Generally speaking, the SATURDAY SIX covers all the theme park news at the end of every month in our THEME PARK ENJOYMENT INDEX. However, out of absolutely nowhere, both Disney and Universal dropped some gigantic bombshells this week that we had to talk about. So it was time to go bring back the Pulitzer Prize nominated* SAT SIX News Desk. This of course means going back into the closet, dusting off the blue blazer, and “we’ll do it live!” starting with….
# 6 – OUR LONG NATIONAL NIGHTMARE IS OVER, Park Reservations Are Finally Being Relaxed
One of the most frustrating things about going to a Disney park over the past several years was dealing with the Park Reservation system. In all previous years, if you had an Annual Pass (with no block out dates,) you could just go to whatever park you wanted, whenever you wanted. If you were one of the many people who took day trips to Disney, you just showed up at the main gate of the park and bought a ticket for the day. Whether you’re planning 6 months out, or 6 hours out, a trip to any Disney park was pretty simple. That all changed when Disney implemented the Park Reservation system in June 2020.
The worst part of the Park Reservation system is that it was disingenuously pitched to guests as something that would help us have a better time at the parks. Disney would “manage crowd levels” using this system, forcing guests – including Annual Passholders – to make a Park Reservation before being allowed into a Disney park. In theory, this would create sunshines and rainbows for guests inside the parks, giving them low waits at rides and restaurants. That’s not what happened. In fact, the opposite happened. Why? Well the reality is that Park Reservations were created for the purpose of Disney being able to control their staffing and pay the absolute fewest amount of Cast Members it could while running a theme park. Sure, Disney was coming back from the 2020 Coronavirus Shutdown with major staffing issues, but so was everyone else, and yet no other park (including the Universal Orlando Resort, LEGOland Florida, or Busch Gardens Tampa) implemented a Park Reservation system (SeaWorld Orlando originally reopened with a reservation system in place in order to comply with state regulations on capacity, but quickly eliminated it once the restrictions were lifted.)
While implementing the Park Reservation system, Disney also created a new rule that didn’t allow guests to Park Hop until 2PM. Here’s what this system meant to an Annual Passholder like me. Let’s say I wanted to go to Animal Kingdom. I live within driving distance of the Disney parks, so unless friends and family are visiting from out of state, most of my park visits are unplanned and something I felt like doing that day. I wake up, decide I want to go to Disney, but first I have to make a Park Reservation. There is a chance that Park Reservations would be open for Animal Kingdom, but oftentimes they were not available (along with DHS and Magic Kingdom). If a Park Reservation was not available, I could not go to the park, despite having an Annual Pass with no block out dates. The back up plan would be to make a Park Reservation to EPCOT (which was almost always available) and then go to Animal Kingdom at 2PM. HOWEVER, even if I drove to Orlando at 4PM, I would still have to physically enter EPCOT before I was allowed to park hop to Animal Kingdom. The system is BONKERS.
So the Park Reservation system was pretty much wildly despised by guests – because not only is it a pain to plan a trip around these rules, but the planned minimal staffing ensures that lines for everything are longer than they should be – and this past week we got our first indication that maybe we will be soon be rid of this garbage. Disney announced that in the next few months the rules will be relaxed for Annual Passholders, allowing us to go to any of the Walt Disney World parks after 2PM without needing a Park Reservation (with the exception of the Magic Kingdom on Saturdays and Sundays.)
It’s a small step, but at least it is a step in a positive direction. It may not seem like much, but it’s the first positive step in a long time and hopefully the start of a journey that ends with Disney getting rid of a system which only makes trips worse for both guests and Cast Members (it’s great for Upper Management and their end-of-year bonuses though!)
Whim – a sudden desire or change of mind, especially one that is unusual or unexplained.” – Oxford dictionary
Over the years it seems that Disney forgot what leisure time is. The Disney Parks founder designed Disneyland as a place where you enjoy your own story, based on whim. For whatever reason, current Disney management decided that the Disney Parks experience should be like work, heavily and strictly scheduled.
# 5 – WDW Removes Parking Fees From Onsite Resorts, Making Self-Parking Once Again Complimentary
As theme park fans, we are used to money grabs. It’s part of the game. However one of the worst money grabs started back in 2018 when Disney began charging an additional fee for guests self-parking at their on-site hotels. Now, the defense would be “every hotel charges people for parking.” Yes, that’s true, but Disney always charged a premium for its onsite hotels and the understanding by guests is that the prices were justified because Disney was including perks such as Magical Express and self-parking into those fees rather than “nickel and diming” you like every other hotel.
One thing to consider is the WHY other hotels charge for parking. It’s a revenue stream no doubt, but it is important to understand that every other hotel in Central Florida is constricted by space limitations. For everyone else, if you want to build a bigger parking lot it’s going to come at the expense of another amenity at the hotel. Walt Disney World, thanks to its blessing of size, has no space limitations.
On January 10th, Disney removed the self-parking fees and it feels like the dawn of a new era. A week ago, if you were to ask me which was going to go away first, the Park Reservation system of self-parking fees, I would have put all my money on Park Reservations. I felt there was no way this Disney company would let go of that “free money.” For me it was similar to the baggage fees the airlines implemented when the price of fuel went up years ago or the extra freight charges many shipping companies instituted during the pandemic. Those fees are here to stay seemingly forever even though the circumstances which created them don’t exist or are drastically lowered.
With Disney removing the self-parking fees and saying it was “a Disney difference many of you have asked us to bring back,” to me it is a feeling that there is hope that on the horizon the Disney experience we all fell in love with over the past 50 years could be making a comeback.
