Why Two Disneyland Vets Didn’t Love Five Days in Walt Disney World

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Update (9/8/13): Welcome to new readers arriving here because of this post. My now four-month-old analysis of our visit to Walt Disney World in Florida is currently drawing a lot of attention from current and former east-coast Cast Members. I stand behind every word in the post regarding that which I find much better at Disneyland Resort in California–food, crowd, vibe, weather, attitude of CMs and everything else discussed below. To each her or his own, and to us WDW just doesn’t measure up. I believe that which doesn’t measure up under Disney’s control stems from years of rotten management decisions, mostly under Meg Crofton, and that all of that can change for the better. I would love to see that happen. Until then, though, us two are much happier visiting Anaheim.

That said, we will probably visit WDW in the winter before our Premier Annual Passports expire to experience the Orlando parks during off-season to give the place another chance. Though there is no reason whatsoever why a WDW visit during peak season should not have been equally magical–equal magic has always been the case at whatever time of year I have visited Disneyland Resort and peak crowds and hot weather is no excuse for bad food and poorly knowledgeable CMs. If that trip happens, it will be mostly because I have a fondness for Magic Kingdom. Ryan, however, does not, so as well as being our second visit it will likely be our final one as well until things improve.  [Ed. note--In the end, we never did go back to WDW, and went to Disneyland again, instead.] 

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This is an off-topic (not specifically Jewish-themed) and epic (long) post: a trip report of the five-day stay Ryan and I just spent in Walt Disney World. We were surprised to find ourselves counting the days until we could come home to Chicago–and start planning our next Disneyland vacation. This post explains why in detail. I’m writing it for the benefit of fellow Disney park fans–especially Disneyland vets (like Ryan and myself)–who are researching the differences between the Anaheim and Orlando resorts.

However, I’m posting it here and not on the mainstream bi-coastal Disney discussion forum I belong to because experience has proven that feelings get easily hurt there when anyone criticizes the East Coast parks. I ask that you bear that in mind if you’re reading here from that community, because while I don’t intend to offend anyone, I do intend to write frankly about our experience at Walt Disney World–and why it just wasn’t for us.

This post will eventually be updated with trip photos once our PhotoPass+ CD arrives in the mail. [Ed. note--We looked so unhappy in the photos, I never bothered to post them.]

Prologue: How We Ended up At Walt Disney World Instead of Disneyland Resort

As I’ve blogged previously, although I grew up in New York and live in Chicago, I’m a long-time Disneyland Resort “vet” (the Disney fan term that identifies the resort–Disneyland or Walt Disney World–that you consider to be your “home” resort.) It’s the place where I decided to move to Chicago in 2003. It’s a place where I dragged Devyn in 2005. And in March of this year a trip there was Ryan’s 40th birthday present from me. Luckily–and happily and surprisingly to boot–Ryan loved it as much as I do.

The always amazing food (and near-universal annual passholder dining discounts), live pop-up bands, constantly roving characters, and charming ambiance–not just in Disneyland (especially our favorite land, New Orleans Square) but also in the newly re-Imagineered Disney California Adventure park, the easy 500-foot walk between the resort’s two parks, the spotlessness and over-eager trash pickers, the friendly, highly Disney-savvy Southern Californians who grew up with the place and make up the majority of visitors, the compactness, high concentration of rides and attractions, warm days and cool nights. All are part of the magic of a West Coast Disney vacation.

For Ryan’s 40th birthday, I purchased Premier Annual Passports allowing us to visit all six Disney theme parks on both coasts for a year. We had planned our next trip to be back to Disneyland Resort because Ryan loved it so much (and needed the break from his stressful job.) We figured we’d eventually make it to Walt Disney World before our passes expired. However, after unexpected fines from Cal/OSHA led Disney to close several major rides including our favorites (Space Mountain–mine–and Soarin’ Over California–Ryan’s) for an undetermined period to improve the safety of after-hours maintenance workers,  we decided to change our already-purchased plane tickets to Orlando. Team Disney Anaheim eventually re-opened those rides before our trip, but we kept our WDW plans in place.

