The holidays are here, which means one thing: It’s about to get real hectic at the airport. According to a forecast by Airlines For America, a U.S. airline trade organization, a record 31.6 million passengers will travel on U.S. airlines during the Thanksgiving holiday period, up 3.7% from last year.
When it comes to flying out of Philadelphia International Airport, no flight is more popular than the one to Orlando. According to a spokesperson, 1.5 million nonstop passengers travel from PHL to Orlando annually. The destination for many of them? Disney World.
For some, the 48-year-old theme park and resort inspires warm recollections of favorite rides, beloved family trips, and the childlike wonderment of seeing favorite characters come to life. For others, even the mere mention of a certain mouse invokes unpleasant memories of long lines, exorbitant prices, and sweltering weather.
As peak travel season begins, The Inquirer asked two local travel writers to debate: Is Disney World truly the happiest place on earth — or a vacation nightmare?
Less than two days into our Disney World vacation, we hit the rock bottom moment. Screaming, tears, whining, a little cursing. But it didn’t come from any of my young daughters. It was my own epic meltdown.
Ages 8, nearly 4, and 2, the girls were remarkably composed for having spent an entire day traipsing around a crowded theme park, fueled by adrenaline and never-ending sugar.
We were returning to our hotel after dinner at the nearby dining complex Disney Springs. It was late, everyone was spent, and finding our ride — navigating around street performers and herds of people flowing in and out of Wolfgang Puck and Wetzel’s Pretzels — was the last straw. I completely lost my cool while our middle daughter reminded me to take deep breaths.
The Happiest Place on Earth is not my happy place.
This is not a new realization for me. I first visited the storied Orlando theme park with my family when I was 15. By that age, I had a basic grasp on finance, and I have a vivid memory of being outraged by the price of a fountain Coke. Years later, I went with my college lacrosse team (the price of a ticket was about $60, I have no memory of where I came up with that cash), and in my early 20s, I dated a boy who thought he wanted to get married there. It was a Cinderella’s Castle-size red flag.
When my husband and I had kids, my opinion of Disney World was already fully formed: It was crowded and swampy, an offensively expensive symbol of rampant consumerism and a cultural forgery.
Nowadays, tickets are $109 a day, or, for $335, you can buy a four-day, 4-Park Magic Ticket. For a family of four, that’s $1,340, before factoring in lodging, flights, and food. (If you’re wondering if the Disney meal plan is worth the money, you can first get your Ph.D. in economics and then read one of the 6,000-word blog posts breaking down the pros and cons.)
The financial outlay ranges from wildly expensive to you-must-be-a-Rockefeller. Before leaving for our June trip, I polled Facebook for tips, and had more than one responder tell me we “had” to book a $200 per hour private guide to shepherd us around the park. This, I was told, would allow us to visit every ride without waiting in line. (Waiting in line is for the basic bozos who only bought $100 tickets to walk through the gates.) One friend told me the exact number of rides his family experienced with the guide on their recent trip. Months later, that number is still fresh in his mind, a weak salve to the haunting knowledge that he spent nearly 1,000 American dollars on rides his kids would probably have enjoyed just as much at a carnival in a church parking lot.
It’s not just the monetary cost of a Disney vacation that’s high. The opportunity cost of spending, at the very least, $5,000 means, for most people who don’t have an unlimited budget, that you’re not going to a national park, or Puerto Rico, or Paris — all things you could do with a family of four with roughly the same (or less) money.
There are other downsides to eschewing other places for Disney, too. One of my favorite things about traveling is experiencing new cultures, even if that means, at times, feeling out of my comfort zone because of language barriers, my terrible sense of direction, hunger, etc. Beyond a spin around It’s a Small World, you won’t experience much culture in the Magic Kingdom, and with everyone speaking English and a Mickey-shaped snack on every corner, you sure won’t feel out of your comfort zone, either.
