Warning: Disney Magic Is Fading for Kids

Goofy water image at Disney World - Francesca Di Meglio
Disney magic is fewer and farther between for kids as the company begins to shift its focus on Millennials without kids, who have the money to spend on playful vacations. © Photo by Francesca Di Meglio

Disney magic was real to me. Flying off to Neverland on Peter Pan’s Flight at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla. was the highlight of my father’s year when I was a kid in the 1980s and 1990s. Therefore, we made the journey from New Jersey to the Magic Kingdom annually. One year, we even took the Disney cruise on the now, long defunct Big Red Boat.

As a mother, I have been taking my son to Disney World every year since he turned 1. As a result, I’ve become a regular viewer of various blogs and vlogs and podcasts dedicated to our happy place. As a former professional travel editor, I couldn’t help but notice the transformation from being kid-centric to being Millennial-centric in both the marketing and the feel of the place.

Don’t get me wrong. My son still has a blast every. time. we. go. But keen observers will notice the transformation that has taken place over the years through slight shifts. Do you see what I see?

Less Magic, More Booze

There was a time – back in Walt’s day – when alcohol was not served in the parks. This was supposed to be a family place, so it wasn’t deemed necessary. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t drink. But I’m Italian. My people have wine with every meal from a young age. I’m no Prohibitionist. Certainly, those who are paying good money for fine food at restaurants, such as Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom) or Monsieur Paul (Epcot’s France pavilion), should be able to have a glass of wine with their meal. Seriously, what would the Germany pavilion be without beer?

However, nowadays, there are hordes of young people in their 20s and 30s “drinking around the world.” They are drunk by the time they get their margaritas in Mexico. No one does anything to control for the drunks. Frankly, I’m not that comfortable with the boorish behavior taking place in front of my 7-year-old. Worrying about explaining what’s happening with the grown ups is not the stuff of magical vacations.

No Food for Kids

Okay, this isn’t entirely true. Of course, there are kids’ options everywhere. But we almost always splurge for the Deluxe Dining plan. My husband and I are foodies. What we’ve always loved about Disney is that we can enjoy our sophisticated dinners while our son enjoys the meal, too.

But there have been fewer kid-friendly foods on the menus at signature restaurants. In some, there were only one or two options. They almost always included grilled chicken and a vegetable, such as broccoli. My kid would eat the grilled chicken and leave the broccoli. The appetizers have always been an issue for him. He’s a picky eater, so I’m not blaming Disney entirely for this. But the portions in early 2019 were so tiny. He would have his measly strip of chicken and a minimal scoop of ice cream for dessert and be done. We would have to use our snack credits or pull out the Goldfish crackers to satisfy his hunger. Considering, children ages 3 to 9 pay $27.98 per day for Deluxe Dining, they should get a little more value.

I learned a little secret on our last trip. You can actually request chicken nuggets and fries at most places, but it’s not on the menu anymore. If you don’t know people on the inside, you may never figure this out. (Although, I must admit that Artist’s Point, which is now a character experience and not a signature restaurant, actually included on the menu, “chicken nuggets upon request.”)

Some of this is probably in deference to parents griping about unhealthy menu items. But the emphasis on the food and experience is now adult-centric. My son used to get reusable straws in the shape of Mickey Mouse, fun menu items, and a bevy of cute desserts at every stop. This time around, there were no extras for the kiddies.

Different Character Interactions

For now (and I believe for only a little more time), my son believes we are visiting the characters in their home and not that they are real people with a life outside of Goofy’s head. This is probably the number one motivating factor that makes me want to go to Disney every year at this particular time in our lives. The character interactions range from being outrageously awesome to completely stinky. This was the same when I was a kid.

The difference now is the number of adults interested in character interactions, too. We stood in line for Donald Duck outside the Mexico pavilion at Epcot. Groups of adults stood in front of us, replete with Donald hats and autograph books. Hey, they spent the money to get in just like everybody else, so I don’t begrudge them the interaction. However, Donald spent 15 minutes kissing, hugging, taking selfies, and drawing in the books of the two grown ups in line in front of us. Then, he took all of 4 minutes to take a photograph with my son and sign his book. The two kids behind us, who were a little younger than my son, had even less time with the duck. They were done by the time we gathered our stuff and met up with our family members, who were sitting to the left of the line. C’mon!

