Disney's parks did not emerge from the pandemic unscathed. They're in a period of drastic change. As thousands of the brand's biggest fans return to theme parks after several years away, they're discovering that the experience is now quite different.
Some of the most complex and controversial changes stem from the company's decision to convert a formerly free perk, FastPass, into a new profit center.
For two decades, FastPass was a complimentary system that permitted guests to arrange timed reservations that allowed them to skip the bulk of the queue at a few attractions each day. The privilege was considered one of the premiums that made Disney better than the rest of the amusement rabble, setting it apart from the likes of Six Flags and carnivals. As of October 2021, though, FastPass is now called Lightning Lane, and it costs money to book—as much as $15 per person, per ride.
To access Lightning Lane, all guests must first download the official Disney World app and activate Genie, which is a free itinerary builder. Then they have to pay $15 to activate a feature-within-a-feature called Genie+, which can grant Lightning Lane scheduling access to all but two of the most popular rides in each park. For those last two rides, the guest has to pay again, separately and per ride (usually $7–$15). All of those fees are on top of a park's admission price.
Confused? You're not alone. The new system brings a whole new layer of complication to a day's planning.
So how hard is it work Genie+?
I invited Tracy, a great-grandmother, to the Magic Kingdom to see if she could work Genie+ on her own.
This is a truly capable woman in her 70s. Tracy knows how to navigate digitally—on her laptop at home, she easily juggles external drives, installations, multiple accounts, settings, social media, and smooth FaceTime conversations without confusion or meltdowns. She is also a Disney veteran. Her first visit to Walt Disney World was back in 1972—when it was new, she lived nearby, and had small children (including me—she's my mother). Tracy has been going to the park steadily ever since, first to bring grandchildren and now to accompany great-grandchildren. So she knows her way around a Disney park and she knows the historic Disney experience.
Since Genie is a feature that purports to be for everyone, I decided to leave it up to Disney to guide her. Could Disney explain Genie+ and Lightning Lane clearly to her? Would it be understandable to a woman who doesn't follow the Disney fan sites and just comes to the parks for fun, like most people do? Does the app make it easy to grasp and sign up?
So how did she do with Disney's new system—and after 50 years of experience at the resort, what did she think of it?
Figuring out Genie+
We went to Magic Kingdom on a Tuesday. Because she's a Disney regular, she didn't feel the need to rush to the front gates for opening time, which was 9am. Instead, we had a leisurely morning in the hotel and got past the turnstiles at around 10am.
In Town Square, right past the Railroad station, we opened the Disney World app and got started.
"So, do you know what Genie is?" I asked.
"Kinda-sorta," she responded. "Is it where they make a list of things they want you to do? Based on what you like? Though how they know what you like, I don’t know."
The ad for Genie on the app's main page doesn't make it clear. It promises a "complimentary new service" and mentions nothing about how to get shorter lines, but underneath that is a cryptic invitation to "take today to the next level." That, it turned out, was what she has to figure out to click if she wants quicker access to rides.
After she tapped the right link, the system began by asking her what her favorite rides and topics are. (Disney opens every Genie interaction this way so its algorithms know what attractions to build into the free suggested itinerary.)
First, she had to go into her phone's settings to activate location detection. Once she got back to the app, she was presented with a long list of most of the things to ride and see at Magic Kingdom and Genie told her to inform it about what she likes ("choose experiences you'd most like to do," the app instructs.)
Tracy selected a few, but she soon grew annoyed with having to keep scrolling down the page—the list was more than 50 entries long. As we stood in the excitement of Main Street, U.S.A, she didn't feel like evaluating everything one-by-one.
"See, already they’re trying to get me to do something on my phone. I don’t want to do that," she said. "I don't like all the choices."
With that page out of the way, a similar one popped up. Genie pressed her to "personalize your day even more" by choosing up to 10 more selections among vague themes like Disney Villains and Star Wars.
She simply skipped it. Only then did Genie finally deliver the promised complimentary itinerary, under a tab called My Day.
The first ride suggestion was for Magic Carpets of Aladdin, a toddler-targeted ride that spins in a circle.
"It wants me to do all the rides that aren't big! I don't want to do these. I don't like my choices," Tracy said. "What should I do?"
Disney's interface didn't make it clear how to remove a Genie-suggested item from her suggested day, so I told her that tapping the little icon containing three dots would let her swap it (although the label phrases it as "remove from My Day").
"So these are my FastPasses?" she asked.
Nope. It was just a list of suggested things to do. You have to pay $15 for access to the former FastPass, now called Lightning Lane.
"So how do I get FastPasses?" she asked me, growing impatient. Because we didn't want to wind up standing on Main Street all day, I helped her out a little and told her she had to tap a tab called "Tip Board" to see the upcoming available slots for Lightning Lane.
"They're not really tips," Tracy said. "I don't know what it is."
"Those are the current wait times and the next available time slots for Lightning Lane," I said. "That's what the little LL means."
Tracy decided she wanted to ride Haunted Mansion, so her fingers went hunting for the Lightning Lane information for that. She temporarily got waylaid by a menu choice called Virtual Queue ("That's not it . . . ") before finding the right place. We scrolled and saw that the next time slot was four hours away. So we'd have to pay $15 for Genie+ right now just to reserve a spot, and we'd have to wait until it came due until we could get a second Lightning Lane pass. Not great. Riding more attractions after that would make our potential day in the park longer than planned.
Tracy looked up from the app. "Let's just say I want to ride Pirates [of the Caribbean] and pay for it," she said. "How do I do that?"
You can't. The Lightning Lane at Pirates is only accessible through the list of attractions that are part of Genie+. The only rides at Magic Kingdom you can pay for individually are Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Space Mountain, neither of which she wants to do.
It was becoming clear that this new system was not going to help us much. We would not be able to use Genie+ to ride one choice attraction after another because we'd started our day too late by arriving at 10am. All the earliest time slots for the best rides had already been snapped up, and we'd have to pass hours of dead time before we could kick things off with our first reservation.
For her, time was up. She was done fooling with the app.
"Let's just buy this so we can go shopping," she said.
If only it were that easy.
Disney's validation maze
Genie+ told Tracy it would cost her $31.96 for two people. On the payment screen, there's a link labeled "Click to Pay," and, logically, she clicked it. But it took her to a payment page she didn't recognize—"Click to Pay" turns out to be a certain type of payment system, not a link that a general audience can use to click to pay.
Tracy finally deduced she needed to be clicking the link for payment by credit card instead. Since she was at Disney World just before the pandemic began, she already had a credit card on file, and it was listed as an option to use. She clicked to purchase.
The card was declined—no reason given.
"It could have been one of the ones that was compromised in that recent data breach," she said. "Why did the app act like it was approved to use until now?"
"That means I have to put in another card."
This was the point where Disney's overly complex UI sent her into an Escher-like labyrinth. Disney now demanded a validation code to log in despite the fact she just used facial recognition to access the Disney World app. The company sent her a temporary code by email—but she couldn't find the mailbox she used for the Disney World account.
At this point, I needed the bathroom. By the time I got back, she had tried five times to obtain an access code, and by the time she found and entered one, it had timed out.
It turned out that Disney had never informed her that the Disney World app had dumped her into her Safari browser, so she had been looking to enter her code in the wrong place all this time. Genie splits its duties between the app and the Web without notifying users.
After several torturous minutes, she finally managed to sign in—and Disney issued yet another email alerting her to the new sign-in, which caused her to open her mailbox and again accidentally return to the wrong app.
At this point, we abandoned Genie+ entirely.
We went shopping for baby clothes instead.
It's not worth it
In the end, my mother bailed on Genie+ not because she was incapable of using it, but because it's a needless hassle and not remotely suited to a leisurely style of vacation.
As we strolled around the Magic Kingdom that day, she shared some important insights about the changes she was seeing.
On guests: "You know what’s different about Disney now compared to when I would take you? All these people sitting around," she said, pointing at the crowded benches in Fantasyland. "Everybody’s sitting looking at their phones."
On Genie's programming: "I feel sorry for some of these people who have to use this. Not everyone knows how to use the internet."
On its impact on foreign visitors: "And what if you're a tourist from Europe or South America who doesn't speak English very well? They'll never figure it out."
And finally, on whether she sees it as an improvement: "I know Disney, so I know the questions to ask and which rides aren't worth worrying about. But if I was new to this place and spent all this money on tickets . . . what do I get for my money except for a bad itinerary and a few FastPasses?"
The main thing that Tracy, and countless customers like her, want out of Disney is a good time. She wants to show up on her own schedule, maybe ride some favorites, and be with family. She doesn't want to be frog-marched around to a schedule, and she doesn't want to hunch over her smartphone—where's the fun in spending your day trying to game Genie+/ Lightning Lane the way gamblers in Las Vegas spend all day tending to a slot machine?
Disney's management might already know the new system is problematic. As of today, nearly two months after Genie rolled out, Walt Disney World's official website for journalists contains no information about Genie—no press releases, no fact sheets, and no images. It's as if Genie doesn't even exist.
In the end, the two of us rode a single ride: the Liberty Square Steamboat, something we last enjoyed together in the 1970s. Otherwise, we spent most of our time shopping and eating. Like it or not, that's a final result that would surely please the Disney execs who green-lit Genie.
Jason Cochran is the author of our award-winning guide to Disney World, Universal, and Orlando.