The Disney magic is still there.
"Fairy godmothers" still sprinkled pixie dust over little girls. Belle, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty continued to embrace child after child during breakfasts and lunches. Characters still danced down the street to smiles and waves, and restaurants still were crowded with tourists. And as we left the theme parks each day, smiling Disney employees still waved Mickey gloves and greeted us as friends.
But there was, indeed, a change in the air at Disney World this year - and it wasn't just the weather, which was a bit cold for Florida in February, when my family took our 4-year-old daughter on her first trip to Disney World. We never waited on a ride line longer than a half-hour. Fastpasses for even the most popular of rides were available fairly easily. And we found spots in Epcot, for instance, that were, quite literally, quiet and calm, with few people around and plenty of space.
To be sure, Disney is far from recession-proof - park attendance here and at Disneyland in California dropped 5 percent in the first quarter, according to Disney's financial filings. The company's total profits dropped 32 percent, thanks to the economic downturn.
But once inside the bubble that is Disney World, we found few were talking about the bad economy and plenty of people were spending plenty of money.
World's population is down a bit
The theme parks were relatively quiet while we were there - though it was a generally off-peak time for Disney World. Fastpasses, which give you a time later in the day to go back and ride, continue to be the way to go when lines build - and we found that by using them, waiting became unusual rather than the norm.
On our first day, we were able to explore nearly all of Fantasyland in about an hour. Overall, lines were often short, even for newer, popular rides such as Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin. The biggest line we saw was for the little girls who hoped to meet Tinker Bell and her fellow fairies in Mickey's Toontown - they waited for two hours at times. (My girl was able to meet those fairies on our last day, when we got to the line as it opened.)
A crowd began to build outside Epcot more than a half-hour before it opened, but once inside the park, it was sometimes hard to tell how busy it was because Epcot is so expansive. Thanks to Fastpass, lines were again not much of an issue. Our longest was about 20 minutes - for Soarin' at the very end of our day. World Showcase continued to be relatively quiet throughout the day, too, and there were even some empty tables as we were eating dinner at the United Kingdom pavilion at the end of the day.
At Animal Kingdom, where fewer rides usually mean longer lines, we walked right on to popular attractions such as the Kali River Rapids Ride and got in to see popular shows such as the "Festival of the Lion King" and "Finding Nemo: The Musical" right before they started, despite the recommendation to get there 45 minutes early.
Using Fastpass, we cruised through the long lines for the popular Toy Story Mania, Aerosmith and Tower of Terror rides. Older rides, such as the Great Movie Ride and Star Tours, had no wait at all. The shows had plenty of room to spare, except Fantasmic! - which was mobbed. Our daughter was able to meet plenty of characters, too.
HOTELS AND RESTAURANTS
As a Disney guest, you couldn't see a slowdown in the World's restaurants or hotels. But it's unclear how much of that was because people were still spending, or because they got great deals.
Princess lunches at both Cinderella's Royal Table in Magic Kingdom and Epcot's Norway Pavilion were full when we were there with our 4-year-old princess. I was unable to change some of our dining reservations, even at our hotel's restaurant, because they were booked.
SHOPS AND EXTRAS
It seems parents (like us) are still willing to spend money on their children. The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where little girls and boys can be transformed into princesses and princes, never had a chair empty while we were there. Crowds gathered on Main Street to buy personalized Mickey ears and other goodies. Said Kelly Frank of Wisconsin: "It was so much fun to see it through their eyes. That made it worth every penny."
It's a small (er) price after all
Despite all the bad news about the economy, plenty of families still are coming to Disney - helped in part by the deals Disney is offering.
Wisconsin residents Kelly and David Frank brought their two daughters, ages 4 1/2 and 3, to Disney World last month after six months of planning. As the economy went bad last fall, "we did consider ... canceling the trip," said Kelly Frank, 33. But the fees to cancel, combined with the deal that gave the family two nights for free and a $200 Disney gift card to spend, encouraged them to keep the plans in place.
Here's a sampling of some theme park deals currently offered in Orlando:
Buy Four, Get Three Free
WHAT Seven nights accommodations and park admission for the price of four
WHERE Walt Disney World Resort hotels
WHEN Through Aug. 15 (book by March 29). Some blackout dates apply.
Some say it's the best deal ever from Disney. At a "value" resort, such as All Star Sports or Pop Century, you can bring a family of four to Disney for seven nights - including park admission for seven days - for $1,375, a savings of $416, according to Disney. You may also get a Disney gift card, depending on when you travel and where you stay.
Free on Your Birthday
WHAT Free basic admission to one Disney theme park on the day of your birthday
WHEN Through 2009
Register your birthday on Disney's Web site to receive a confirmation e-mail. Bring it, along with a valid photo ID or birth certificate, to the park on your birthday. Multiday pass holders can opt for a Disney gift card of the same value.
WHAT "Disney's Armed Forces Salute," one complimentary five-day Disney theme park ticket
WHEN Through Dec. 23
Active and retired U.S. military personnel can receive one free five-day Disney theme park ticket that includes the park-hopping and water park add-ons. Up to five additional companion tickets can be purchased for $99-$149. Military ID required. Redeem at park ticket window.
WHAT Book three nights, get two free
WHEN Through Oct. 8, must book by March 29
To match Disney, Universal Orlando is offering a package of five nights of hotel stays and theme park admission tickets for the price of three. The package begins at $689 and includes transportation between nearby hotels and Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure.