Travel Tuesday: The Increasingly Complicated World of Disney Parks Bookings
Once upon a time, visiting Disneyland or Walt Disney World was pretty straightforward: you’d buy tickets for the parks (or paid an entry fee and bought a ticket book if you’re really old school), show up, and wait in line for the rides you wanted to experience. Well, those days are long gone. First, there came FastPass, which became a system locals and regulars were able to make the most out of while the unprepared waited in longer lines. Then, at Disney World, came FastPass+, which meant planning your park days out months in advance. And, most recently, the Disney Parks threw out that free system in favor of a paid one called Genie+ — along with the similar but slightly different Individual Lightning Lane. Not only do guests now have to pay for what is essentially the same as the old free FastPass system but Disney has also made several updates to the program since launch.
These days, visiting the Disney Parks has become far more complicated — starting with buying your ticket. So today I wanted to rant/detail some of what those visiting Disneyland or Walt Disney World Resorts can expect and explain why change is sorely needed.
The Dynamic Pricing of the Disney Parks and More
Disneyland vs. Walt Disney World
Kicking off the theme of confusion, many of the systems I’ll be discussing vary between the Disneyland Resort in California and the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Therefore, while there’s plenty of overlap, I’ll be sure to point out how they differ when possible.
Over the past several years, Disney Parks have gone from charging one standard price for tickets to using dynamic pricing. At the Disneyland Resort, this means that there are several different tiers for pricing based on how busy a day is expected to be.
Meanwhile, although Walt Disney World utilizes a similar system, it’s even less predictable. Instead, you’ll basically need to go to their site and select your dates to see how much you can expect to pay. Of course, one aspect of the old system remains: the longer the ticket package you purchase, the cheaper the per-day price will be. For example, while a one-day, one-park ticket for Disneyland may be $104 (the lowest price currently), a five-day, one-park ticket might work out to $83 per day, for a total of $415.
Next, when the Disney Parks reopened following a pandemic closure, they implemented a new reservation system. For the most part, that’s still in place today — although it’s being scaled back little by little. Currently, if you’re buying a dated 1-Day ticket at Disneyland, it will include a park reservation. Additionally, starting next year, dated Disney World tickets will not require a reservation. Outside of that though, in addition to buying tickets, you’ll likely need to make a theme park reservation, which includes selecting what park you want to visit on a given day.
Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane
Another pandemic-era change was the debut of Disney Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane. Sidenote: “Individual Lightning Lane” isn’t even quite official nomenclature but Disney failed to come up with a better name, so that’s what we have to go with. With the paid Genie+ service, guests can book select attraction times and enjoy a reduced wait time via the Lightning Lane when they arrive for their booking.
Guests with Genie+ can make these bookings for multiple attractions throughout the day (subject to availability). Meanwhile, “Individual Lightning Lane” is available for select attractions and works as an a la carte purchase. For example, you can basically purchase priority access to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, whereas Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run is included in the Genie+ service.
So how much are these services? Well, it depends. At the Disneyland Resort, guests can currently pre-purchase Genie+ with their ticket at a cost of $25 per person per day. Those who don’t pre-purchase it may still be able to buy on the day of their visit, the price will be based on demand. This means that, while it may be a base price of $25 on some days, other days may cost $30 or whatever other price. Additionally, Individual Lightning Lane bookings vary based on attraction and day.
At Walt Disney World, Genie+ can no longer be purchased in advance. In other words, you’ll just need to show up and see how much it costs that day. What’s more, effective today, Walt Disney World has once again made changes to its Genie+ service. Now, rather than the service carrying a single price, the park you are visiting will dictate how much you pay. For example, today, Genie+ for Magic Kingdom is going for $27 per day while EPCOT is $18 (Disney’s Hollywood Studios is $24 and Disney’s Animal Kingdom is $16). If you’re park hopping, there’s also still a multiple-parks option, which is also $27 today.
Similar to how it was before this latest adjustment, these prices are subject to change every day based on projected attendance. Additionally, Genie+ can sell out on any given day. In fact, with the new system, the service may sell out for certain parks while remaining available for others.
On the bright side, in theory, this update could mean that those at certain parks could pay less than they would under the older (meaning the most recent before this) system. Still, it speaks to just how complicated navigating the Parks experience has become.
Funny enough, Disney has acknowledged that fans would like to once again have the option to plan ahead when it comes to their Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane selections. So, they’ve teased that they’re working on something for next year. Exactly how that works remains to be seen — but you can probably bet that there will be benefits to being a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel guest when whatever system does eventually roll out.
I’ll admit that the concept of a virtual queue sounds great. After all, who wouldn’t love the opportunity to effectively hold your spot in line while you get to do whatever you want in the parks and then return to your ride? Well, in reality, the virtual queues that Disney Parks currently employ are controversial at best and downright loathed at worst.
As of this writing, virtual queues are used at Walt Disney World for TRON Lightcycle/Run at Magic Kingdom and for Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at EPCOT. To ride these attractions, guests must use the Disney World app to claim a “boarding group” at select times during the day. First, at 7 a.m., those with valid admission to the park in question can try their luck at nabbing one of these spots. Then, an additional drop happens later in the day — but is only open to those already in the park.
While I don’t have personal experience, I’ve heard that these drops can be stressful. After all, since neither attraction currently offers Standby, missing out on a boarding group means either skipping the ride or buying an Individual Lightning Lane (which can also sell out quickly at times). What’s also frustrating is that, even if you do end up getting a Virtual Queue spot, it’s hard to know when your return time will be or how long you’ll need to wait when your group is called. For those reasons, many people I know despise Virtual Queue and are anxiously waiting for the day when these attractions use a regular Standby queue.
Using a travel agent
If you’re like me, you may have occasionally wondered, “Why do travel agents still exist?” Well, the truth is that they may be more valuable than ever. In general, having a travel agent that can help you with rebookings when something goes wrong can be immensely helpful. And, in the case of Disney, they can help you navigate the current craziness.
From what I’ve been told from those who work in the industry, travel agents (namely those that specialized in Disney bookings) can help guests book the best rates based on currently available deals, explain the pricing to them, nab their park reservations, and more. In fact, I’ve even heard that some agents are able to help you try to score Virtual Queue spots during the 7 a.m. releases. For those reasons — and the fact that they are paid on commission and not out of your pocket — I think working with a travel agent to book a Disney trip versus doing it yourself makes a ton of sense.
As much as I love the Disney Parks, there’s no question that certain aspects of the experience have changed for the worst in recent years. To be fair, there are inherent problems at play that don’t have easy solutions. However, for laypeople and superfans alike, visiting the parks has grown far too confusing and cumbersome — with no end in sight. So, while I have yet to use one for myself just yet, perhaps it’s worth seeking out a travel agent the next time you and your family want to book a Walt Disney World vacation.