Why Two Disneyland Vets Loved Five Days in Walt Disney World, After All

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This is an epic-length, long-in-coming follow-up to the most controversial post I ever-published here on Chicago Carless: my 2013 epic analysis of Disney’s Orlando, Florida, theme parks, “Why Two Disneyland Vets Didn’t Love Five Days in Walt Disney World”. We sure didn’t at the time, but we always said we’d be back to give the Orlando parks another try. Last month we finally returned to Walt Disney World, and in this post I’m happy to eat many of my previous words. Our 2016 Disney World trip was phenomenal. In the three years since our last trip, we felt a change in the place. And in ourselves, as well.

So What Happened Last Time?

The fullest background is in my 2013 post, which I invite you to read. In fan terms, my partner, Ryan, and I are “vets” of Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California. Our “home” Disney parks are Anaheim’s Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure. After several trips together, we’re very used to the high level of show, good maintenance, Cast Member (aka CM) professionalism, and overall magic of a west coast Disney vacation.

Three years ago, though, it didn’t feel like we found very much of those things in Disney’s east coast parks. During our first adult visit together to Walt Disney World, were so disappointed that I wrote at length about the differences we encountered, the culture shock in quality, that Ryan and I felt not to be in Disney World’s favor. They key items that surprised us in terms of lesser quality in 2013 at Disney’s larger vacation destination:

    • Maintenance (the state of repair and cleanliness of the guest-facing environment, including ride maintenance);
    • Show (the quality and consistency of story-telling, theming, and guest convenience);
    • Food service (quick service restaurants in particular); and
    • Cast Member friendliness and engagement.

We were also shocked by the sultry, Central Florida summer weather that feels like you’re vacationing in a sauna on the surface of the sun. It’s obviously a thing not under Disney’s control, but it’s impactful all the same—especially when you’re touring through the massive walking distances and lack of shade at parks like Epcot or Magic Kingdom.

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The post was picked up by Cast Member social media, and quickly became a flashpoint of debate between visitors like us who felt something had gone wrong with the management of Walt Disney World, and a vocal group of current and former Disney World Cast Members—many of whom had never visited Disneyland—who had a hard time believing that anyone could have a bad experience in the Florida parks.

Not only did we honestly write about our experience, but there was a follow-on issue affecting our next Disneyland trip a few months later that wasn’t shared in my original post. Our 2013 Disney World trip was made possible in part by the (once-in-a-lifetime, nosebleed-expensive) Premier annual passes I had bought for Ryan’s 40th birthday earlier that year at Disneyland that allowed access to all American Disney parks on both coasts. Because Walt Disney World’s “NextGen” technology initiative was beginning to roll out during our visit there, Guest Services in Orlando required us to upgrade our standard Premier pass cards to RFID chip-enabled smart cards.

Due to database-syncing issues between the Anaheim and Orlando parks, the bar codes on our “upgraded” smart cards never worked at Disneyland, generating hours of difficulty on our next Disneyland trip. As explained to us by multiple Disneyland Guest Services CMs who had been dealing with the problem for other Premier passholders all year, the culprit was poor database management practices at Walt Disney World. As a result, every time we entered a park or asked for a passholder food or merchandise discount on our next trip to Anaheim, we had to wait for up to 10 minutes for a Guest Services CM to arrive and fix things.

So in 2013, for us, our Walt Disney World trip was essentially the unwanted gift that just kept on giving. Ultimately, we were so unimpressed with our Orlando experience and its after effects that:

      • Our next three Disney trips were all to Disneyland Resort;
      • We wrote a thank-you letter to Disneyland Resort Guest Services about our awful Orlando experience, expressing gratitude to the many Disneyland CMs who helped us deal with our dead-in-the-water smart cards;
      • We received a complimentary three-night stay at Disneyland Resort’s flagship Grand Californian Hotel (make a mental note of this) for our troubles, as well as a phone call from Disneyland Guest Services headquarters telling us they’d heard it all before about Disney World; and
      • Although we said we’d eventually give Disney World another chance, every time we talked about doing so, we just remembered our 2013 experience, shuddered, and dropped the subject.

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Sounds Like You Hated It. Why the Heck Did You Go Back?

