Disney Parks Like a Pro, Part Two: The Six Practices

If you didn’t read Part One, please find it here. If you are already exhausted by clicking internet links all day, then do whatever you want. I’m not your dad.

In Part One we revealed the three principles for enjoying a Disney park vacation:

  • Willingness to try
  • A small measure of imagination
  • Resolved budget concerns
This one photo captures at least three of the six practices.
This one photo captures at least three of the six practices…

But that was just the preparation round of this (needlessly complicated?) strategy guide. To really visit a Disney park like a pro, we also need to address what to do when there.

In Part One we also referenced conversations with friends about surviving a Disney trip. Like the three principles, the following six practices are developed from those discussions over the course of many years. The practices are flexible and should be adapted to each individual’s requirements and interests.

Although we recommend trying everything, it’s better not to focus on all six practices the entire time. Decide which ones you enjoy the most*. It’s still a vacation, after all; no need to bring a checklist.

[*We focus on four of the six, as a general rule.]

The Six Practices:

Attraction Enthusiast

The attractions in Disney parks are the foundation of any trip there. Pirates of the Caribbean is the most famous theme park ride in the world, and a quintessential Disney experience. What would a trip to Disneyland be without “Ye come seekin’ adventure and salty old pirates, eh?,” and the boat zipping into the cavern, and “Drink up me hearties, yo ho!,” and “Don’t tell him, Carlos! Don’t be chee-ken!,” and “We wants the redhead!,” and muddy pirates and pigs, and a town on fire, and prisoners whistling for keys, and a powder keg gunfight, and a trip back up a watery hill to New Orleans Square? I mean… just writing that all down makes me want to look up hotel room rates.

But, slogging from one crowded line to the next is a miserable way to waste a vacation. Planning a trip during low attendance seasons is one good tactic, but that is not always possible. Plus, every weekend is busy. Fortunately, there are other ways to deal with the lines.

Disney’s FASTPASS/FastPass+ are critical tools for Attraction Enthusiasts to master. The system lets you essentially make reservations to a shorter line with your phone (Walt Disney World) or a paper ticket distributed near select attractions (Disneyland, for now). There are a few elements of FASTPASS/FastPass+ that I am not crazy about, but it lets us go on all the most popular rides without waiting in long lines. Some attractions in Disney parks also have a Rider Switch system for parents waiting with kids.

The best ride in any Disney park. Feel free to disagree in the comments below! (But you will wrong.)
The best ride in any Disney park. Feel free to disagree in the comments below! (But you will be wrong.)

Just as important for Attraction Enthusiasts, though, is keeping the schedule open and flexible. One of my Disney friends summed this up perfectly as: “If you decide not to go on a ride, then just don’t.” Non-fans and first-time guests can feel overwhelmed trying to ride everything, but giving themselves permission to slow down and enjoy their time makes it a vacation once again.

A few other practical notes for Attraction Enthusiasts:

  • Busy rides have dips in their lines during parades, shows, and fireworks, so utilize the times guide near the front gates.
  • Find the hidden gems among the attractions; the ones that are entertaining and rarely crowded.
  • Don’t be afraid to laugh, be amazed, be thrilled, hold your hands up the entire time, and ride things more than once.

Atmosphere Lover

Everything a guest might encounter in a Disney park is engineered to augment their experience. Nothing is ignored: the architecture, the design, the sightlines, the lighting, the materials, the flow of traffic, the landscaping, even the smells in the air are all the result of a deliberate decision.

So, how does that translate into one of the six practices?

As a first step: explore the surroundings. Disney parks are designed to reward curiosity. Hidden elements are engineered into attractions and theming, just waiting for an intrepid guest to discover. One great example of this is the the popular “Hidden Mickey” phenomenon, where the three-circle silhouette* of Mickey Mouse is disguised in attractions throughout the parks.

[*Mickey is not the only detail to discover. Guests in Disneyland can see a hidden moose, a hidden Eeyore, a hidden bullet hole, and a hidden Sherlock Holmes, among others.]

One of my favorite Hidden Mickeys, in Animal Kingdom.
An Animal Kingdom Hidden Mickey — one of our favorites.

