide that starts in a pirate ship and goes over the path running next to the hotel. There is a lazy river section, but I didn’t go in it because parts of it are too deep for me to be comfortable (I’m not a swimmer). That and the slight overcrowding are the only reasons it didn’t get an A+.

Neat Tiki Room-inspired art around the room, at least, which I personally like better than the Moana re-theme in the rest of the hotel

Polynesian Villas and Bungalows: C
For the last few days of the trip, we stayed in a DVC room at the Polynesian, since the normal rooms were still closed for refurbishment. This was a big disappointment for me. I’m sure that it’s partly because I’ve gotten spoiled by previous work trips where I got to stay at the Polynesian, but this felt like Disney simply shouldn’t have opened the hotel at all in this state.

There were construction walls everywhere. Trader Sam’s was closed, and the Tambu Lounge seemed to have reduced hours. The monorail wasn’t running, the buses were slow and unpredictable, and there was no monorail to Epcot. The walk to the Ticket & Transportation Center was much longer than it used to be, since they were funneling everyone through one central security entrance. The quick service restaurant was pushing mobile order so hard that you were SOL if you wanted to make any requests. And we didn’t get any housekeeping service the entire time we stayed there; I was able to call and get some more coffee for the room, but we reused the same towels the whole time.

At least the construction signs were cute

Any one or two of those would probably have been fine, but taken all together, it just seemed ludicrous that they were still charging so much for such a reduced experience. It would’ve been very disappointing if they’d said my favorite hotel wasn’t going to be open for my 50th birthday, but at least I would’ve been able to rip off the band-aid and plan around it, instead of spending the last half of the trip getting increasingly annoyed, and even feeling like kind of a sucker.

Least intrusive shot I could get of the Lava Pool at the Polynesian

Polynesian Pools: A+
Even though the room itself was a disappointment, the Polynesian property is so unbelievably nice that you’ve got to grade it on a curve. I was disappointed that they didn’t have music playing everywhere, like they used to. But the grounds are still beautiful — you can even still see a couple of the views that weren’t blocked out by those overpriced cabanas — and the pools are great. We went to both pools: the boring one, and the Lava pool, which has a waterslide through a volcano.

On my actual birthday, we were sitting in the Lava pool on a comfortable bench next to a waterfall, Hawaiian music drifting in over the speakers, a view of Cinderella’s castle across the lagoon to the left, and a perfect rainbow over the hotel buildings to the right. It was absurdly perfect.

It’s hard to stay mad at a place that looks like this

On our last night at the hotel, we rushed over to the pool right as it was about to close, to get at least 15 minutes more with it. I felt awkward, like we were putting all the cast members out and keeping them from being able to go home, but one of the lifeguards was extremely cool about it. She encouraged us to get in and try the water slide, and waited until the last possible second to close the pool, to make sure everyone had enough time.

Even though they shit on our lanai, they were still much more welcome than the couple who stood outside yelling “YOU were supposed to get the fucking magic bands, Peter!”

Polynesian Ducks: A
At the Polynesian, I’d requested an upper floor room with a balcony, but they put us in a ground floor room next to the laundry room. (I didn’t hear any noise from the laundry room, to be fair). Since our lanai was right at a high-traffic intersection for people, it didn’t feel at all private, and I saw two separate horrible couples yelling at each other as they tried to find their rooms.

If I remember correctly, this was just minutes after my fiance said, “I wish those ducks would come back.”

But it did mean that we were visited at least once a day by a friendly duck couple. Their review of us is probably less positive, since we never gave them any food. But it was fun to be sitting out on the lanai and see them casually trot up for a visit, quacking and posing for pictures, poking around looking for crumbs, and then taking a shit on the porch and leaving.

The Skyliner station at Epcot is done in the art nouveau style of Paris metro stations, which is such a nice detail that I wish I’d actually taken a picture of it

The Skyliner: A
This was my first trip using the Skyliner, and it was surprisingly nice. I don’t think we ever had to wait more than 10 minutes (if even that), and it was fast, cool, and quiet. (Kind of. There are a few too many announcements while on board). I hope it gets extended to Disney Springs and more hotels.

My biggest complaint about it: we’d planned to take it back from Hollywood Studios, but lightning in the area had shut it down. Granted, being stuck in one of the gondolas in the middle of a lightning storm seems like it’d be terrifying. But I’ve got to question the wisdom of Disney investing in a transportation system in central Florida that can’t operate during thunderstorms.

