writing: it Disney need to be like this

WORST TITLE EVER. Anyway, as we inch closer to Disney, let me start by talking about holidays of old.

You know, I just realised something. This blog entry was about to start this entry with ‘When I was younger’ and I deleted those words and replaced them with ‘When I was young…’ and if that doesn’t indicate to me how I’ve subconsciously come to terms with my advancing years, I don’t know what will. It was my 38th birthday a couple of weeks ago and boy do I feel ever aware that I’m more than likely halfway through my time sat on this rock. Good grief.

Anyway, where were we. When I was young, Disney was always a place I wanted to visit but knew I’d never get there. It was just far too expensive and we didn’t have much money, plus to use the unquestionable logic of my parents, why visit Florida for thrills and spills when you can be playing 10p bingo above a chip-shop in Seahouses? That sounds like I’m throwing shade against my childhood holidays but that couldn’t be further from the truth: my parents, although poor in money, were rich in experience, and we were always being bundled into the car and whisked away for a weekend of camping or touring the extremities of Scotland whilst being slowly hotboxed in a cherry-red Ford Escort.

Once I sashayed past puberty (a process which only seemed to take a week – I had one afternoon of squeaky voice and then everything seemed to settle, with my beard growing in as my balls dropped as though linked symbiotically in some biological mirror of a Playdoh spaghetti factory) those family holidays became few and far between. For some explicable reason the appeal of staying at home without supervision had risen in parallel to the increased speed of our Internet access and suddenly tramping around Albufeira with my parents didn’t seem quite so attractive.

On our final family holiday my sister was swapped out for a good friend which turned out to be an utter disaster: my parents didn’t care for him, and I soon realised that someone who was fun for a couple of hours a day at school may not necessarily be as convivial over a fortnight. It was like he’d forgotten to pack his ability to laugh. Perhaps he had known that he was actually my second choice of companion: I had wanted my proper best friend to join us but his family were rich (pretend rich, at least) and were off to Disneyworld. In retrospect it was probably for the best that he didn’t come along: he would later become a ‘very special’ friend indeed and judging by the fact neither of us saw much sunlight in the summer of 1999 when he stayed over at mine for weeks at a time, Portugal with my parents could have been super awkward. Of all the friends from my teenage years that growing old has pulled me away from, he’s perhaps the one I wonder about the most, and certainly, even to this day, he remains the person who made the biggest impression on me. Lee, wherever you are, I know you’ll be making a size queen very happy indeed.

Anyway, back to my family holiday with my sour-faced companion. The favour was returned by his family taking me to a remote Scottish island to look at moss and ride bikes in daylight that never troubled itself to wash fully out. To say I was bored was an understatement: a 13-year-old should never have to spend his summer wondering exactly how much it would hurt to pitch off a cliff and dash himself against the rocks below just to relieve the tedium. Happily, I’d discovered masturbation by this point, so it wasn’t all bad.

But with that, our family holidays were no more: my parents would jet off to sunnier climes and I’d stay at home to ‘look after the house’. As we lived in the middle of nowhere, I don’t think my parents were especially concerned about any big house parties – nothing says raucous night in like having to get the last 685 bus back to Newcastle at 7.48pm, after all. Plus I was a socially awkward teenager with Enya hair who bought his trousers from BHS, so, you know, there’s that.

I mention all the above as an introduction to say I always wanted to go to Disney, but never got the chance. Paul was much the same, aside from the detail of his own holidays. His were slightly more exotic, although I suspect the destinations were chosen based on how many cigarettes his mother would be allowed to bring back through duty free on her return. He too longed to go to Disney – most children do – but it was forever a pipe dream. Until we met each other, that is.

It was only two years into our relationship that I grew tired of being responsible with money and booked us a ten-day trip to Florida, deciding to pay for the flights and hotel on the gamble that somehow we’d save enough money to get by in the few months beforehand. We stayed at The Metropolitan Express on i-Drive, where the delight over the cheap rates were tempered by the very real risk you’d be shot in the carpark. We went with £1,000 which turned into $2,000 with the marvellously positive exchange rate back in the day and we felt like kings. We had such an amazing time that we repeated our trip the next year, ‘forgetting’ to pay our council tax for a few months to buy us a bit of leeway on the finances since the exchange rate wasn’t so grand. On that trip I proposed to Paul, and our next trip would be our honeymoon, which became a full-on four-week Florida pilgrimage.

So to say Disney holds a lot of happy memories to us is an understatement. They call it the Happiest Place on Earth for a good reason. However, over a decade had passed between our last visit and this upcoming return, and we were anxious. See, Disney has made a lot of changes over the last few years, and not a lot of them have been well-received. I’ll touch on them as I write the rest of this blog post but I mention the negativity as a warning: we almost cancelled our trip entirely because, if you were to go on the online feedback alone, the magic has entirely gone. Everything is super expensive, cuts have been made to previously free services, the crowds are awful, the customer service has disappeared. I’m an avid reader of online reviews and judging by some of the vitriol and hysteria in people’s accounts, you’d think they’d come back from four months holidaying in the trenches at Gallipoli as opposed to a few days being haw-hawed at by a teenager in a giant mouse costume.