We both looked forward to seeing the East Coast parks, I especially, since they were my first Disney-parks experience. At the age of three, my sister took me to a two-year-old Magic Kingdom in 1973. Later, in 1977, my Aunt Juanita and Uncle Ron drove their clan with me included down to Florida, where I took my first ride on the brand-new Space Mountain. Though I’ve been to Disneyland Paris (in 2000), 1977 was my last time in “the World” and I was very curious to see Magic Kingdom again.

How We Spent Our Time at Walt Disney World

This trip report isn’t chronological because the things we learned and felt on our trip mostly happened–or built up–on each day we were at WDW. But for the record, here’s how we spent our primary park time–you’ll be able to tell the point at which we just kind of gave up and stuck with the familiar:

  • Day One: Magic Kingdom
  • Day Two: Epcot
  • Day Three: Disney’s Hollywood Studios
  • Day Four: Magic Kingdom
  • Day Five: Magic Kingdom

The Good: What We Liked at Walt Disney World

Now to be clear, we didn’t dislike everything about Walt Disney World. In fact, some things we liked a lot…

We loved the free Magical Express airport transfer coach (versus the $32 round-trip on Disneyland Resort Express), and the associated luggage service that delivers your bags to your room from the airport for you (a service which isn’t available on the west coast.) Checking our bags at our resort hotel for the trip back was a great stress-saver too, and again isn’t something Disney offers in California.

We didn’t have much of a problem with Disney’s on-property bus service, which is necessary to get anywhere if you don’t have a car, given WDW’s great size. In five days we collectively had two or three longish waits, and several waits of five minutes or less. Though we did have a few issues with people not used to riding buses taking up additional seats or blocking the aisle, but then again everyone else on the bus had to put up with these people, too. (On one bus, a father had to tell an older teenager to stop using his son’s wheelchair as a footrest.)

We enjoyed the over-the-top theming, thorough “mousekeeping”, beautiful, lakeside grounds, and exclusive bus service of our “value resort”, Pop Century.

We loved charging everything back to our room with our RFID-enabled “Key to the World” keycards. The simple tap-and-PIN system made purchases a breeze. We also loved paying down our room charges with pre-bought Disney Gift Cards (an easy way to “silo-off” Disney vacation monies to make sure you don’t overdo things on your credit or debit cards.)

We thought the new RFID-enabled “open turnstiles” were amazing. Once we got to WDW we were able to convert our existing standard passes to RFID passes (that still work at Disneyland), and after that it was just “tap until the Mickey light spins and touch your fingerprint until Mickey turns green” and walk into the parks. I wish Disneyland had this easy-peasy entrance system already.

We loved (loved) Wifi being enabled *everywhere*. In the parks–outside, inside, and in ride buildings. At the resort hotels–outside, inside, and in rooms. Disneyland has nothing like this and it sure made using Disney and third-party visit-planning apps without running down your phone battery easily possible.

We very much enjoyed attractions that, at least to us, were clearly better in Orlando, including a longer Haunted Mansion, a slower Splash Mountain with a wider ride vehicle, and a more robust Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with real airtime. (Sorry, East Coast Tower of Terror fans, we thought the much-touted “Fifth Dimension room” ruined the ride’s pacing versus the “ghosts drop then you drop” suspense of the California version.) We also liked the original attractions that aren’t in Disneyland anymore, including the Country Bear Jamboree, the Carousel of Progress, and the People Mover.

I personally (Ryan not so much) loved riding the grandfather of all Space Mountains. Yes, it’s rougher and less thrilling than Disneyland’s version. Yes, the starfield effects are nowhere near as good. Yes, I broke my glasses in the exit station. And yes, I rode every chance I got and each time was a blast. (Then again, I grew up riding the Coney Island Cyclone learning to hold on with my knees, so I already knew how to brace myself on a rough coaster.)

