Price tags constantly creeping higher, long lines, ride stoppages, and wall-to-wall crowds are all unavoidable inconveniences of large theme parks. But for some reason, vacationers don’t seem to mind those inconveniences, significant as they are, to visit the supposed most “magical” places on Earth: Disney World and Disneyland. In fact, every year, more and more people — whether families, couples, or groups of roving ‘Disney adults’ — decide to visit the parks (and, in some cases, re-visit multiple times per year).
However, despite its rising attendance, Disney’s inconveniences have started to take center stage, both in the press and among Disney fans growing weary of park problems. Slowly, it’s creating cracks in Disney’s glitzy veneer of carefully curated commercialism. After all, at places like Disney, inconveniences should be non-existent. But instead, they’re quickly escalating to the point of dragging down the entire experience.
So it’s fair for discerning vacationers to ask: is Disney worth it still?
Despite Disney’s still overwhelming popularity, for many people, the answer is no.
The best alternatives to Disney:
- For an alternate theme park experience
- For an East Coast destination with just as much to do
- For an equally easy alternative
- For finding magic in nature
Disney parks are over-priced and crowded
True, people are still flocking to Disney parks (Disney World, in particular), but that’s not the only number on the rise. While Disney vacation costs vary, in 2023, the starting price tag for a family of four to visit Disney World is around $6,000 — a 10 percent increase in just one year.
However, the price hikes are just one of the reasons Disney has lost its shine. The overall affordability of Disney is just one of many factors contributing to its transition from “must-visit” to “not worth it.” Annoyances like hours-long wait times, hordes of often unruly crowds (or families letting their kids run wild), and frequent ride stoppages can turn a day in the park into an ongoing headache.
According to WDW Stats, the average monthly ride stoppages rose a staggering 58 percent at Disneyland from 2018 to 2022, and 42 percent at Walt Disney World over the same period. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this number also coincides with a noticeable rise in wait times. ThrillData.com (which collects data on wait times at theme parks) shows that the wait times for some of the park’s most popular rides can be more than two or three hours.
Pair those new hassles with the headaches that have always been there (parking and parking shuttles, waiting for Disney buses, and the non-stop sounds of screaming kids), and the reasons not to go to Disney add up even faster than the prices.
The parks are dated
In a world filled with magic (both natural and manmade), how has Disney managed to stay the crème de la crème of theme parks?
Inevitably, nostalgia plays a significant role in Disney’s continued success. With the addition of “Star Wars”-themed areas, Disney parks have increased their appeal to more mature audiences: not just parents introducing their children to the franchise, but also adults visiting sans children chasing the magic of their childhood interests (or trying to relieve their own Disney-tinted childhoods).
However, nostalgia isn’t a reason to go. While the parks continue adding new attractions, the experiential settings often pale compared with the overall staleness of the rest of the park branding. The first park at Disney World (the Magic Kingdom) opened in 1971, and the addition of “Star Wars” rides came in 2019 with a lot of pressure to revitalize a park that, despite its glitzy and Mickey-saturated exterior, sometimes reads as old-fashioned at best – and downright shabby at worst.
Yet there’s no doubt that a great deal of Disney’s appeal rests on an immersive experience. Going to Disney is like entering another world, and it can charm even the most cynical travelers with its ability to keep the outside world at bay. However, the theme park juggernaut that is the Disney Company isn’t the only game in town when it comes to unforgettable vacations. There are plenty of other places to make family memories that’ll last a lifetime.
For an alternate theme park: Busch Gardens
Disney brands may have cornered the market on larger-than-life theme park destination vacations, but there are plenty of alternatives with nearly as impressive dedications to theming. Legoland (Los Angeles) and Dollywood (Tennessee) offer Disney-like immersive experiences for a fraction of the cost, while classics like Hershey Park (Pennsylvania) and Cedar Point (Ohio) tout both nostalgia and adrenaline-packed thrills.
But it’s places like Busch Gardens that offer the best overall vacation variety by pairing the theme park experience with international flair, equally A-list theming, and fun attractions both inside and outside the park.
There are two Busch Gardens locations, in Tampa Bay, FL, and Williamsburg, VA. The parks have a mix of appeals, including family-friendly areas, late-night concerts and places to grab a drink, high-octane roller coasters, and entertainment from around the world.
Busch Gardens parks also have the bonus of being more budget-friendly than Disney. Yes, there are plenty of add-ons and extras (it’s still a theme park, after all), but the park’s “Stay and Play” packages are significantly cheaper than Disney’s. Single-day park tickets are significantly less expensive than Disneyland (Busch Gardens Williamsburg adult tickets start at $89.99), and the multi-day tickets are an even better steal, starting at $104.99 for adults – for all three days. The cheapest Disney World three-day ticket is $114 per day – Disneyland starts at $104 per day. Busch Gardens also lets you add dining packages starting at $27.50 additional per day.
