By Gail O'Connor
May 14, 2015

My three children have reached the ages of 12, 9, and 3 without ever having been to Disney World, and they've survived, even if they're social outcasts.

I'm kidding--sort of. I'm not sure when it became a rite of passage for middle-class families to take a trip to Disney World, but when my older kids claim they're the only ones in their classes who haven't been to WDW, they're not stretching the truth.

My 9-year-old has been especially patiently waiting to make a visit, and later this year, we'll be boarding a plane to Orlando to meet the Mouse himself. My big kids' ecstatic reactions to this news were priceless. (Well, not exactly priceless. As our story in Parents reported, it's hard to do a Disney trip for a family of four for less than $3,842, with airfare.) Our 3-year-old, bless her, simply asked, "What's Disney World?"

As a Disney newbie, I quickly learned that our usual laid-back approach to vacation planning isn't going to fly for Disney World. And not knowing the native lingo (Magic Band, anyone?), planning a trip there sometimes feels akin to trying to map out an excursion to an unfamiliar continent. I've had friends tell me the planning is all good fun, while others said it's just plain stressful. So I was grateful for our recent story in Parents about planning a Disney trip, which has tons of useful info.

Experienced Disney park-goers do enjoy the planning, though, and the most dedicated among them have websites and podcasts to help the rest of us. A great website for first-timers is Shannon Albert's Walt Disney World Prep School--her blog posts are comprehensive without being overwhelming, and I'm attracted to her favored plan of attack: Hit parks when they open, tour the attractions early, and leave the middle of the day open for a nap or swim back at your hotel or continued fun in the park, your choice. Another great site is Pete Werner's "Dis Boards," which has an active user forum and Disney news updates. One more great read: Christina Wood's travel blog "Everything Walt Disney World." And my husband and kids have especially enjoyed perusing the superhelpful book Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.

Sure, you could try to approach Disney like you would other vacations: show up with a loose itinerary and just wing your days there. But when your fellow park visitors have booked their dining reservations and FastPasses for rides months in advance, it's a little risky if your kids have their hearts set on certain things, like having lunch or dinner at Be our Guest restaurant. I booked my trip five months ahead of time, and it's too late for that one. (Luckily, no one had their heart set on it.) A Floridian friend of mine frequently visits Walt Disney World on short notice, and says this is why her Frozen-obsessed daughters haven't met Anna and Elsa yet. (A quick check on the My Disney Experience app shows a 95-minute wait to meet the sister duo at 10 a.m. on a school day.)

I was trying to get up to speed on all that it takes to get ready for a good time at "the World." (Um yeah, I'm saying that now.) I quickly saw I was out of my league, and put myself in the hands of an authorized Disney vacation planner. These special travel agents cost travelers nothing, and know all the ins and outs of Disney's many resorts and four theme parks. Plus they tend to go to Disney a lot—so they have a lot of helpful insights. (Wait, from which park would it be easiest to get to the Hoop de Doo musical revue again? A Disney vacation planner can tell you. ) And there's still plenty left over for a Disneybound mom or dad to do: reserving a stroller, ordering some groceries ahead of time for the room, and more.

The best ones are also more skilled with handling the run on special Disney promotions, like the extremely popular free dining. I'd heard that we're going at a time of year when we might qualify for free dining (no small savings, as eating in Disney is expensive), and sure enough, an upcoming promotion was announced on April 27th. This year, it runs September through December, but not all or even most weeks during that time, with the exception of the whole month of September; and certain resorts and rooms, like the Little Mermaid suites at Art of Animation, are usually excluded. We were going in September, and I'd booked at a resort that qualified, so I thought, Great! We'll be all set.

Not so fast(pass). I received an urgent email from our travel planner asking if I'd be willing to switch our family of five to another resort to get free dining, as the rooms at our selected resort had already sold out of it. (Ah, so that's how it works.) We'd also have to buy a park hopper pass or water-park tickets to qualify for it. (Wait, that's not "free.") In the end, we got the free dining, but many people were not so lucky. People were on hold with Disney for four to six hours, and trying without success to access their site, which was down or crashing repeatedly. It was Black Friday madness, and our seemingly cheerful and unflappable travel planner admitted the stress of that day had her in tears.

This is Disney, maker of magic? A lot of people, even Disney's diehard fans, were left feeling pretty angry with Disney for the hysteria that they unleashed when they dropped their free-dining promotion on the world (little w). Disney megafan Pete Werner said in his podcast The Dis Unplugged: "Disney doesn't care about the guest experience anymore. And I can't think of a better example of it than the nonsense that went on [that day]. You [meaning Disney] know this is going to be popular, so why don't you brace for this? Why isn't there some kind of effort made to not allow these things to go on, or at least mitigate them? Why does it get worse every year, instead of better?"

Sure, no one's forcing anyone to get free dining. But if it became available during your already-planned dates of travel, you'd probably want it, too. (However, trying to plan a trip around the hope of getting free dining is almost guaranteed to be an exercise in frustration, as this wise post from Christina Wood notes.) Would I have kicked work and family aside for a day of being on hold, which is what it took for many people to get it? Nope. I'm not mom enough to do that--like most people, I have a life. (Thank you again to the awesome travel planner who made it her job to get the promotion for her clients, including us.) Pete Werner goes on to say you can argue people feel entitled to Disney's promotional perks. Like others, he believes entitlement's an issue at Disney, where some park visitors expect and take advantage of the company's generous policies that put guests first. But Pete continues it's Disney that started, and perpetuates, the problems surrounding the popular free-dining promotion.

On the one hand, Disney has the right to conduct its business however it wants. On the other, nobody enjoys being on hold for hours at time, or finally getting through on a website to have it crash upon checkout. Being new guests to Disney, I couldn't help having a slightly sour taste in my mouth from what I witnessed that day. I'm sure I'll have forgotten all about it by the time we get to the World (big w), and I see the joy on my kids' faces the first time they see Cinderella's Castle. I'll hope I planned the best I could, and I sincerely can't wait to get there.

Maybe the debacle of "free dining" rubbed so many people the wrong way, because WDW's fans know: Disney can do better.

Gail O'Connor is a mom of three and a senior editor at Parents. You can follow her on Twitter @gailwrites.


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