The 2021 Walt Disney World visit.

Our 2021 Walt Disney World trip was a success.  It was my first trip since 2014, and my wife’s first since 2008 or so.  We went into it with some trepidation, as there were concerns about both being exposed to COVID-19 and that the virus would diminish the quality of the park experience.  In my opinion, that didn’t have much of an impact on our trip.

I’ll tack on “Wife Notes” from the Mrs., who has her input on the experience that is probably more useful than anything I’ve got to say.  Before I do a rundown of the parks, here’s some…

Things To Know Before You Go

  • Invest in your footwear.  I brought a pair of comfortable shoes, but if I could do it again I would get two pairs of healthcare-worker-tier sneakers with insoles.  Unless you get in 10-20,000 steps a day for your job, you’ll end each day feeling pretty beat up.
    • WIFE NOTE: Bring at least two pairs of comfortable athletic shoes plus some flip flops/sandals of some kind. Take into consideration whether you’ll be getting wet (rides? water park? pool?) and how long your shoes need to “recover” after sweating through them all day.
  • Research the current state of the parks.  Not in terms of a quality thing, but more as a “what you can expect” on a day-to-day basis.  We mistakenly planned for a relaxing Friday evening at EPCOT only to be confronted with the realization that Friday and Saturday nights at EPCOT are basically the nation’s biggest bar crawl that happens to take place on Disney property.  We also got in just before the 50th Anniversary kicked off, which was a lucky break.  There are Unofficial Guides to Walt Disney World that have been published annually since the 1980s, which I highly recommend you consult.  I’ll definitely invest in a copy next time we go.
    • WIFE NOTE: There are lots of good blogs on this topic, too. It’s a good way to catch special events, too. There was an after-hours “Boo Bash” going on while we were there that would have been interesting had we known about it beforehand.
  • You can totally bring in water bottles and backpacks with snacks and stuff.  Do so.  You don’t need a survival-tier amount of junk, but staying hydrated and avoiding the munchies is clutch.  Plus you want to leave space for merch that doesn’t require you carrying around a sack for a few hours.
    • WIFE NOTE: Excellent advice if you have a grumpy-when-food-deprived husband or child in tow. There are water fountains all over the parks for refills, too. 
  • There are a seemingly endless amount of hand sanitizer stations at Disney World, and the mask enforcement was outstanding (anytime you’re indoors).  Cast Members were, with maybe two exceptions, their usual outstanding selves, and we only saw a couple difficult parkgoers being assholes to the Disney staff.
  • Be prepared to deal with human clutter.  Strollers are, in my opinion, the worst part of the Disney experience by far.  As a non-parent, I’m obviously biased against the child-catering that occurs at WDW, but at some point there needs to be some sort of control.  This is also a black eye for the Disney ECV (glorified Wal-Mart motorized cart) service, as it seemed over half of those who were employing these ECVs didn’t need them whatsoever.  They rented them simply to not walk around the park.  Which is bullshit.  There needs to be a foot traffic lane implemented somehow.
  • Plan for a break day.  Breaking news:  Florida is hot and muggy, so find a day or two to split up park trips for rest and not get burned out on the sometimes-grueling physical toll of walking in the hot-ass sun.
    • WIFE NOTE: A break day is also a great time to check out some of Orlando’s oddities like kitschy souvenir shops and Old Towne, which is pretty fun on its own of an evening. I’m a big fan of both Disney and Universal, but keep the non-park options in mind, especially if you don’t plan to return to Florida.

ANOTHER WIFE NOTE: If there’s a restaurant or attraction you’re dying to see, look into making reservations ahead of time. Depending on a lot of different factors (where you’re staying, what type of ticket you have, etc.), there are perks you can—and sometimes have to—take advantage of to get the most from your trip. Disney is also overhauling the “fast pass” setup, so it sounds like ride reservations will be a thing to look out for in the future. Also, make sure you download the Disney apps applicable to your trip. Disney does a great job of making everything mobile-friendly, and you can control nearly everything from your phone or a Magic Band. Definitely do some research and make sure you’re prepped to manage things once you arrive.

OK, let’s get going with the park-by-park.


