Since 1971 millions of people have visited Walt Disney World in Central Florida. With 40 square miles of theme parks, resort hotels, and shops, a lot has changed at the “Vacation Kingdom.” Many loyal Disney fans will tell you that’s just the way Walt Disney wanted it. Walt never intended for his theme parks to become museums that never changed or updated. He said of his beloved Disneyland park in California, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” That sentiment continues with Disney World in Florida.
Over the last ten years there have been many changes to Walt Disney World. Some of them have been huge success and widely embraced by Disney fans, and others have been met with skepticism. If you haven’t visited Walt Disney World in the last ten years, here are ten very important things you need to know.
1. Magic Bands Are Your Key to the World
One of the biggest changes you will experience at Walt Disney World is the use of Magic Bands. Introduced to guests in 2013, the RFID-enabled bands are meant to enhance your Disney World vacation.
The plastic bands serve many purposes. Using short and long range radio frequency readers, your Magic Band allows you to open your hotel room, gain access to Walt Disney World theme parks, buy merchandise, and use Fastpass + (more on that later).
It’s all part of a next generation technology effort Disney calls, MyMagic+. The idea behind the new technology is to make a Disney World vacation more convenient for guests. From booking hotels to making advance dining reservations, Disney is trying to take away some of the hassle and stress that comes with booking a Disney World vacation.
In an effort to enhance the Magic Band experience, Disney now allows you to customize your Magic Band. Guests can choose from over 49 different colors and designs.
Magic Bands are free to Walt Disney World hotel guests and annual passholders. Guests who are not passholders or staying off site can purchase a Magic Band. If you don’t wish to wear a Magic Band, Disney provides an RFID card that performs most of the Magic Band functions.
2. Fastpass Has Been Upgraded
With the introduction of Magic Bands in 2013, Disney also introduced another game changing experience for guests. A Disney Fastpass allows you front of the line access to an attraction. A decade ago, getting a Fastpass for a Disney attraction involved darting around a theme park to find a kiosk that would spit out a paper Fastpass. The paper Fastpass would assign a time for you and your family to come back and skip the line.
Fastpass+ allows you to book your Fastpass online with the My Disney Experience app. Guests who are staying at a Disney World hotel can book Fastpass+ 60 days in advance. Guests staying offsite and annual passholders can book Fastpass+ 30 days in advance.
For many Disney World fans the switch to Fastpass+ was unwelcome. Before the implementation of next generation technology, getting a Fastpass to the most popular Disney attractions involved arriving to the park early and finding one of those kiosks. Now, guests can reserve a Fastpass+ up to 60 days in advance. This means that very little effort goes into getting a Fastpass, which results in more guests using the system. Because of this, the same day availability of a Fastpass to some of Disney’s most popular attractions is incredibly scarce. When you combine this with the ability of guests to book dining reservations at Disney’s best table service restaurants up to 180 days in advance, a lot of people who take a spontaneous trip to Disney World end up having to wait in long lines for popular attractions and have only quick service options for dining.
One of the advantages for Disney in using Fastpass+ is their ability to know almost exactly how many people are going to be in their parks at any given time. This means they can more efficiently schedule staff around the resort. However, many Disney World fans resent having to plan and book so much of their vacation in advance. To them, much of the spontaneous fun has been taken out of a Disney vacation.
3. Be Prepared to Pay More
It’s no secret that a family vacation to Walt Disney World can be expensive. But just how much have tickets to Walt Disney World theme parks increased over the last ten years?
In 2008 the price of a one-day single park ticket for a family of four was $276. Those same tickets in 2018 will cost you $504 during peak season and $422 during value season, an average increase of 68%. Remember, that is the price for a family of four, visiting one park, for one day.
Annual pass prices have seen a similar sharp increase. In 2008 an adult Premium Annual Pass, which features access to all Walt Disney World theme parks with no blackout dates or restrictions, was $599. In 2018 the price of a Platinum Plus Annual Pass, which features access to all Walt Disney World theme parks with no blackout dates or restrictions, is $949 — an increase of 58%.
To many, these price increases can be a bit jarring, especially since the cost of living in the last ten years has only increased 16.6%, according to the United States Social Security Administration.
To justify the increases in theme park admission, Disney points to the amount of new offerings in its theme parks. Over the last decade high profile attractions such as Toy Story Midway Mania have been added, and they have reimagined classic attractions like Star Tours: The Adventure Continues.
4. Star Wars is Coming
One of the most anticipated additions to Walt Disney World, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, is set to open at Disney World in Fall 2019. Even though the themed land inside Disney’s Hollywood Studios is not finished yet, guests can already begin to see what lies ahead.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is occupying the space that formerly housed the Streets of America and the Hollywood Backlot Tour at Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park. The setting for the land is the fictional planet of Batuu. From smugglers to rebels, guests will have the opportunity to meet and interact with the inhabitants of Batuu.