Yeah, we kind of did hate the experience. But I also came home with a great affection for Magic Kingdom as the alternate-reality Disneyland. And 2016 has been a personally stressful year for Ryan and me. We needed to get away together, just us alone. We wanted a Disney vacation, but we didn’t want to deal with the major impacts happening at Disneyland due to the construction of a new Star Wars Land there. We priced competing stays at Disneyland and Disney World, and the Orlando resort came out ahead.

We were on the fence—and then we thought about our experience at the Grand Californian Hotel. (You made that mental note, right?) Much to our surprise, our 2014 pixie-dusted free stay at Disneyland’s flagship hotel turned into an experience as awful as our 2013 Walt Disney World trip. How awful? Among many other issues, live roach crawling out from from under the bed that we brough to the front desk in a drinking glass awful.

After the Grand Californian fiasco—the yuck of which we washed away by staying at the always-magical Disneyland Hotel two months later on our own dime—we realized that if it was possible to have a rotten time at our otherwise magical home resort of Disneyland, maybe one yucky trip to Walt Disney World didn’t adequately measure the potential magic of that place, either. So we decided on an Orlando do-over and set our minds on seeking out the magic of Walt Disney World once and for all.

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You Mean I Can Reserve a Ride on Haunted Mansion from Home?

We planned our trip with open minds. We went in deciding that we were going to search for things to love about Walt Disney World, no matter what. We wanted to give ourselves over to the full experience. We booked a deluxe room at Yacht Club—a resort in the shadow of Epcot, our 2013 nemesis park (Ryan almost ended up at First Aid with heat stroke there), but with the best and largest pool complex on Disney World property.

When a tropical storm took aim at Florida (and then happily never arrived), we decided we would commando the parks in ponchos until we were confined to our rooms, if need be, instead of canceling our trip. As non-first-timers, we knew there wouldn’t be any more Disneyland-vs.-Disney World culture shock. But just to make sure, we also didn’t set our expectations as high as previously. This time, we were prepared to allow leeway for a potentially less magical vacation than we usually experience at Disneyland.

That’s why the delightfulness of the My Disney Experince (MDE) app and FastPass+ took us by surprise. When we last visited the Orlando parks, Disney’s multi-billion dollar “NextGen” technology project had not yet fully rolled out. I remember complaining at the time on fan forums that advance ride reservations, everything in an app, and the need to wear a plastic MagicBand around your wrist like an electronic cow bell would suck all the fun out of a Disney World trip.

How wrong I was.

Before our Disney World trip in 2013, all we could do was write down the things we wanted to do with pen and paper. This year, being able to use the MDE app to make key ride reservations for our entire trip before leaving home, not to mention Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs), MagicBand customizations, room requests, and online check-in, was something else. And that something else, to our happy shock, was magical.

When an amazing deal appeared for Coronado Springs Resort, a mid-level Moderate resort, that would allow us to save half our lodging costs, we ditched our deluxe room in the shadow of Epcot for a larger, more relaxed resort with the second best pool on property. (Three words: Mayan pyramid waterfall.) I figured if things went well, maybe we’d use the money we saved to upgrade our tickets to annual passes. At that point, though, we would have been shocked to enjoy Disney World enough to actually come home as annual passholders. We really just wanted to have a nice time and not hate the place anymore.

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Toto, We’re Not in 2013 Disney World Anymore

Disney’s complimentary Magical Express motorcoach airport transfer with through-checking of baggage from our home airport to our resort room was something we loved on our last trip to the World, and a novelty for us since Disneyland Resort offers no such free airport transfer for onsite guests. We loved it even more this time, since check-in for your bus ride is via tapping your MagicBand. They call them MagicBands for a reason. Checking-in via a wrist tap felt amazingly futuristic, and set the tone for how we would end up feeling about a lot of our visit.

We learned the hard way in 2013 that Disney World’s entry-level Value resorts were not our style. Back then, we enjoyed Pop Century Resort’s affordability and unshared bus service to the parks, but felt limited by the relative lack of services and amenities for such a large (2,800-room) resort—and endlessly annoyed by the unsupervised children running amock everywhere. (Admittedly an issue that can happen at any Disney resort, but boy did it happen big time while we were at Pop.)