ANIMAL KINGDOM

We spent our least time at Animal Kingdom this trip, namely because we were beaten half to death by the Magic Kingdom experience (more on that later) and needed a break.  We did the Bug’s Life show, which was pretty neat overall, but I was more impressed by the architecture of the ant nest you walk into than the actual show itself.  (WIFE NOTE: Author has much higher standards for entertainment than I do. More on that later.) The Avatar Flight of Passage was a fantastic experience that I would love to do again, and, despite my reservations, the Pandora area of Animal Kingdom was extremely cool to walk around in.  The attention to detail around this new area is phenomenal, and this is coming from somebody who’s only seen the movie once and didn’t care for it much.

WIFE NOTE: I also thought the movie was just OK, but this ride was well worth the hype. Small caution to those easily nauseated, though. For me personally, the ride ended precisely at the right time before I had to start planning easiest clean-up scenarios.

The only other part of the park we really got into was Asia, simply to ride Expedition Everest so that Amy could see the Disco Yeti.  My father-in-law returned days later on a solo trip to experience more of the animals and so forth.  

My main qualm with Animal Kingdom, much like some of the other WDW parks, is that Pandora feels very much like an outlier to the experience.  Animal Kingdom is supposed to be, at its core, a glorified zoo and interactive museum of sorts.  Pandora, being entirely fictional, feels like a desperate ploy to bring people into this particular park, which probably worked, but it definitely dilutes the identity of Animal Kingdom on the whole.  I wouldn’t be shocked if within 20 years this park begins a rebrand that slowly transitions Dinoland USA into a Marvel section before the remainder of the park follows suit.

WIFE NOTE: I see what he’s saying here, but on the whole, it seems like Disney is trying to balance out the parks overall to appeal more evenly to different ages/types of guests. This could arguably make each park a little less unique, but so far they’re doing a good job of sticking with the theme.


HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS

The last time I was at HS, it was the final year of the Magic Hat centerpiece, and boy am I glad to see that thing gone.  It had a Frozen show shoehorned into it in leiu of fireworks at the time, and you could tell they were on the cusp of some major revisions.  And boy were there some revisions.

The new Star Wars area, called “Galaxy’s Edge,” is cool for what it is, but seriously uncool for what it isn’t.  If you are a big fan of the new trilogy with Rey, Kylo Ren, BB-8, etc., you’re in for an amazing time.  If you want to see the Mandelorian and Baby Yoda, ooh-da-lally, come on down.  If you want to see Luke, Leia, Han, or Darth Vader, well….well you’re in for a bad time.  They are not featured in any way whatsoever.

There is a variety of original trilogy ships around to check out, and Star Tours is still running, but other than a Chewbacca sighting (with Rey), it was as if episodes VI, V, and VI don’t exist.

WIFE NOTE: Again, I see his point here. However, for me, there were enough nods to the original trilogy to be respectful. It’s clear (and probably to their benefit) that Disney is focused on the next generation of fans and guests here.

The Rise of the Resistance ride was a phenomenal experience, but there’s something totally uncool about realizing that it’s not the Empire that you’re fighting, it’s the First Order.  For all intents and purposes, the Empire IS the First Order, and the Rebellion IS the Resistance, but it didn’t evoke the feelings I was hoping for because there was so little integration of the Original Trilogy in any part of the experience.  You get hints – an orange X-wing fighter jumpsuit and helmet while waiting in line here, a Millenium Falcon photo op there, but no Yoda?  No Luke?  No Obi-Wan?  Broke my heart a little.

WIFE NOTE: Agreed that this ride was great. I won’t go into too much detail, but it was several rides in one, and the environment was all-in the entire way through. I especially got a kick out of the cast members’ performances while in line. Again, no spoilers, but British accents are involved. Also, re: the original trilogy, there’s a throwback during the ride that got me teary-eyed, so I have fewer complaints there.

We totally ignored Toy Story Land, which felt like an afterthought with a few forgettable rides and maybe a couple places to eat.  

WIFE NOTE: (This is totally where the author got really grumpy sans food.) Toy Story Land was cute—well done, but geared toward the smaller kid crowd, as one might expect. 

The meat-and-potatoes of Hollywood Studios starts with The Tower of Terror and ends with the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railroad.  Amy had a bit of a panic attack during Tower of Terror (I’ll let her fill you in), but that ride is as awesome as it’s ever been.  The Aerosmith Rock’n’Roller Coaster is fun, but I get the feeling there’s only so many years left before they put that ride out to pasture (the band members are going to start dying off soon).

