What Exactly Is the Magic of Disney World?

Photo: Hannah Buckman

This article originally appeared in Brooding, a newsletter delivering deep thoughts on modern family life. Sign up here.

Disclosing one’s relationship with Disney is like talking about religion. I come from a family of nonbelievers, but I did visit the Orlando park once, when I was 5. My mother and I had flown to Fort Lauderdale to care for her ailing aunt Marcella, who was known as Aunt Cool. Aunt Cool was a widow who had no children of her own, and dementia was taking hold of her.

After a week of sustained eldercare, my mom drove the three of us to Orlando in Aunt Cool’s Buick, thinking I had earned the treat. But I was too young to go on any rides alone, and my mom couldn’t leave Aunt Cool’s side. We spent one day there, wandering around listlessly in the heat. We did go to the restaurant where you eat breakfast with the characters and Aunt Cool found it disturbing. I obediently ate my enormous pancake under the mute surveillance of Goofy. My poor mom — it must have sucked for her most of all. Anyway, saying I’ve been to Disney is like saying you’ve been to Paris after waiting out a connection at Charles de Gaulle. I consider myself never to have been.

Disney’s theme parks are polarizing. Some parents will tell you that they would never, ever take their kids there — that the very idea of Disney’s parks goes against their personal philosophies. Others make the counterpoint that being a loving parent requires a trip to Disney. Why would you deliberately stand in the way of such a potent dose of childhood fantasy?

There’s a sense that parents “owe” their kids a trip to Disney, and I wonder if Disney’s ever-growing popularity is partly a consequence of American life growing ever more hostile to the comfortable bringing-up of children. I’ve heard people say that Disney is the only place they feel safe letting their kids be a little bit independent. That it feels like a place where everyone’s looking out for kids, unlike in their communities, where every second driver is texting and every second homeowner has a loaded gun on their coffee table. Disney trips might be part of the “bargaining” stage of collective grief: Okay, we will accept that we feel alienated from our neighborhoods, as long as we get to visit Disney on a quarterly basis.

Walt Disney World gets an average of 58 million visitors per year, its popularity trending upward (alongside pedestrian and gun deaths — just a thought!). This is making the parks more logistically complex for people who want to experience the popular attractions, and more expensive for everyone. Recent reports have outlined the strategy and cunning now required of nearly everyone who wants to visit the parks.

Tickets to Disney World range from about $70 to well over $200 per person per day, depending on how many days you’re visiting and how much you want to do. Then there’s the new Genie+ Pass (an extra $15-35 per person per day), which gives you access to timeslots for riding attractions. There are also “virtual queues” for certain attractions, which are free but are first-come, first-served. The virtual queues open up at 7 a.m. and 1 p.m.The virtual slots fill up within a very few minutes, so people set alarms so they’re ready to tap their screens the moment the queue opens. At 1 p.m. all around the park you’ll see parents frozen in place attending to their phones, trying to get that afternoon spot reserved.

Staying in a hotel inside the park, which according to many people I spoke to is the key to having a magical time, is up to 300 percent more expensive than finding a room in ordinary Orlando. People who stay inside the park get to access the parks half an hour before the invading hordes storm the gates at 9 a.m., and they also get “Extra Magic Hours” — a few hours of access after the off-site schleppers depart. But all of this has created what Robert Dykes, a retiree I spoke to who has been to Disney numerous times over the past 20 years, calls a “caste system.” A trip to Disney has become very expensive, easily exceeding $10,000 for a family of four for four days. “There is so much inequity among guests,” said Dapha Atias, another Disney regular.

“You’ll always see people having a really terrible day,” said Jess Woodbury, whose dad worked for Disneyland in the ’70s and ’80s as a sound technician and sometime-substitute character (he was tall, so he worked well as Goofy). “There’s so much pressure. This idea of magic actually creates this pressure.”

In all sincerity: Why is it fun? I can imagine why a kid might like it, but it’s adults who are willingly spending their vacation days and dollars here. Whenever you ask adults to describe what they love about Disney, they talk about the “magic.” I don’t know what they mean by that, and I want to understand it. Is whatever they’re talking about even possible given the crowds and apps and virtual queuing?

Robert Dykes began going to Disney when his son was young, and he has become one of the millions of avid amateurs who plan their visits with a degree of diligence that is sometimes compared with preparing for battle. For him, the magic comes from the feeling of full immersion that the parks create. “There’s this experience of, you’re entering a different world. Everything changes. It’s just so impressively complete, from top to bottom.”

Haters might reply with a counterargument that you’re entering a different world when you visit, say, a foreign country, but they are missing the point. There’s something logistically fascinating about the maintenance of the façade of otherworldliness — especially if, as an adult, you have some sense of what kind of coordination must go into it. It seems like this is part of the appeal for many adults. Besides, the real world is constantly barging in, no matter where in the world you are. What Disney promises is an escape from the mundane frictions of everyday life.

