Here in Florida one of those collective events you feel compelled to attend at some point is the annual 24 Hours of Disney. That trauma-inducing infusion of Disney magic runs from 6 am on Friday to 6 am Saturday, starting on the Friday before Memorial Day. Like lemmings to the cliff, my wife and I decided to attend this year and going turned out to be one of the biggest travel mistakes of our adult lives.
For sure Disney retains some of the nostalgic magic it held when those of us in the older generation were kids ourselves. I grew up a Disney kid, from the Mousketeers Club on TV to the days and weeks I’d spend at Disney World with my parents. After this weekend, the magic between us is officially over.
A Bad Start
We had a rough itinerary in mind before we arrived which was promptly blown when the Contemporary Hotel didn’t have our room ready even though we were on time. What you discover almost immediately is, outside the theme parks, shopping or eating, there is absolutely nothing to do at the Disney Hotels if you’re separated from your luggage. Hotel staff leaning forward would have comped us a drink at the poolside bar until our room was ready but the staff, though very polite, offered us nothing. We were marooned in a vast sea of boredom to sit through an aggravating wait after three hours on the road slogging through Memorial weekend traffic.
The Disney vacation planning website gives you the impression that your MagicBands, combined with online registration, would whisk you past the front desk and right to your room. The online check-in was absolutely useless. Our hotel check-in was every bit as arduous and aggravating as any we’ve ever experienced. The MagicBands are convenient for room keys, park entrance and, of course, charging things, but the dream of it being some kind of new standard for technology vaporized in our first few minutes in the park. My wife coined the new word “underimpressed” to describe Disney hospitality technology.
The Logistical Nightmare Begins
For an organization that prides itself on logistics, all that breaks down during 24 Hours of Disney. The biggest problem is that all the Disney properties don’t stay open all night. Though Epcot Center and Hollywood Studios stay open later, they do close. That means those crowds all converge on the Magic Kingdom. At 10 pm, when families would normally start filing back to the hotel, the crowd was just getting warmed up. It was so packed that movement was all but impossible in some places. Disney staff with green flashlights tried gamely to keep the crowd moving, but it was a futile effort. Main Street USA was reduced to sitting room only all the way back to the gate by a light show playing out on the Fairy Castle. It was stifling, sweaty human gridlock.
Breakdowns, Transportation Glitches
The sheer volume of people all but overwhelmed the monorail system which was standing room only, disgorging full train after full train into the main gate, backing up the bag search and ticket lanes. By 1 am, when I thought the park would be thinning out, the stand-by ride lines were still 45 minutes or longer. Fortunately, we had FastPass privileges which let us skip the line on the Haunted Mansion, but the FastPass lane was closed on Pirates of the Caribbean. Due to coincidental mechanical issues we ended up getting stuck on both rides. The glitch was cleared up quickly at the Haunted Mansion but we were ironically taken hostage on the Pirates ride for several minutes, with the boat behind repeatedly slamming into us. Hearing the pirate song will trigger a nervous twitch for the rest of my life. That did it for theme park rides for both of us.
The Crowd Gets Restless
Some of the mouse warriors I met had been in the park since 10 am the previous morning and were determined to make it to the end. We noticed that after 2 am the crowd took on a less Disneyesque vibe. In the wee hours of the morning our fellow travelers were younger, in the range of high school, junior high and college. As the morning wore on the crowd got louder and more pushy and, by 3 am, the atmosphere was more like a mouse-themed rave. The tone got to be a little unpleasant and we decided to call it a night.
One of the eye-opening epiphanies of our visit was just how much you’re being manipulated as a guest at the park and it took my MBA wife to point out some of the more subtle clues. I made a comment about the hard beds and she pointed out that people sleeping in late weren’t out in the park spending money; your comfort is secondary to the greater goal of profit. Once your eyes are opened you start seeing that subtle manipulation everywhere. The hotel wifi was slow to the point of being useless; slower than an old dial-up connection and less reliable. That’s no problem for the mouse house; if you’re online you’re not buying premium content from the in-room TV. If you’re in your room working or watching Netflix, you’re not down in the shop or restaurant spending money. There’s the blast of cold air from the open doors of shops and stores along Main Street on a hot day. Come on in and look around; it’s nice and cool in here. Like a fast food restaurant there’s a calculated lack of comfort that continually prompts you to keep moving and make room for new customers. The pace, music selection and layout of the walkways is all a shameless and precise monument to crass commercialization. It didn’t used to be that way and I don’t think Walt Disney, were he still alive, would like it.
The Magic Is Getting Old
Part of what made Disney magic when we were kids was the technology. Take the monorails that shuttle you around the park. Those were first introduced when Richard Nixon was still the president. If monorails are such an efficient way to get around, funny that they never really caught on anywhere else. The newest additions to Disney’s monorail fleet were put in service in 1989, before the Internet was even a thing. Most of Disney transportation relies on cars, trains and diesel busses; pretty much what was current in the 1950s. I found the lack of walking trails and complete absence of bike racks and bike trails somewhat puzzling, then I remembered that there’s no profit in you biking around the park.
We spent nearly a $1,000 for a hotel that offered only the barest amenities for any place calling itself a resort. In addition we spent $138 each on three-day theme park tickets and ended up going on two rides, both of which broke down at some point. Then there was the overpriced food, which brought the whole ordeal close to $1,500 for two days. We both felt that trip was the biggest waste of entertainment dollars of our adult lives. The highlight of the trip was what my wife called the “de-Disney” breakfast at Perkins once we got clear of the park on the way home.
The icing on the Disney vacation cake was trying to contact Disney’s media people for a fact check and comment and discovering the web page listing Disney media contacts is blank. The mouse is too big to care what anyone thinks.