'The Disney magic is gone' ... or is it? Longtime fans weigh in on changes at Disney World

Eve Chen
USA TODAY
  • Critics say Disney World has lost its magic with changes like Genie+.
  • Fans say the parks are more expensive even though 1-day ticket prices haven't changed since 2018.
  • Cast members are credited with helping keep the magic alive.

Walt Disney World is not what it used to be. It never is.

"The Most Magical Place on Earth" is constantly evolving, but some critics say it's heading in the wrong direction.

"The current CEO and upper management has put more attention into movies and Disney+. The parks, which were once so magical, have suffered," said Tyler Rosenke, who lives about an hour away in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. He estimates he's visited roughly 500 times over the past 50 years. "For me and many others, the Disney magic is gone."

Walt Disney World responded by pointing to their more than 50-year "track record for delivering an amazing guest experience."

"We are always listening to our guests when we make decisions about what to do next and continue to make significant investments across every corner of Walt Disney World Resort," a parks statement said.

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More than 90,000 people have signed a petition to fire Walt Disney Co. CEO Bob Chapek, blaming him for a host of pain points ranging from price increases to the way ride reservations work to how cast members interact with guests, but other longtime fans are quick to point out that "the magic is still there" and the experience is what you make of it.

"Yes, there have been some changes made to how Disney works," said Emma Barbour, who was on one of the first flights to Orlando, Florida, from Manchester, England, when U.S. borders reopened to international tourists for non-essential travel in November. "But we haven't let that dampen our spirits. Walking down Main Street on our first day was just magical."

Disney magic: 'Walking in, every time I get chills'

Tyler Rosenke has loved Disney World ever since he was little.

There is a reason why Disney World is called the "Most Magical Place on Earth."

"It's just happiness as soon as you step foot on Disney property," said Sarah Thomas of Stevenage, England. She tries to visit every year and recently went back for her first time since the pandemic. "It's just right. Everyone's happy. Everyone's welcoming. Everyone's smiling. Everyone's trying to do their best. It's honestly – that's why they call it Disney World. It's a completely different world."

Rosenke is familiar with that feeling. 

"I can vividly remember, as a small child, rides that would transport you into believing you were a pirate, a cowboy, that you could fly ... basically your playground imagination come to life!" he said. 

Tyler Rosenke estimates he's visited Disney World 500 times over the last 50 years.

Like many Disney fans, when he had children of his own, he shared the experience with them.

"There is nothing like seeing the Magic Kingdom through your 5-year-old's eyes," said Ashley Walden-Owens of Franklin, Indiana. She recently visited for the first time in 20 years. "All the magic that I had remembered as a child and everything that I had always felt about Disney World ... to watch my husband and my son both light up as we walked in and seeing the decor and actually seeing the castle in person, it was lovely."

Annual pass holder Bella Rodriguez of Orlando gets the same reaction no matter how many times she visits.

"Walking in, every time I get chills," she said, but she has noticed some changes in recent years. 

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Park prices are a pain point for Disney fans

Bella Rodriguez and her boyfriend Emilio Lopez at EPCOT's iconic Spaceship Earth.

"I feel like Disney is trying to target a different audience, the very wealthy kind of audience," Rodriguez said.

"Whether guests are seeking value or looking to indulge, there is something for everyone," Walt Disney World responded. "The starting price of a one-day theme park ticket has not increased since 2018. We offer a date-based pricing model that offers a variety of price points to meet the needs of our guests and we also introduce special offers from time to time to help guests save."

While one-day ticket prices, which start at $109 for guests age 10 and up, have held steady, other prices have gone up, like tickets to Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, which started at $94 in 2019. This past season, Disney Very Merriest After Hours tickets started at $169.

Annual pass prices have also risen. In 2019, the highest tier annual pass cost $999 for Florida residents and $1,219 for nonresidents. Last year, prices jumped to $1,299 for everyone, before sales of the top-tier Disney Incredi-Pass pass were temporarily suspended. Meanwhile, Memory Maker photo perks and access to Disney World's two water parks, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex and Oak Trail Golf Course, which were included in the old Platinum Pass, were stripped and made available as add-ons.

"Now the top pass costs just as much and does not include any of that, and if you want it, you have to pay for it," Rodriguez said. "To me, that's kind of ridiculous."

Rosenke has felt value shift elsewhere as well.

"Food and drink portions are much smaller but more expensive," he said. "Resort prices are sometimes unattainable for middle class like myself."