And though my beloved peanut brittle is absent from Magic Kingdom’s Main Street U.S.A., Mickey crisped rice treats were happily eaten every night we were at WDW.

The Bad: What We Didn’t Like at Walt Disney World

Ultimately for us, though, there was a lot more we didn’t like at WDW. The following section is the reason I decided not to put my trip report on the DIS boards. So if you’re a WDW vet, as I said earlier, I’m going to be frank here about our experience of the things we didn’t like in the World. Some of this is chance and some of this is unchangeable. But a lot of this I feel is due to a different–and as I see it, lacking–management culture in Orlando (that I’ll talk about at the end of this post). At times we really found ourselves pulling for the World, and it was maddening to realize that much of what we found disappointing wasn’t at all inherent in WDW, itself, but was put there by Team Disney Orlando’s corporate culture…

We hated the weather. Ninety degrees and an extremity-swelling level of humidity, going down to 80 degrees with the same humidity at night, just isn’t for us. We longed for Disneyland’s warm, dry t-shirt days and cool, breezy hoodie evenings. Not something anyone can control without completely avoiding visiting during summer, so lesson learned here.

We disliked the guest vibe–or more specifically the guest-behavior vibe. We knew going in that WDW guests are once-a-year or even once-in-a-lifetime guests, often entire extended families, and often from other countries. Maybe it was the heat or the great distances or other elements that we didn’t like about WDW, either. Or maybe it’s a cultural thing. I warned Ryan that my fellow northeasterners might act rudely (oh boy, how some of them did!) and that many people on the DIS boards complain about the rudeness of Brazilian guests (again, after five days in the World, no argument there!) I guess WDW is a place where lots of cultures clash, often in a jarring manner, and where it’s very easy–and very common–to melt down. (Several times, we definitely did.)

Whatever the reasons, though, we constantly witnessed–or had aimed at us–really bad guest behavior that you don’t often see at Disneyland. Just an overall air of rudeness and “me and my kids come first” everywhere we went. Parents threatening and screaming and cursing at their kids. People pushing other people out of the way on pathways and in queues. Line jumping. Arguing with Cast Memembers. Ignoring Cast Members. Attempting to change seats on rides after the restraints are locked. Dozens and dozens of flash pictures taken throughout indoor/dark rides. (This was an immense peeve, as it’s something I have *never* witnessed at Disneyland Resort. Not once.) That’s not how people act at Disneyland. There, guests of all ages know intimately and love the parks. They rarely treat each other or the parks the way WDW guests do because they live there. They feel a sense of ownership. The lack of this sense of ownership by visitors was a real WDW downer for us. I can’t tell you how much we missed being surrounded by Southern Californians during our five WDW days.

In return, I suppose, for the above behavior, we also witnessed lots of surly behavior on the part of Cast Members. So many times before our trip I read reports from WDW vets complaning about lack of a magical vibe from West Coast CMs. However, I’ve never witnessed West Coast CMs yelling at guests, ignoring guests, ordering guests around without please and thank you, not knowing simple answers about the parks and shrugging their shoulders, or just so obviously phoning it in and hating their jobs.

But from ride staff to restaurant staff, we never knew how friendly, knowledgeable, or otherwise “magical” a Walt Disney World CM would be with us. At Disneyland, CMs overall are very knowledgeable, very polite, and very into the vibe. Maybe you have to be a regular DLR visitor to get that vibe. (Disneyland CM’s can be very tongue-in-cheek, which goes over very well there because the basic assumption is that both they and the guests love the park.) But hearing various versions of “I don’t know” and “move the line NOW!” for five days from Walt Disney World CMs was very much not a magical experience for us.

