I firmly believe that a visit to a Disney theme park is a fun and amazing experience for a kid of any age. However, for a six-year-old it is just pure magic. It was at that perfectly impressionable age that I first stepped in through the gates of the Magic Kingdom in Florida’s Walt Disney World. It was the beginning of a lifelong romance. That first visit turned into a long line of trips to the Orlando and the sheer nostalgic value many of the rides hold for me is immeasurable. Later on I even managed to visit both Disneyland Paris and Tokyo Disney Resort, but my first and truest love will always be Disneyworld. This year I got to go back for my 13th visit and I got to bring Tiia with me.
Walt Disney World is not just one theme park but rather a massive, sprawling resort that encompasses hotels and water parks, dining and shopping areas and, most importantly, four individual theme parks, each with their own style and feel. Probably the best known of the four is Magic Kingdom, the first of the four parks to open and most closely related to the original Disneyland in California, with its rides filled with animatronics and catchy tunes. The second-oldest park is EPCOT, short for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow. It was based on Walt Disney’s dream of a utopian community of the future and several of the rides are built around different futuristic themes. There’s also a permanent World Showcase featuring eleven countries with pavilions showcasing each country’s culture and heritage, some complete with rides. In 1989, Disneyworld added a third, movie-themed park. MGM Studios was later renamed Disney’s Hollywood Studios and houses attractions based on both animated and live action movies, from The Little Mermaid to Star Wars. The latest addition to the resort is Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a sort of hybrid between a zoo and a theme park.
Tips and tricks for surviving Walt Disney World
A quick Google search will show you that the internet is bursting with tips and tricks on how to make the most of your day at Disney. Since it can be overwhelming to comb through all the instructions, we wanted to give you just a few essential tips for not just surviving but truly enjoying the parks.
- Wear comfortable, good shoes. This should be a no-brainer, yet we saw so many suffer the unnecessary pain of bad shoes. We spent two days in Walt Disney World and walked about 35 kilometers in those two days. Trust me, your feet will hurt enough even in your comfiest, sturdiest shoes.
- Bring a water bottle you can fill up. There are several places throughout the parks where you can fill up on water for free, including at all the quick service restaurants. We learned this the hard way, after spending 20 dollars on a couple of ice creams and water bottles. Twenty. dollars. And remember, the Florida heat can be intense (it was almost 30° celsius when we were there and it was only February) so staying hydrated is a priority.
- Download the Disney app on your phone and familiarize yourself with it already before your visit. Through the app you can check wait times for rides, find routes to different attractions and even order food from any of the quick service restaurants! The parks have wifi so you can use the app without those nasty roaming charges.
- Perhaps the most important feature of the app is the the FastPass+ service. As soon as you have your Disney tickets booked, learn to use it and make sure you snag FastPasses for the most popular rides. Unlike many other theme parks that offer ways to skip queues for an extra fee, the FastPass+ is completely free for all ticket holders. It does have its limitations as you can only book three FastPasses in advance and then keep adding new ones only after you’ve used the previous ones, but skipping the queues to the most popular rides can be a massive time saver.
- Be prepared for queues. Even with the FastPass it’s impossible to completely avoid having to stand in line and it’s easier if you just accept the wait times as part of the experience. Bring snacks and a bottle of water (but don’t drink so much you need to pee if you’re looking at a 2 hour wait time…), come up with games to play while waiting or chat with those around you. You’re going to be stuck with each other for a while, might as well make the most of it!
Four parks, endless fun
Now that you’re prepared for your visit, let’s take a closer look at the four individual parks. Ideally, you’d want to spend at least a day in each to make the most of your visit. However, all four can be squeezed into two days like we did, with a little prioritizing and careful planning. To help with the prioritizing, we’ve ranked the four parks from just average to absolutely stellar. Keep in mind that this is a very subjective list and only meant to give you an idea of what to expect at each park.
4. Disney’s Hollywood Studios
You might expect film tourism bloggers to put the movie themed park higher up on their list. Sadly, Disney’s Hollywood Studios didn’t manage to quite make the same impression as the other parks. The decor is incredible – walking down Hollywood Boulevard is like stepping into the golden age of movies – and there are some great rides. The Star Tours simulator ride is excellent fun for any Star Wars fan and with The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, the park offers some of the biggest thrill rides in all of Disney. Still, it remained our least favorite of the four.
Full disclosure: we spent the least time of all the parks at Hollywood Studios in favor of returning to Disney’s Animal Kingdom because it was just. that. good. But more on that later.
Hollywood Studios might fare better with more time spent in the park and we’re definitely going to have to come back once they’ve opened all the massive refurbishments that are going on. Toy Story Land is opening at the end of June this year, but more importantly, next year will see the opening of an entire land based on the Star Wars universe. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is set to open in late fall of 2019 and appears to be an immersive experience unlike anything before. Heck, they had me at “You’ll be able to fly the Millennium Falcon.”
