Back at Disney: Labor Day Weekend 2021

We didn’t go to Disney World for our annual Labor Day Weekend trip last year (for obvious reasons) so it was nice to finally celebrate the end of summer and spend the long holiday weekend over in Orlando at the parks.

We’re annual passholders again. We cancelled our passes last year when Disney was offering partial refunds and we knew we wouldn’t be going to the parks anytime soon. After our experimental trip back in May, we decided that by the end of the summer (hopefully) things would be closer to back-to-normal so we purchased passes again but didn’t actually activate them until this weekend. Unfortunately that meant we were left out of the Passholder Preview of the new Ratatouille ride at Epcot, but we also got to keep the current annual pass setup before Disney changed everything effective September 8. We’re sad about the removal of the FastPass service and will just have to wait and see how Disney Genie works out.

Anyway, we drove over to Orlando after work on Friday and hit surprisingly little traffic on I-4. Despite doing the online resort check-in, we never received a notification in the Disney app with our room assignment so we still had to stop at the front desk of the Riviera Resort (we’ve yet to have “direct-to-room” work for us). The Riviera opened last year and was where we were going to spend Labor Day Weekend in 2020 before everything was cancelled, so this was now our first stay. It’s a DVC resort and themed after the French and Italian Riviera (although it’s a little odd that just across the lagoon you can see the Caribbean Beach. We got a room on the 2nd floor, which was nice since that meant we didn’t have to ride the elevators, but we did end up with a view over the loading dock and parking lot.

After getting settled and unpacked, we hopped on the Skyliner over to Epcot for dinner at the International Food & Wine Festival. Man, it is definitely convenient staying at a resort with Skyliner access to Epcot … we rode that a lot this weekend. And other than the way back after the fireworks on Friday night, we always had the gondola to ourselves. The park wasn’t too crowded for a Friday night kicking off a holiday weekend so we were able to walk around and enjoy some of the food kiosks. As is typical of our Labor Day Weekend trips, though … it rained! We ended up taking cover in the American Adventure pavilion rotunda for about an hour (although we ended up watching the show, which we hadn’t seen in a while). Once the rain stopped, we continued our way around and ended up getting to ride a lot of stuff at night with minimal wait: we got onto Soarin’, Test Track, and Living with the Land. We closed out the night with the Epcot Forever fireworks show (yes, fireworks are back!) and then took the Skyliner back to our resort.

Saturday morning we got up early and drove over to Animal Kingdom so we were there shortly before the park opened. I was able to get right into the line for the Avatar Flight of Passage ride and was done in just under 30 minutes, not bad! Then we rode Everest twice … there was literally no line, we just walked right on (maybe the lack of FastPass isn’t so bad after all 🙂 ). We bounced around a bit from one end of the park to the other but got onto the safari ride, Dinosaur, and even watched the bird show all before 11am. There wasn’t really much else we wanted to do after that, and you can’t park hop until 2:00pm, so we drove over to Disney Springs for lunch. Another place we always wanted to try but always had a huge line in the past was Guy Fieri‘s restaurant, Chicken Guy. We stopped at The Polite Pig to pick up some adult beverages, put in a mobile order for Chicken Guy, and it was ready by the time we walked over. It was pretty hot out but we managed to get a table in the shade to eat. I had the Bourbon Brown Sugar BBQ sandwich, which was pretty good. We walked around a bit after lunch just checking out what was different at Disney Springs (for example, the NBA Experience has closed – I still miss DisneyQuest). Then we drove back to the hotel and hopped on the Skyliner again for Epcot. We had dinner reservations back at the hotel and we had just eaten lunch, but we found a little room for a mid-afternoon snack at the Appleseed Orchard in the Canada pavilion. We had gotten so much “done” at Epcot last night we didn’t feel the need to stay out in the afternoon heat so after walking around a bit we took the Skyliner (I told you we used it a lot!) back to the Riviera to relax before dinner (and I ended up taking a nice nap). Dinner up at Topolino’s Terrace was really nice: great food and nice views of sunset (and even a glimpse of some fireworks and a drone show somewhere in Orlando).

Sunday morning we got up early, but not to get to a park (at least not right away). Post-pandemic, to get into the “virtual queue” for Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios you need a park reservation and then you just use the Disney app starting at 7:00am to snag a spot (rather than needing to be physically at the park, packed in with the huge crowd at 6:00am like the first time we rode it in January 2020. We were both on the app on our phones right at 7:00am and got into boarding group 89, which estimated us riding around 2:00pm, not bad! We still had plans to get to the park early, though, so we could get in line for Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the newest ride to open. Our plan was to take the Skyliner to Hollywood Studios, but it turned out that the line from the Riviera to the transfer point at Caribbean Beach wasn’t running yet so we decided to drive. We ended up being at “cone drop” … one of the first cars into the parking lot. But even after parking and getting into the park there was already a pretty decent crowd waiting. They let us in early, but then stopped us short of the Chinese Theater (former home of The Great Movie Ride) where we had to wait until the official park opening at 9:00am. Unfortunately, once they let us into the queue, they announced that the ride was experiencing technical difficulties and they didn’t know when it would actually open. We were close enough to the front of the line and didn’t have any other plans that we decided to wait it out but a few folks did end up leaving. As our luck would have it, they got the ride going by 9:15am and we were some of the first people of the day to ride it. Counting waiting for the park to open, our total wait time was just about an hour. The ride is pretty cute. No spoilers, but I will say it uses some of the same ride technology as Rise of the Resistance. It was fun and we’re looking forward to riding it again.