It’s great from start to finish

Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway: A+
I already wrote a blog post about this one, but I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed it. It doesn’t really go for spectacle, and it’s probably not going to blow the lid off anyone who’s looking for Rise of the Resistance-scale attractions, but it’s one of the most relentlessly charming attractions Disney’s ever made.

Sure, it often feels like the air itself is trying to suffocate you, but nobody does clouds and sunsets better than Florida

Walking in Central Florida in June: D
Disney trips are always exhausting, but it was especially exhausting trying to do that much walking in that much heat after a year and a half mostly couch-based. The only reason I don’t give it a failing grade is because of those rare moments right before a storm blows in, when it’s windy and cool and the air feels electric; or those few minutes right after a warm summer rain.

The Polynesian lobby, which has plenty of air conditioned, dry places to sit

Disney’s Seating, Shelter, and Air Conditioning: D-
Related to the above: I’ve been going to Disney parks for 50 years now, and I’ve long assumed that if I’m exhausted, it’s my fault for not being in better shape. But the more time I spent covered in sweat feeling like I was nearing heat exhaustion, or desperately needing to sit down for the sake of my back, but not being able to find a seat that wasn’t exposed to the worst of the elements, the more I wondered why I didn’t put more blame on Disney.

They’ve been running the parks in Florida for 50 years now, so it’s not as if they’re taken by surprise every summer, when it’s dangerously hot and humid, and there’s a torrential downpour every day. But they still don’t have enough spaces to take cover from the weather or to get some air conditioning, don’t have enough seats with shelter from the heat or the rain, and don’t have enough options for things to do or places to go when things shut down due to lightning. We were at Disney Springs during a rainstorm, and it felt like being in a city that was trying to crack down on its homeless population: my back was killing me, there was no dry place to sit down anywhere apart from the restaurants or nightclubs, and all of those were full and not taking walk-ins. I don’t understand why Disney doesn’t seem to care if people are comfortable in the parks, if only because comfortable people are inclined to stay longer and spend more money. As it was, I was more inclined to just give up and head back to the hotel.

Yeah, no shit

Parking Lots and Buses: F-
Driving to Animal Kingdom broke me. Disney has been happily increasing capacity of the parks ever since they re-opened, but without bringing back all the things that made it possible to run the parks at that capacity. Including the parking lot trams. The Animal Kingdom parking lot is huge, and the rows are long enough that sometimes it feels like a slog just getting from the car to the tram stop. Walking from the car to the front gate meant I was already tired and pissed off before I’d even entered the park.

The alternative to driving is taking a bus right up closer to the park entrances… if it ever comes. We had very little luck with buses, usually waiting around 30 minutes for one to show up, if it showed up at all. One night we tried to catch a bus from the Polynesian to Epcot, and eventually just gave up and drove over. The buses no longer had reserved spots for social distancing, so I think there just weren’t enough buses running. Probably the kind of thing that happens when you lay off 32,000 employees, but keep charging your guests the same amount.

The Sanaa bread service and two curries is much more than my stomach can hold, as it turns out

Sanaa: A+
Dinner at Sanaa was one of the highlights of the entire trip. We had the bread service and curries, and I ate until I was extremely uncomfortable. While we were waiting for the table, we went out to a patio where we could see all of the wildebeests and giraffes wandering the grounds.

Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater: B-
It had been a long time since I’d eaten here, and it was exactly the same as I remembered it. Which I guess could be either a good thing or a bad thing? It is the kind of thing you can only get at Disney World, but at the same time, I wish the food were better. As it is, it’s still somewhat lackluster hamburgers and fries and onion rings, that you can eat while sitting in cool convertible-themed tables. The film loop is pretty clever, but once you’ve seen it, there’s not much reason to come back.

Jungle Skipper Canteen: B-
I want to love this restaurant more than I do, but the food is never quite as good as it seems it should be. This was the best dish I’ve ever gotten there, a grilled steak, and it still felt like Applebee’s or Outback. I do really appreciate that they’re trying to do something that’s more interesting than most of the food at the Magic Kingdom. And I appreciate that putting boba or jelly pearls in drinks makes them “exotic” now.

