The 2013 Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at the Magic Kingdom is unfortunately the weakest yet. The party is slowly being watered down, with cutbacks over the years from the slight to the not-so-slight. It’s a process I’ve long called Declining by Degrees.

Lest newer readers think the following marks me as a Disney-hater, every time I return to the “Decline by Degrees” I like to preface these comments with a disclaimer. What looks like criticism of Disney World, its operational decisions, its policies, and its maintenance is done not because I dislike the place, but because I wish for the park and its managers to live up its potential and its reputation. The critique here should not be interpreted to mean that visitors should cancel their plans to visit Disney World. The message is more for Disney management, to alert them that we notice when maintenance and other policies are less customer-friendly than they had been in the past.

I’ve coined the term “Declining by Degrees” to capture the essence of the problem: little touches are being ignored, maintenance is being deferred, and details are being skipped over. There is a decline, in other words, but it’s happening in such small degrees at a time that most visitors don’t notice them individually. Maybe a bit like the proverbial frog in an ever-warming pot of water.

The vaunted “Disney Difference” is a massive conglomeration of minute details working in concert in the background. Visitors don’t notice each individually, but together they weave a mosaic of alternate reality that is simply believable in its thoroughness. The Decline by Degrees threatens this believability. If you take away one or two details, perhaps no one will notice (or at least not consciously). But if you take enough away, suddenly the whole thing looks less magical, and the paying public can’t explain precisely WHY it’s less great, but it just seems so much closer to the competition in recent years. With Universal nipping at Disney’s heels here in Orlando (and perhaps even eating its lunch), this strikes me as a particularly dangerous time for Disney to erode its brand.

I’ve visited Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party (MNSSHP, or “manship” as my family says out loud) annually since 2005. I’ve seen the event change and morph over the years. They’ve gotten better with some things (the first few years it seemed like they used no-name candy with the trick-or-treating, but the mix is pretty good now). But in quite a few respects, the event in 2013 is weaker than it used to be.

The most noticeable change for me from last year is the lack of decorations on the Treat Trails (where you can visit multiple trick or treat barrels in quick succession. Last year the Splash Mountain trail wound through the outdoor line and displayed numerous lighted pumpkins. Those were not on display this year at all. The area was simply unthemed to Halloween.

mickey's not so scary halloween party 2011-09-30-4779
Pumpkins from 2011 at the Splash trail.

The other Treat Trail – the walkway between Storybook Circus and Tomorrowland – suddenly has no decorations as well. This was always outfitted with wooden cutouts from Alice in Wonderland. I just don’t get this one. It must not cost more than a few hundred dollars to set this up (though I suppose the spotlights on the cutouts add some cost). Are they maybe going to claim that the cutouts were “obsolete technology” like the Lights of Winter?

On hiatus this year?
On hiatus this year?

My favorite decoration of yore was the set of bright white strobe lights that raced down the PeopleMover track. It lent this avenue of Tomorrowland a truly unique air of excitement and vitality. It honest to goodness pumped you up to see it. (Here’s me raving about those lights in 2009). This year, alas, there is no such lighting scheme. There are multicolor LED lights mounted atop the PeopleMover rail, all right, but they don’t come anywhere as close in setting a mood down below.

Ghost Mickey as seen in 2005. Was it out this year? I walked through most of the park, but didn’t see this one.
Your carriage awaits… in 2007. I didn’t see it out this year.

In Frontierland, it feels like there are very few “special” lights. This is a huge loss. Long ago, the trees were uplit by colored powerful lights, or lanterns throughout the land had their normally white light changed to green (or both).

Creepy Frontierland lighting effects were great!… in 2007.

Whereas in 2013, Frontierland looks pretty much normal. There are only a few half-hearted stabs at altered lighting for the party.

!!bFrontierland in 2013

Adventureland looks great! In 2009. This year it did not have such festive colors.
Adventureland looks great! In 2009. This year it did not have such festive colors.

The fabulous Boo to You parade got a new addition, in the form of “candy corn” float units at the very end. I suspected immediately they were the road cones from the departed DHS parade (I think of that parade as “countdown to cones” rather than “countdown to fun”), and indeed that’s what they were.

!!c
Sing it with me: “Countdown to Candy Corn!”

There are still some parts of this event that shine. You’ve got your free candy (almost all of it with recognizable brand names now), your villains stage show, your satisfying HalloWishes, your outstanding Boo to You parade, your special-night character meet and greets (all seven dwarfs, Pooh and friends in Halloween “costumes”), and your decorations on Main Street. At least Main Street hasn’t stopped decorating with pumpkins. They still do special lighting here too, but it’s not as impressive as it was several years ago. Now it’s more faded and washed-out looking.

!!e

They use a lot of projections in the park still; these days, most of them go directly onto a mountain like Space Mountain or Big Thunder (or, as shown here, from Pirates):

!!

The star of the show is Haunted Mansion, of course, and it does still have special lighting, including at the pet cemetery. And a performer often sits out front, dressed (and illuminated) as a ghost, interacting with the passing crowd in the line.

!!d

One anecdotal complaint I’ve heard over the years is that Disney seems to want to sell more tickets now per night than in prior years. I have not heard real, hard numbers, official or otherwise, but it does kind of look like the park is quite busy during MNSSHP nowadays–as busy as a summer day.

For many folks, the party is still worth the money. You get admission to the park starting at 4pm, which means 8 hours of fun for $60 (most nights) – that’s $7.50 per hour. If you spend 12 hours in the park on a regular day ticket, you’re paying $7.91 per hour. So they’ve maneuvered the prices so that the party is closer all the time to the per-hour cost of being in the park during regular days, but even apart from all of that, we’re talking $8 per hour. Someone using FastPass in today’s park could squeeze in three rides in those 60 minutes, meaning each ride is less than $3 per ride… this is better pricing than the traveling state fair, and we’re talking world-class attractions. So in many ways, Disney can still get away with these prices.

And it’s not like Disney destroyed every part of the value of this event. That would be a Decline by Volumes. Instead, the little chipping away at the magic gives us just a little bit less each year, all while charging the same prices (or even higher prices; it was $37 in 2005 and $60/$70 now, depending on which night you go) to increasingly larger numbers of guests. That represents less and less value as time goes on. That doesn’t mean the experience is WORTHLESS. Especially if it’s your first time, you might have a great time at MNSSHP. But it is less likely to make you rush home and proclaim to every neighbor you have that they too have to go–something you might have done in 2005 or other previous years.

When you add it all up, and even fold in stuff that used to be free in 2005 (we didn’t even mention the photo of your party provided in a paper frame, as well as free face painting eight years ago)… the experience has been diluted somewhat, no question about it.