After our four-year-old caught COVID-19 this January, my husband and I decided it was time to take a family vacation. Since our son is still too young for the vaccine, we’ve done what we can to minimize our risks, but the proverbial ship sailed when our son tested positive. With some temporary natural immunity, we decided it was time to go to Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
Okay, it wasn’t such a quick decision.
We were desperate to escape the cold Vermont winter, but we didn’t want to deal with COVID requirements for international travel. After researching and finding some reasonable flights, we booked a 6-day trip to Florida. With a “when in Rome” mentality, my husband suggested we spend a day at Disney.
My husband bought our 1-day Disney tickets online and reserved the day we would arrive. We looked up the rides that our son would be able to go on based on his height and planned the rest of our trip to Florida, which included several days in St. Petersburg. This post isn’t about the St. Petersburg portion of our trip though. This post is about our not-so-magical day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom.
The night before our day at Disney World, we decided to visit Disney Springs—formerly known as Downtown Disney—a Disney World destination with shopping, dining, attractions and events. It was a Thursday night, and our only intention was dinner, sprinkled with whatever Disney magic the area might offer for our son, who had spent the past 9+ hours traveling via car and airplane. We were tired and hungry, with an emphasis on hungry.
Disney Springs was crowded, but there were cool buildings and a variety of different dining options. We walked around for about 45 minutes, stopping at restaurants and asking the same question: “Do you have a table for 3?” After the 4th chuckle, followed by “No, we have no tables for the rest of the evening,” we were feeling pretty deflated and hangry. I looked at my husband and said, “Let’s just leave, this is crazy. We have to feed the child.” As we headed back to the parking garage, we made a last-ditch stop at Frontera Cocina, and they had a table! We gladly took it, and though we waited a while for the food, it was delicious. We made a note—do not go to Disney Springs for food without making a reservation.
The next morning as we made our way to Disney’s Magic Kingdom, I felt a mild panic. I hadn’t done an ounce of research. I looked at nothing. I planned nothing.
Should I have?
I looked at my husband and said, “I’m going to see if I can make us a dinner reservation, because last night was crazy, and we can’t do that again.” He agreed.
I downloaded the Disney World app so I could check the dining options and make a reservation. (Tip: you need to create an account using the same email you use when purchasing your tickets.) It was about 10:00 am, and we were boarding the ferry boat that connected the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom.
While on the boat, I found three available dinner reservations. The earliest option was a 6:50 pm reservation at The Diamond Horseshoe. The other reservations were much later and not going to work with a young child, so we quickly confirmed the earliest reservation and I felt relieved. From the app, I saw that you could also order food for pick-up from a variety of locations in the park. We decided to take advantage of that for lunch.
To enter the Magic Kingdom, our ticket barcodes were scanned by an employee right from our mobile device. We were each given a card, asked to insert it into a machine, and then place a finger or thumb on a scanner which would uniquely identify each card as belonging to us. This is done for fraud prevention, so someone couldn’t purchase a park hopper or multi-day ticket, use it, then hand it off to someone else to use on another day. As single day ticket holders though, we thought it was odd, especially with tens of thousands of people placing their finger on the same scanner each day, in the midst of a pandemic.
From there, we walked down along the busy shops on Main Street. There were people everywhere you looked. We were outdoors, but it was so crowded we kept our masks on. We started our way to the castle, just in time for the Disney Friends Cavalcade (parade). It was 10:45 am, and my son was really excited to see Mickey and friends pass by on floats. That was when we started to feel it… the magic!
After the Cavalcade passed, we used the Disney World app to check on wait times for each of the rides.
I can’t stress enough how useful this feature is, because we could immediately see the wait times across the entire Magic Kingdom. The wait times were already in excess of 1 hour for many of the rides. We decided to make our way to a ride with great nostalgia, which also had just a 40 minute wait time—”It’s a Small World.” While in the line, we looked up how the Lightning Lane works.
Yes, we waited until then to figure out the Lightning Lane. This was a mistake.
The Lightning Lane is a shorter (and separate) line that allows you faster access to a ride. As we waited for the “It’s a Small World” ride, we read about our options. You can either get a Disney Genie+ Lightning Lane Entrance or an Individual Lightning Lane Entrance Pass. Disney Genie+ costs $15 plus tax per person and allows you to choose the next available Lightning Lane entrance at select attractions. You can use it once at each ride. The Individual Lightning Lane Entrance Pass allows you to purchase faster access to an individual ride, up to two rides per day, for a cost that varies by date and the ride.
We just spent more than $400 for two adults and a 4-year-old for one day at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. I suppose in the grand scheme, another $45 plus tax isn’t earth-shaking, but it isn’t insignificant, either.
I felt the magic of Mickey’s Cavalcade start to slip away.
We thought, if everyone purchased the Lightning Pass, tens of thousands of people would still be competing for each ride, so we decided to roll the dice and skip the added expense.
After “It’s a Small World”, we set our sights on the Haunted Mansion. The line was so long that it extended to the Liberty Square Riverboat. Instead of waiting, we planned to go to Tom Sawyer Island. We thought that the Liberty Square Riverboat would take us there, but we were wrong. After waiting to board, and taking a slow cruise on the river, it was almost time for lunch. I felt bad that after almost two hours, we had only been to two attractions, one of which my son thought was incredibly boring (the Riverboat).
