Visiting Disney World in the New Gilded Age

Conor P. Williams

Conor Williams on Twitter. More background here.

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25 Responses

  1. Saul Degraw says:

    I’ve been to Disney World once when I was 8. I barely remember it but for some people it is the best place in the world and they love going again and again. My parents were not really amusement park people so my experiences at theme parks are thin. We went to Hershey Park once, Disney World once, and that is it as a family. There were some I went to as part of summer camp/programs or school trips (8th grade went to Six Flags for the Day as a graduation nice-thing.)

    But seemingly it is a thing that parents do a lot. Also I think modern parents take their kids to the zoo more often than we went.

    I did go to the Natural History Museum, the Met, and Young People’s Concerts at Lincoln Center as a kid a lot. Maybe this is why I am like me and don’t relate to the current kinder-mania.Report

  2. Jaybird says:

    My experience of Disney was something like the above… with a handful of exceptions.

    The fireworks show over the lake at Epcot? Absolutely magical. The best fireworks show I’ve ever seen in my life (and I saw the NYC 4th of July show that they did in 1990 or 1991). It wasn’t the 4th of July or anything. It was just a magical fireworks show for park guests.

    The other was the Frozen live show. They had a live show where actors would come out and give a short bit between the footage of the movie with songs. I was a grown man surrounded by kids who were all singing “do you wanna build a snowman” and “IN SUMMMMMMMMER!” and, of course, “let it go”. It was cute. I was glad I was there with Maribou and her sister’s family and their daughter and I felt like a grown man surrounded by kids who were all singing songs from a movie I hadn’t seen and had no interest in seeing.

    But then? At the end of the show? The lady playing Elsa came out and raised her arms and it started snowing inside.

    Sure, it wasn’t *REAL* snow. It was very thinly shaved ice falling from ice shavers hidden in the ceiling…

    But it was snowing. Inside.

    Holy crap. They got me.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Jaybird says:

      There is some kind of Moore’s Law for fireworks. A municipal park can do a show today that 10 years ago would have opened an Olympics.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Pinky says:

        It’s true that I went to Epcot a little more than a decade after I saw the NYC one… but after seeing the NYC one, I was breathless. During that show, I said “that’s *GOTTA* be the finale” *SIX* times.

        And the one at Epcot was better even though it wasn’t the 4th. For them, it was Tuesday. (Or whatever day it was. Point is, it wasn’t a holiday or particularly near one.)

        Wait, wait. I just googled. It was kinda part of the 50th Anniversary. So maybe it was something special.

        Anyway, it *WAS* something special.Report

        • Jaybird in reply to Jaybird says:

          Confirmed with Maribou. May or June 2008. So 18 years. Epcot 2008 managed to outdo NYC 1990.

          Surely my AAA ball park isn’t the only one in the country to do something like Fireworks Friday Nights. Is that something that is common across the country?

          If so, when did it start?

          (I’m trying to figure out whether this version of Moore’s law operates on a time scale of 4ish years, 8ish years, or 12ish years.)Report

  3. PD Shaw says:

    We took the kids at ages 9 & 7 as a check-the-box, rite of childhood passage. Unlike my parents who took the family each time a kid turned five, meaning that as the oldest I enjoyed three trips, this would be it. We would suck the marrow out of the mouse one time only and move on to other family vacation destinations. It would be an efficient trip, and what struck me most in planning it was the efficiency with which Disney managed such huge crowds. And I was sucked-into understanding Disney’s plans in order to understand how we could enjoy all of the attractions the kids wanted to enjoy at three parks in four days. I prepared a scheduling plan, constantly refining it using constantly changing online data, weighing tips from message boards. I’m so proud of it, I still have it.

    And the night before we returned to Magic Kingdom to pick up the rides we missed and revisit favorites, I dreamed that I was floating through an underground maze on some sort of ride-boat, with paths diverging and intersecting, posing decisions and consequences. It was the greatest ride of them all.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to PD Shaw says:

      I prepared a scheduling plan, constantly refining it using constantly changing online data, weighing tips from message boards. I’m so proud of it, I still have it.