We didn’t like how spread out WDW’s four parks are. Not at all. WDW vets often cite WDW’s greater size (the World is about the size of San Francisco while Disneyland Resort is about the size of Golden Gate Park) as evidence that WDW is “better”. It’s not a contest, but if it were, bigger is not always better. It’s just always bigger. People familiar with the Anaheim and Orlando resorts will tell you, there are just about the same number of rides and attractions in Disneyland Resort’s two smaller parks as there are in Walt Disney World’s four larger parks. That means that the convenient strolls from ride to ride DLR vets enjoy in California are often commando marches in Florida through sweltering humidity from one side of a park to the other–or off on a 30 to 45-minute bus or monorail journey to another park entirely. Not fun at all. It’s also worth noting that DLR may be smaller, but it is, of course, in the middle of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Anything you can do in WDW you can do in L.A. That may break the Disney “bubble” that WDW vets enjoy, but as I note further below, that bubble can be a liability, too.

I also don’t agree with all the things I’ve read about the “benefit” of Magic Kingdom’s wider walkways. Crowded is crowded at MK or anywhere else, and the park definitely has its pinch points, just in different places than Disneyland does (the western sides of Fantasyland and Frontierland at MK versus Adventureland and the Hub at Disneyland.) And when we ended up at MK on this year’s 24-hour night, wider walkways or not, we were still led from the Hub to Town Square via backstage in order to avoid punishing crowds along Main Street. It was a sad walk, too–backstage on Main Street we got to see all the Main Street vehicles they never run anymore at Magic Kingdom (unlike at Disneyland, where the Main Street vehicles always run) stored in their lonely parking bays.

What we found worst about the diluted nature of the East Coast parks was what is in-between those far-apart attractions: shops, shops, and more shops, and occasionally a really bad counter-service restaurant (I’ll get to those soon.) At DLR located between rides and attractions are usually other rides and attractions. Yes, Disneyland and California Adventure both have an immense amount of merchandising in them. But you never get the feeling that you get at Walt Disney World that merchandising is the primary reason for the existence of the parks (and especially of Epcot’s World Showcase and just about all of Disney’s Hollywood Studios.)

We also encountered many instances of bad show maintenance. Yes, Space Mountain at Disneyland has all those blue lights dark in the hyperspace tunnel. Yes, WDW has some well-maintained attractions. Still, imagine four parks filled with rides with broken show–that’s WDW. Everywhere we went in the parks we saw peeling paint, chipped railings, badly painted and repainted walls (especially the atrociously bad repainting of the black walls in it’s a small world’s Hawaii room), air ducts covered with mold, broken audio-animatronics, grimy ride and attraction interiors, show elements simply turned off, duct-taped ride seats and orange cones marking off broken ride vehicles (seriously, WDW?) It was pathetic to experience and just screamed “we don’t care about the show experience at WDW”. There’s really no other takeaway from things like this in a Disney park, and from a West Coast perspective it’s just not excusable.

In addition, we often saw trash just laying there–on walkways, outside restaurants, piling on top of garbage cans, littering queues, and even tossed inside ride buildings. At Disneyland Resort, trash seems to be picked up almost before it hits the ground, the West Coast parks are that spotless. At WDW, and especially at Magic Kingdom, it’s just another world. Trash pickers didn’t seem to have any sense of urgency (not at all), and we’d watch the trash just sit and sit. At one point, I counted more than two dozen discarded water and soda bottles littering an elevated pre-show area in the Space Mountain queue. From a Disneyland perspective, it was quite a shock. Disneyland gets 95% of the guest volume that Magic Kingdom does and still manages to remain almost spotless. Again, there’s just no excuse for this.

But the worst shock–and worst part of our trip–was the food. It’s bad. Really bad. Counter-service (casual) dining everywhere we went in the World–our resort hotel, our neighboring resort hotel, the parks we visited–was almost uniformly bad and occasionally disgusting. We know many WDW vets don’t agree. Some would tell us we should have reserved Table-Service meals at sit-down restaurants, but we don’t think you should have to make ADRs (and plan out your vacation months in advance) just to *save* yourself from Walt Disney World’s regular food options. Other WDW fans might point out the few good in-park counter-service options (MK’s Columbia Harbor House, Epcot’s Sunshine Seasons), but who wants to eat the same thing every day? Not to mention, who wants to slog all the way across MK or Epcot for the one good food option?

We’re former Six Flags annual passholders, so we know rotten food when we eat it. Most of what we ate in the World was worse than Six Flags food, and that’s saying a lot. Most food was poorly prepared, often cold, and filled with obviously low-grade commercial catering ingredients. It was also the same bad food everywhere we went. Over the course of five days it became very obvious that this was another area Team Disney Orlando decided to value-engineer, and it made staying on property in the Disney “bubble” a gastronomic nightmare. We pretty much dreaded meal time in the World, and with no exaggeration I tell you our best meal in Orlando was at the airport McDonald’s while waiting for our flight home.

Disneyland Resort food, on the other hand, is fabulous. It’s always good, often seeming gourmet (which is a neat trick with common kitchens), and far more varied than WDW’s everywhere-you-go mediocre burgers, pizza, and bready hot dogs. I can’t emphasize this enough, and don’t know how to explain it if you’ve never been to Disneyland Resort. People go on dates at Disneyland to eat this food and soak up the ambiance. People laze at tables at Disneyland over this food. People run from one side of each park to the other so they don’t miss all their favorite foods in Anaheim. This entire, decades-old, inexpensive, no reservation required, casual foodie scene is absent–totally and unequivocally absent–in Walt Disney World. And again I have to ask, why?

Adding all of the above together, apparently you end up with Epcot, and what a surprise it was to experience the place. We absolutely had an intense negative reaction to Epcot. Oh boy, we hated it. We didn’t expect to, but we did. Everything is such a deliberately long, sunny walk from everything else there. So much of Future World is painfully outdated or in desperate need of refurbishing. Ellen’s (early 90s) Energy Adventure touting 20-year-old science? The filth and bad lighting in the main tank at The Seas with Nemo and Friends–not to mention the Nemo overlay on the main ride that removed actual science content (and much of which was broken)? The broken video screens outside Turtle Talk with Crush? The ridiculous Tron overlay at Test Track that removed the science/engineering story *entirely*? The let’s-be-drunk-in-front-of-our-kids (because there’s nothing else to do) vibe of World Showcase? We kept waiting for it to get better at Epcot. We left really disappointed. Comparing the state of Future World, especially, with science attractions here in Chicago, we found it laughable that Disney would charge people for a far worse science/learning experience than many of us can have back home without taking the expensive trip to Orlando. The current state of Epcot is is not the best Disney can do. Not by a long shot.

Finally, and on a personal note, I’ve often read first-time Disneyland trip reports from WDW vets grousing about how comparatively short Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle is versus Magic Kingdom’s Cinderella Castle. (Not to mention Disneyland having somewhat shorter and less elaborate Main Street U.S.A. buildings.) A recent such trip report I read said “no one cries over this castle.” On the contrary, I think we all have an emotional attachment to our “home park” castle. Many people definitely do cry upon leaving Disneyland on the last night of a trip, looking longingly back at our beautiful, pink castle. Often me included. I just don’t get what all the fuss over a taller castle is about. MK’s castle is tall, but it’s also a lot blander than Disneyland’s, and with all those loud, repetitive castle stage shows, you can seldom really get near it. It just didn’t resonate with me the way that Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle does. Certainly not just because it’s taller. I kept looking at the castle in MK and thinking, “And..?” as if it might roll over or fetch or do something interesting. Nope. Just taller.

How We Explain Our WDW Experience

In the end, Ryan and I discovered that while there were things we enjoyed at Walt Disney World, overall some important core elements of the Disney “magic” we experience at Disneyland Resort in California were lacking in quality–sometimes significantly–or just completely absent in Florida. No one is to blame for the weather and people will be people, in the parks our outside of them. And nothing can change the spread out, overly-large nature of Disney’s four Orlando parks.