Walt Disney’s dream of a utopian future is showcased at EPCOT, short for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. What this originally meant was rides and shows based on different aspects of community life, from communication to energy to farming. EPCOT has gone through several updates throughout the years with more exciting rides replacing the old ones and an even more massive face lift is in the works for the park. In addition, the park also contains World Showcase, a sort of permanent exposition of 11 countries.
There’s lots to like at EPCOT and the only reason it’s number three on the list is that the two parks left are even better. The massive geosphere that looms over the skyline is home to Spaceship Earth, a ride based on the history and future of communication, and is one of the few things in the park that has stayed relatively the same since I first rode it over 30 years ago. It’s not a thrill ride but an absolutely essential experience for all EPCOT visitors, with or without the nostalgic value.
Other must-experience rides around Future World are Soarin’ Around the World and Test Track. We’ve done a couple of hang-gliding simulators before in both the US and Canada but we just can’t get enough! Soarin’ fits right in there with the best of them. Test Track is a fun and fast-paced simulator of what happens at a car test track. There are some twists and turns on the track inside but once your car hits the outside track, that’s when the fun really starts!
If you have the time, Mission: SPACE is a fun space mission simulator with two different intensity levels you can choose from (we did the milder one ’cause we’re wimps…) and The Seas with Nemo and Friends is especially fun for the little ones, a ride combining animated characters from the Nemo movies with a real life aquarium. Journey into Imagination with Figment used to be a gem of a ride in its original form but I’m sad to say, all the updates have only made the ride worse… It still holds great nostalgic value for me and I know the theme song by heart, but the ride itself is not particularly great, so this is one to skip if you’re short on time.
The World Showcase part of EPCOT is more exhibition and less theme park. There are some rides though, and especially adult guests will enjoy strolling through the different countries, enjoying the atmosphere and trying the local cuisines. All the employees of each pavilion are natives of the land it represents, which adds a nice international atmosphere to the showcase.
As for the attractions, Mexico and Norway offer boat rides, China, France and Canada circle-vision 360 films and the USA pavilion houses American Adventure, an audio-animatronics show about American history. Mexico’s Grand Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros is my favorite of the attractions, but I’m afraid this might have more to do with the nostalgic value than the ride itself.
Norway’s boat ride recently underwent a massive refurbishment from a traditional ride through Norwegian troll country into a Frozen-themed adventure. Frozen Ever After has all the characters from the movie and of course all the songs. However, I must admit we were a bit disappointed with the ride. Disney is usually great in making sure that you’re truly immersed in whatever attraction you’re experiencing, but here there were a lot of bare walls and lulls in the action. It might not have been entirely worth the 1-hour wait time. Younger friends of Anna and Elsa will still surely be enthralled by the experience and let’s face it, if you’re traveling with tiny Frozen fans, skipping this one isn’t really even an option.
Like mentioned, EPCOT will be undergoing a pretty major makeover over the next three years. We’re most excited about the Guardians of the Galaxy themed indoor roller coaster that will replace and expand the Universe of Energy pavilion in Future World, and the Ratatouille trackless ride that will be housed in the France pavilion. We recently had a chance to test the original Ratatouille ride at Disneyland Paris and fell madly in love!
2. Magic Kingdom
Never did I ever think I would be ranking the Walt Disney World parks and that Magic Kingdom would be anywhere but in first place. This park is the Grand Old Lady of Disneyworld, the heart of the entire operation. When it first opened in 1971, it very closely mirrored the original Disneyland park from Anaheim and every single Disney resort that’s been opened since has a park similar to it.
Magic Kingdom has an abundance of rides for every intensity level, from kiddie stuff to bigger thrills. Our favorites can be found on the more thrilling end of the spectrum – you can’t go wrong with the mountains! Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain and Splash Mountain are all great fun if you like roller coasters (and don’t mind getting wet in the case of Splash Mountain). Sadly we had to miss the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train since the lines were just too long (book your FastPass for this one early!) and the ride was even out of order for a couple of hours while we were in the park.
One of the best fun-for-all-ages rides is Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, where you get to play a shooting gallery game for the whole ride while spinning your space cruiser to get the best shot at the targets. The classics are great too, from Pirates of the Caribbean to It’s a Small World, though Tiia might argue that the latter holds more nostalgic value than anything for me. I say, if you don’t have the Small World theme song stuck in your head by the end of the day, have you even really been to a Disney park?!
Happily Ever After
Each of the parks has their own night time show and the one in Magic Kingdom is the biggest and brightest. Happily Ever After combines fireworks and pyrotechnics with projections against the backdrop of Cinderella’s castle. The result is a breathtaking display, set of course to the tunes of your favorite Disney songs. Below is a gallery of just a few of the best moments of the show. If you want to watch the whole thing, check out The DIS on Youtube.
1. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
The newest addition to Walt Disney World was also the best, both for a first-timer like Tiia and a seasoned veteran like myself. Equal parts zoo and theme park, Animal Kingdom combines real animals and more traditional attractions into a hybrid that works surprisingly well. It doesn’t have dozens of rides but what it lacks in quantity it more than makes up for in quality. As I’ve said before, Disney is great in immersing you in the experience and nowhere is it more evident than in Animal Kingdom.
In the middle of the park and looming over the skyline is the Tree of Life. It’s an impressive structure with different animals carved into the trunk and branches and the longer you keep staring at it, the more animals you will find. There are pathways snaking all around the tree that let you see it from different angles and there are also animal enclosures along those pathways. Other areas of the park are themed after Africa, Asia, Dinoland U.S.A and Pandora – the World of Avatar. Walking into Africa or Asia is really like walking straight to the heart of a different continent and Pandora has an otherworldly feel that makes you feel like you’ve actually landed on an alien planet, complete with floating mountains.
Other areas of the park are themed after Africa, Asia, Dinoland U.S.A and Pandora – the World of Avatar. Walking into Africa or Asia is really like walking straight to the heart of a different continent and Pandora has an otherworldly feel that makes you feel like you’ve actually landed on an alien planet, complete with floating mountains.
As soon as the park opened in the morning, we headed to Kilimanjaro Safaris, a leisurely ride through “the savannah” with 34 species of African wildlife. The line wasn’t too bad early on in the day, so if you don’t want to spend one of your FastPass selections for this one, make it your first stop.
We had FastPasses for both DINOSAUR and Expedition Everest and I would highly recommend snagging one for each if you can. DINOSAUR is a super fun if somewhat bumpy ride through a prehistoric world and Expedition Everest is simply one of the best roller coasters I’ve ever been on. There’s a twist to it that I won’t reveal but be prepared for anything!
Kilimanjaro Safaris was also the perfect opportunity for Tiia to snap loads of wildlife shots! Check out the full gallery below.
Plans change for Pandora
Now our original plan was to spend the first half of our day at Animal Kingdom and then switch over to Hollywood Studios and catch the Star Wars themed evening show. However, we were so enthralled by Animal Kingdom that once we got to the Studios, we kept debating whether to go back for the rest of the day. Once we noticed that the line for Avatar Flight of Passage was ONLY 90 minutes long, we headed back right away. Pandora is the newest addition to the Animal Kingdom, and the two rides in the area constantly have waiting times of up to 4 hours. FastPasses can be booked 30 days in advance (60 days if you’re staying in a Disney hotel), and if you want to grab one for Pandora, you have to do it early. Since we were making our selections only about a week prior to our visit, we had zero chance at getting one for either ride.
By the time we got back and made our way to Avatar Flight of Passage, the waiting time had already gone up to two hours. We weren’t even sure if our poor suffering feet could take standing in line for that long but we had to try. At the same time, we questioned our sanity. Could anything really be worth it? Turns out, the answer “HELL YES it’s worth it!” doesn’t even begin to cover it. If the park hadn’t been closing soon, we would’ve gone straight back to the 2-hour line to experience this wonder again. We want to go back and spend an entire day just waiting in line for this one ride, over and over again.
We’ve told about the Avatar ride to anyone who would listen, but it’s hard to find words to properly describe it. Sure, it’s a flight simulator, but the term doesn’t quite encompass how incredible it was. It’s easily the most realistic flight simulator I’ve ever been on, as well as the best theme park ride. Not just in Animal Kingdom, not just in Walt Disney World, but actually the best I’ve ever experienced. It really does feel like your flying on a banshee, from the feel of the animal breathing underneath you to the breathtaking views of Pandora that you see on the screen. Trust us, if you only have time for one ride in Disneyworld, make it Avatar Flight of Passage.
From a galaxy far, far away to Rivers of Light
The downside to spending only two days in Walt Disney World is that we could see only two of the four possible evening shows. Our return to Animal Kingdom for the evening meant we missed the Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular at Hollywood Studios. While anything Star Wars would’ve been awesome, we weren’t disappointed with what we got instead. Rivers of Light may not be as flashy as the firework shows in other parks, but its fusion of water, light, music and live performers is mesmerizing. By the time you think the show is reaching its climax, it’s just getting started… Like Tiia said after the whole thing was over: Disney really doesn’t half-ass things, do they? Check out the full gallery of photos for just a glimpse of the magic