Rob Kayris and his family of six were “dumping a boatload of money” into a Disney trip last year and wanted to make the most of it. So a few months before the vacation, they took a class about the new ride reservation system, Genie Plus.
Then right before the trip in February, they took it again.
“I feel like if you don’t know how it works, you’re going to waste probably two to three days before you have a grip on what’s what,” said Kayris, a copy machine salesman who lives outside Philadelphia.
Disney has always been a paradise for planners - or nightmare for the disorganized. When is the best time to go? How can we save money? Is it possible to avoid long lines?
David Semanoff, a public relations firm owner who has been visiting Disney parks since he was an infant, distributes a 10-page primer to friends with tips on rides, dining, character interaction and what to do if it rains (“get your ponchos and go to the park!”). Reactions to his advice can be mixed.
“I think some are already so overwhelmed at the idea of the trip,” he said.
Travel agents, YouTubers, influencers, bloggers, friends-with-experience, Disney experts and paid services like Touring Plans have filled the knowledge gap and helped frazzled families figure out their dream vacation even as the cost has soared. Some visitors turn to VIP tours that cost between $450 and $900 an hour, plus park admission. Others have used the service of independent guides, a practice Disney has been cracking down on.
The pandemic added a new layer of complications. Then came a fresh upheaval: Instead of the old, free-to-use ride-reservation system, the company introduced one that costs money, requires early wake-ups and drains cellphone battery life. The 2021 introduction of Genie Plus, which mobilizes vacationers to reserve rides starting at 7 a.m. and then throughout the day, turned vacation organization into a near-competitive sport. And it created a new lane for tipsters, content creators, travel advisers and savvy regulars.
One of those is Brooke Raybould, a social media content creator who sells a 200-page digital “Mom’s Guide to Disney World” for $40. Her TikTok on her family’s early-morning approach to tackling the Magic Kingdom featuring a 7:20 a.m. arrival at the park with her four sons - went viral last year.
“There’s an entire system to doing Disney World the right way,” she said.
Learning the lingo
For the average Joe, the nomenclature of a Disney World trip can befuddle. Lightning lanes let you bypass longer standby lines to get faster entry to a ride. Genie Plus is the way you get access - unless you’ve paid for an individual lightning lane, which is only available for certain rides and doesn’t require Genie Plus. Those can be booked at 7 a.m. for resort guests and at park opening time for everyone else. Virtual queues for the newest, hottest rides are free, but also open for booking at 7 a.m. and often fill up quickly.
Got all that?
“I knew it would be complicated, but I don’t think I could have imagined the Disney-industrial complex was this complicated,” Theresa Brown, a New York City resident who took a family trip to Disney World in August, said in an email. “The sheer brain power just to figure out the Disney lingo and landscape is monumental.”
Kirsten Andrade, a concierge travel planner for Favorite Grampy Travels, saw that need when she created the Genie, Genie+, and Lightning Lane Tip & Tricks Facebook Group in 2021 - which has more than 200,000 members now. After several months, she decided to launch an interactive online class, which costs $39.
“It’s kind of a mixture of a Zoom and like a remote college class,” said Andrade, who is based in Pittsburgh. “We’ve got a little pop quiz built in.”
Planning forums are full of stressed-out newcomers trying to decipher a virtual queue from a lightning lane, and worrying about what happens if the technology glitches out - as technology often does.
“I’ve had people call me crying,” said Jacquie Murphy, a Wilmington, N.C.-based travel planner with Kingdom Elite Travel.
Jessica Mickelson, 39, worked for years as a family therapist and now applies those skills to her Disney planning business, Well Hello Magic. Her tagline is “minimizing parental stress at the Disney parks.”
“There is a therapeutic touch woven into everything,” she said.
The mom of four kids between the ages of 3 and 12 created a “Magic Made Easy” course for $139 as well as shorter free park guides, a YouTube channel, podcast, blog and social media accounts. Mickelson is not a travel agent - she doesn’t book trips for anyone - but includes tips on choosing an agent, sample itineraries, Disney apps and what happens when everything goes wrong.
