Bob Chapek, the unpopular former CEO of the Walt Disney Company, had the misfortune of presiding over the entertainment giant throughout the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Under his command and in the name of safety and survival, the company's American theme parks added a series of roundly despised regulations and policy changes that made planning a tough vacation even tougher.
At Frommer's we cataloged some of the miserable new rules as they were introduced, including forcing guests to use a confusing and clunky app to plan their days, requiring all visitors to make a reservation in addition to purchasing an entry ticket (reservations that were frequently unavailable), charging guests for the formerly free FastPass line reservation program, stripping down early access to the parks for resort guests, and more.
All of those unwelcome changes came in addition to entry prices that can easily scale past $150 per person per day.
Disney dumped Chapek last fall, choosing to replace him with the previous CEO, Bob Iger, who had left the role the minute the pandemic began. Ever since Iger returned, the drip-drip-drip of awful Chapek-era regulations has been succeeded by the drop-drop-drop of many of those decisions, one by one.
The first money grab to be abandoned was the reinstatement earlier this year of free parking for guests at Disney-run hotels.
A new batch of reversals was announced this week, and they're being cheered by Disney devotées. But the changes won't come into force until 2024, and even then, only at Florida's Walt Disney World, where the most-visited Disney parks are. (Disney may have announced the changes eight months early to drum up a little positive press in advance of its next earnings call on May 10.)
• As of January 9, 2024, Walt Disney World will no longer require theme park reservations for "date-based tickets," which includes many tickets purchased by guests who come to visit on vacation.
This reversal would have been bigger news in 2021, when the availability calendar could be blocked for days and weeks at a time because of coronavirus restrictions. The reservation system has been less onerous in 2023, with most days fully available without blockages. Still, taking the extra step of making an advance park reservation has been a massive hassle—and one that persists at California's Disneyland—so news about the procedure's sunsetting is good indeed.
• The same day, January 9, 2024, Walt Disney World will also bring back its popular Disney Dining Plan. Suspended during the pandemic, the plan allows guests at Disney resorts (but not other hotels) to pre-buy their food for the duration of their stay. While some people like the convenience of the Dining Plan, it also has historically placed an immense burden on the sit-down restaurants across the parks, and heavy subscription to the program makes it harder for guests to obtain reservations for meals.
During the pandemic, when staffing levels were low, many Disney restaurants remained half-empty even though all available reservations had been booked. Hopefully by January, when many visitors are expected to buy the dining plan, Disney's labor issues will have settled down enough for restaurants to be adequately staffed—but in light of our experience with Disney, it's more likely the return of the plan will only make dining reservations scarcer and prescheduling Disney vacations more complicated, even for guests who want a dining reservation without using the plan.
New prices for the Disney Dining Plan were not announced, but the company confirmed it will offer at least two varieties again: one for guests who only want counter-service meals, and a more expensive one for guests who want daily table service.
Historically, Walt Disney World has often offered the Dining Plan as a free perk to entice guests to visit in low season, so the plan's return will give the company another tool for drumming up business in lean times.
• The Genie+ paid ride reservation system, which can add $30–$50 a day per guest for people who choose to use it, isn't going anywhere. The company is making too much cash off the system. But Disney has announced, somewhat cryptically, that sometime in the future, Genie+ will allow guests to start planning attraction reservations before the day of their visits. Currently, guests can only begin booking attraction time slots starting in the morning of the day they will use the reservations, a process that many have found frustrating and stressful.
Our long experience with Disney vacations leads us to suspect that the coming change to Genie+ will probably only move the stress of planning to an earlier date, and guests will have to remember to schedule the chore of advance booking in order to beat the crowd and snag the best slots.
In Disney World, reservations are regularly snapped up within minutes of their release, far in advance, which can turn planning a Disney vacation into a part-time job spanning many months. If the coming Genie+ changes are anything like the other Disney booking policies, yet another gauntlet of preplanning will be added that people will have to mark their calendars to remember to complete.
Many other aspects of modern Disney procedures will not change. Early entry to the parks for Disney resort guests is still a paltry 30 minutes—not enough time to do much, far less than the hour or more resort guests used to get before the pandemic, and not enough to justify the higher cost of a Disney hotel.
We're glad to see park reservations being jettisoned, at least for most guests, even if it's only happening at Walt Disney World and not Disneyland.
But Disney has spent the past decade encrusting its park experience with unwelcome layers of counterintuitive bureaucracy, while drastic internal budget reductions have introduced more difficult problems and cutbacks that are plaguing the Florida resort. Those have yet to be reversed, despite Chapek's dismissal.