Disney World offers a wide range of accommodations from value resorts like the recently renovated All-Star properties all the way up to the new all-inclusive Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser experience opening in March. Guests are also allowed to bring food and nonalcoholic drinks in from outside.

Walden-Owens said her family limited their trip to one park day because it was so expensive. 

"It is disheartening to see the price is increasing as much as they are," she said.

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Is Disney Genie making things better?

One thing Walden-Owens splurged on was Disney's new ride reservation system, which replaced free FastPasses last year.

The base-level Disney Genie planning tool is free, but it doesn't let guests cut long lines like FastPasses used to. To do that, guests must pay $15 per person per day for Genie+ or separate à la carte fees for Individual Lightning Lane access to the most popular rides at each park. 

"We paid for Genie+ because we were only going one day, and with only three ticketed riders, we could handle the $45," Walden-Owens said. Her youngest, an infant, didn't need a pass. Children under age 3 have free admission at Disney World.

Walden-Owens also purchased Individual Lightning Lane access for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, which she said her 5-year-old calls My Home "because he believes that the dwarfs are singing, 'My home. My home. It's off to work we go.' And that was the one thing he wanted to ride when we were there." 

Ashley Walden-Owens loved seeing the magic of Disney World through her 5-year-old's eyes on his first trip.

"It was money well spent because waiting in line with a 5-year-old who has high sensory issues ... it was helpful," she said. "But it did feel like we were being nickeled and dimed to go on rides for sure." 

“The majority of Genie and Genie+ users have said it improved their overall park experience with nearly one-third of park guests upgrading to Genie+, making it possible for them to spend less time waiting in line and more time enjoying attractions, entertainment, dining and retail opportunities," CEO Chapek said on an earnings call last fall. 

All rides do offer a traditional standby line, including Remy's Ratatouille Adventure and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which previously operated with virtual queues.

"We didn't do any of the Lightning Lanes," said Thomas, who spent five days at the parks on this latest trip. "We still got on every ride we wanted to."

Barbour, who also visits annually from England, said, "If we can't do something we wanted to, we just say we'll do it next time."

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Pixie dust, sprinkled by cast members

Emma Barbour couldn't wait to come back to Disney World with her family after the U.S. reopened borders to international tourists.

There are some Disney World experiences that money can't buy, like unexpected treats from cast members, often referred to as pixie dust. 

Barbour's family got a sprinkling when her daughter was feeling poorly at Animal Kingdom. A cast member named Brandon on the guest experience team gave them three Lightning Lane passes and a voucher for a free T-shirt and plush of her choice.

"She almost cried she was so happy, on a day she really needed cheering up," Barbour said. "This just highlights how magical Disney can be."

Walden-Owens said several cast members went out of their way for her son as well.

"He has not been diagnosed with anything, but he definitely has social anxiety and has listening and learning difficulties," she said. "Seeing the cast members notice that there was something a little different with our son that might not be noticeable to others and then trying to accommodate him was just beautiful."

"You cannot get that magic and that kindness anywhere else," she added. "We live an hour and a half from a theme park, and we would choose to go to Disney World over the local theme park any day because of the magic of the cast members."

Some critics have said cast members aren't delivering the same level of service they used to.

"The once stellar service with a smile from cast members has faded," Rosenke said. "They are short-handed and overworked."

Thomas said she'd heard complaints on social media "that the cast members were fed up and not very happy and a bit rude, but all of our engagement, everybody over there was so nice, and they were so friendly and welcoming."

"I definitely think they're trying at least to make people happy," Rodriguez said. "I think it's more of the guests that are just upset ... Instead of trying to have a good time, I feel like they start off upset."

Keeping the magic alive

Sarah Thomas and her mom try to visit Disney World each year.

"Just try to have fun and not let people's opinions affect the good time," Rodriguez advised.

There are numerous Disney-focused groups on Facebook where fans have vastly different views on just about everything, despite their shared love of the parks.

"Your holiday is what you make it essentially," Thomas added, encouraging travelers to stay flexible and not let little things ruin their vacation.

Walden-Owens said people know what's right for their families.

"If you believe for a moment that your children or your family or your parents or your spouse will have a day filled with happiness and magic because of going to Disney World, don't hesitate," she said. "Go find the magic. Enjoy the magic and know that memories are priceless."

"The magic is still there," Barbour said. "Things are a little different technically, but the heart of it all is still the same."