WIFE NOTE: I have anxiety about things falling out from under me unexpectedly (apparently), and I’d never ridden Tower of Terror. It was not my best showing. That being said, I pulled through with the 7-year-old seated in front of me cheering me on, arms raised. (Not really, but I choose to believe it.) I’d probably ride it again in the future and do much better. Much like the Haunted Mansion, the spooky vibe and decor is spot-on.

Their old Hollywood part of the park is still going strong and is very pleasant to meander through, especially toward sunset.  We didn’t get a chance to eat at the 50’s Prime Time Cafe, but it appears to be safe for the future.

What used to be The Great Movie Ride, Hollywood Studios original attraction, has been replaced by this Runaway Railroad ride, and I absolutely loved it.  Mickey Mouse is definitely still the star and mascot of Disney, but attraction-wise, he’s been historically neglected until now.  The only complaint I have about the ride is that it uses these new versions of Mickey and friends (Goofy shouldn’t have dull green teeth), but otherwise it felt timeless.

WIFE NOTE: This ride was surprisingly good! Lots of really interesting logistical effects (if you’re into BTS sorts of stuff).

I hope Mickey Mouse and all of the other animated stars continue getting their just due when it comes to attractions and branding for Walt Disney World as a whole.  They deserve it infinitely more than what’s been given.


EPCOT

The last time I visited, EPCOT was kind of an afterthought.  Due to a lack of rides, we sort of breezed through it.  This time around, with my wife and her family being huge EPCOT fans, we devoted a day and a half to the park, and I consider it now among my favorite Disney experiences.

WIFE NOTE: We LOVE EPCOT.

The main thing I enjoyed about EPCOT is how the park is organized.  By being largely in one giant ring, each country is easily accessible, and if you want to cut corners you can take the ferry from Morocco to Canada and save some walking.  There’s a TON of international foodstuff to snack on while you perambulate, and the craftsmanship and detail put into each country’s mini-pavillions is top notch.

WIFE NOTE: This is definitely the biggest draw for me at the park. I love all the different food and culture you can sample. During the Food and Wine Festival, there are smaller carts with limited snack offerings if you’re not wanting to splurge on an entire meal at one place (although the sit-down restaurants are great, too). Disney always does it right when it comes to atmosphere and decor, but there’s something extra special about trying to recreate real locations in a way that’s thoughtful and detailed without being disrespectful or plain unrealistic. 

Comparatively to the other parks, EPCOT is also largely peaceful, so long as you don’t go on a Friday or Saturday night.  The Land and The Sea were enjoyable and interactive, plus the aquarium is incredible to behold.

WIFE NOTE: Figment is another favorite of mine. Although the ride has changed (some argue for the worse, multiple times) over the years, it seems like he might be making a little bit of a comeback. The little purple dragon is featured on lots of merch and “coming soon” signage. I love the positivity and imagination he’s associated with, and he always reminds me of the magic of being a kid exploring Disney with my parents. Luckily, I did not need a backpack leash this go-round, and I think we all still enjoyed ourselves.

With the new lights on Spaceship Earth (which was a cool ride!), the familiar geodesic sphere has a new life.  We didn’t get to see the new lights in action, but videos and pictures since have been inspiring.

The fireworks show at the end of the day wasn’t bad, but I wasn’t moved or whatnot.  They also started at 10PM, which is insanity.

There is potentially a dark time coming to EPCOT, however.  There is a Tron ride opening which admittedly seems pretty awesome, but what scares me is this Guardians of the Galaxy ride-type-thing they’re getting ready to append onto Disney World’s most dignified park.  Between it and Pandora, they’re slowly teetering toward a Universal Studios-esque identity, and I don’t know how much I like that.  It doesn’t feel “Disney” to me whatsoever.

WIFE NOTE: Again, trying to balance the parks for all ages/interests. Kids probably aren’t so into EPCOT until a certain age.


THE MAGIC KINGDOM

So the Magic Kingdom.  It is my favorite park, but I would plan my next visit to it much differently.  The first thing I would do is to split the visit into multiple days, because you’re not going to do the whole park in a day, and if you try, you’re going to be hurting really, really badly afterward.  It’s just not worth it.

