With all the recent changes, is staying at Disney World still worth the cost?
It’s no secret that a lot has changed at Walt Disney World since the beginning of the pandemic. After the park’s longest closure to date, Disney World reopened without FastPasses and old-fashioned character meet-and-greets and with a new Park Reservation system and mask requirements.
In the time since reopening, Disney has made more changes or announced upcoming changes that have particularly challenged returning resort guests to rethink their vacation strategy. Namely, does staying at Disney World Resort still make sense, or has enough magic been stripped away to incentivize travelers to just stay off property and drive or Uber in each day.
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To each their own is the ultimate answer, but there are plenty of reasons this guy will still be staying at Disney World Resort going forward.
In this article, let’s explore some of the biggest changes for Disney World Resort guests and determine if a stay on Disney property is still right for you.
Disney Magical Express Discontinued Starting 2022
Disney Magic Express was a complimentary, round-trip service that gets resort guests from the Orlando International Airport to their hotel on property; on departure day, it also gets you back to the airport with enough time to catch your flight.
However, Disney discontinued the Magical Express starting January 1, 2022.
What Replaced Disney Magical Express?
Starting in January 2022, Mears Connect will be the new, most convenient way of getting to Disney World from MCO. You can choose from Standard service (larger vehicles, standard wait time, shared with other guests) and Express (limited wait time with direct service). Mears promises the “same reliable, safe service guests have been using for decades to Disney area hotels.”
The only difference? You’ve now got to fork out some cash to ride.
How Much Does Mears Connect Cost?
Pricing for Mears Connect Standard is for one way, not round trip; Express service is round trip pricing:
- Standard service
- $16 for adults
- $13.50 for children
- Express service
- $200 round trip for groups of up to four; $55 per additional passenger
For a family of four (two parents and two children), a Standard service, round-trip experience will add $118 for a trip to Disney World. Understandably, guests who had had this service free in the past are disappointed.
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Is Staying at Disney World Resort Still Worth It Without Magical Express?
My last visit to Disney World was in July 2021, and the magic started well before I arrived on property. That’s all thanks to Cast Member Santiago, who drove my Magical Express bus. When I was lost trying to find the sign-in area (despite multiple signs), he kindly redirected me.
Thirty minutes later, it turned out, of the 10+ buses lined up, his was the one I was boarding, and he remembered me! And as luck would have it, I had been assigned Row 0, which meant I got to ride up close to him and enjoy as he sang for the children, “You’re about to meet Mickey and Goofy. You’re going to Disney World for the best vacation ever.”
Pretty magical stuff, and all for free.
So am I bummed Disney did away with Magical Express? Sure. But nowhere else in the world have I had free transportation to my destination. I’ve paid for cabs, Ubers, Lyfts, buses, trains, private shuttles, and rental cars to get where I’m going. In an age of rampant capitalism, I’m somewhat shocked Disney didn’t make this move sooner.
I’m not thrilled to be shelling out an extra $32 each trip to Disney to take Mears, but I’ll gladly do it for the convenience and the experience, assuming they bake in the same kind of magic that Santiago provided on Magical Express.
Resort Stays Don’t Use Up Annual Pass Park Reservation Slots
The Park Reservation system is here to stay, whether you love it or hate it. And this is where staying on Disney Property makes a lot of sense for Annual Passholders.
Each tier of Annual Pass gets you a certain amount of park reservations that you can hold at once:
- Disney Pixie Dust Pass: 3 park reservations at once
- Disney Pirate Pass: 4 park reservations at once
- Disney Sorcerer Pass: 5 park reservations at once
- Disney Incredi-Pass: 5 park reservations at once
But when you book a stay at a Disney World hotel, you don’t have to use up your park reservations. That means you, as a Pirate Passholder, could have four random days locked down in the future, but also have a week at Disney guaranteed when you stay at a hotel like All-Star Movies or Caribbean Beach Club.
Staying at Disney World Resort just to guarantee more time in the parks sounds like the move to me.
Changes to Extra Magic Hours
Extra Magic Hours were a staple of WDW since 2005, giving resort guests extra time in the parks before and after their regular hours. You see, the hours were extra and … well … magic. Ish.
The problem with Extra Magic Hours is they were scheduled, so there was a specific day that guests staying on Disney World Property could, for example, stay at EPCOT for 2 hours after closing. That often meant that more resort guests spent the entire day at EPCOT, so if you were visiting Disney World but not staying on property, EPCOT was inexplicably busier.
In fact, the best strategy for non-resort guests was to see which park was having Extra Magic Hours on a given day and avoid it like the plague. And as a resort guest? My move was always to spend the day at a different park and then park hop over to the Extra Magic Hours park to close out the day.
However, none of that strategy matters anymore. After a year of reduced park hours because of COVID-19, Walt Disney World is bringing back Extra Magic Hours for resort guests, with a twist (and new names).