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This time,  right from the moment we arrived, we were blown away by the chill vibe, services, and amenities at Coronado Springs Resort. We changed our reservation from the Deluxe Yacht Club to this Moderate resort on the strength of reviews from the Coronado Springs Buzz Facebook fan page and Tom Bricker’s Disney Tourist Blog, which celebrated Coronado Springs as having Deluxe-level services at Moderate prices by dint of its nature as one of Walt Disney World’s primary convention facilities.

They weren’t kidding. An excellent food court, two table-service dining options, a lakeside bar, a day-and-evening-long pool bar with a food menu, and that aforementioned and enormous Mayan pyramid main pool taken together were phenomenal. Most relevatory was the food court, which gave us our first inkling that quick-service dining options had improved in quality from the highly value-engineered days of 2013. Three years ago, we came to feel trapped by giant, bready buns and tasteless, low-end ingredients at quick service eateries throughout Walt Disney World. But much like our immediate glee with our MagicBands, our first meal at Coronado Springs hinted to us that something had shifted in Orlando since the last time we were there.

The fact that we had paid for a standard room but had been pixie-dusted up to a preferred-location room helped, too. As did the fact that, although for years I thought Tom Bricker was crazy for loving the large, spread-out nature of Disney World’s Moderate resorts, as it turned out, Ryan and I very much loved that very thing about Coronado Springs, too. Bricker’s right. There’s something about an amazingly themed, amply elbow-roomy resort surrounding a central lake that just says, “Get lost!” to the outside world in the best way possible.

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Eventually you have to hit the parks, though. Our pleasant surprises continued when we did. Coronado Springs is a bus-only resort, and the Disney bus system gets a lot of guff from people used to driving everywhere in their normal lives. Speaking as a lifelong resident of major cities with major transit systems, even in 2013 I thought that Disney World’s bus sytem worked beautifully. Mostly short waits, just a few long ones, clean and air-conditioned buses, and well-signed stops. It was the same this year, with the benefit of Coronado Spring’s weather-protected bus stops and single-resort bus service. So, bright spot last time, bright spot this time.

We hit all four parks multiple times, including multiple rope drops, mornings, and afternoons, though this time only one evening. (Because of the aforementioned goodness of Coronado’s amazing pool after dark.) I won’t go into a day-by-day, hour-by-hour retread of our park visits because if you’re reading this, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom are more than likely not foreign words to you.

The point is, we hit them all, and I in particular hit them especially hard. We expected a mixed bag of repair and show like last time. Instead, we encountered spiff and shine reminscent of Disneyland—and very much not like our 2013 experience. Ride vehicles were in good repair. Show buildings were clean and well kempt. The existentially painful kinks in Space Mountain that remained after the half-hearted 2009 ride refurbishment were gone (thanks to wisely placed brake courses in male-unfriendly trouble spots.) You could clearly hear the Ghost Host on Haunted Mansion. The layer of grime was gone from Tower of Terror’s fifth dimension room.

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Neither did we encounter the overflowing trash cans, trash-littered planters, or piles of trash on quick service tables and in ride queues like we saw in 2013. Not we didn’t encounter as many of them. We didn’t encounter them at all. What we encountered, instead, were active trash-collecter CMs in all four parks. They were ever-present this year. We barely saw them last time.

Dining in the parks—all of them—was as revelatory as it was at our resort. We never forget the giant, bready buns surrounding miniscule burgers and hot dogs from three years ago. Yes, I’m mentioning them again. You have no idea how many times we’ve mentioned them to friends since 2013. Where did they go? Wherever they went, keep them there. We were well aware we weren’t eating the same food as three years ago, when we said the best quick service meal we had in Orlando was at the airport McDonald’s waiting for our flight home. When a Central Florida resident in line at a quick service eatery told us how annoyed locals were when Disney dumbed down the food service. This was the one area we dreaded the most in returning to Walt Disney World.

Instead, quick service was just fine this trip. Never bad, occasionally very good, and a positive aspect of our visit. So was table service. (I can easily see myself happily eating my way through Hollywood Studios and Epcot.) We felt like we were eating in Disneyland, where no one ever complains about the food—because it’s just good food. And it astounded us.

The CMs I’ll talk about them a little later because I need to work up to them. But for now, let me say that in terms of Cast Members, everywhere we went yet again we felt like we were visiting a different Walt Disney World in 2016 than the one we visited in 2013. A happier, better one.

