More than 50 years ago, Walt Disney staked out the company's secret landholdings in Central Florida, decreeing: "There's enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we could imagine." In the five decades since, Disney's San-Francisco-sized property in Central Florida has grown in fits and starts, but always under the glassy, iridescent dome of the "Disney Bubble."
The "Disney Bubble" is invisible, yet it insulates Walt Disney World in just the same way that the tree-lined berm shielded Disneyland from the "real world." The "Disney Bubble" is intangible, but evidence of it surrounds you. Once "inside," you're not just in swampland seceded from Orange and Osceola Counties to the Reedy Creek Improvement District, but immersed in someplace safe... familiar... magical. It doesn't matter that Disney's most "Deluxe" rooms are often comparable to off-site hotels a mile away and a quarter the price... the "Disney Bubble" is real, and you can't put a price on that.
If you're visiting for the 50th Anniversary Celebration, you'll find that staying on Walt Disney World property has its definite perks – like complimentary intra-resort transportation and Disney's legendary guest service standards. But after a decade of adding increasing benefits to convince guests to stay on-site, the 2020s have seen a precipitous decline in the perks, programs, services, and special offers that have come to define the "Disney Bubble" in the 21st century.
While the "magic" of staying on property may be priceless, the slashed services and new charges come with significant costs that just may burst the "Disney Bubble's" magic for many... So today, we'll take a good, hard look at eight one-time perks of staying in a Walt Disney World resort hotel that have since been slashed or replaced with an upcharge...
1. Magical Express
STATUS: Replaced with an upcharge
PRICE YOU'LL PAY: $118 (for a family of 4)
One in a suite of perks launched in 2005 (when Disney really started to get serious about the 'Disney Bubble' and incentivizing on-site stays), Disney's Magical Express was a surprisingly premium service available to any guest staying at any Walt Disney World Resort Hotel. Once landed at Orlando International Airport, guests staying on-site could skip the luggage carousel completely and simply follow signage to Disney's Magical Express and hop aboard a motorcoach bound for the resort. Straight off the runway, they'd be wrapped in the warmth, assurance, comfort, and – yes – magic of Disney without the hassle of rental cars, ground transportation, taxis, or traffic. Phew! Once shuttled to their resort, guests would even find their luggage "magically" waiting for them!
In retrospect, Magical Express was too good to be true, much less free*. (*Of course, like all "free" perks associated with Disney it wasn't really "free" at all, but rather, "included" in costs paid elsewhere – an important reframing when we talk about such "free" services disappearing without a reduction in costs elsewhere.) As with most "conveniences" at Walt Disney World, Disney's Magical Express was more than just an amenity; it was one piece of a larger strategy to insulate Disney's "walled garden," with Disney alone orchestrating what comes in... and what goes out.
Magical Express shuttled guests straight to their resort and (for lack of a better term) stranded them there without a rental car. Get it? Covering the last stretch between the airport and Disney's internal transportation systems, Magical Express conveniently made it so that guests would have no easy way off of Disney property to dine, shop, or visit pesky competitors like Universal Orlando. If that sounds nefarious, that's because it... kind of was! No doubt Disney considered the service a loss leader; worth operating at a loss, but more than made up for by extended vacations, on-site dining, and keeping the bubble wall secure.
Magical Express's official end on January 1, 2022 will probably be remembered as one of the more perplexing and short-sighted decisions Disney's made both narratively and operationally. Doubtlessly, one reason the service was suspended is because transportation isn't the limiting factor it once was for maintaining the "Bubble." It didn't do Disney any financial good to eat the cost of Magical Express when families can now easily get off site even without a rental car. In other words, "tricking" people into being reliant on Disney Transportation ain't what it used to be with Uber and Lyft (and thus, Universal Orlando) just a tap away.