Woodbury visits every year with her kids. “You have never seen customer service like this in your life,” she said. “My daughter was wearing a special birthday pin because it was her birthday, and every single person who works there sees her walking by and says, ‘Happy birthday, princess!’”

Dapha Atias recounted getting sick on the Mission: Space attraction at Epcot and being whisked to the nearest bathroom, which was for cast members only. “It was designed as if it were the bathroom for a spacecraft on a Mars mission,” she recalls. “It was incredible. You’d think it would just be a normal, behind-the-scenes bathroom, but no.”

This reminds me of a passage from David Foster Wallace’s classic account of taking a cruise, Shipping Out“The promise is not that you can experience great pleasure, but that you will. That they’ll make certain of it. That they’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun.”

The attractions are more than just rides, according to those who love them. “You come out of something like the Avatar Way of Water attraction and you think, I can’t believe it. I wasn’t on a ride — I was there,” said Dykes. “They are always pushing the envelope of entertainment technology — sound systems, motion sensors, visuals.”

And then there’s the Disney customer-service phone number, which connects you to humans who, as Atias put it, “are empowered to go out of their way to actually help you.” It’s funny that while the sorcery of AI is transforming our interactions with businesses and even each other, what people find so magical about Disney — what really sets it apart — is its reliance on people behaving like people.

Woodbury and her kids went to Busch Gardens not long ago, just to check out a different theme-park experience. “The whole time we were there, I was like, ‘Oh God, what I would give to be at Disney right now,’” she said. “They didn’t care about us — where we were going, what we were doing. The rides were fun, but it was kind of a nightmare.”

Unions representing Disney’s cast members have recently won negotiations to raise the minimum hourly wage to $18 over the next few years, but immersion is still hard to maintain in today’s labor market. Dykes has experienced cracks in the façade in recent years. A few years ago, he and his family waited two hours for a bus operating within the “world” — an unheard-of delay. The employees he asked for help shrugged. Some services, he observes, might be outsourced to external vendors. He feels that the increased reliance on in-app payments, which require you to be on your phone a lot during your visit, have the effect of ripping you out of the fantasy and returning you to the real world.

Being a person is hard, even — perhaps especially — on vacation. Some of us (I’m trying to hold myself accountable here) do weird stuff on vacation where we try to prove ourselves to ourselves by overcoming obstacles — I’m thinking of the time I cried while trying to get our 1981 VW van out of a canyon in the snow. I’m realizing that it’s no more obvious why this would be fun than why Disney would be fun.

Good customer service is a rare and precious thing, but I think there’s more to Disney’s magic than this, and it has to do with the chance to recapture something that we all lose as we grow up. The sad truth is that most of us adults don’t have what you’d call “artistic experiences” very often. We like to be entertained, to be impressed — we like to feel rewarded for having good taste.

But children have artistic experiences all the time. Their imaginations are activated by stories, and they create entire worlds in their own minds out of the stories they’ve heard. J.R.R. Tolkien famously called this “the secondary world” — the creative, imaginary inner places that people inhabit, inspired by the stories they’ve watched and listened to. We lose access to the secondary world as we get older, and the world of stories ceases to be a home for us. It’s sad.

Remember when Disney movies were kind of scary? Back in the ’30s and ’40s, Disney animation brought fairy tales into American popular culture. In every culture, fairy tales are meant to teach children lessons of caution and morality, and early Disney was no different. Part of the magic of fairy tales, including early Disney, is the message that fear is part of life. Over the years, a relentless market logic has sanded down the scary parts of Disney fantasies, but they are the fairy tales we have and as stories, they are of huge importance. It’s easy to forget this as we age and our Disney touchstones become nothing more than Elsa dresses that our children refuse to take off and Moana songs that they refuse to stop singing.

Adults who love visiting Disney — with or without kids — might be hearing a siren song pulling them toward a time when they fully lived inside the secondary world. This is nothing to laugh at. The passion to recapture lost time is one of the main artistic themes in history, and Disney has built temples to it. Because Disney is an adaptive corporate blob, the company has gamified the experience to appeal to contemporary pressures and tastes, but the main point remains the same.

The magic of living in a secondary world of stories is individualistic in a beautiful way. You’re the central character, and your emotional life really matters. We never forget that childhood experience because it is awesome. Disney gives some of that back to us. I’m beginning to think it takes emotional courage to own up to a yearning for this kind of magic.

Regardless, I’m sure I’ll never go to Disney, because I’m too cheap. If I ever have an extra $10,000 for vacation money, I’m spending it on a trip somewhere I can immerse myself in the local grocery-shopping culture, but that’s not everyone’s kink and I accept that. (But being sent to Disney on assignment, DFW-  or, more recently, Lauren Oyler–style? I wouldn’t hesitate.) I know my adult consciousness would focus more on the money-extraction infrastructure than on the customer-service infrastructure, and it would cloud my ability to travel back in time to my childhood secondary world. It’s a shame, because it sounds kind of fun — for real.

This story has been updated to correct pricing errors in the description of the Genie+ Pass.

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What Exactly Is the Magic of Disney World?