Opt instead for a vacation anywhere else. The real Eiffel is a little more impressive than the Disney version, and it’s a small world, after all.
Regan Stephens is a freelance writer covering food and travel. She’s worked at People and Philadelphia magazines, and her work has appeared in print and digital outlets, including Food & Wine, Fortune, Edible Philly, and more.
As a food and travel writer, I’m often advocating for off-the-beaten path and independent places. Disney World is none of those things, but it is the Happiest Place on Earth, an entertainment ecosystem that in 48 years has transformed a Florida swamp into the most visited destination in the country. Of the 75 million visitors to Orlando last year, 20.8 went to the Magic Kingdom, according to the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual report. That’s more than the Louvre and the Vatican Museums. Combined.
The data are compelling, but can’t begin to explain Disney’s appeal to legions of fans, many of which are millennials who came of age during the Disney Renaissance. I’m part of this group. You can call us losers. You can call us something worse, as one mother did in an unhinged 2018 Facebook post suggesting childless adults should be banned from Disney World. I’ll refer the haters to the voice-over from the Great Movie Ride’s petrifying Alien scene: Warning! Remain in your vehicle. The area you are entering is extremely dangerous.
Meanwhile, I’m married to one of them. It’s not Charlotte’s fault; she didn’t go to Disney until she was 12, her jaded tween exoskeleton too calcified for the magic to penetrate. In my amateur investigation of attitudes toward Disney, the higher the number of childhood visits, the higher the likelihood a deep affection remains as an adult. My first trip was in 1989. I was 5.
I recognize I’m writing from a place of privilege. That first year my parents bought into a timeshare in nearby Kissimmee. Our unit at Resort World was a tropical confection of white stucco, fake palms, and swirly aqua and purple upholstery.
Having a timeshare guaranteed an annual visit to Disney, and every third week of June, the Erace network of first and second cousins and family friends would show up at Atlantic City airport. We rolled so deep that one year, after a particularly turbulent flight, my uncle joked if the plane had gone down, we’d have taken up the entire obituary section of the South Philly Review.
The magic of the Disney parks never got old, even as I did. At night, my interests might have diverged into which clubs in Pleasure Island would honor my fake ID, but during the day, I was always 10 years old, in thrall of the immersive design, the thrilling coasters, the Dole Whip.
Once I was traveling independently, the family Disney trip died off, and by the time Charlotte and I got together, my work was more likely to take us to Zanzibar than Orlando. In the decade we’ve been together, we’ve done Disney twice, most recently two Octobers ago, when mammoth crowds, a brutal heat wave, and one rotten Florida orange of a head defiling the Hall of Presidents soured our day in the Magic Kingdom. Trekking across an endless asphalt savanna to our rental car, we brokered a multiyear hiatus.
I violated our treaty in July, when one of the magazines I write for assigned me a story on Galaxy’s Edge, the new Star Wars-themed land in Hollywood Studios. I planned an in-and-out trip. “Don’t worry,” I told Charlotte. “You don’t have to go.”
“Well …” She looked up from an armchair in the ICU at Penn Presbyterian, where her dad was recovering from sepsis. “Will Disney be all decorated for Christmas?”
The way I’ll defend Disney is the way the way Charlotte defends putting up Christmas decorations immediately after Halloween. My in-laws are not Disney people, but boy, are they holiday people. Charlotte grew up in a Hallmark movie of marathon baking sessions, rollicking parties, and family feasts. The holidays are Charlotte’s Disney, and last year, they were bittersweet. Her dad spent them in the hospital.
Yes, Disney would be decorated for Christmas, I told her.
We leave in two weeks.
Adam Erace is an award-winning food and travel writer based in South Philly. He is the coauthor of Laurel: Modern American Flavors in Philadelphia and Dinner at the Club: 100 Years of Stories and Recipes from South Philly’s Palizzi Social Club. His favorite Disney ride is Tower of Terror.