Looking at my plans for my upcoming trip, it’s obvious that the most important part of WDW for me is the dining. I’ve always enjoyed good food and I rarely get to eat out nowadays because I have a dog and I won’t leave him home alone. (Getting a housesitter for while I’m at WDW is a much easier thing than getting a babysitter so I can go and eat in a restaurant. Besides, WDW restaurants are more exciting than the ones in my home town.)
Next up is the theming, the atmosphere, Main Street and Cindarella’s castle, Pandora, . . .
And last, oddly, are the rides and attractions. With very few exceptions, none of them really get me that excited: FOP, maybe BTMR and Splash, . . .
I would probably say Atmosphere is number one. While we love the rides, the fact is, we can go on way better rides at umpteen other amusement parks around the country (which we do). But we keep coming back to Disney because it makes us feel like we’ve stopped out of the real world in to a fantasy land. The rides are important…but without that atmosphere, it isn’t really magical. Seeing mechanical palm trees in Tomorrowland is just part of that magic, for example. When I see that, I know I’m not in Kansas anymore (figuratively speaking, since I don’t generally find myself in Kansas).
I’m totally in agreement with @ryan1 - it’s the atmosphere. The “not in Kansas anymore.” My two favorite attractions are HM and JC - very immersive and unlike daily life. When I walk through the tunnel under the train station and emerge onto Main Street in MK with the castle in the background, that’s my “wow” moment. My first trip to Europe, my first place to walk around after arrival, I emerged from the Central train station in Amsterdam, and felt like it was just like Main Street (different building architecture, street car tracks, street performers, train station, boats nearby).
Second would be rides/shows - not as “thrills” but as enjoyment. They have varying degrees of fun, themeing, nostalgia, technology.
Third is food. We are willing to save money and not seek out “best” foods. My favorite places are much more about the whole dining experience especially themeing, and not just the food. (I’d love to eat without a budget!)
And I agree with @OBNurseNH - just taking it all in.
The first time I went to WDW, I was a preteen and with family I never get to see anymore (some already passed, others just live too far away). Going to MK brings me back to my childhood. It doesn’t matter that the rides have changed or the ticketing and planning. Just being in MK makes me feel warm and loved inside. I go on Small World, Jungle Cruise, Haunted Mansion and Carousel of Progress for that reason. These are things I did when I was still young enough to wonder if the ghost really would go home with you.
All that said, I just had a revelation as to why the rest of my family isn’t in love with Disney in the way I am. DH went there as a teen, but also did many other things. It’s not part of his childhood the way it is with me. And the kids, while they love the rides, aren’t in the place where they are thinking nostalgically about anything.
Great question and I believe it is the whole atmosphere of being there and shutting out the outside world. Sure I can grab a great meal wherever I live and there are thrill rides in closer amusement parks, but there is something about Disney that makes it better. It really does make me feel like a kid, but I can eat like an adult. I would think it is totally different for those that go all the time as it just wouldn’t be as special - our 6th trip is in 43 days and there is so much we still have not done and new things to experience. To sum it up, the thing I look forward most to is not watching any TV or listening to any news and just taking in the magic. It is the only vacation where you need a mini-vacation just to decompress from all that you have done - if you don’t need that, you are doing it wrong in my opinion.
I have to go with the “gestalt” answer and say it’s the balance of all three things - rides, food, and atmosphere. Do some places have “better” (at least taller and faster) rides? Sure - check out Busch Gardens, Sea World, or any Six Flags park out there. Can you find “better” food elsewhere? Maybe not at another theme park, but most definitely in any major city. Are there other places more immersive in their theming? As someone who’s done everything from walking in the French Quarter in NOLA to touring the Forbidden City in Beijing I can give a resounding “yes”. Can you stay at a resort with more amenities, bigger rooms, and for less money? Obviously.
But the “magic” of WDW is how all of the elements blend together to create an overall experience. One of the great sci-fi writers (I think it was Azimov) once said something to the effect “I’d rather be second best at three things than the best at one thing”. I think that sums up WDW…
For me, it’s knowing that I can take my daughters to a family safe place and make memories with them that will last a lifetime. They were 6 when we went a year and a half ago and they are still talking about it like it was yesterday. To me, a year and a half doesn’t seem like that long, but to them it’s almost an eternity.
What we talk bout now are the rides and shows. We don’t talk about meals that much, but we did several character meals. I don’t regret we did those, but when we go back, we will not be repeating that. we might do Hoop Dee Doo on arrival night (or another show like Polynesian show) and one night we will do Jiko.
If I was going without my wife and daughters, I would be more excited for the food. I’d really like to do a few rides again, and some we just didn’t do due to their ages, but trying the new foods in world showcase is my highlight. I lved the Cronut. I wanted to try schoolbread. The Kakigori was basically just a snow cone, but I wanted to try it. Glad I did. When I go back, I’m getting me like 50 Cronuts. That;s all I know. And Dole Whips. Those too.
For me it’s the rides and the hot weather, and the feeling of being a kid and having no worries. Not food at all. We had some great TS meals last trip, but I don’t think eating QS the whole time would have affected my enjoyment at all. That’s what we did on previous trips and I never felt like we missed out.