On November 22, 1963, around the time President John Kennedy was embarking on his public motorcade in Dallas, Walt Disney was in a private jet, conducting his first flyover of a patch of ignored Florida swampland. By the end of the day, as Disney decided this was the place he wanted to shape into the image of his dreams, America had changed in more ways than one.

While the country reeled, Disney gradually snapped up land through dummy companies. His cover was blown in 1965, but the fix was in: His company had mopped up an area twice the size of Manhattan, 27,443 acres, at a low price of $180 an acre. Disneyland East was coming. Today, it’s the most popular vacation destination on the planet, and in happy times, its four theme parks receive more than 58 million combined visits a year, or 60 percent of the region’s tourism market share. After years without much significant development, during which it lost ground to nearby Universal, the resort is now in the midst of a multi-year push to pour billions into improvements, and signs of construction are everywhere.
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It’s no accident that Walt, a seller of fantasies, enjoyed his career peaks during two periods of profound malaise: the Great Depression and the Cold War. It’s also no coincidence that his theme parks flowered while America was riven with self-doubt—the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the death of Kennedy, and Watergate. His parks are, by design, comforting. They tell you how to feel and where to go, and in reinforcing uncomplicated impressions of history and the world, they never make you feel stupid or left behind.

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That was a half century ago. In 2021, Disney’s Magic Kingdom turned 50. It is now the American Varanasi—a place of pilgrimage and a spiritual balm for life’s hardships. If you don’t believe me, sit on a bench for a while in Fantasyland and watch the children pass. There’s just something about it. Even when the world was flung into the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic and human contact presented uncertain risks, guests came flooding back to the Disney parks in Florida just 4 months after they had temporarily closed. For 10 uneasy months after that, guests sought emotional reassurance from Walt Disney World even though they had to wear face masks, stand 6 feet away from anyone else, and sit alone in ride vehicles to observe vigilant safety protocols. The fierceness of their loyalty to Disney, even to the point of risking discomfort and illness, left no doubt about where the brand stands in its importance to the American psyche.

But Disney World, transporting though it may be, is a business, and for a significant portion of the population, it’s brutally expensive. The days of a spontaneous visit to Disney are over. Nearly every aspect of a day now requires advance decisions. One bygone Disney Parks president was frank about the tactic in Bloomberg Businessweek: “If we can get people to plan their vacation before they leave home, we know that we get more time with them. We get a bigger share of their wallet.”
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The pandemic only intensified that outlook. Faced with having to make do with suppressed attendance, Disney learned new ways to make more out of less, devising new crowd-management systems while squeezing more cash out of every visitor—and the company is taking those lessons into the future. Disney can’t fit too many more people into its parks, but it can fuel profits by finding new ways to make each person pay more. Even before Covid-19, the average domestic overnight guest spent nearly $300 per person per day, and executives openly aim to drive that number even higher.

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Today, a trip to Disney is full of nonstop competition for resources—long before you enjoy a single second of fun, you must act faster than rival guests to secure park tickets for the day you want them, book restaurant reservations, and even get permission to wait in line at the biggest rides. To succeed at Disney, you must put your back into pre-research and planning using a bureaucratic and often opaque system. For many, that stress spoils the delightful surprises the parks were carefully designed to deliver.

That’s where this Frommer’s guide comes in. This is not a guide for the Disney-obsessed fans who already know how to game the system. No, this book is for the rest of us—it’s for the casual or first-time visitor. This book will help you declutter your Disney prep so your vacation can be as carefree as possible. The world needs more carefree days.
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We love Disney, but we tell it like it is.