      Lol, that’s awesome. As a side note, I imagine Jason Bateman playing “the planner” in the made-for-TV version of this trip.Report

  4. Em Carpenter says:

    I never went to Disney World until I was 21-literally, I had my 21st birthday there. I went with my then-boyfriend’s family. I’ve never been back.
    After reading this piece I was inspired to start planning a trip. My kids are 8 and 11 and I feel like they should go at least once, and now, before they get any older and any less likely to enjoy the wonder of it all.
    It’s just so expensive and overwhelming.
    Thankfully, I’m up to my ears in people offering their tips and planning services.
    But rather than a full on multi-day disney adventure, I’m thinking just a day or two at Disney, and definitely Universal (because Harry Potter World) and Epcot.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to Em Carpenter says:

      My recommendation is to buy the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, which includes a section on Universal. I bought the latest edition both times we went, as well as subscribed to the related touringplans-dot-com website. Good resources to help decide what you want to do and how to manage time and money.Report

  5. Michael Cain says:

    My only Disney visit was to Disneyland in California. I went after I had finished my masters degree in operations research, along with three other adults of about the same age. Letting my inner child loose for the day was a lot of fun. What I kept noticing though, because of the degree, was all the little things they did to make the process go smoothly. Lines were handled so that you were constantly moving forward. Some of the rides ran the line through a mood-setting section (Haunted Mansion in particular). I found myself really wanting to visit the hidden parts that the engineering staff must use, particularly the underground.Report

    • Chip Daniels in reply to Michael Cain says:

      A firm I worked for was invited to bid on the engineering design for one of the periodic refurbishments of Main Street, and as part of the process, we toured the backstage areas above and behind all the shops.

      As an architect, I knew full well how the buildings were constructed and yet…There was a profound sense of disappointment to see that the backside of a stage set is, well, just a bunch of 2x4s and plywood and wiring.

      Likewise, I was walking along Hollywood Boulevard across from the Chinese Theater, where amateurs put on costumes of famous characters like Spiderman to pose with the tourists. I saw Snow White, sitting at a Coffee Bean nonchalantly smoking a cigarette and yakking on a cell phone, and it was startling, a jarring sort of juxtaposition.

      What was I expecting? I don’t know. But somehow the magnificent illusion of the place seduced me even without my being aware of it. No matter how we tell ourselves it is an illusion, the power of the storytelling is too much.

      I understand now, why Disney is so ruthless and relentless about crushing any non-approved uses of their characters.

      I kind of wish I had not seen it.Report

      • Personality flaw on my part, no doubt. I greatly enjoy experiencing the effects, but I love the smoke-and-mirrors part of it. I’ll jump at any “behind the scenes” tour I can get. I put on technology demonstrations for a few years and while the tech was real, there was a certain amount of smoke and mirrors to making it work in a hotel ballroom that I got to do. I loved the Dream Park books — the first three, at least — in part because of the sub-plots that included the smoke and mirrors. Well, and the line from the beginning of the horror ride, delivered by a disembodied voice after the elevator door had closed, that went something like, “This is the grown-up version of the ride. You’ve all signed waivers. What you may not realize is that we are allowed a certain number of… accidents per year.”Report

  6. Maribou says:

    Really enjoyed this post, Conor. Thanks for coming back around to celebrate…Report

  7. Damon says:

    I used to live in Florida so I’d been to DW several times before I was 8. I had been back once or twice post Epcot creation, and I went back once with the now ex wife since she had a business conference there. I watched the line of parents pushing strollers line up at the hotel (it was that one that had the monorail go through it) barely awake, exhausted waiting for the elevator.

    It was expensive-a 2 person dinner at a nice hotel restaurant was greater than dinner for 4 at a fancy seafood restaurant off site. I remember how everyone who served you worked to up sell you, and I remember how Disney calculated within 50 dollars how much we’d spend in 3 days–and they nailed it.

    The ex remembered how clean the place was. I don’t think I’ll ever go back. Not that there is anything wrong with it, but….I don’t have kids and I’ve seen it enough. Hell, I could stay at the El Tovar hotel at the South Rim for 150 dollars.Report

  8. veronica d says:

    I once went to Disney while on LSD with a group of (non-racist) skinheads. I imagine my experience was different from most.Report

  9. Marchmaine says:

    Yeah, Disney has really changed over the last 50-years; my folks were “early adopters” taking us there almost from the start.

    Our wrinkle was staying at Fort Wilderness (aka the camp ground). We would spend 7-10 days just at the camp ground with maybe one day at the Theme Park (and then one day at the Epcot Center)… The camp ground was the magical place for us… trams, outposts, beach, (eventually, a water park, then no water park), and access to all the Disney facilities via the marvelous (to a 10-yr old in the 70s) internal transportation system of Boats and Monorails open Trams (and busses). We were even allowed to explore everything on our own! Plus Disney movies outside every night… giant bonfires… sing alongs(!)… everything was FREE (and spotlessly clean, and [presumably] safe, and had all these tiny attention to detail things, like, piped bluegrass music from hidden speakers at various points and employees who were super friendly and helpful [or else]).