The land will be anchored by two major attractions. The first is a yet-to-be-titled ride where fans go on a mission and, “fly” the famed Millennium Falcon. To add more drama, Disney has announced that your “performance” on this mission can affect your experience in the rest of the land. For instance, if you prove to be an expert at flying the Millennium Falcon, you may be treated as a hero at the local cantina. However, if you return from your mission with a banged up and dented ship, the locals may not receive you so well.
The second major attraction inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will place guests inside a hangar bay right in the middle of a fierce battle between the dreaded First Order and the Resistance. In a recent statement Disney announced that the attraction is “built on a scale we have never done before.”
When it opens in the Fall of 2019, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will change the landscape of themed entertainment. Disney is already preparing for record crowds at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The attraction is going to change the way guests experience themed environments.
5. The Magic Kingdom Now Serves Alcohol
After being alcohol free for 41 years, Disney finally took the lid off of beer and wine sales in the Magic Kingdom in 2012. With the opening of the Be Our Guest restaurant, Disney announced that limited alcoholic beverages would be sold for lunch and dinner service.
Alcohol has always been available at all other Walt Disney World theme parks. The Food and Wine Festival has been a staple at Epcot for many years. Once Disney announced the sale of beer and wine at Be Our Guest inside Magic Kingdom, many guests feared that people would bring their rowdy “drinking around the world” attitude to the tranquil, and until now, alcohol free Magic Kingdom.
To the surprise of some, hordes of drunken millennials have not descended upon the Magic Kingdom. In fact, in late 2016 Disney announced the expansion of alcohol service in the Magic Kingdom. Alcoholic beverages were added to four new locations across the theme park.
For Disney, the move was a no brainer. The opportunity to increase food and beverage revenues by offering alcohol to guests seemed to have outweighed almost four decades of keeping the Magic Kingdom “dry”.
6. Animal Kingdom Has New Residents
When Disney first opened Animal Kingdom in 1998 it was billed as “Nahtazu,” as in, “not a zoo.” Fearful that guests would see the theme park as just another zoo, Disney also teased that the park would soon host animals and creatures from myths and legends.
It may have taken almost 20 years for the tease to pay off, but in May of 2017 Disney opened Pandora: The World of Avatar in Animal Kingdom. The themed land is filled with exotic plant life, food, and creatures from the blockbuster 2009 James Cameron film, Avatar.
Ten years ago the area looked a lot different. Instead of ten-foot-tall blue people and plants that light up with a touch of a finger, the space was host to a quiet faux campground called Camp Minnie-Mickey. Inside the land, you could meet your favorite classic Disney characters in a relaxing setting.
Pandora: The World of Avatar showcases two groundbreaking attractions. The first is a scenic boat ride through the fictional Kasvapan River. In the Na’vi River Journey your boat floats past the creatures and plants that inhabit the world of Pandora. The end of the attraction is highlighted by a singing Na’vi Shaman of Songs.
The second attraction anchors the themed land. Avatar Flight of Passage is a 3D flying simulator that gives you the feeling of riding on the back of a Banshee through the mythical Valley of Mo’ara. Disney managed to improve on their previous versions of flying simulators by adding another level of depth to Flight of Passage. As riders glide on the back of the banshee, you can feel the mythical creature breathing underneath you and the rush of air on your cheek as you dive around mountains. Water splashes on your face as your creature glides inches from the surface of the ocean.
Unlike Camp Minnie-Mickey, Pandora: The World of Avatar draws massive crowds to Disney’s Animal Kingdom every day. It has transformed the theme park into a full-day experience and adds a new level of depth and dramatic storytelling to a park that was lacking both.
7. New Hotels Enhance Your Vacation
Disney owns and operates 26 resort hotels inside Walt Disney World. Each hotel has its own unique theme and design. With new additions since 2008, and even more ambitious hotels on the horizon, Disney continues to add on to its already impressive portfolio of resort hotels.
In 2012 Disney opened the Art of Animation hotel. The 87-acre hotel is themed around popular Disney animated films. What really makes this resort unique are its themed family suites that fit up to six guests. The hotel is also surrounded by larger-than-life sculptures and themed environments that place you right in the middle of a scene from a Disney animated film. The Art of Animation hotel also houses the largest hotel pool of any Walt Disney World resort.
Another new addition to Disney’s hotel portfolio is easy to spot for any Magic Kingdom visitor. Bay Lake Tower is located right next to Disney’s Contemporary hotel, alongside the Magic Kingdom theme park. The deluxe tower features a rooftop viewing area where guests can get a one-of-a-kind view of the nightly fireworks over Magic Kingdom.