Probably the best meal I had on the trip (although breakfast at Topolino’s was pretty great)

California Grill: A
For my actual birthday dinner, we went to the California Grill at the top of the Contemporary resort. I don’t eat a lot of red meat anymore, but on this trip you’d almost think I was going keto; the steak I had here was the best of a beef-filled trip. There were no fireworks to watch, but the rooftop patio still had a great view of the Magic Kingdom.

Donald Triumphant

The Riviera and Topolino’s Terrace: A
On our last day, we went to the character breakfast at Topolino’s Terrace at the top of the Riviera resort. The food (and coffee) was exceptional; it’s the first time I’ve had steak and eggs, and I can now understand why that’s a thing that people do. Views from the balcony were fantastic; it was a beautiful day, and I think we could see all four theme parks. We took an unnecessary Skyliner ride just for the hell of it, and Jason indulged me by taking an unnecessary boat ride from Hollywood Studios to Epcot. (I love the boats around Crescent Lake, but we’d had no opportunity to ride them). It was a great end to the trip.

Joffrey’s Coffee: A
Somehow, the coffee in the hotel room K-cups was some of the best I’ve ever had. I mentioned that we didn’t get housekeeping at the Polynesian, which meant I had to drink the coffee black one morning, and it was amazing. And I’m someone who hates black coffee. On the opposite end of the scale, their stands in the theme parks were serving this frozen mocha drink that was obscenely good. The only reason I didn’t have one of them every day was because I only discovered it at the end of the trip. I was so impressed with the coffee that I ordered some for home, but the magic is gone.

Decorations inside Gideon’s might be better than the food

Gideon’s Bakehouse: B
I feel like this shop is kind of a victim of its own success and hype. If I had just wandered into it, I would’ve been pleasantly surprised by the clever dedication to the art direction of the shop — it’s a cookie shop themed to a haunted bookstore — and enjoyed a pretty good, over-large chocolate chip cookie. But after getting in a virtual queue for hours and then waiting in line, I felt like it didn’t warrant all the build-up.

Even just looking at the photo makes my teeth hurt again

Everglazed Donuts: C-
This one isn’t nearly as hyped up as Gideon’s, but I had to try it as well. I’m not a small person, and I’ve got a tolerance for sugar that’s approaching a hummingbird’s, but this was just way too much and too sweet for me. (I got the one with chocolate and peanut butter). I’m starting to suspect some kind of camera trickery, since I keep seeing theme park people on YouTube eating these donuts and then going on about their business unfazed, when I could only eat about half of one and felt like I needed to lie down afterwards.

Shockingly consistent over 35 years

Yorkshire County Fish & Chips Stand: A+
This stand in the UK pavilion at Epcot is still the best fish and chips I’ve ever had, after more than 30 years. It was a family tradition for all of us to get the fish & chips and then watch the Epcot fireworks, so I’m sure that these are my favorite in large part because of nostalgia. But I must’ve had them dozens of times over the years, and somehow they’re as good or even better than I remembered them being, every single damn time. I don’t know how they do it.

Somewhere between an EC horror comic and a 1960s book cover

Haunted Mansion Portraits: A+
When I was trying to talk about these paintings hanging in the Magic Kingdom version of the Haunted Mansion, I had trouble finding any photos of them online. In retrospect, it’s pretty obvious why: unless you’re in there with the lights on, or with a tripod, it’s too dark to see them, much less photograph them. The iPhone camera’s night mode finally made it possible for me to get photos, and I’ve got a renewed respect for what was already one of my favorite rides. There’s such a distinctive look to these paintings — not realistic but not Disney-fied cartoonish, either, and all very much feeling like the late 1960s — that feels like something you just wouldn’t see in the parks today.

The only picture of Galaxy’s Edge I have without a dozen people in it

Batuu Two: B
Considering how Walt Disney World likes to run with the idea “like Disneyland but bigger,” it’s kind of impressive that there are no major differences between the two versions of Galaxy’s Edge. Some of the paint colors are darker to survive being faded by Florida’s weather, and the entrance from Grand Avenue is a cooler transition, in my opinion, than any of the entrances in Disneyland’s. But the biggest difference that I noticed was that it “felt like Disney World.” There were a lot more people, it was more of a chore to get into spaces, and everything felt more scheduled and controlled — to get here, you needed to make reservations at least a month ago; to be here, you had to use mobile order; to get in here, you need to wait in this line, etc.