Autographs Denied

Speaking of the autographs, Disney is frequently having characters refuse signing autographs. The Green Army Men and some Star Wars characters are among those not signing autographs and they had in the past. Back in 2017, some outlets reported Disney was eliminating signatures at character dining experiences and would instead hand out cards with the signatures. There was backlash to this idea, and my son was able to get signatures at most of the character dining experiences we had.

At the Artist’s Point dining experience, your napkin ring is a card in the shape of an apple featuring the signatures of Dopey, Grumpy, Snow White, and the Queen. The characters did sign the book but the implication was that they rather they didn’t.

In some cases, the decision is practical. This is true for characters, such as Baymax and Olaf, who don’t really have hands for writing. In Olaf’s case, you might receive a card with his signature on it.

You might be thinking this is small potatoes. But for a kid who believes he is talking to the real-life Mickey Mouse that autograph is special. His book full of signatures is a coveted and beloved item. Some people use a frame or pillow case for signatures to create a unique souvenir. What’s sad to me is the characters were once trained to perfection. Part of their training, in fact, includes learning the signature of their character, so each one would look exactly the same.

New Stuff Ain’t Always for Kids

I get it. You have to have a few roller coasters for the adults. Disney has always had a handful, including Space Mountain and Splash Mountain. But many of the new rides are thrillers. Flights of Passage in Disney’s Animal Kingdom is an example. It’s spectacular, and my son has ridden it twice. But it’s not for little kids, nor is it for kids who might have fears traditionally associated with those their age. My nephew, for example, cried throughout the ride. And littler kids wouldn’t even be able to ride because of their size.

We’re still learning what’s to come with Star Wars. Of course, that was a smart investment on the part of Disney. But how many 6 and 7 year olds are true Star Wars fans? My son hid under the bed when we were watching The Force Awakens. He likes the robots – BB8 and R2D2 – but he doesn’t know much about the series. Few of his friends in the first grade do. So, I’m not sure how into the new section of the park they will be.

The Disney Touch Is Gone

That brings me to the most important point. Disney was once the pinnacle of hospitality. It was the gold standard of businesses. The idea was to constantly innovate and train the staff – err, cast members – to be as damn near perfect as possible. Other companies sent their people to Disney to study their best practices. Ultimately, this attention to detail was the magic for little kids.

Children, who already easily suspended belief, walked into a pristine set every time they stepped onto Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom. There wasn’t even a shred of paper on the floor. The characters catered to them. They hugged them. They signed autographs. They jumped up and down – or at least Tigger did. Every inch of the entertainment was aimed at the children. That’s what parents loved about it.

All sorts of free Disney magic took place in front of your eyes, thanks to the exceptional cast members. Now, a cast made up largely of college kids, who can be paid next to nothing and have no experience, has created less-than-stellar experiences. And you can’t even walk into the bathrooms because they are often so disgusting. Certainly, Disney has lost its way some.

Blogs, Vlogs, and Podcasts Aimed at Grown Ups

I’m an avid fan of the blogs and vlogs geared to Disney tourists. Few of the most popular ones, such as Disney Unplugged and the Disney Tourist Blog, include parents. They are supremely popular, and I’m certain they have pull with Disney. Their fans are numerous and are unafraid to share their opinions. But they rarely talk about families and their trip planning.

This is not a criticism. It’s just a fact. I still consult their opinions and enjoy their content. But I don’t always relate to it. I believe their popularity and the following inflates their opinions in the eyes of Disney itself. They are influencers, no doubt. The voice of parents with young children might get lost.

Ultimately, families will still enjoy their trips to Disney. I know we do. But there’s some tarnish for the kids. Much of the experience I recall from my childhood are long gone. While there’s no question that Disney still attracts adults and children alike, it’s not as kid-centric as it once was.

Di Meglio is the author of Fun with the Family New Jersey (Globe Pequot Press, 2012). She also has written the Our Paesani column for ItaliansRus.com since 2003. You can follow the Italian Mamma on Facebook or Twitter @ItalianMamma10.