    Our last couple of trips (let me signal: on account of nostalgia by my parents wanting to get the cousins together) have confirmed that some bright MBA somewhere between 1975 and 2015 figured out you could monetize the f*ck out of Fort Wilderness. I can’t tell if the Theme Parks were less magical owing to my age, or owing to the fact that they became somewhat more conventional as thrill rides and rather less unconventional propaganda devices. The original vibe of Disney was: This is our tradition, this is how great we are now, and this is how great we will become… the propaganda was as relentless as it was genuine. I miss the old flavored propaganda.

    My other sociological comment comparing 1970 to 20teens is that they used to soft-sort the rides by Class. The good rides required the E-ticket… and you only had a couple of those… the crappy rides? Plentiful A-tickets. So what we didn’t notice was that we kept ourselves off the good rides (once our tickets were gone) so that people who bought ride books without regard for using *every* ticket could go on as many under populated E-ticket rides as they wanted. Genius, really. We had no idea. You got your one trip on 20,000 leagues under the sea and then off to the tea-cups to make room for our betters… and we did it with smiles on our faces, never seeing the people cutting in front of us.

    The one constant… the food was always terrible… like Hospital food leftovers reheated haphazardly.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to Marchmaine says:

      The feel in the 1970s was a lot different because there was one park, so the pace of the vacation was different. I think we would stay at an off-site motel three nights, and then we went to the coast to round out the week on a beach. It now probably takes five days to substantially see four parks.

      Also, the original park was more informed by classic children’s stories (though mostly versions shown on the Sunday TV show), and are being replaced by the new animated favorites and/or corporate acquisitions. We watched some of the lesser known movies related to the attractions, but didn’t get around to Swiss Family Robinson, so the poignancy of that line-ride was lost.

      The age range has expanded. Once dead space has been allocated to character signings for younger kids/ toddlers. There are now more thrill-rides for kids older than the Space Mountain crowd. The area now called Disney Springs has more adult related food, shopping and entertainment.

      I confess to finding the expansion and stickiness and all of the resulting logistical issues fascinating, but my impression is that people that go regularly operate at a different pace — checking out the attractions when the gates open, head back to the hotel around 11 AM when crowds surge for a nap or pool time, and go to a park around 4 or 5 PM when people are departing to eat off-site.Report

      • Marchmaine in reply to PD Shaw says:

        Yeah… I’m agog at all the new parks, the zoo one, Universal, the adult zone my company sent us to during corporate meetings… and the old parks are totally renovated and updated… busier, crowdeder, funer. Still a marvel to see the crowd handling techniques in action, like a self-aware lab-rat (or so I think).

        I can totally see doing what you did… the fact that Disney gives you the tools to customize and manage your vacation online is something I’d completely appreciate (and obsess over)… I’m just an odd duck whose childhood vision of Disney is a big meadow with a river, a faux trading post, and tetherball.

        Even today with all the amazing upgrades to the Theme Parks, our Park to camp ground ratio is still 3:1 days… we’d never try to do more than one or two Theme parks. For us, the main attraction still is just being inside the Disney system… the Disney vacation womb.Report

        • PD Shaw in reply to Marchmaine says:

          The funny thing is that I don’t think Disney gives any tools. The book/website I identified has people go to the parks under different crowd conditions and have people wait in line and time themselves. I think they also have people stand in particular places and count how many people they see from that vantage point, as well as time themselves walking from point A to point B.

          They eventually have official park attendance figures, but the tool has to predict future crowds based upon similar events and time of year in the past. I think they also monitor airplane tickets and certain things Disney does that tip their hand about how much of a crowd they anticipate (release of fast-pass or adding hours of operation).

          So while Disney is using big data derived from the magic bands people wear, I think the planners are developing their own models based upon public information and their own proprietary data. The planning stuff actually looks a lot like Sabermetric analysis.Report

  10. atomickristin says:

    I really enjoyed this. Very well done. Thanks for writing it.Report

  11. Slade the Leveller says:

    My wife and I went to Epcot pre-kids because we happened to be in Orlando for a wedding. That was enough to cure us of any latent Disney fever we may have had.

    I always told my kids that I was setting them up for parental success by never taking them there. They could bring their own kids to Disney, and congratulate themselves on what better parents they are than their parents were. Feel free to steal this.Report