I only really fell in love with Batuu at Disneyland once I stopped thinking of it in terms of rides and restaurants and shops, and treated it more like a place I could just wander around in. It’s all the architectural, sound, and set design that makes the place exceptional, and I never quite felt like I could just relax and enjoy it in the Hollywood Studios version.

I was trying to photograph a wait time of 50 minutes on my 50th birthday, but incompatible frame rates didn’t allow for it

Parks without FastPass+: B+
We didn’t spend a full day at any of the parks, and I don’t believe we waited in any line longer than an hour, but still managed to ride almost everything we wanted. (No Slinky Dog Dash, Flight of Passage, or Smuggler’s Run, but we’ve ridden each of them before). And we got to ride our favorites twice. No doubt that’ll get worse as capacity increases, but for now, it was all manageable. It was a hell of a lot better than having to make ride reservations three months in advance.

I understand that people do an insane amount of planning for trips to Walt Disney World, it’s rare to go as often as I do, and missing out on a must-see attraction in a once-in-a-lifetime (or even once-in-every-few-years) trip would be hugely disappointing. But FastPass+ ain’t it.

It may be beautiful, but it is no longer “all wham.”

In-Room Television: D
It’s baffling to read some of my old posts from Disney World and see myself actually complaining about Stacey and the Disney Must-Dos channel on the in-room TV. I must’ve been a stone-hearted fool not to appreciate that she was uniquely delightful and a highlight of staying on property. Her replacement that they’ve got running now is the blandest of the bland compilation of B-roll footage around the parks, with a characterless voice-over artist reciting copy from a theme park brochure.

There’s actually a long history of fun in-room info-advertisements in the Disney World hotels: stop-motion animated sequences with clay or paper sculptures, khaki-wearing people running around a white void in fast motion, some unfortunate person dressed up as a FastPass ticket, Christa the proto-Stacey delivering the same script but without the manic energy. It seemed to all culminate in Stacey Aswad herself, possibly the only person in the world who could pull off talking about the “Triple Mountain Whammy” for 12 years. The new version isn’t bad; it just isn’t anything. It feels like another one of the sparks of uniqueness and originality that are getting snuffed out all over Disney property.

In retrospect, sitting out on a balcony not doing anything was what I’d been looking forward to the most

A theme park-less day: A
I always pledge to take it easy instead of over-scheduling everything, and just hanging around the hotels without needing to visit the parks. This trip was long enough that we actually did it, for once. It was pretty nice, and went a long way towards making me question why I spend so much vacation time doing stuff that’s not at all relaxing. This was the day we got rained on and miserable at Disney Springs, so I think the key is not just avoiding theme parks, but avoiding any kind of activity at all.

The Epcot Experience display, or at least what’s left of it

Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary: See me after class
I was convinced that this trip was going to be full of photo opportunities for me to take a selfie in front of something celebrating the resort’s 50th. But in a bizarrely un-Disney, they’re waiting until the actual anniversary to start celebrating the anniversary. They didn’t even put up the big “50” on the castle until weeks after I’d already left. It felt like they were holding onto 49 until the last possible second, and I mean, I know how that feels.

It was a little melancholy seeing the “Epcot Experience,” which was a room in the Odyssey building with a model of the park from a past D23 convention, lit by projections showing various rides and shows they had planned for the park’s refurbishment. The show was so much shorter than the first videos I’d seen, now that so many of the plans have been cancelled.

The Magic Kingdom, Seven Seas Lagoon, and Bay Lake from the flight home. I’m including the parking lot to show how big it is and stress that I’m not just whining about the lack of trams.

It’s difficult to decide how I feel about the future of the parks; it certainly seems like they’ve gone into another period of retraction after so many years of apparent expansion. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing, either. For as much as Disney World tries to do everything, I keep finding myself having more fun and better memories from trips to Disneyland. It’s a little more casual, more spontaneous, and more accessible. (Not just in the “in the same state” sense, but in the “I can do everything I want to in a single weekend” sense). In retrospect, Disney has rarely won me over by blowing me away with spectacle; the reasons I love the parks and keep going back is because of 50 years filled with dozens of smaller moments of people being unexpectedly kind or making something needlessly charming.

Epcot from the flight home. The cloud covering most of World Showcase is a metaphor for the uncertainty of the future.