As guests begin exploring, a world of careful detail will emerge. The thought and effort invested into the design becomes enthralling. Guests may find themselves babbling in delight at things like wrought iron door hinges and restroom stall paint choices.

Then there’s the music.

Every part of every Disney park has music, which changes seamlessly from land to land, from queue to ride, and from store to street. It is set at the ideal presentation volume, so it is always there but you never have to shout over it or struggle to hear it. The soundtrack choices are perfect. Guests become more enchanted with each step.

Before long, they are hooked, reeled, cleaned, and cooked. They have become Atmosphere Lovers, and are no longer casual fans of Disney parks*. Their album of trip photos will be scenic vistas and architectural curiosities.

Actual photos from our last trip to Disneyland. I took these on purpose.
Actual photos from our last trip to Disneyland. I took these on purpose.

[*Our friends Doug and Becky just returned from the Disneyland Resort, from where they sent us cell phone snaps of atmosphere details with a challenge to guess the location. They both have great eyes for detail (Doug is an incredible photographer), and we have played this game with them for several years now, each taking turns when we are there. We pretend it is a contest to see how well we know the parks, but we know it is really just fellow Atmosphere Lovers nerding out together.]

On the left: Can you guess where you might find this at the Disneyland Resort? We did! (After much help and many hints…) On the right: Three of our favorite people. Images courtesy Doug and Becky Kranz
On the left: Can you guess where you might find this at the Disneyland Resort? We did! (After much help and many hints…) On the right: Three of our favorite people. Images courtesy Doug and Becky Kranz.

Character Finder

Finding one of the costumed characters in a Disney park is a bit like spotting Will Smith. You feel a little tingle of recognition and excitement, and have an immediate “OMG it’s Will Smith OMG” reaction. There is an exclamation of delight from someone nearby (maybe it’s from you!). A line quickly forms to take a photo and get an autograph, and Will Smith/Mickey Mouse’s smile is entirely plastic. You post it on Facebook.

Of all the six practices, being a Character Finder requires the most imagination, which is why it resonates so well with children. Contrary to popular speculation, I think most kids* understand that the petite person in the mouse costume and the young woman in the princess costume are not actually Mickey and Cinderella. They just think it is fun to meet the characters.

[*This is true of older kids, at any rate. Very small kids who think they are actually meeting a giant mouse/duck/dog are scared out of their minds.]

 Can you guess which person in this photo moved to California from the Midwest to be an actor, but didn’t have the right agent?
Can you guess which person in this photo moved to California from the Midwest to be an actor, but didn’t have the right agent?

It is easy to be a successful Character Finder, thanks to Disney’s official apps. Simply tap on the “Characters” tab and a schedule with times and locations appears. Then just go to their spot and wait in line.

Practical tips, beyond “leave your ego in the hotel room” and “download the app,” are to be a good guest in the parks. Characters on the move are headed either to their designated meeting place or behind the scenes to unwind, so don’t ask them to stop or hassle the “wrangler” that escorts them. Be kind to the people in the costumes, and all will enjoy the interaction.

Another idea, and this is graduate-level fandom, but consider picking a favorite character and getting into it. There will be more on this in a future post, but it adds some thrill of discovery back into the practice. It can be a lot of fun to wait in line, take a picture, and get an autograph. Plenty of normal, well-adjusted adults do it with only a minimal amount of embarrassment.

Collectible Shopper

Browsing Disney parks’ many retail spots may not be the best practice for guests on a tight budget (us, for example), or who already have a house crammed full of Disney merchandise (also us). But it is entertaining all the same.

Most of the shops are filled with identical merchandise, so the products become a blur of branding and packaging after a while. However, a Collectible Shopper is not looking for plastic, mass-produced nonsense. Unique and unusual items can be found in Disney parks, so it is worth a guests’ time to scour each location.

Some collectibles just tell a story.
Some collectibles just tell a story.

If you are not a shopper by nature, the stores in a Disney park are also good spots for Atmosphere Lovers and Character Finders. Not only do most retail locations have careful and often wonderful theming, but there are hundreds of objects to catch your eye and tempt your wallet. A good example of this are the smashed penny machines that dot the parks; not only are they inexpensive, but they are unique to each location.

