Unlike other Florida theme parks, many pandemic-era procedures are still in place at Walt Disney World. You are advised to do some research before you go, because the “happiest place on Earth” isn’t the easiest place to visit.
Gone are the days when you could wake up one morning and decide on a whim that you wanted to spend the day at Walt Disney World. There are rules and reservations and apps to master.
Some things that used to be free, like FastPasses for rides or MagicBands when you stay at a Disney resort, are no longer complimentary, so budget accordingly. And like most other entertainment options, prices for just about everything have increased.
The old FastPass system has been replaced by the fee-based Genie+ app, which requires you to be up early to score (and pay for) a chance to skip the lines on a favorite ride at a cost of $15 to $29 per day. There are also Lightning Lanes that generally cost between $8 and $20 per person for popular attractions. You do not have to purchase Genie+ in order to book these individual attractions. But be aware that these typically sell out very quickly in the morning. They are occasionally replenished at some point before noon.
Expect to be on your phone a lot as a result of the new system. That means a new must-have when heading to a theme park is a phone charger.
The price to visit Disney World now varies based on the park you want to visit, with Animal Kingdom as the lowest-priced park ($109 and up) and Magic Kingdom the most expensive (as high as $189 during busy holiday weeks).
On the bright side, parking lot trams have returned to all four Disney theme parks. It might seem silly to list parking lot trams as something worth noting, but if you’ve ever had to make that hike in the intense Florida heat you’ll appreciate the return of this convenience.
After a pandemic-induced delay, the Magic Kingdom opened its first new ride since 2014: the high-tech coaster Tron Lightcycle Run. It has a sleek, futuristic appeal, especially at night, as it looms just beyond Space Mountain in Tomorrowland.
It is one of the fastest rides at Disney World as guests sit on their own “lightcycle” and race through what looks like a giant video game at nearly 60 miles per hour. Because of its popularity, this ride is using a virtual queue system. Unlike Genie+ and individual Lightning Lane’s skip-the-line access, there is no additional fee for using Disney’s virtual queue system. It is found in the My Disney Experience app.
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Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration has ended, but its end brought the return of the fan-favorite fireworks show, Happily Ever After. In addition to fireworks, it uses lasers, special effects, popular Disney tunes and projections that transform Cinderella Castle into dazzling scenes from “Frozen” and “Toy Story” and other favorites.
Also making a return this year is the Walt Disney World Railroad, a train that takes a trip around the Magic Kingdom. It was shut down in December 2018 for construction on the Tron coaster. It reopened during the Christmas season and is making daily runs again.
Another change to note is the closure of Splash Mountain in Frontierland. It was shuttered in January for a makeover that will be themed for “The Princess and the Frog.” It is scheduled to debut in late 2024 as Tiana’s Bayou Adventure.
Another Disney World offering that has been delayed more than once is the new restaurant the Roundup Rodeo BBQ inside Hollywood Studio’s Toy Story Land. If nothing else, this offers an air-conditioned respite from what can be one of the steamiest spots in the park.
Guests dine among play sets from Andy’s toy collection while “rodeo festivities” take place during the meal, which is served family-style. That means platters of smoked meats (there’s also a plant-based option) are brought to the table along with cheddar biscuits and sides such as potato salad, baked beans and corn. There are also miniature sweets such as Bo’s Lemon and Blueberry Cheesecake and Cupcake a la Forky. The feast is $45 per adult and $25 per child (ages 3-9) with the same pricing for lunch or dinner.
Also at the park, longtime favorite Fantasmic! finally returned from its pandemic hiatus. Although this isn’t a new show, the return of Fantasmic! did have a few new sequences and characters when it reopened in November.
Epcot has been on a multiyear transformation that is now nearing completion. While the new marquee rides — Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind — have already opened, a remaining key component of the park’s overhaul, the “Moana”-themed Journey of Water, will open later this year.
But there are still lots of construction walls up. World Celebration is a new area of Epcot that is located near the park entrance in the area previously known as Future World. An entirely restructured entrance area is planned that will be a new spot for festival entertainment called CommuniCore Hall and CommuniCore Plaza.
And since it’s Epcot, there are special events and festivals to be watchful for. This summer, the Disney’s After Hours event is coming to Epcot for the first time. These late-night, separately ticketed events give you three hours after the regular park closing time to enjoy shorter wait times and included treats such as ice cream, popcorn and select beverages. Epcot After Hours runs on select nights June 1-Aug. 24. Tickets are $129-$139 at disneyworld.disney.go.com.
Don’t forget the beautiful Flower and Garden Festival at Epcot, which arrived in March and runs through mid-July, bringing new topiaries, fresh foods at outdoor kitchens and performances by pop and rock artists in the Garden Rocks concert series. And the ever-growing Food and Wine Festival arrives early and stays late this year, running July 27 through Nov. 18.
The purple dragon called Figment is a big favorite among some Disney guests. His likeness is found on sold-out popcorn buckets and an entire ride in Journey to Imagination. So it is big news that the popular dragon is returning as a character meet-and-greet. Disney has only revealed that “late this summer” guests will be able to meet Figment in the Imagination pavilion.
On Earth Day this month, Animal Kingdom celebrated its 25th anniversary. Originally opened in 1998, the park has seen a variety of changes to its attractions and landscaping. At just under 600 acres in size, it is the largest of the four theme parks at Walt Disney World and the largest animal-themed park in the world, hosting more than 1,700 species of animals, birds, reptiles and fish, as well as over 6,700 plants, trees and shrubs.
As part of that anniversary celebration, the park has a new Moana character meet-and-greet on Discovery Island. Previously, opportunities to meet Moana were limited to parties like Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, where she often garnered long lines.
A reimagined version of the show “Finding Nemo: The Musical” has returned with new story lines and songs from the original show, including “In the Big Blue World” and “Go With the Flow.” “Finding Nemo: The Big Blue… and Beyond!” is set in the timeline of the movie “Finding Dory.”
You don’t need a theme park ticket to visit Disney World’s retail entertainment complex, which doubled in size in a transformation in 2016 with celebrity chef restaurants and stores not found anywhere else in Florida.
A new restaurant set to open soon is Summer House on the Lake. It has outposts in Chicago and Maryland, but its menu is California-inspired with salads, pizzas and tacos. Its space will also feature a dessert market called The Cookie Jar. It will be on the western side of Disney Springs near the AMC movie theater.
A new store to look for is Corkcicle, a local Orlando business that creates insulated drinkware, coolers and accessories. The first Corkcicle retail space is in one of the kiosks in front of Paddlefish. Another local Orlando business to keep an eye on in Disney Springs is Gideon’s Bakehouse. Like its counterpart in town, there is often a line out the door to get some of the bakery’s massive chip-studded cookies.
If you go
Admission to Disney World theme parks ranges from $109-$189, with tickets subject to dynamic pricing that changes by the day. Parking is $25. 1375 E Buena Vista Drive, Orlando. 407-939-5277. disneyworld.com.