Hmm. Something’s going on here, huh? We weren’t sure what it was, yet. But we liked it. A lot.

Which brings me to technology. And I could stay right here and bask in that technology all day long. The more than a billion dollars Disney spent over the past few years developing and rolling out its “NextGen” system of RFID chip-enabled tech was well worth it. A feature on the technology last year in Wired noted that Disney’s goal was to smooth out the points of friction for Walt Disney World guests. I remember them well from 2013: waiting in long lines; crossing a park from one side to another to pull a paper FastPass; juggling multiple tickets, FastPasses, key cards, and IDs; having limited ability to plan in advance from home except with paper and pen.

Three years later, being able to plan and manage every aspect of a Walt Disney World vacation—including all tickets, photos, and resort, ride, and dining reservations for your entire party—both in advance and in real-time, from the awesomely responsive My Disney Experience smart-phone app felt technologically just right for 2016.

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But it’s MagicBands that really live up to their name. Being able to use a single, colorful, comfortable, RFID-enabled wristband to check-in for your Disney’s Magical Express bus ride from the airport, enter your resort room, enter the theme parks, retrieve all Photopass photographer and ride photos, and charge all food, drink, and merchandise purchases back to your room was fantastic. Tap the Mickey on the MagicBand to the Mickey on the MagicBand reader, and you’re good to go. No reaching into pocket or purse to pull out a wallet. No wondering where you left your park-hopper ticket or when your FastPass receipts blew away. No taking it off to go swimming, either—perhaps the most magical MagicBand aspect of all.

MDE and MagicBands created an ease of planning and vacation management for us that we’ve never, ever experienced before, and eliminated a lot of the stress-inducing aspects of a Walt Disney World vacation. We want more, please. In fact, we’re dreading our next trip to Disneyland a little, because, unlike originally planned, MagicBands won’t be rolled out in the Anaheim parks. And as much as we love the Anaheim parks, and as chill as we think they are as compared to the manic vibe that often exudes from the Orlando parks, we think Walt Disney World’s NextGen technology in some significant ways actually makes Disney World easier to relax in than Disneyland.

I can’t tell you how guilty just writing that makes me feel. As if I’m betraying my beloved home park. But it’s the truth.

As for that heat and humidity we complained about in 2013? We visited in the summer this year, too, so of course Disney World felt like a sauna on the surface of the sun once again. The permanent sweat stress was mitigated somewhat by the time of year. Our mulligan visit was in late August when most kids had gone back to school, leading to less crowded parks that made “Sweaty Disney” somewhat easier to deal with.

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But something curious also happened that blew Ryan’s mind—and mine, too. I started to show my roots. Most of my extended (though mostly unknown) family lives in Florida. Most of my legacy family came through Florida on their way to New York. My roots have always included both NYC and the Floridian Atlantic coast. The evening Ryan came back to the resort room and found me leaving the door open with the AC off to let in the 85-degree, arch-humid air, he thought I was trying to kill him. He and humidity aren’t friends at all. But I spent five days in the swampy Central Florida air loving it. The thickness of the air. The way the humidity hugs you. The way it turns itself into towering clouds that grow to amazing heights, only to tumble down every afternoon at three.

It humbled me to not only be falling for Disney World but to be falling for Florida, too. I know I’m in the minority on the sultry summer weather. That’s ok. More for me.

Wait. What? Did I really just say I was falling for Disney World?

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Nothing’s Perfect. Some Things Had to Go Wrong This Time, Right?

True enough. But not to any out of the ordinary extreme this time, and that really spoke to us.

Our room phone never worked through all five days of our stay at Coronado Springs, and on our final day, a water-main break unexpectedly cut off all water to the resort for a couple of hours. The front desk handled both issues well. A third-party contractor never got their act together to fix our phone, though the front desk had scheduled them to do so. On our last day, due to the phone and water issues, Coronado’s Guest Experience manager comped us a free night on our folio. Not at the highly discounted rate we orignally paid for a standard room, either. At the full rack rate value of the preferred room to which we were unexpectedly upgraded—something we didn’t ask for, and which really floored us.

We still encountered a few checked-out CMs, but that’s to be expected anywhere because people are people. They were far fewer in number than last time, though—and this time, no CM was outright rude to us or to anyone else in our presence, either.

My Be Our Guest (BOG) lunch experience in Magic Kingdom was a negative one. The signature restaurant in New Fantasyland has amazing Beauty and the Beast theming. But a staff error happened when I arrived that deprived me of instructions on how dining there works. I had pre-ordered my food online, but the check-in host forgot to tell me I needed to get my own silverware and beverage, or where to find them in the enormous dining rooms. By the time I figured it out on my own and went to retrieve them, my food arrived and got cold while I was up from my table, and a neighboring diner blocked access to my chair so I couldn’t sit back down. It felt so unmagical—and, frankly, weird—that I complained. I received a full refund and two anytime FastPasses which I didnt ask for, and ate at Cosmic Ray’s, instead, while watching Sonny Eclipse. Lesson learned, and unlike 2013, it was my only bad dining experience, and involved a service error, not the food, itself.

And, yes, we encountered bad show. But just like my food service issue, it wasn’t systemic this time. Instead of orange cones and ripped seats on the People Mover and Haunted Mansion, a grimy fifth-dimension room, dirty marine-life tanks in The Seas pavillion, and mold encasing the HVAC ducts in the it’s a small world queue area, the entirety of really bad show we encountered this time was in only one place. The post-ride video lab area of Spaceship Earth. All the video screens for viewing your ride photo were depressingly covered in old, dog-eared, “This Terminal Not Working” signs. Those dead video screens aren’t Team Disney Orlando’s best onstage moment, by any means. But in five days, unlike 2013, this time that’s all the bad show we encountered. Frankly, you can see more bad show at Disneyland throughout the seemingly never-adequately-repaired bayou scene in Splash Mountain, and that’s saying a lot.

So we’re not complaining. We’ve had similar one-off issues at Disneyland Resort. No big deal. And this time, none of it dampened the overall magic.

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But Wouldn’t a Five-Day Visit (or Two) Be Too Short to Draw Conclusions, Anyway?

Disney Tourist Blog’s Tom Bricker would agree. Based on his many trips to worldwide Disney parks, he doesn’t feel any difference exists in CM behavior or that ephemeral Disney “magic” factor between Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World. Bricker’s perhaps the greatest blogger currently covering (and maybe who has ever covered) the Disney parks space, but I disagree on this point and here’s why. Sometimes when you’re close to something, you miss some of the nuances. Just like the Disney World CMs who commented under my 2013 post that no one could possibly have a bad time at the parks with which they were so familiar, visiting the parks on a frequent basis can accustom you to things that may stand out more starkly to occasional visitors.

Bricker suggests that occasional visitors only experience the parks and resorts anecdotally and can’t really draw informative conclusions about CM behavior or anything else. That might be true of day visitors. But at Walt Disney World, even occasional visitors are on property for days and sometimes weeks at a time. For Ryan and me, in five days—both in 2013 and last month—that meant one or both of us heavily hitting the theme parks multiple times on multiple days, making full use of our resort, visiting other resorts, interacting with dozens of CMs, and experiencing every major headline attraction multple times. For us or anyone else spending more than a day at Walt Disney World, I think that’s plenty of data upon which to base reasonable conclusions.

In 2013, we concluded there was a management issue at Walt Disney World negatively affecting the key areas of maintenance, show, food service, and CM behavior. In five days, no matter how hard we tried and how open-minded we attempted to be, we just could not get away from these four issues.

Last month, in terms of our experience—or non-experience—of these four issues at Walt Disney World, we felt like we were visiting Disneyland, instead. To regular visitors, a change like that taking place gradually over three years might go unnoticed. But to us, based on the experience of two detailed visits separated three years apart, the change felt amazing. We could not stop remarking on it. Still can’t. And we don’t think it was an accidental change, either.

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George and Kathy, Keep It Up

In my post three years ago, I noted how many Walt Disney World watchers felt that former Disney World president Meg Crofton during her tenure there had moved the focus from quality of show to massiveness of throughput. It didn’t matter if orange cones were blocking off ragged ride vehicles as long as CMs packed the remaining cars with as many people as they could. It didn’t matter if quick service food was low-grade catering quality and miserly portioned as long as CMs moved the ordering lines quickly. It’s the same lowest-common-denonimator, bean-counter ideology derived from the retail sector with which Paul Pressler (who came to Disney from The Gap) and Cynthia Harris almost wrecked Disneyland in the 1990s. It’s a strategy that value-engineers away the magic of the guest experience in favor of pushing merchandise and packing rides. In Anaheim during the Pressler/Harris era, the locals who make up the majority of Disneyland visitors complained. But the majority of Walt Disney World visitors are occasional or once-in-a-lifetime guests. So under Crofton, there wasn’t the same groundswell of popular protest about the negative changes in the Orlando parks.

Disney’s Parks and Resorts division, which oversees the separate management teams of Disneyland Resort (Team Disney Anaheim, aka TDA) and Walt Disney World (Team Disney Orlando, aka TDO), dealt with the problems of the Pressler/Harris era in Anaheim by bringing in a series of guest-experience friendly presidents to head TDA. First, Matt Ouimet, brought over from the very show-forward Disneyland Paris Resort, returned the emphasis to the magic of the guest experience, with improvements in maintenance and show across the board. His replacement was George Kalogridis, a lifetime Disney manager with a legendary reputation for being a hard-core evangelist for good show and the primacy of the guest experience. Kalogridis presided over the massively successful rebooting of Disney California Adventure, as well as some of the highest visitor counts in Disneyland history.

I promise there’s a point, and it’s this. As we were visiting Walt Disney World three years ago and experiencing the badly value-engineered magic of the Meg Crofton era, Disney’s Parks and Resorts division made a decision to replace Crofton as president of Walt Disney World with George Kalogridis—the self-same Disneyland Resort president who helped return the magical luster to the west coast parks. Not only that, a few months before Kalogridis’s transfer, Kathy Magnum, the lead designer of Disneyland Resort’s hyper-succesful Cars Land, was sent east to head up Team Disney Orlando’s Imagineering team.

In 2013, I wrote that although we had a terrible time in the Orlando parks, we would eventually return for a do-over. We wanted to see whether Kalogridis and Magnum would manage to return some of the luster to Disney World, too.

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Boy, did they ever.

What a difference three years makes. Visitng Walt Disney World last month, three years into the Kalogridis era there, there were moments when we felt like we were visitng Disneyland—another thing I keep repeating, but it really bears repeating. We kept waiting for the bad show, grimy onstage areas, awful quick-service food ingredients, strewn-about trash, and unhappy CMs. Instead, we found Disneyland-style trash pickers following behind people with dustpans, spiffy paint jobs on walls that were faded and peeling three years ago, terrific state-of-repair in almost all of the places we went and on almost all of the attractions we rode, a noticeable uptick in quick-sevice dining quality, and not one orange cone anywhere.

Best of all, though, we encountered CMs who no longer had to pretend with guests that the level of show was something higher than it really was. Under Kalogridis, CMs don’t have to worry whether TDO cares about the guest experience, anymore. TDO does now, and it’s palpable. And so is the change in the mood of CMs. In 2013, we got used to them yelling at us to “Move the line now!”, or telling us they had no idea where things were in the parks in which they worked, or ignoring us entirely. This year, their engagement and happiness were hard to miss. We were amazed how many CMs struck up conversations with us, asked us where we were from, joked with us, and frankly, simply smiled. I actually spent a lot of (Disney dork) time thanking them for the work that they do. That just wasn’t our experience in 2013.

I know some regular visitors may think we’re making something out of nothing. All I can tell you is this. First, go Google “Pressler/Harris era” and “Crofton vs. Kalogridis”. Don’t worry. Read up. I’ll wait.

And secondly…three years ago, in May of 2013, at the beginning of the peak summer season, when Walt Disney World should have been firing on all thrusters to charm the millions of guests about to descend on the place, under Meg Crofton, it felt like the summer had already taken place and Disney World had already been beaten down by the onslaught.

Last month, in August of 2016, at the end of the peak summer season, when Walt Disney World should have been flailing and begging for mercy from the millions of guests who had just descended on the place, under George Kalogridis, it felt like summer had not begun yet and Disney World was still fresh and ready to charm its guests.

By all rights, it should have been the reverse. And that totally blew our minds.

