Trip Report: Thanksgiving Holiday in Central Florida

December 5, 2021, 2:43 PM · My family is a bit scattered across the east coast, so each year we get together during Thanksgiving week, usually meeting up somewhere in the middle (like Dollywood). But this year with Walt Disney World's 50th Anniversary going on, we decided to all head south. Flight prices made our arrivals/departures a bit staggered, but we got a good six days all together, followed by two days with just my wife, two daughters and myself. Overall, there were eight full days in Central Florida for my household, in which we hit seven major theme parks and the Kennedy Space Center.

Normally this trip would have cost way more than I am willing to pay for my family of four, but I was able to keep it manageable (albeit still very expensive) by having enough rewards points banked up to comp all of our hotel and flight costs. We also had 2019 SeaWorld Platinum passes, which were extended into 2021 due to Covid, so that covered our park admission and preferred parking for SeaWorld and Busch Gardens. In the 11th hour, we decided to bite the bullet and add a day of Universal to our itinerary, which would be accomplished by splitting our SeaWorld time into three partial days instead of dedicating a full day there.

I have to admit, the past couple years I’ve been too busy to stay on top of the theme park industry like I used to. In the past, I was the guy who spent months planning detailed daily itineraries, had several meal reservations in place and had the Fastpass+ system mastered so our days were spent with very little waiting and always getting everything done that we wanted. This time was much different, as in I didn’t have much planned out (largely due to the discontinuing of the Fastpass+ system and our party being too big for Dining Reservations). Our party size was eight when we were all together, so we pretty much held off on the idea of getting any in-park dining reservations, and planned on just doing quick service meals. I also was not privy on what all the latest attractions were, most notably at Universal Studios Florida, so ended up with a big time pleasant surprise on a show that I saw for the first time.

Here is the rundown of our first four days in Central Florida, which will be Part I of this trip report:

Day 1 - EPCOT

I’ve enjoyed this park a lot during previous visits, but this time it just seemed off. The construction up front really seemed to disrupt things in the Future World area, and while crowd levels were definitely higher than when I’m typically there (in late August), the condensed detour walkways made it seem even more congested.

I tried to keep an open mind about the free Genie service, but quickly realized it was of no value to me, so just ignored it the rest of the day. Every single Individual Lightning Lane purchase was set at $15, even for attractions which currently had little to no standby wait. So the pricing model was very simple on this day, $15 maximum price for any and all attractions, throughout the entire day.

We were able to get on Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, by registering for the virtual queue at 7am sharp, and it gave an estimated callback time in the afternoon (which fluctuated numerous times throughout the day). We ended up getting the callback notification around 4:30pm, and then had to wait in an actual line for about an hour. I have not seen the movie therefore set the bar low for my expectations with this ride, so I cannot say I was disappointed, and both of my daughters actually thought it was great. But it’s definitely not something I would go out of my way for again, nor purchase an Individual Lightning Lane pass for. The virtual queue system definitely did disrupt the overall flow of our day, so I can only imagine what a day full of Genie+ reservations would be like. We started the World Showcase loop in Mexico, and were only to China by the time we got the callback notification and had to skip over several countries to report to France. After we got off the ride it was getting dark and close to dinner time, and we never did end up backtracking through those skipped over countries. We ended up going back to the Land Pavilion for dinner, and then hit Test Track before the night was just about over. With heavy crowds and no Fastpass system, all we were able to get done this day was the Sea and Land pavilions, Test Track, Mexico ride, Remy ride and a brief visit through maybe a quarter of the countries.

I was expecting to get a “double whammy” on this trip, seeing special features for both the Christmas season and the 50th Anniversary, but there really was not much of either at Epcot. As far as Christmas goes, nothing really comes to mind at all, maybe there were a few decorations throughout, but the overall congestion and confusion overshadowed it so much that I can’t remember a single thing. As far as the 50th Anniversary, there were some of the Gold statues in the landscaped areas, and the Spaceship Earth ball was lit up much differently at night. But that’s about it, it would be very easy to overlook all of these things (except Spaceship Earth) on a busy day.

It was difficult to do even the simplest of things, such as find a quick service place to eat, and find a Disney sweatshirt within a gift shop. Granted I wasn’t combing the gift shops myself, as I generally dislike shopping, but it seemed like the 50th Anniversary items were scarce.

The highlight of the day was surely the “Harmonious” night show. I remember reading quite a few negative reviews on this site about it, but I kept an open mind and found it quite enjoyable.

Overall, unfortunately I would rank this visit to Epcot as my least productive and least enjoyable experience ever at that park. The increased crowds, construction and lack of a viable Fastpass system really diminished the overall experience. It definitely was a case of "less for more."

Day 2 - Kennedy Space Center followed by SeaWorld

Winter Wonderland on Ice
Winter Wonderland on Ice. Photo courtesy SeaWorld

It was our first time ever getting to Kennedy Space Center, but with this being a theme park website, I won’t provide a review on that. That part of the day ended around 5pm, and we drove back to Orlando for a much needed sit down dinner at Bahama Breeze.

Around 8pm we used our Platinum Passes to get into SeaWorld to see Winter Wonderland on Ice, followed by the Fireworks show. Immediately upon entering, we were delighted to see a real Christmas theme park event. It was night and day between this atmosphere and Epcot, with SeaWorld being the clear winner. The decorations were spectacular, you could clearly hear Christmas music everywhere, tons of special gift shops and they had a great “Village” set up leading to the Bayside Stadium. The Bay itself had several Christmas trees within it. Overall just a great atmosphere that made me feel, “OK, now this vacation is getting started!”

We sat down for the Winter Wonderland show roughly five minutes before the show started, and got seats in row 5. The show was great, and the fireworks display that followed was probably the most enjoyable fireworks show I’ve ever experienced in my life. I’ve always said, nothing beats seeing a fireworks show at a ballpark, but I was proven wrong on this night. Watching them from SeaWorld’s Bayside Stadium during Christmastime is definitely superior!

Day 3 (Thanksgiving Day) - Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Traditionally this has been my favorite Disney park (in Florida anyways), but unfortunately the pattern of underwhelming Disney experiences continued at this park. We were last here in 2017, so much had changed, which I was eagerly looking forward to experiencing for the first time.

I got outvoted by the rest of my party on strategy for Rise of the Resistance. I wanted to use the earliest part of the day to hit up other rides which should have lesser wait times, but everyone else wanted to make a beeline to Rise of the Resistance, thinking it would only get worse as the day goes on. Guess who would have been right? Haha!

The standby line for Rise of the Resistance was said to be 2 hours 45 minutes, and there were no Individual Lightning Lane passes available by that time, so those most have already been sold out for the day (possibly before park opening time). We reluctantly got in the line, figuring it just had to be done at that point. Well, the actual wait time for the line took close to 5 hours! There was no breakdown either, so I really don’t know how the estimate could have been so far off. But once you are 2 hours in, what are you gonna do, walk away? Around 4 hours into the line, I finally see a Cast Member for the first time in quite some time, and ask her how much longer this line goes on. I got a snippy type of answer along the lines of "there are 3 more rooms, but I can’t give you a time frame." Anyway, we got in line around 10am, and weren’t walking off the ride until 2:45pm. It was a fantastic ride, but no ride is worth a 5 hour wait, and if the advertised wait time was anywhere near accurate I can’t say I would have even considered it. My 10-year-old daughter handled the wait like a champ (much better than I would have at that age), but the rest of the trip she was a bit reluctant to get in line for attractions that had waits listed in excess of an hour.

With about half of our day being spent on one ride, and higher than normal crowds, there wasn’t room for much more and our meal schedule was severely thrown off as well... on Thanksgiving Day. After a 3pm lunch, we got on a handful of more rides most notably Tower of Terror and Smuggler’s Run, but before you knew it the night was coming to an end.

Once again, any and all Individual Lightning Lane Purchases were set at $15 throughout the entire day. There was no dynamic pricing at all.

In what was already an awkward day, the biggest letdown was still to come... the “Wonderful World of Animation” night show. This was by far the most underwhelming night show we saw during this trip, and I felt was unacceptable for a 50th Anniversary Celebration, especially in a park that has the Fantasmic! amphitheater. The Chinese Theatre is far from an ideal canvas for projections, and pyrotechnics were practically non-existent. I’ve always considered Disney the King of the Night Shows, so this one was a definite outlier.

There were other Covid cutbacks in place, such as parades being replaced by “cavalcades,” and the Indiana Jones Show being out of the rotation (which I knew about). We had very little time to hit the gift shops, so I can’t really say how those were stocked. The one thing that did stick out though is they were closing gift shops earlier than they used to. We were looking for some specific trading pins shortly after park closing time, and the cast member mentioned one shop that may have them, but also that they close at 8pm (an hour before park closing time). So that was actually a first, not being able to hit gift shops after park closing time.

So once again for Disney, very little Christmas and 50th Anniversary extras, and the “less for more” pattern continued. I wasn’t necessarily expecting anything extra for Thanksgiving Day, but there was not as much as a mention of it being Thanksgiving so very easy to forget it was. So if you are ever wondering if there is a benefit to being in the park on the actual Holiday, the answer is no.

Day 4 - Magic Kingdom

This is traditionally my least favorite Disney Park, but things were a bit different this time around. We finally started to really notice some 50th Anniversary extras, starting right in Main Street and of course the way the castle was dressed up.

Adventureland had the “Jingle” Cruise, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that Skippers were on the boats, as I thought I remembered reading that they were replaced by recordings and monitors. There were also some 50th Anniversary offerings at the Dole Whip stand, which all seemed pretty appealing.

We got to ride Splash Mountain one last time, which I’m thankful for. Hopefully it’s successor will be worthy replacement. Overall, we were able to get about 50% of the park done throughout the day.

The main Covid cutbacks at this park was the parades being replaced by cavalcades, which I think is in unacceptable for the 50th Anniversary and during Christmas. More to come on this in Part II of my trip report, which includes Disney’s Very Merriest - After Hours.

The night show “Enchantment” was spectacular, but I expected better projections down Main Street. We had hoped to watch this current show twice, once from Main Street and once in front of the castle, but it was clear that in front of the castle is the only one worthwhile. To me, Disneyland Forever is still the best of the special night shows, due to the great projections down Main Street. The projection technology used today is definitely an upgrade, but that first time “moment of awe” was at Disneyland for me, and I’m not sure it will ever be topped.

It’s pretty clear that Disney has put the majority of their 50th Anniversary focus on the Magic Kingdom Park, so if you are looking for those extras, this is the park most likely to deliver.

This concludes Part I of my trip report. I know I highlighted the frustration more than the good times, but unfortunately in this part of the trip (which largely featured Disney), that’s the way things were. I’m neither a Disney fanboy nor a hater, I just try keep an open mind and make the best of every trip. I’ve had outstanding Disney experiences before, especially in California, but unfortunately this trip did not measure up well to those experiences for various different reasons. Part II of my Trip Report will feature Busch Gardens Tampa, SeaWorld, both Universal Studios Parks and Disney’s Very Merriest - After Hours.

Replies (3)

December 5, 2021 at 11:15 PM

As much as I love WDW, going at Thanksgiving was a rough one for my family and that was in 1988 and then 2001. It's always nuts there and packed and complex even on a weekday.

I do recall it's tricky when they start Christmas stuff as Studios used to have Osborn lights up at Thanksgiving but other spots waited until after Thanksgiving to start putting up Christmas stuff. Guess that's a tradition continuing.

December 6, 2021 at 4:19 PM

Thanks for the trip report, Chopper31! I'm looking forward to the remainder of the postings.

It sounds to me like your experience at Disney was very similar to my visit a few weeks ago. I was underwhelmed by Disney's offerings, and Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane provided poor value for the money. Hopefully, Disney will work the bugs out of the system and be able to provide a more suitable and satisfactory visit in the future.

December 7, 2021 at 11:23 AM

People often look at me like I'm crazy when I say the best Orlando park for an evening of Holiday fun is SeaWorld. The progression from the Shamu show, to the Sea of Trees to the Ice Skating show followed by fireworks is like choreographed holiday magic perfection. Throw in the fantastic and ocean inspired decorations and the Christmas Market and you've got yourself a real winner. YES - Disney and Universal have IP up the butt, but I don't need my Christmas jollies to be delivered by a current hit character. I want to remember the holidays as they were when I was a child. As cheezeball and corny as the Lawrence Welk Christmas Shows of the past may now seem, that vibe is all around at SeaWorld...adn I LOVE it.

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