Pins are also popular with Collectible Shoppers. It is not terribly expensive to buy a few (although as with any good drug, the first hits can lead to a lifelong problem) and there are new and seasonal designs with great characters all the time. Although we tend to trade just with cast members, there is a robust trading subculture of people just waiting to exploit novices.

People Watcher

For those of us who enjoy seeing herds of Homo sapiens come together in all their wondrous and bizarre variety, Disney parks are the Serengeti. Every conceivable human interaction can be observed by a meticulous People Watcher, from the happiest gatherings to the most baffling confrontations.

 There are weirdos everywhere in Disney parks. Take this guy, for instance. What’s his story?
There are weirdos everywhere in Disney parks. Take this guy, for instance. What’s his story?

As tribal creatures, we humans like to mark ourselves with the colors of our interests. This is as true of the family wearing matching purple “Patterson Family Disney Extravaganza” t-shirts as it is the leather-clad biker with the Tinker Bell tattoos. Much of the entertainment value in People Watching comes from these self-identifiers.

But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Disney parks are some of the best places anywhere for watching all of our cultural oddities and human moments. Things like little kid meltdowns as their long days are ending, the weird clothing and uncomfortable shoes people spend their entire days wearing, surprised reactions from guests as costumed characters walk close by, and the almost unbearable awkwardness of teenage romances.

Plus, there is opportunity to see actual, non-mouse themed celebrities in Disney parks. We see famous people once in a while, like Nicolas Cage, which led to a long-standing dispute between loving spouses.

Food Fan

The food at Disney parks is so popular that it has spawned entire fan communities. They may not be criterion-caliber dining destinations, but the management’s commitment to quality, variety, and service has empowered thousands upon thousands of Food Fans around the cyber-world.

Being a Food Fan also requires more preparation than other practices, because dining in Disney parks is expensive. There is a broad spectrum of cost, based on where you want to eat; from an eyebrow-raising hot dog ($10) to a mouth-gaping buffet ($50), to a coronary-inducing “Signature Dining Experience” (all of your money). This is where the practice of Resolving Budget Concerns (from Part One) must be observed, because although dining in a Disney park is a major trip expense, it is almost always worth it.

 “I would kill for this meal right now. No, not literally kill, haha. Why do you ask? Who did you have in mind?”
“I would kill for this meal right now. No, not literally kill, haha. Why do you ask? Who did you have in mind?”

In addition to saving up a small fortune, some of the most desirable and interesting places fill up well in advance, especially in Walt Disney World dining locations, where reservations can be made 180 days in advance. Popular places like Be Our Guest (the fantastic Beauty and the Beast restaurant in Magic Kingdom) will be booked solid by 175 days out. A savvy Food Fan knows to start calling the morning of the first day they can.

We recommend saving to dine in the parks to everyone who asks about how to enjoy their Disney vacation. The food is good, sometimes great, and portions tend to the generous side — it would be easy to split meals for kids or bird-like adults.

Snacks and treats count toward the practice of being a Food Fan, too. For two consecutive trips to Disneyland in 2015 I could not find their outstanding English toffee, which is produced in the Candy Palace and Candy Kitchen on Main Street, U.S.A. On both occasions I was told by a helpful cast member that there was an almond sourcing problem, and they could not make the toffee until that was resolved. I thought that was corporate doublespeak for “we are figuring out how to make cheaper toffee,” but on our next trip the classic toffee was back. It was a touching moment.

 “I’m… I’m okay. I just need a minute. Whoo. It’s just overwhelming, you know? It just makes me so happy.”
“I’m… I’m okay. I just need a minute. Whoo. It’s kind of overwhelming, you know? It just makes me so happy.”

********

There you have the Deep Forest Outpost method for becoming a Disney parks fan. By adopting the three philosophies from Part One and the six practices from Part Two, you too can willingly throw yourself on the altar of financial exploitation time after time, and still come back for more.

Being a Disney parks fan can be an exercise in ignoring your better instincts. It is offering your free time to a massive corporation run by self-interested shareholders, and who see you as an open wallet. It is allowing yourself to be manipulated by sharp marketing and clever design, and then wishing it could all happen again once you leave.

But, even with full, culpable knowledge of the above, we still love it. We have had wonderful experiences, both authentic and Disney-produced. Disney Magic® is a very real thing for us, and I expect we will continue to travel there for as long as we can.

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