But persistently crummy food, surly CMs, ever-present litter, and widespread shoddy show maintenance are inexcusable in a Disney park. To the WDW vets who don’t see these things as being problems in Orlando, all I have to say is visit the Anaheim parks once in a while. The experience in these regards is like night and day and not in Walt Disney World’s favor. These four things made us feel like we had taken a five-day vacation to Six Flags–and I mean that literally. We became Disney Premier Annual Passport-holders to get away from these exact four things at our local Six Flags park in the Chicago area. We encounter them rarely in Anaheim. They seem to be the baseline experience in Orlando.

I’ll also backtrack a little and say the spread out nature of the Orlando parks is changeable. It would take Team Disney Orlando deciding to concentrate rides and attractions in each park and to rock back the dial on the super hard-sell of merchandise.

Fat chance? Maybe not.

All of this comes down to management decisions, and all of it is fixable. Disneyland Resort went through a similar diminution in the baseline guest experience in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The controversial Paul Pressler/Cynthia Harris era of DLR park management saw maintenance take a back seat to merchandising, and regular guests complained, a lot. Their management background was retail (The Gap), and it showed. Harris replaced Pressler but kept his management style in place. But eventually Matt Ouimet became Disneyland Resort president. He and his successor, George Kalogridis, reversed many of the show-detrimental management decisions of Pressler and Harris, and returned a lot of “magic” to DLR, especially in the above four areas, as well as lessening the merchandising emphasis that Pressler and Harris had brought with them. DLR regulars will readily tell you (myself included!) they felt a positive change in the parks.

Unfortunately, as Disneyland Resort put its magic back together, the equally controversial Meg Crofton, as president of Walt Disney World Resort, put in place in Orlando basically the same mediocre management culture with which Pressler and Harris damaged Disneyland Resort. At WDW under Crofton, hourly rider throughput became far more important than fixing show or picking up trash or maintaining the dining standards. (After all, since most WDW guests visit so rarely, who would bother to notice or complain?) Google any Disney fan board and you can read complaint after complaint about bad show in the Orlando parks–complaints just like the ones I listed above for Ryan and me.

Would We Ever Go Back?

Earlier this year, Disney replaced Meg Crofton with Kalogridis. While Disney regularly shuffles its executives around the country, Kalogridis is the person who oversaw the spectacularly successful $1 billion re-Imagineering of Anaheim’s California Adventure park (including opening Cars Land). Moreover, last August Disney sent Cars Land’s lead designer, Kathy Magnum, to Orlando to head Walt Disney World Imagineering. So the chatter seems to be that maybe Disney’s board finally realized that Crofton’s profiteering at the expense of the guest experience was damaging the brand’s magic and wanted to see if the West Coast management team could improve things in Orlando.

I certainly hope that’s the case. Walt Disney World is a magical place that used to be much more magical and can be again. Main Street deserves to have its vehicles out and running. Small World and Space Mountain deserve to have all those discarded water bottles finally picked up. Guests deserve to eat food that doesn’t remind them of bad mall food courts. CMs deserve to be proud of their jobs. Ellen deserves an updated Energy Adventure. The People Mover deserves not to have broken seats–much less broken seats guarded by orange cones. WDW didn’t begin this way–it became this way through bad management decisions that almost ruined Disneyland Resort, too.

Ryan and I would go back to WDW to experience the things we already like about it. But we’d go expecting to experience a lot of mediocre things, too. At least until Kalogridis can get things worked out. Someday, we’d like to be able to have the same enthusiasm for the Florida resort as we have for the Calfornia resort.

More than likely, though, we’ll just keep going back to Disneyland Resort until we hear news of positive change in Orlando. While we were in Orlando we could not wait to come home from Walt Disney World. While we were in Anaheim we could not wait to plan our next Disneyland trip and come back.

WDW vets like to say that in a comparison of Disneyland and Magic Kingdom, the Anaheim park is better, but in a resort-to-resort comparison, Walt Disney World is better. I beg to differ. Bigger is just not better if the magic’s hard to find. When we set out on our WDW adventure, we expected that afterward we’d want to split our Disney trips between Anaheim and Orlando. But instead, we two Disneyland vets learned a very important lesson.

Sometimes smaller is better.

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