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Early Theme Park Entry: A Half-Hour Head Start
No more official Extra Magic Hours in name. Instead, starting on Oct. 1, 2021, all guests of Disney Resort hotels can enter all four theme parks 30 minutes early. That gives resort guests a rope-drop advantage every day.
This is a major benefit of staying at Disney World Resort starting in October.
Extended Evening Theme Park Hours
This is probably the one big change to Disney World that I am not too thrilled about, but hey, you can’t win them all. Disney is also offering extended evening hours at select parks on select nights. The kicker? It’s only for guests of Deluxe Resort Hotels and Deluxe Villas, leaving out guests on a budget staying at Value and Moderate Resorts.
Growing up, my family could only afford to go to Disney World if we camped at Fort Wilderness. I can’t imagine being a parent telling my kids that other kids get to stay later because their parents could afford fancier lodging.
But, you know, that’s how capitalism works. Even at Disney World.
If you can afford a Deluxe Resort Hotel or Villa, however, this is a major benefit of staying on property.
For most of its history, Walt Disney World has offered free parking to resort guests. A few years back, however, Disney began charging for the luxury of parking at its resorts. It’s a daily rate, which can add up for longer trips.
I fly in for Disney trips and take Magical Express (well, now Mears, Quicksilver, or Sunshine Flyer), so this has never been an issue for me. But for those who drive to Disney World, I can see the frustration in this.
I highly recommend not driving to Disney World, however. Getting around the resort is so easy, and it’s free. Disney World offers world-class transportation around its property, and often, riding on the transportation is a memorable experience itself.
Disney World transportation includes:
Disney’s transportation experience is truly magical. As a resort guest, it’s so wonderful not to have to worry about getting to the parks, finding parking, and getting home when I’m tired at the end of each day (and perhaps a little tipsy if my day was at EPCOT or my evening ended at the BoardWalk area).
No More Free MagicBands
Disney’s MagicBands were revolutionary when they debuted—and they were free when you were staying on property or had an annual pass. However, Disney discontinued this once free offering in 2021.
Instead, guests must pay for new MagicBands like other visitors to the parks. And the price jumped from $15 to $20.
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However, you don’t need a MagicBand for your Disney World trip nowadays. Instead, your smartphone can do it all with the My Disney Experience app. With it, you can place mobile orders, check in to your resort, unlock your room, and (soon) pay for stuff just as you would your MagicBand.
I don’t think of this as a loss of magic but instead an evolution to something better. (I never liked wearing my MagicBand because I got weird tan lines and rashes since I have sensitive skin.)
FastPass Selections and the Age of Genie+
When the parks reopened after their temporary COVID closure, one feature was notably absent: FastPass. And, as we all feared, Disney did eventually announce that FastPass was being discontinued in favor of Genie+, a paid FastPass system.
That’s right: FastPass was free, but you’ll now have to pay for usage of the Lightning Lanes to get on rides faster. Disney World Resort guests used to have an advantage for staying on property: They could make FastPass selections 60 days in advance while non-resort guests only had a 30-day lead time. This alone was a major reason to stay on property.
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No FastPass? Why Stay on Property?
So is staying at a Disney World hotel worth it without early FastPass selections? I still think so. I know it’s not ideal to suddenly pay for Genie+ when you’ve been used to free FastPasses, but all other major theme parks have been doing this for years. And now with the Individual Lightning Lanes, we’ll be able to guarantee a ride on Rise of the Resistance. Boo-yah.
The benefit for Disney World Resort guests here is earlier access to Individual Lightning Lane attraction selections. They can make their selections at 7 AM while non-resort guests cannot until the park opens.
Advanced Dining Reservations Advantage Now Gone
Back in the day, staying on Disney Property meant earlier access to Advanced Dining Reservations. Now, however, anyone can make reservations up to 60 days in advance, as long as they have a valid park reservation.
This is a major perk lost by resort guests.
The Disney Bubble
One thing that is here to stay: the magic of staying in the Disney bubble. When you stay on property, you’ve got Disney magic 24/7. The Cast Member service, the access to fine dining, the theming, the pools, the ability to walk to parks, the feel of being on Disney Property. You just can’t get that when staying at a third-party hotel.
Being in the Disney bubble also offers convenience. I don’t have to worry about transportation to and from the parks, and if I need a nap halfway through the day, it’s not a big deal to head back to the hotel, take a swim, get some Zs, and then be well-rested for an evening back in the parks.
For me, staying in the Disney bubble is the number one reason to stay at a Disney World Resort hotel. It offers a total escape for the duration of your trip. That escape (and the convenience of staying on property) are worth the extra cost even without all the extra perks.
So is staying at Disney World worth the cost in 2022? That’s for you to decide. But when you do decide to go, rest assured there’s still plenty of magic awaiting you.
Not sure if you’re going? You can just get more information about a potential Disney vacation.