We discussed the options guests will have to make it that final stretch here, but the most interesting is that Mears will continue operating a (now de-branded) service to the resort without Disney underwriting it. For the "introductory price" of $32 round-trip for adults and $27 for children, you can pay Mears what Disney used to, adding $118 to a trip for a family of 4.
2. Parking at Hotels
STATUS: Replaced with an up-charge
PRICE YOU'LL PAY: $90 (Value Hotel) – $150 (Deluxe Hotel) (on a six-night stay)
Another reason Disney doesn't really care if you get a rental car in 2021? Because if you do, you'll pay for it... literally... In 2018, Disney shocked fans by announcing that they'd begin charging overnight parking rates for on-site hotel guests – standard practice at many upscale or urban hotels, but never part of staying at a Disney Resort. (Disney Resort Hotels were always notable for making parking complimentary and never charging mysterious "Resort Fees" – a factor many families probably considered, and many more probably didn't consider but appreciated.)
Today, the cost is $15 per night at a Value hotel, $20 at a Moderate, and $25 at a Deluxe. (Only Fort Wilderness offers complimentary parking.) Granted, resort guests still get the "perk" of free standard parking at Disney's theme parks (currently $25 per day) meaning that Value and Moderate resort hotel guests technically can save over the course of a vacation. But for many, charging guests to stay in their hotels – where parking is plentiful and space is practically unlimited – feels like your classic "nickel and dime."
In what's becoming a recurring strategy for Disney's age of upcharges, the price is low enough that most guests probably don't notice, or write it off as "the cost of a vacation." That's a shame, because a little more pushback against the policy would've been a good message to the company. It may not seem like much, but $90 over the course of a six-night stay at a Value hotel is one heck of an additional charge – it's nearly the cost of another night!
STATUS: Replaced with an upcharge
PRICE YOU'LL PAY: $500 (for a 5-day trip for a family of 4 – $300 with Genie+, $200 with 1 "Individual Lightning Lane" per day)
When Disney launched the FastPass service in 1999, it was a revolution. Designed to reduce the time guests spent waiting in line at E-Ticket attractions (and instead distribute them to lower-demand rides, shops, and restaurants) FastPass was included with park admission, available equally to all, and just the PR boost Disney needed. ("FastPass" has since become shorthand for getting to the front of any line.) And yes, technically FastPass actually made you wait more over the course of a day than if it didn't exist at all... but the service was so immensely popular and deeply integrated into the idea of Walt Disney World, only a global reboot could ever justify its end.
When Walt Disney World's parks re-opened after a three month closure during the COVID-19 pandemic with limited capacity and physical distancing requirements, FastPass was suspended. That gave Disney the once-in-a-millennia chance to permanently end twenty years of goodwill quietly, and to "replace" FastPass with a completely-unrelated and not-at-all-thinly-veiled-upcharge called Disney Genie+.
We've dedicted a lot of coverage to how Genie+ works, but the long and short is that $15 per person, per day upgrades your ticket to include the service, basically unlocking app-based access to FastPass. Just as in the "good ole days" of paper FastPass, guests with Genie+ can book hour-long return windows to access a ride's FastPa – er, um, "Lightning Lane" one-at-a-time throughout the day. In theory, that adds spontaneity and choice back to a Disney day (something that FastPass+ of the 2010s infamously lacked, requiring ride selections months before a trip).
As its relatively low add-on price should tell you, Genie+ is not a front-of-the-line, VIP, best-Disney-day product that'll have you gleefully skipping the front of every E-Ticket. It's quite literally paying to access FastPass, which means that just like FastPass, using Genie+ "right" requires preparation and planning – something our Genie+ 101 Guides to Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom are meant to help with. At $15 per person, per day, a family of four will spend $60 a day on the service – that's $300 over the course of a five-day vacation to basically get access to most of the priority boarding queues that were free with FastPass.
