I’m freshly back from a trip to Walt Disney World, a place I’m intimately familiar with—yet in many ways, it felt like I was navigating the parks as a newbie.
I worked in the Happiest Place on Earth about 20 years ago. Some things are completely unchanged since then. The same plastic bags ferry the merchandise. Walking down Main Street at the Magic Kingdom, your nose is still tickled by the scent of buttery baked goods and popcorn as twinkly Americana music puts a skip in your step whether you like it or not. But other things have changed significantly, mainly that you’re expected to plan out your entire day via smartphone.
Your hotel reservation, your park reservations, which rides you’ll go on and when—every last detail is managed through the phone. You must decide what you’ll eat, where you’ll eat it, and during which window of time, either through dining reservations (via mobile app) or through mobile ordering.
There’s a particularly heavy focus on mobile ordering at quick service locations, which is Disney speak for any outlet where the procedure is “go up to a counter, order food, receive food on tray, then go sit down and eat.” At each such eatery, signs greet you as you approach. “Use Mobile Ordering,” they beg.
I’m all for mobile ordering in my normal life, so I happily jumped into this new aspect of the Disney World dining experience. Here’s what I learned, for better or worse.
Order your food early
In doing research before I left (something that is increasingly necessary these days when planning a Disney World vacation; there’s a lot to navigate), I learned that mobile ordering windows can fill up throughout the day, usually when a quick service location is so busy that it can’t deal with additional orders. That means you must choose a pickup window in advance for when you think you’ll be hungry, and you don’t want to miscalculate, especially with kids in tow.
I expected this pre-planning to take some magic out of the day for me. Instead of saying “I could really go for a burger!” once lunchtime rolled around, I instead had to think ahead, imagining what I might have a craving for after a ride on Space Mountain. In practice, however, I found it took a lot of the guesswork out of a day that was naturally a bit chaotic. Knowing what we were eating and when was helpful, for my family at least.
Disney’s mobile order windows are broad
When you place a mobile order, you’re given an “arrival window”—the time you should show up to eat. While something like a Starbucks mobile order might provide a window of 5-10 minutes, Disney tended to quote half-hour windows.
You can edit that window if you’re running late, but in at least once instance, I found that the next pickup window (which would have allowed me to get there 20 minutes later than I had originally planned) was already full. So I could either sprint to the eatery to get my meal on time, or I could delay by roughly an hour. While we ended up making it on time, it’s hard to say how lenient Disney’s system would have been with a late arrival.
Your food is not ready when you arrive
Disney’s mobile ordering service is not like the ones you likely encounter in your everyday life. I place a mobile order daily at the bagel shop across from my office; 15 minutes later, I arrive to find my sandwich sitting in a paper bag on a shelf, ready for me to take without ever having made contact with a human being (just the way I like it).
At Disney World, you arrive to the eatery during your “arrival window,” and then you click a button in the app that indicates you’re there. That’s when the restaurant begins preparing your food.
Ultimately, what this means is that by placing a mobile order, you’ve skipped standing in line and talking to a cashier, but your arrival has triggered the same thing that speaking to a cashier would have: it puts your order into action. While this means you’re still waiting for your meal, that waiting time isn’t spent standing in the line. Instead, I could grab a table, get the kids settled, and grab utensils before the food was ready. At most quick service spots, this made sense.
Sometimes, though, the line to order at the counter was actually shorter than the mobile order pickup line, and people were not happy. The couple in front of me was super unhappy, in fact, and yelled at the cast member stationed at the pickup window when they reached the front of the line. It bruised my former cast member soul a bit, even if I understood where the frustration was coming from: We’re trained to think of mobile ordering as a time saver, and we can’t always compute the idea that advance planning might actually be detrimental.
On the other hand, this was a mobile pickup window for ice cream, and if the orders had been sitting on a shelf waiting for us in the Florida heat, they would have met the same fate as Olaf if he’d ever actually gotten to experience summer. Understanding the limitations of crowd control is part of the Disney experience.
Mobile ordering on the fly
A couple of times, we sauntered into a quick service location on a whim to get an unplanned meal or snack and the line to order looked long, so I got out of line and placed a mobile order on my phone. (This is a tactic some use at Starbucks as well.)
This was no big deal whenever the ordering window of “now” was available; I just placed my order and then immediately clicked the button to indicate I was there and they should start preparing my food.
The state of Disney World dining in 2022
The overall shift to managing my entire day at Disney on my smartphone took some getting used to, and I’m not sure that I ultimately like it. But if I have to do it, then mobile food ordering isn’t the worst form it can take.
You know that iPhone screen time report that annoyingly pops up to tell you what a zombie you are every Sunday? Last week, I expected my screen time to be way down, since the report combines my phone and computer, and I am a writer who typically sits at a desk for eight hours a day but was instead on vacation at Disney World, free of my laptop.
Imagine my surprise when the report came in and informed me that my screen time was only down 50%. Did I really spend the equivalent of half a work day on my phone managing my Disney World trip each day? I hope not. But between browsing menus, placing mobile orders, checking in, managing reservations, and doing all the other tech-savvy things required of a traveler in 2022, I guess I shouldn’t be all that surprised.