After getting off of the Runaway Railway we walked over into Toy Story Land to get in line for Slinky Dog Dash, another popular ride. This was another long one, but still not nearly as long as the standby line was when FastPass was around. As our luck continued, we got to ride in the front row! Then it was Toy Story Mania and Aerosmith’s Rockin’ Roller Coaster. We made a tactical error here using the single rider line. They warn you it could be as long as (or longer than) the standby line but that’s never been our experience. Well, this time it took us about an hour to get on which was slightly longer than the (posted) standby line time. Oh well. We were keeping our eye on our virtual queue status but we also had reservations for “lunch” at Oga’s Cantina. I used the single rider line for the Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run ride and (unlike Aerosmith) walked right on! Of course as a single rider you don’t get to pick your role so I was an engineer, but it’s still a great ride. The family I was riding with had never ridden before and was just wildly slapping buttons and generally crashing the Falcon into everything so I had a lot of repair work to do. We had a light lunch with drinks at the Cantina, which was cool, but not a cool as I expected (just a DJ robot (one of the leftover pilots from the old Star Tours), no Cantina band?). The food was pretty good though (try the pork rinds, seriously!) and it was fun to watch the other people get strange bubbling drinks. Being just a party of two, we had one of the standing tables and was sharing it with another family, but that wasn’t a big deal (it would be cool to get one of the booths with a larger party though). Our timing continued to work out as by the time we were done at Oga’s our boarding group was called for Rise of the Resistance. Man, I love that ride. One of these days I will stop taking photos and just enjoy it.

Since it was now past 2:00pm it was time to park hop! Our plans were to watch the fireworks at Magic Kingdom that evening but avoid the crowds using the ferry, busses, and monorail after them. We drove car back to the hotel, took the Skyliner to Epcot, then rode the monorail over to the Magic Kingdom. As expected, the park was the most crowded we’d seen so far this weekend. Still, we waited in acceptable lines for Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad, and even rode the Liberty Bell Ferry (right around the time the late afternoon rain started). As the rain continued off and on through the evening we wondered if the fireworks would actually happen. People were starting to stake out spots in the central hub, though, so we ended up grabbing our own spot and then just stood around waiting for the show. We thought we had a spot that would be open on one side for a walkway, but as it got closer to showtime more and more people started crowding in. I guess the pandemic is over, based on that crowd! The fireworks were a go, so we were able to enjoy the projection show one last time (before it changes on October 1). As expected, the crowds trying to get out of the park after the show were crazy. We managed to get out, then walked to the Contemporary Resort where we caught the bus to Disney Springs. There, we grabbed some hot drinks at Starbucks and then took the bus back to the Riviera. Whew!

Monday morning … the weekend is over already. We checked out of the hotel, left our bags in the car in the Riviera parking lock, and then took the first bus back over the Magic Kingdom. Like with Hollywood Studios yesterday, they were letting people into the park but then had the walkways to the various areas (FrontierLand, FastasyLand, TomorrowLand) blocked off where you had to wait until the park opened. Our goal this morning was Snow White’s Mine Train so we waited near the walkway to FantasyLand until they let everyone start walking (controlled chaos!) deeper into the park. Even though we were further back in the line, we were still done with the ride around 9:15am! We spent the rest of the day riding some of the attractions we missed yesterday, like the Jungle Cruise (I didn’t see Dwayne Johnson, though), the Hall of Presidents (updated with President Biden), It’s a Small World, and the People Mover (which gave us some cool views of the TRON coaster construction). After finishing up at the Magic Kingdom, we took the monorail back to Epcot and did one more loop around the Food & Wine Festival. There was a little more rain, nothing major, but when we left the International Gateway to take the Skyliner back to our hotel, we found it was shut down (due to lightning in the area). We had to walk to the Beach Club and catch the special “Skyliner Resorts” bus which took us to the Art of Animation, Pop Century, Carribean Beach, and finally to the Riviera. By the time we got back to the hotel, the Skyliner was running again. Doh. Still, that was the only time the Skyline failed us during the trip, not bad. So back at the resort we walked to the car and then drove back home.

Some final thoughts:

  • Magic Bands are “going away” so I tested the new feature of the Disney app that lets you add your ticket/annual pass to your Apple Wallet (I’m assuming it’s the same on Android). With this “special” wallet entry, you can just hold your phone up to the touchpoint where you’d normally touch your MagicBand and it automatically senses the pass, no need to wake up the phone. This worked really well, I was impressed. My wife even got it to work with her Apple Watch.
  • The Apple Watch did cause my wife some issues trying to use it to charge to our room (another new feature). This turned out to be mostly a training issue. Disney employees are used to pressing “Apple Pay” when they see a guest trying to use an Apple Watch and for the charge to room they need to press “MagicBand” instead. My wife was happy being a beta tester and showing the Disney cast members how it worked once we figured out the pattern.
  • Even with all this new technology, with the pandemic “winding down” Disney has unfortunately gone back to using the fingerprint sensors at the park entrance touchpoints. When we came in May and just had to tap our MagicBands, park entry was so much faster. Now it’s slowed down again by needing to tap and then wait for your finger to be scanned. I understand the need for making sure people aren’t sharing tickets, but in the age of COVID do we really still need to be touching stuff?
  • I will say, though, that the new bag check technology they are using at the parks and Disney Springs, which eliminates the need for security to manually paw through everyone’s bags, is really nice and fast, so maybe that makes up for the wait at the ticket gates. I feel bad for all the security employees that might have lost their jobs though, hopefully they’re being used elsewhere.
  • All Disney cast members were wearing masks and were doing a good job of enforcing the “masks must be worn indoors” policy (which included indoor rides like the Rockin’ Roller Coaster or Rise of the Resistance). The same can’t be said for all of the guests, but most people were following the rules.

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