# 4 – Harmonious and Enchantment Get Closing Dates
Well, our theme of Things Many Disney Guests Didn’t Like Are Shockingly Going Away continues as Disney announced it would retire the EPCOT nighttime spectacular Harmonious on April 2nd, bringing back EPCOT Forever the very next night. Harmonious has been snake bit from Day One, and it’s almost impossible to follow a beloved EPCOT spectacular like IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth unless you got the goods. Instead, Harmonious was designed seemingly for Disney to create an upcharge experience at a Festival Pavilion which Disney never ended up building. While the show itself was not earning raves by guests, Rumors and Innuendo suggest that Harmonious was also a nightmare from an engineering and operations perspective. All that said, it’s still shocking to see the show get such a short run because it must have cost a small fortune to develop and build…. even Animal Kingdom’s Rivers of Light show got a longer run.
Over at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, the nighttime spectacular Enchantment will also be ending its run on April 2nd and be replaced by the fan favorite Happily Ever After. I may be biased, because me and my family LOVED Happily Ever After, but when we saw Enchantment last year, I knew immediately it was a “one and done” for me. I thought the show was completely non-sensical and completely lacking the Disney “heart.” After my first time seeing Enchantment, I would just use that time in the parks to ride something I enjoyed like the PeopleMover. I still don’t get it. I mean, people loved Wishes, but I think most saw the technological advancement and other positives that Happily Ever After brought with it when it replaced Wishes. Enchantment seemed like a step back, and for a show celebrating the “50 Years of WDW” it didn’t have much nostalgia in it at all.
# 3 – Tron Coaster Gets Opening Date
April is going to be a big month at WDW. As we noted above on April 3rd we get the return of Happily Ever After and EPCOT Forever, and on April 4th the long awaited TRON Lightcycle / Run FINALLY opens at the Magic Kingdom.
Thanks to blogger-in-the-sky @bioreconstruct, we have been following the building of this roller coaster for what seems like the better part of a decade.
We are getting so close!
# 2 – Year-Round HHN Experience in Las Vegas
So, earlier in the week Disney seemingly dropped more big news out-of-nowhere than they announced at the D23 Expo last year. I was just in shock. THE VERY NEXT DAY Universal was like, hold our beer, as they announced plans for a 110,000 square-foot location that will be a “year-round, horror-focused destination” in Las Vegas. Universal says that this new experience will be continuously updated, have seasonal events, unique merchandise, and “daytime food and beverage spaces that will turn into “haunting bars and eateries by night.”
It sounds and appears to be incredible, but the most amazing part is that it was dropped in the middle of the week in early January. WHAT?! But that’s not even the biggest news Universal announced…
# 1 – New Universal Park
Also on Wednesday, Universal announced that it is planning to build a 100-acre “concept for families with young children” in Frisco, Texas. To put that size into context, Islands of Adventure is slightly over 100 acres. No timetable has been set, nor has the actual location in Frisco, Texas been announced, but Universal did release some concept art to whet our appetites. A closer examination at the artwork reveals that the park will most likely have attractions based around fan-favorite Universal brands including Jurassic Park/Camp Cretaceous, Trolls, and Shrek. With the park being designed for young children, I would be shocked…SHOCKED if the Minions don’t have a large presence as well.
I’m not sure what is the bigger surprise. 1) That Universal is building a new park 2) That park is catering towards a demo many “Disney only” fans believe Universal doesn’t care about or 3) That the park is going to be in Frisco, Texas, a town I never heard of until this week.
However, I do know how I feel about this announcement.
We’ll see if this is the beginning of a series of “boutique” resort experiences by Universal, or something they will try once and move on. There’s a strong case to be made a smaller, regional park like the one in Texas will diminish the premium brand experience that the Universal Orlando Resort has been working extremely hard to establish. We recently saw several high profile departures from Universal Creative including Thierry Coup, Mike Hightower and others. Could that have been their stand against Comcast going in this direction? We may never know, but with EPIC Universe opening in the not-too-distant future, it does seem peculiar that anyone from Universal would leave before being able to spike the ball after that touchdown. If you are a high level management position in any company – theme parks or otherwise – you usually want to leave right after your big project makes its debut, not right before. It’s human nature to want to bask in the glory before moving on to other projects.
So there you have it: The SATURDAY SIX Looks At The HUGE NEWS From Disney and Universal! See you next weekend for the latest installment of the SATURDAY SIX, where we’ll look at something fun from the world of Disney and Universal. If you enjoyed yourself, be sure to check out the THEME PARK ENJOYMENT INDEX, giving a monthly recap of all the theme park news you need to know (and a lot more you don’t need to know, but we’re gonna tell you anyway). You can also follow Your Humble Author on Twitter (@derekburgan).
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*nominated every year by us. Unfortunately the Pulitzer Committee, which is clearly a game of politics and playing favorites, has yet to respond to us.
Special Thanks to The Elite Brandon Glover, Digital Maestro Scott Walker, the bio-est of all reconstructs @bioreconstruct, Captain Cruiseline Scott Sanders of the world famous Disney Cruise Line Blog, my personal protege Hunter “Elvey” Underwood, artist @SonderQuest, the mighty maven of merchandise Hedgehog’s Corner, the SAT SIX Fun Squad of Parkscope Joe and “the Dadalorian” Nick, hot shot Michael Carelli, charter member of the Universal Four @Nitro230, the permit princess Alicia Stella, master cartographer Tommy Hawkins, and Hermione Granger’s tutor Megan Stump for their invaluable assistance with this article. Absolutely no help was added by SeaWorld Influencer @SuperWeenieHtJr. The SAT SIX is inspired each week by goofballs Aengus Mackenzie and LitemAndHyde and you Potterheads will enjoy Meg’s other blog work over at the Central Florida Slug Club.