Three Reasons Disney Theme Parks are Great/are Horrible

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Of all the things I swore I would never do as a parent, the one that haunts me the most is saying that I would never take my kids to Disneyland. This was our third trip there. As Charles Dickens said, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Here’s why.

The three reasons Disney Theme Parks are great:

The Disney brand appeals to everybody

It’s not just princesses, it’s Star Wars, it’s not just Pixar, it’s Jake and the Never Land Pirates. It’s not just Mickey Mouse, it’s the Muppets. Disney has been amassing loads of brands over the past several years, and they are incorporating them strategically into their parks. Whatever your kid is into, Disney has a brand that will appeal. This is also useful for parents. We love seeing our little girls pretend to be princesses. We like that they believe they could actually grow up and pursue princess as a career someday. We love hearing them sing princess songs and sleep in princess sheets. . .right up until the day we are so tired of seeing princesses everywhere in our house that we feel like we’re going to throw up. Disney gets that. They are there with the princesses when you want them, and then they are there with The Incredibles and the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror when princesses become passé.

Disney parks grow with your family

Our first year in Disney, we spent a lot of time in Mickey’s Toontown. Our kids ran through Mickey’s house, they waited in line to meet Minnie and they played aboard Donald’s Boat. This year, we didn’t go near Toontown. We ran through the park strategically navigating the FastPass system and planning all of our activities in between rollercoasters. Disney has activities that appeal to all ages, and there are enough activities at each age level to make visitors feel like they want to experience everything during their visit. We still haven’t tapped out. There’s one rollercoaster we haven’t tackled yet, and we have one kid who is still working up the nerve for the Haunted Mansion. On top of all that, it was my 90-year-old grandmother’s favorite place. She would watch the shows, clap at the parade, and look around at the shops. It’s true: Disneyland is fun for the whole family.

Disney parks make kids very happy

This is the real reason we have visited Disneyland three times. Our kids love it there, and they talk about it all year long. They say things like, “Mom, I just can’t stop smiling when I think about going on Big Thunder.” As soon as we leave, they try to figure out what the first thing is they are going to do the next time we go back. Three months after we visit, they still use my phone so they can open up an app that will show them the wait times on all their favorite rides. If the wait times are short, they get excited. It’s as if they forget they aren’t actually there. Kids love Disney, parents love kids, and Disney makes everyone excited . . . until Disney makes everyone miserable.

Here are the three reasons Disney Theme Parks are horrible.

The parks are really expensive, but more importantly, they don’t offer good value

Disney theme parks are obnoxiously expensive. When I’m at Disneyland, I think about families saving for a year to afford a day or two in these parks. Then I see those same families standing and waiting in inconceivably long lines. I see them waiting to get on rides, waiting to eat and waiting to pee. This year, we had been in Disneyland for two hours and had ridden only one ride. We had waited to get into the park, we had trudged through the crowds to get in our first line, only to have the attraction close while we were in the line. We dodged strollers, toddlers and parents stopping in the middle of the walkway to root through their backpacks and finally made it to another ride, where we waited in line some more. It costs our family of five nearly $500 for a day in the park. At 12 hours inside the park, we’re paying around $41 an hour. That means we paid roughly $82 that morning to go on one ride—and that’s not factoring in the cost of a hotel room and food.

The legendary Disney service feels fake

Disney service has a great reputation. I even went to a marketing conference once to learn how Disney service is taught to employees, how it was developed and how it helps the company differentiate. It’s so legendary, I find myself being suspicious of every positive comment made to us while we are in the park. It’s beginning to feel flat, because it isn’t genuine—it’s part of their training. (It brings me back to a time several years ago when I was at the grocery store and a woman came up and told me I had beautiful eyes. She said she had noticed them and just wanted to comment. “By the way,” she followed it up with, “have you ever considered using Mary Kay cosmetics on them?”) Whack. A compliment turns into a tactic, flattery turns into a sales technique. Disney’s legendary service is beginning to feel like that. One of my favorite moments at Disneyland this year came when I overheard a Disneyland employee who had just left the men’s restroom and was waiting for someone to vacate the women’s restroom to clean it. He chanted to a coworker in a low voice, “I think, I think, I think that this place stinks.” I loved that human moment. It can’t be fun to clean up after all these visitors.

It’s a lot of work to visit a Disney Theme Park

I pity the poor tourists who think they can just show up to a Disney Theme Park and have fun. Suckers. Disney parks have become so complicated they require extensive research, apps that monitor crowds and wait times, and highly-complicated strategic plans.

There are special perks that come from staying at a Disney property, there are a variety of ticket plans to choose from, there is a system for making dinner reservations at restaurants in the park, there are good and bad places to stand to watch the fireworks and there are attractions that close earlier than others. Then there is the FastPass system. I spent over an hour reading about the FastPass system for the Disneyland and California Adventure Theme Parks. When we finally got into California Adventure, my husband flipped into guerilla parenting mode and ran to get our first FastPass. A FastPass gives you an “appointment” to ride the more popular rides. What I learned in my research, however, is that riders can only have one FastPass at a time. What I learned when I entered the park is that a number of the popular rides actually have a line for the FastPass itself. And what does a park goer need to do to get a FastPass for the ride? Get in the FastPass line fast, of course. Getting a FastPass for the popular Radiator Springs Racer ride is a topic all of its own. The FastPasses run out quickly, and the line for the FastPass is hard to find. The fact that I know all of this scares me.

All in all, visiting a Disney Theme Park is a lot like giving birth. When it’s over, you swear you’ll never go through it again. But, then one day, you think to yourself, “maybe just one more time.”

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