The second thing is to not drive to the park.  The trams are no longer running, so once you park, even if you got Preferred Parking, you’re walking a couple miles from the lot to the security checkpoint, and then you’re waiting in line for either the ferry or the Monorail.

Once you get in the park, it’s bedlam.  Strollers and ECVs, oceans of them, are all you’ll see.  Angry parents trying to remind themselves they’re on vacation while dragging their red-faced squalling offspring around them.  You have got to phase that out of your cone of vision.  I didn’t do such a good job with it this time around, and it definitely stuck in my craw more than it should have.

WIFE NOTE: LOL. There was some of this, but it was manageable. A lot of the annoyance came from temporary measures stemming from COVID changes (e.g. no trams). Being the oldest section of WDW, this park is also still set up in some parts for smaller crowds. The walkways aren’t as forgiving for all those strollers, etc., so it can definitely feel more cramped. Reminded author at this point that he was, in fact, at the happiest place on earth. Cried again upon seeing Cinderella’s castle.

There are certain points at the Magic Kingdom where the “magic” can get you for a few minutes and make you feel something special.  My wife had one such moment while viewing the Cinderella castle.  Mine came when walking by myself around Main Street.  It’s the only park, at least for me, that can have this effect.

WIFE NOTE: Told you.

The rides and experiences around MK were good as always, particularly the Haunted Mansion.  I got to experience the Hall of Presidents for the first time, which was very impressive, at least until Trump was announced and the audience fucking cheered.  What an embarrassing moment that was, too.  That stupid animatronic bastard will get hoots and hollers for decades now because of what this stupid nation did.

WIFE NOTE: Haunted Mansion is probably my all-time favorite. I love the vibe, the spookiness, the campy nature of the whole setup. It’s wonderful. Author is more politically vocal than my entire family combined, so we move on.

Anyways, the also ‘haven’t done them before’ Country Bear Jamboree, Jungle Cruise, and Enchanted Tiki Hut show were enjoyable as well.

WIFE NOTE: Innnnn the tiki tiki tiki tiki tiki room…

The fireworks were disappointing, namely because they herd people like cattle into the middle of the park, and it’s incredibly uncomfortable (especially with COVID-19).  After that, if you were unfortunate enough to drive to the park you have to get on the monorail or ferry again, which takes 1.5-2 hours, and then walk down the highway and into the vast span of the parking lots to hopefully find your car.  You won’t get home until midnight or so, and by that time you’ll be utterly wasted.

WIFE NOTE: The fireworks/projection show itself was pretty neat. Lots of stunning colors and movie clips set to familiar music and songs and an overall positive message (but who would expect less from Disney?). It was a little unnerving (on several levels) to be so tightly packed for seemingly no reason, but again, this might be attributed to larger-than-days-past crowds. The quality of the presentations themselves continue to impress.

WIFE NOTE AGAIN: Things missed: 

  • How did I not know pin sharing was a thing? Apparently it’s done a little differently these days, but it’s a collector’s dream—for better or worse. Do some research. There are some really cute ones out there.
  • Having never made reservations at Disney before, I was pleasantly impressed with both Be Our Guest (especially the castle!) and Teppan Edo. What’s a vacation without splurging on good food? Hoping to try out more next time!
  • Hidden Mickeys. Keep an eye out. There are so many “Disney secrets” to check out before you go. (See first section.) In addition to being a magical getaway spot, it’s a fascinating setup historically and behind the scenes. 

—–

Overall I had a great time with my wife and in-laws.  I always enjoy spending time getting to know them more and sharing experiences with my wife’s side of the family.

While I was a little bit grumbly about the Disney experience on this trip, strangely I found myself being infinitely more in the Disney zone after getting home.  I think the next time we go I’ll be more armed and ready for the experience and hopefully enjoy Disney World more and worry about the obnoxious impact of humanity far less.

WIFE NOTE: (That’s a great way to summarize the author’s vibe.) People can be the best and worst of an experience, depending on which ones you focus on. It was wonderful to spend a week with the people I love most, and WDW was kind of the cherry on top. Overall, highly recommended. Would Disney again. 

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