Surely if everyone is complaining, there must be something rotten at the castle core? Well, yes, there are certainly faults and flaws, but it really isn’t that bad. Perhaps if you’re a regular visitor it is worse – when you stop sniffing the pixie dust, you see the cracks in the magic, but for us regular folks who visit once in a blue moon? All good. Bear that in mind when you’re reading the avalanche of woe online about Disney and don’t be like us, one step away from cancelling our holiday because we decided to listen to all the endless negativities. Go and make up your own mind – it’s not like you’ll be forced to go back if you hate it. By the way, if you’re here for more of the anecdotal writing rather than the ‘how Disney currently is’ writing, skip the next few paragraphs.

Before we get to the (fried) meat-and-potatoes of this Disney post, perhaps a little on the two very distinct people you’ll find in the park: those that plan to the tiniest degree and those that wing it. Paul and I used to be the former, but these days I can think of nothing worse than turning your holiday into a by-the-minute affair where a good day would be ruined by a bus delay. We’re far, far more laid back and I think that worked in our favour because although we managed to see everything we wanted, we never felt stressed. But then that’s an easy state of mind when you have the luxury of time on your side, like we did. Our plans consisted of nothing more than picking a park a couple of days before and choosing a couple of ‘big’ things that we would definitely do, with everything else being played by Mickey-ear.

That ‘picking a park’ bit is new (and the way Disney is, probably gone by the time you’re reading this) and the source of some of the online ire. Previously you could walk into any park you chose to visit without any action needed by you beforehand, but now you need to think ahead and reserve a park in advance. To be totally honest this didn’t affect us one bit, save for being a slightly annoying extra thing to remember to do, but I can see why local residents especially hate it: if I lived anywhere near a theme park I’d be there all the time on a whim and this removes that element of spontaneity. But as I say, it didn’t bother us, so we cracked on.

The other big addition to the Disney Experience is the introduction of GeniePlus, which replaces the old free Fastpass system they used to have and replaces it with a paid alternative. Back on our previous visits you used to be able to mince up to the ride entrance and get a little paper ticket which would allow you to return at a set time and jump most of the queue. It was great and, more importantly, fair. Things are different now: now you have to pay a varying amount (between $15 and, so far, $35) a day, per person, to access GeniePlus, which gives you access to a booking system on the app which allows you to pre-select a ‘Lightning Lane’ admission for a ride once every two hours. On top of that, each park has one or two ‘big ticket’ attractions (usually the newest ride in the park) where Disney allow you to pay a further fee ($10 a person, from memory) on top of the GeniePlus to get yourself a ride slot. If you don’t want to pay for the ‘Individual Lightning Lane’, you simply need to make sure you’re up and on the app at 7am to try and bag a free slot, but I kid you not when I say those slots sell out in under ten seconds. As someone who wouldn’t get out of bed at 7am even if his house was on fire, again, this hurt.

Of course, you don’t need to buy GeniePlus, you can wait in the normal standby queues, but they were killer when we were there, and January is traditionally the quietest time to go. We regularly saw lines of over 240 minutes for a two-minute ride and listen, I wouldn’t stand in a queue for four hours if there was a promise of having my bumhole pummelled by the entirety of the Scottish rugby team at the end of it, nevermind a virtual flight around Avatarland. Paul is equally as impatient and of the same mindset that nothing in a theme park is ever worth waiting that long for. We can’t imagine what it must be like to wait with screaming children – hats off to all the parents who do it, honestly.

I’ve made the whole thing sound way, way more complicated than it actually is: in reality the process runs very smoothly indeed and we never had a single problem with it. We managed to get on every single ride we wanted to do, including several goes on the newest ride at Epcot (more on that later) and never felt like we missed out. But see, without wanting to sound like a knobhead, we’re comfortable moneywise and so could afford to pay these little extras that Disney wanted for things that were previously free. I think of families like my parents who if they had managed to take us, would have had to be watching every last penny – this would have killed them off.

If you take the cost of a fourteen-day park ticket for a family of two adults and two of their most charming hump-dumplings, you’re looking at £2,100 straight off. Then add GeniePlus on top of that at £15 each, a day, that’s an extra £840, just to ride attractions in an expedited manner that used to be free to Fastpass. Throw in a few Individual Lightning Lane bookings and that’s another £120. That’s not a kick off the arse off an extra grand of expense. And listen, it’s not as though Disney is a cheap place to visit once you’re in the parks: food and drink is expensive (but, with me having the sophisticated palate of someone raised on Netto crisps, delicious) and the souvenirs and all that even more so. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to have a good time: it’s just strongly encouraged. I love Disney to bits but at this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if they required you to tap your credit card on the ride car to make the restraints come down. There’s an American term for this called ‘nickel and diming’ which seems especially germane here: essentially the practice of charging for every small little service which may otherwise have been free: that’s Disney.

But good lord, I’ve succumbed to the same online negativity as everyone else! If you were to read only the last few paragraphs you’d be rightfully clicking your purse shut and saying hi-ho, hi-ho, it’s-off-to-Malaga we go, and then I’d ask you who you were calling a ho, then we’d fall into bed and make love. But see it’s hard to explain the changes at Disney without sounding like Grumpy because they’re all so inherently dreadful. With all of the above in mind, I’m going to do my darndest to get across how actually wonderful our time at Disney really was: and what better place to start than at the Magic Kingdom?

Which we will do…next week. Oh I know, I’m a terror. But it is what it is.