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My Other Disneyland Is Magic Kingdom

It also totally won our hearts. Being able to enjoy every visit to the Pepper Market food court at Coronado Springs Resort, every CM interaction at the resort, every evening visit to the pool, was amazing. There was a moment when Ryan and I were watching the Star Wars fireworks in the Dig Site pool beneath the awesome Mayan pyramid waterfall. It was the moment that we realized Walt Disney World had won us over. Lock, stock, and Disney bubble.

But beyond our resort, it was the same with almost every meal in the parks. Almost every CM interaction. Almost everywhere we went. Almost everything we did. This time, finally, the magic was there. For Ryan, a confirmed pool mouse, leaving Coronado Springs was not easy, because it was clear he was leaving a part of himself there.

That’s exactly how I felt about Magic Kingdom. The park gets a bad rap from Disneyland vets like me for being too big, too spread out, with too little charm and too few attractions. That’s a lot of the way I felt about it under Crofton. This time, I found myself sitting on the People Mover, smiling ear to ear, and updating Facebook to admit I really do love this park. It’s not Disneyland. It doesn’t need to be. Spiffed under Kalogridis, the magical bones from 1971 really shine through. In and of itself, on its own terms, there’s charm here. A lot of it.

Over the course of four days, three rope drops, two downpours, and more miles than my Crocs classic sandals cared to count, I felt at home. Over my fried shrimp eaten amid the amazing second-floor themeing of Liberty Square’s Columbia Harbor House—all four things among my favorite elements of Magic Kingdom—I knew. When I was done, I went up to a CM who was cleaning tables and thanked her for taking such good care of “one of my favorite places” in Magic Kingdom.

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Finally feeling at home in Magic Kingdom, I figured it was time I learned my way around “my” east coast Main Street U.S.A. so that I could know it as well as I know “my” west coast, Main Street U.S.A. The giant Emporium that stretches up the west side of the street at MK from the barber shop to Casey’s Corner. On the east side, the Chapeau, home of ear hats, giving way to the candy store, then the artwork in the old Cinema. Uptown Jewelers, East Center Street, oh my God there’s a real-life glass-blower at the back of Crystal Arts, the new Starbucks, the old ice cream shop.

Before I left to meet Ryan back at the resort, I stopped at City Hall, the famous in-park Guest Services facility on both coasts. And when it was my turn, I asked the CM behind the counter to humor me, and then I told her this:

“Thank you. I’m a longtime Disneyland vet who visited Walt Disney World as an adult three years ago and didn’t feel the magic. It was very disappointing. Not because I feel the magic in Anaheim. But because I felt it when I visited Disney World when I was a little boy. I just wanted you to know, this time I feel the magic. I’m not sure what has changed here in the past three years, but I want you to know it made a difference. I’ve waited 40 years to feel at home again here. I just wanted a CM to know that, and I want to say thank you.”

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And when our five days at Walt Disney World were done, and Disney’s Magical Express returned us back to the Orlando airport, I did what I never, ever thought I would do over Walt Disney World. I realized that our trip was really over, and I cried.

Wherever I Lay My Ear Hat, That’s My Home

And so my inner four-year-old is torn. How does someone in love with Disneyland replace it in his heart with Disney World? Of course, he doesn’t. He realizes that he loves them both. And he’s glad, because it took a long time for that to be able to happen. Ryan’s with me on this, too.

We look forward to the next time we visit our beloved Anaheim parks. But for the next year, we’ll be exploring our east coast Disney home. Because if you think that we didn’t come home with annual passes for Walt Disney World after all, you haven’t been paying attention.

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Ryan still daydreams about Coronado Springs. I left my heart on Magic Kingdom’s Main Street. I still don’t believe, as some do, that the magic exists in every Disney park everywhere simply because it’s a Disney park. But I’m glad Team Disney Orlando finally figured that out, too.

To make sure the lesson sticks, though, it’s probably a good idea to check in on them. For additional investigative purposes. Every three months or so sounds about right. To this end, we’ve already booked Coronado Springs again for December. You know. Just to be sure.

Except I’m full of it, because it’s clear we’re already sure. Walt Disney World, my new-found old friend, I can hardly wait until we meet again.

See you real soon.

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