Since it was almost noon, I opened the Disney app and ordered lunch from Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe for a designated pick-up time. I indicated through the app when we arrived at the restaurant. About 15 minutes later, I was notified that the food was ready. I waited in a line to pick up our food. There were tables located inside and outside, but they were all taken. There were lines of people sitting on the curb and street so they could eat. I told my husband to keep his eyes on the curb and grab a spot as soon as someone moved. My husband and I shared a salad and tea, and my son had a kids’ meal. We ate our $25 lunch on a curb, but the food was good.
After lunch, we checked the app again for wait times for rides. My husband had just a few rides he really wanted to go on—the Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Pirates of the Caribbean. All of them had wait times between 60-85 minutes. With a four-year-old, that seemed like a cruel prospect, so we decided to wait and made our way to some other attractions. We walked through the Swiss Family Treehouse (no wait), went on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin (45-minute wait) and drove cars on the Tomorrowland Speedway (25-minute wait). After this, the Haunted Mansion still had an hour wait, but it was after 3:00 pm already and we figured it was now or never.
While we waited, my husband and I discussed how the Magic Kingdom is meant to be a magical place for families, but we wondered what on earth was magical about these wait times.
Yes, we could have paid extra for the Lightning Lane, but not everyone can do the Lightning Lane. There were just too many people. It was now after 5:00 pm. We had been at the Magic Kingdom for 7 hours and had managed 6 rides (if you count the Riverboat).
Our dinner reservation was coming up, and we knew there was little time left to go on more rides. Our son wanted to go on the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, which had a 25-minute wait. After that, we made our way back to Tomorrowland, where my son had his eyes on a special Buzz Lightyear toy. We waited in line to buy the toy, then headed back to Liberty Square for our dinner reservation at the Diamond Horseshoe. By now, the hangry emotions from the night before were returning. We checked in for our reservation early and then waited ten minutes past our reservation time for a table to open.
The Diamond Horseshoe is a sit down all-you-can-eat dining restaurant. For a set price per person ($39 per adult and $21 per child), we were served a family-style multi-course meal. The meal started with a large salad which was followed by several plates including roast turkey breast, pot roast and pork, mashed potatoes, garlic green beans, stuffing, and macaroni & cheese, plus dessert.
This was far more food than we could possibly eat, and we felt guilty about wasting food.
I asked our waitress if it was possible to get a to-go container, and she said “No, unfortunately, because this is all-you-can-eat.” We understood, but at the same time, we weren’t asking for a second serving, we just wanted the food we were initially served and paying for so that it didn’t go to waste. As I understand, Disney does compost the food waste, which is great, but it still seemed an unnecessary amount of food to require composting.
We grimaced at the thought of this food waste compounded by thousands of daily visitors. A little more magic slipped away.
After dinner, my husband and son wanted to go on the Pirates of the Caribbean. The fireworks were starting in minutes, so there was no wait time to get on the ride, which was amazing. We left the ride right as the fireworks were going off.
The magic had returned just as we were walking back to Main Street.
With the fireworks in progress, we were told “this is not a good place to be, folks. Move along.” So we moved along toward the exit, with a backward glance of the fireworks finale. We knew that tens of thousands of people would be making their way to the exit as soon as the fireworks ended, so we were at least able to leave before the mad rush.
If you are someone who only sees the magic at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, perhaps you are rolling your eyes right now, and that’s okay. To be sure, there were some magical moments to our day. However, we cannot see how the expense and overcrowding equate to “the most magical place on earth.”
With wait times nearly everywhere, we managed 8 rides in 11 hours at the Magic Kingdom. I never went to Disney World as a child—it was wholly unattainable to my low-income family, so I am beyond grateful we were able to do this for my son. However, one day at Disney for a family of three cost us around $700 with food and parking, which was far more than the cost of our flights. For $700, we went on 8 rides and spent the bulk of our day in lines.
There is nothing magical about that math.
After our trip, we spoke with several friends about our experience. One friend that lives in Florida said they refer to Disney as “the mouse tax” because it is expensive, and as a parent living there, you feel almost obligated to make it happen for your child. Another friend joked that you almost “need a degree in Disney to do Disney.”
That was our real takeaway. We really needed to plan our day at Disney for it to have been a more magical day and worth the expense. We didn’t know that. Should we have known? Should you have to plan every second of your day at Disney in advance of your visit to have a magical time? It certainly seems that way.
The real magic, if we’re honest, is the joy that any trip brings to you and your children.
My son had joy at Disney, but he also had a lot of boredom waiting in lines. Later in our trip, we went to Busch Gardens in Tampa, and we found magic there, too. Though it had far less panache, it was also far less crowded with very few wait times. At the end of our vacation, what park did our son like the most? Busch Gardens and it wasn’t hard to understand why. More rides = more joy.
For anyone planning a special trip with your young family at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, I hope that our experience has offered some lessons on how to make your day more successful. Make food reservations, purchase Lightning Passes, and map out exactly where you want to go in advance. Don’t wait until you arrive, like we did. We wish you good luck and many magical moments on your Disney adventures.
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