Why only "most" of the priority boarding queues? Well, it turns out that $15 per person, per day doesn't get you into every "Lightning Lane". Across the resort, the four most popular rides have Lightning Lanes, but the opportunity to book into them is not included in Genie+. These "Individual Lightning Lane" attractions command prices from $7 to $14 per person, per ride, meaning choosing just one "Individual Lightning Lane" ride per day will add an additional $40 to a family of four, or $200 over the course of a five-day trip.
Basically, fully recreating FastPass will set you back $15 per person per day for Genie, then another $20 - 30 per person per day for Individual Lightning Lanes. Disney is no doubt hoping that those will feel like small, app-based "microtransactions" in the moment ("just" $7 per person for this, and "only" $15 per person for that) that add up to well over $500 over the course of a five-day trip for a family of four, just to restore the full functionality of the formerly-free FastPass.
4. On-site FastPass+ Advantage
STATUS: Replaced with an upcharge
PRICE YOU'LL PAY: $200 (for a 5-day trip for a family of 4 – accounted for in the section above)
Whether you loved or hated FastPass+, there's no denying that on-site guests got a major perk – 60-day out ride reservations as opposed to off-site guests' 30-day window. That gave on-site guests an obvious advantage in the daily scramble to pre-book into hot E-Tickets and in-demand experiences. Off-site guests, meanwhile, would essentially be stuck picking up the scraps, settling for Philharmagic FastPasses, or furiously refreshing to try to find a last minute Flight of Passage time slot.
Any guest who's purchased Genie+ can make their first Lightning Lane selection at 7:00 AM on the dot, so on-site guests don't get an advantage there. But only on-site guests can purchase those "Individual Lightning Lane" ride access reservations at 7:00. (Off-site guests need to wait until the park opens, which can be one, two, or even three hours later, by which time "Individual Lightning Lanes" may be sold out, forcing off-site guests into the "Standby" line without even the option to purchase an "ILL.")
On one hand, that is a perk. Staying on-site and buying an "ILL" during your exclusive 7:00 AM window is one of the few ways to assure you'll avoid a multi-hour wait for Flight of Passage, for example. But on the other hand, it's a little strange that the "perk" you're given as an on-site guest is the "privilege" of paying for something before off-site guests can. It's not even like you get a discount. So while buying "Individual Lightning Lanes" is obviously optional, if you want to partake in the "advtange" you get from staying on-site, it basically just means you'll be able to hand over the $7 to $14 per person per ride we mentioned above a little faster.
Sadly, I think Disney is giving into what the American public wants, namely cheaper prices with extra (optional or not) fees. Like the article said, a lot of "free" things at Disney World are baked into the overall price, such as a higher room rate or a higher day pass. This creates a feeling that everything is included, which is almost a magical feeling.
How many people would prefer to fly on "Cheapest Air" for $300 and pay for carry-on bags, pay for checked luggage, page for seats, and pay for drink? Now how many people would prefer to pay $500 for an all-inclusive flight with no extra fees! Well, $200 is cheaper than $300, right? Not when the added fees brings the total to $600... but by the time you realize that, you're stuck!
The same goes for hotels: there's a hotel for $200 with some fees or another one for $250 with no fees. How bad can that be? Well, the hotel for $200 charges a resort fee of $40 and a parking fee of $30, for a total of $270. But, hey, the room rate is cheaper, right?
(As a side note, if you get a chance, take an all-inclusive European river cruise- yes, it's more expensive, but there's far less worry about whether the company will charge you for this thing or that thing.)
On the other hand, Disney's not lowering its prices now that the free items aren't free. In my opinion, that seems greedy and not very "magical". On the other, other hand, Disney is a company and companies need to make money. And as long as people keep going to Disney World (with little complaining), then they can keep charging fees.
Though, like the article says, I wonder how long it'll be until people start complaining on social media- either when they're at the parks or when they get back. Maybe it'll take 5 or 10 years for parents to decide that their once-in-a-lifetime trip to Disney World just isn't magical any more. If Disney World (of all places!) is going to nickel-and-dime you, then why not go to a local theme park instead?