Granted, visitors splashing out the cash for a Disney vacay will likely spend most of their time inside the parks. However, both Tampa Bay and Williamsburg are vacation destinations in their own right and offer plenty to do outside the Busch Gardens borders. The more cost-effective price tag means vacationers can add extra days visiting other local attractions like Virginia’s Colonial Williamsburg and Virginia Beach, or Tampa Bay’s beaches and aquariums. The lower prices mean no guilt if you take a day or two away from the parks.
For an East Coast trip with tons to do: Washington, DC
Some vacation destinations never go out of style. And perennial favorite Washington, DC, has quite a lot going for it: it’s a picturesque city, with the grand National Mall and huge stretches of the city along the Potomac waterfront. It has plenty of history and entertainment, and has no shortage of things to see and do in the way of museums, tours, activities, and fun restaurants. And all the museums of the Smithsonian Institution (which includes the National Zoo) are completely free. For a family that likes to stay busy, it’s hard to beat.
It’s easy to wonder if Disney World is worth it before you even step in the park if you have to spend all morning sitting in Orlando traffic, pay for parking, then wait even longer for the parking shuttle. Fortunately, in DC, you can skip the car entirely. DC’s metro system is convenient and easy to use, and connects from Maryland into northern Virginia, with stops at both DC-area airports.
For those that prefer to plan ahead, there are plenty of tours and excursions like trolley tours, tours of DC’s traditionally Black neighborhoods, and all types of food tours around DC’s popular and lesser-known streets. You can also kayak on the Potomac, catch a free movie showing on the national mall, or take your kids to see the largest collection of space memorabilia in the world. There are also plenty of cool interactive museums, like the fascinating International Spy Museum and the Museum of Language.
DC can be pricey, but it helps that all the Smithsonian museums are free, and many summer activities (like Screen on the Green) are also free. And compared to Disney, it’s downright cheap. To save money, consider buying a sightseeing pass and use Metro during off-peak hours.
Another bonus of DC? While the famous landmarks and museums do get crowded, they generally aren’t ticketed or timed experiences, so you don’t have to wait in line. You may have a lot of people also walking around the Lincoln Memorial with you, but you won’t spend the majority of your vacation time standing around in line in the hot sun.
For an equally easy trip: take a cruise
Many people think Disney is still worth it because going there can be extremely easy. It feels all-inclusive, even if it isn’t. You can spend the whole trip inside Disney World or Disneyland, using one wristband for everything from entering the parks to paying for souvenirs to collecting photos. Because your credit card is linked to your wristband, you don’t need to take out your wallet, and it never really feels like you’re spending money (even though you definitely are).
But for those who want an all-inclusive feel without the headaches and inconveniences of Disney, it may be time to say bon voyage to trips on land. Cruises may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but the parade of options for sea and river voyages makes it possible for most landlubbers to book a truly fantastic cruise at a reasonable price. Some cruises are all-inclusive, and even the ones that aren’t still have wristbands to pay on board, options to book excursions and activities through your cruise company, and a full schedule of entertainment and things to do every day (including activities just for kids, families, and adults). Cruise ships usually do their best to make vacations easy; in fact, it’s a selling point of the cruise industry.
Cruise companies are always competing to have the newest ships with the most interactive, experiential, and immersive programming, and they offer myriad customization opportunities based on whether you want fine dining, adventure excursions, VIP access, alcoholic drinks, and more. And once you’re on the open water, you’ll have only your shipmates for company, rather than a never-ending influx of tourists in Mickey Mouse ears jostling for valuable theme park real estate.
Like Disney, cruise packages can vary wildly in price, and beware of those add-ons and extras. Lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Holland America are known for being on the more affordable side, while companies like Hurtigruten, UnCruise, Maple Leaf Adventures, and AdventureSmith offer more active (and pricey) adventure trips.
To enjoy natural magic: a national park
There are 63 national parks in the US. And some, like the Grand Canyon and Rocky Mountain national parks, are close enough to be add-ons to trips to nearby cities (Phoenix and Denver, respectively).
While national parks are certainly not as over-the-top as Disney, larger parks have activities like train rides and tours in open-air cars, whitewater rafting and snowshoeing tours, or even art, drawing, and photography classes. And kids can become junior park rangers at every park in the system.
A national park trip will always be cheaper than a Disneyland or Disney World trip, even considering the occasionally high costs of park hotels. But with camping available at nearly every national park and nearby options like glamping hotels, cabins, and unique Airbnbs and hotels, your national park lodging can be just as fun – but much cheaper – than staying at a Disney resort. Whether Disney is still worth it may not be a question little kids would doubt, but for kids in the middle school age-range, visiting national parks can be an awesome adventure.
Is Disney Worth it? Meh.
Despite its unwavering popularity, it’s surprisingly easy to answer the question of “Is Disney worth it” with a resounding “no.” And Disney’s costs, hassles, stale nostalgia and theming, and implicit buy-in to extreme commercialism are more than enough to make families re-think a mouse-filled vacation.
Weighed against alternatives, it’s clear the theme park titan is starting to lose some of its appeal. And while there will always be people waiting at the turnstiles to don the iconic mouse ears, it may (finally) be time to start finding the vacation magic somewhere new.