Disney has promised even more ambitious hotels for the future. In early 2018 Disney announced that it will be building a Star Wars theme hotel for Walt Disney World. In a statement, Disney said the yet to be named hotel will be “unlike anything that exist today.” While very few details about the hotel are known, Disney fans are preparing themselves for a truly unique experience.
8. Epcot Is Not Living Up to Its Legacy
For many years if you asked theme park enthusiasts what their favorite theme park in the world is, a lot of them would have answered, “Epcot.” The theme park is what remains of Walt Disney’s long sought futuristic city. By 2008 the theme park had long since shed the facade of trying to be the “Community of Tomorrow.” Disney faced a constant battle of trying to showcase futuristic technology and innovative designs while trying to attract and maintain corporate sponsors. Since its opening in 1982, Epcot’s attractions have been heavily reliant on money from corporate sponsors. If an attraction’s sponsor does not renew an agreement with Disney, then that attraction is pretty much doomed to a fate of not being refurbished or reimagined.
Today, this is painfully obvious as many iconic buildings in Epcot sit empty or underused. Closed in 2007, the Wonders of Life pavilion was once home to innovative attractions that centered around human biology. But a decade after those attractions have closed, the Wonders of Life building sits mostly unused, only occasionally being put to work as a festival center where Flower and Garden or Food and Wine festival guests can get a break from the heat and use the bathroom.
While some Epcot attractions have been given a facelift, like Test Track and Soarin’, Epcot still feels like the boneyard of a park long gone. On their way to the World Showcase, many guests walk past the now empty Odyssey restaurant. The building that housed the restaurant has sat mostly empty and unused since 2001, leaving many passing guests to ask aloud, “What’s in there?” only to be greeted by blacked out windows and locked doors.
There still may be hope for Epcot. In a series of recent announcements, Disney has promised to bring new attractions and experiences to the beleaguered park, starting with a new Guardians of the Galaxy roller coaster. In a statement, Disney announced the new attraction will be “one of the world’s longest enclosed coasters.”
Disney has also started building an attraction based off the Pixar film Ratatouille. The innovative trackless ride is already operating at the Walt Disney Studio Park in Paris, France. Appropriately, the Epcot attraction will be located in the France pavilion.
But any hope that the park will return to its idealistic, future driven past is probably long gone. In the place of Dreamfinder and Horizons, Disney has given us intellectual property-driven attractions and months of festivals.
9. Intellectual Property Has Taken a Front Seat
Some of the most popular attractions at Walt Disney World were created entirely from the imaginations of Disney’s Imagineers. Imagineers are responsible for designing, creating, and building all of the attractions you see at a Disney theme park.
Classics like Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion were created during a time when attractions were not based on of an existing Disney film, TV show, or cartoon, but were created from original themes and back stories. Because of this, Disney fans can now enjoy rides and shows that have lasted decades.
In today’s content-heavy environment, Disney has shifted the focus of the Imagineers to develop attractions that are based on of existing films or TV shows. This type of synergy does have an upside for Disney and its large fan base. Take Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure. Throughout this themed land Disney has created an exact replica of a Radiator Springs. Fans can wander the streets of the small town and relive popular moments from the Disney/Pixar film, Cars. The incredible attention to detail in the land makes you feel as if you are living in the film.
For Disney, being able to sell theme park tickets, merchandise, and food based on content that is already proven to be a success is a no brainer. If your audience has already spent $600 million on tickets for the film, chances are they are willing to visit the themed land.
10. Fantasyland Looks a Lot Different
Fantasyland, inside Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, is widely considered to be the most popular themed land in all of Orlando. It houses some of Disney’s most famous rides and attractions. When people remember their favorite Disney rides from childhood, they often think of ones located in Fantasyland.
But over the last ten years, Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland has gone through a transformation and expansion. In 2009 Disney began work on doubling the size of Fantasyland. Over the next five years, four major attractions were included in the Fantasyland expansion.
The largest addition to Fantasyland is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The attraction is a family friendly coaster that features scenes and songs from the classic Disney animated film, Snow White.
Another new attraction replaced Snow White’s Scary Adventures. Princess Fairytale Hall is an interactive meet and greet that allows you to visit two of your favorite Disney princesses.
Combined with the additions of Enchanted Tales with Belle and Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid, the new and improved Fantasyland i allows guests to be immersed in some of the most iconic Disney animated films. While the land may look very different from a decade ago, Disney has managed to maintain the same nostalgic feeling you get when you walk under Cinderella’s Castle and into Fantasyland.