“Then I talk about realistic expectations, which is the therapist in me,” she said.
She likes her family trips to be low-key and flexible with a mix of parks, hotels and other activities. Still, her husband, Jerod, can’t help but engage in a modern-day Disney activity: testing the WiFi speed before 7 a.m. to make sure they have a strong connection to book reservations right on time.
A costly, time-consuming perk
Murphy sees the value in Genie Plus, but she wishes visitors had more transparency about the price. At Disneyland, the price varies but starts at $30. At Walt Disney World, prices change according to the day and park; on Tuesday, for example, the service cost $17 at Animal Kingdom up to $27 at Magic Kingdom or for multiple parks. The price reached $39 at Magic Kingdom around Christmas, according to Disney Tourist Blog.
“I think the thing that people have the hardest time wrapping their brain around is not knowing how much it costs in advance,” Murphy said.
David Gordon, a theater journalist in New York City whose wife works for a Disney subsidiary and gets free tickets, has purchased a $25 quick entry - an individual Lightning Lane - to ride a Star Wars ride on a trip to Disneyland. And his family used Genie Plus over the Christmas holiday at Walt Disney World to avoid lines for rides with his young daughter, which he called an “absolute game changer.”
He said he understands Disney is trying to get people to use its apps. But many parks fans don’t want to view their trip through a small screen.
“It’s the one time in my life where I want to be looking around and taking in all the sights and smelling the flowers,” he said. “The fact that you have to be so tethered to your app that you should probably bring an extra battery just to make sure you get on the one ride you want to get on is shortchanging the whole Disney experience.”
Disney has said it is taking customer feedback into consideration. The company created its own team of advice-givers in 2008, now an online forum called planDisney.
“We know everyone vacations differently, and with hundreds of iconic Disney attractions and experiences to enjoy at Walt Disney World, we are listening to our guests and giving them many choices and ways to personalize their visit to meet their unique needs,” Disney World spokeswoman Jacquee Wahler said in a statement.
In a blog post last year, the company acknowledged that guests want to use the Genie Plus service to plan their days in advance of a park visit, not just in real time - and said that may be possible in 2024.
“Our goal is to give you the opportunity to spend less time planning in the park and more time enjoying your visit with friends and family,” the blog post said.
Tips from the experts
Mickelson likes to visit the parks in late August and September, when kids are back in school and crowds are more manageable. “You kind of exchange the heat for the crowd level,” she said. She plans for midday breaks and rest days that let her family take advantage of non-park offerings at the resorts.
Her biggest tips are to understand the geography of the parks and learn to ignore Disney FOMO (fear of missing out). When booking Genie Plus, she said it’s important to know which rides sell out quickly, start with the high-demand one your family wants and then tackle other attractions in the same area.
“With Genie Plus, we have never zigzagged across the park,” she said.
Murphy recommends that guests bring an extra power bank or cellphone charger when they go to the parks because they’ll spend so much time on their phones. She also suggests people “play around” with the My Disney Experience app in advance of a trip to Walt Disney World to get familiar with all the features.
On the day of a Disney World visit, Murphy suggests a triage approach starting at 7 a.m. sharp: First, join a virtual queue to get on the hottest new rides without paying extra. Next, use the Genie Plus service (which can be purchased as early as midnight) to choose the first attraction you’ll hit - ideally one that books up quickly. Finally, for those staying on Disney property, snag up to two individual lightning lanes. Everyone else has to wait for the park to open to reserve those slots.
Semanoff’s number one tip is to book a room at a Disney resort. He said it’s worth the splurge if for no other reason than being able to pay for a spot on the most popular rides at 7 a.m. Plus, he said staying on property keeps “the whole vibe alive” and lets guests avoid morning traffic jams.
His recommendations wrap up with perhaps the most challenging tip to follow: “Remember to have fun! It can be stressful and annoying, so remember to breathe and enjoy.”