Former Disney Imagineer says theme parks now more stressful, less fun for families

A trip to The Walt Disney Co. theme parks has been on many American families' bucket lists for generations as the experiences have become more engaging and parents seek to make memories their children will remember for a lifetime.

But there is a flip side to visiting a destination that thousands of other people want to attend at the same time, and one expert says the modern-day experience of planning and attending Disney attractions has become more stressful and less fun for patrons than in the past.

Ryan Harmon is a former Disney "Imagineer" who now owns Zeitgeist Design & Production, a company whose clients include Disney and other global theme park brands.

Harmon says Disney, in particular, has "a good problem" in that too many people flock to the company's theme parks because guests seek the experiences and nostalgia, and have fond memories of attending with their parents that they want to pass down to their kids. He said it seems no matter how high the pricing goes, people continue to go.

"So you've got this problem where you have too many people who want to come at the same time [so they try] to sort of spread the crowd out," Harmon told FOX Business in an interview. 

He continued: "That's why they've added many more experiences, they try to raise the price high enough. That maybe weeds out some people, but that doesn't seem to work, and so they've come up with a system using your mobile phone…the problem is that unless you plan ahead – which a lot of people do not – you end up going there and having a pretty poor experience because people have reserved rides and shows and restaurants."

He said his own recent trips showed him that the days of taking your kids to a Disney park on a whim and expecting to have a great time are over.

The theme park expert recalled how he took his team on a last-minute trip to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, a few years ago and had a poor experience because once inside they realized they would not be able to access many rides or dining establishments because they were already booked up by other guests ahead of time.

"We bought our very expensive tickets and went in and watched as all these people walked in front of us in the queues because they made an online reservation," he said. "So we got stuck waiting and waiting and waiting."

Harmon said after watching so many people parade past them, the team decided to just go have a nice meal at the park, but the multiple restaurants they tried to eat at were already entirely booked for the day. He said they decided to leave after being in the park for only two hours.

Then during a recent trip to Disneyland, he said he found himself constantly checking his phone trying to get a reservation for the particular ride he wanted to experience.

He also criticized Disney's decision to get rid of the free fast pass. 

"To be charging up to $170 a person to walk through the gate and then $30 a person for a ride," Harmon said. "I mean, that's just highway robbery."

Despite the challenges, Harmon has had great experiences at Disney parks, particularly on group tours given by a private guide whose services cost thousands in addition to the admission tickets.

Harmon suggests that Disney should cap the reservations it allows for a day in order for walk-in guests to be able to enjoy rides, restaurants and shows without having a stressful time.

"I think they really need to take a step back, reconsider what the guest experience has become, and find a way to make it democratic and fun again, and far less time spent on your phone," Harmon said. "That's not what it's about.

When reached for comment on Harmon's views, Disney did not issue a formal statement but said it continues to see positive guest experience ratings and strong demand in its theme parks.

The company directed FOX Business to the Themed Entertainment Association's recently released annual report showing Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and Disneyland were the top two most-visited theme parks in the world last year.

Disney also said both Walt Disney World and Disneyland have brought back and introduced a number of updates to the parks this year in order to offer guests more choice and flexibility to make visiting the parks easier.

Disneyland has increased by the number of days – nearly two months' worth over the coming year – when guests are able to access the park with their lowest-priced one-day, one-park ticket at $104. 

The California destination is also providing complimentary Disney PhotoPass digital downloads for all ticketed guests during its Disney100 celebration as part of an ongoing celebration ahead of the company's 100th anniversary on October 16.

Beginning Jan. 9, 2024, Walt Disney World will no longer require reservations for date-based tickets. The company also said fans shared they would like to be able to plan their visits before the day they enter the park, so it is working on ways for guests to do that in 2024.

The company added that Walt Disney World is also bringing back Disney dining plans, where guests can choose from different tiers of meal and snack combinations and pay for their selection ahead of time.