So you’ve finally made it to Walt Disney World. You found the perfect time of year, booked an awesome hotel, braved airports and rental cars and finally made it to your destination. Now is time for the whole reason you traveled to Central Florida: standing in lines and getting rammed in the back of he leg by strollers. Oh yeah, and riding some rides too!
The Walt Disney World Resort boasts four theme parks. Magic Kingdom is the one with the castle, Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and all the other stuff you think of when you think of a Disney park. Epcot is a perpetual World’s Fair and is really two parks in one: Future World, featuring pavilions and thrill rides with a science bend, and World Showcase, with themed pavilions representing the architecture, dining, shopping, and culture of eleven different countries (oh and lots and lots of booze!) Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios and soon-to-be something else) is Disney’s answer to Universal and is a park currently in transition although at the moment it boasts a number of fun rides based on movies including Toy Story and Star Wars. Animal Kingdom is many things, but it is “not a zoo” as promotional materials of the 2000’s said ad nauseum. It includes thrill rides, shows, and wildlife displays all with a nature and conservation theme. Soon it will include a land based on the film Avatar because the Walt Disney Company secretly hates me.
Now you might be asking yourself where to go first, what to ride, what to skip, so on and so forth. To answer all of your questions would literally require an entire book and I don’t have that kind of time right now. You can easily check out any number of websites from Disney or other sources to find out everything about everything. I’ll do my best here to provide the Cliffs Notes version of Disney Park Touring 101.
Before we start, if you’re wondering, most people visit the park in chronological order of opening (the way I just listed them) while others put Animal Kingdom first since it is still the newest that many have never seen (even though it’s been open almost twenty years at this point.) For those “in the know,” however, the generally accepted best order to visit with a family is Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom with the reasoning that once kids see the Magic Kingdom, it’s harder to get them to go anywhere else. It should also be noted that two days are required to see “everything” at the Magic Kingdom. I would also suggest two days for Epcot for a group of adults. If time is tight, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios can both easily be toured in a half day, however you will enjoy both more if you can devote a full day to each.
In Short: Designed in the model of Disneyland, Magic Kingdom park is quintessential Disney in every way. Cinderella Castle at the center of the park is surrounded by six themed lands: Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. Fantasyland was recently doubled in size and updated to include newer Disney hits like Beauty and the Beast and the Little Mermaid.
Optimal Touring Strategy: Arrive at park opening, head directly to Tomorrowland and ride Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear. Then head to Frontierland for Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain (it’s a good idea to plan a Fastpass somewhere in there.) Next head to the Haunted Mansion and then into Fantasyland and hit up as many of the attractions there as possible, using Fastpasses to help you along. Definitely try to ride Peter Pan’s Flight, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, It’s A Small World, Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, and Mickey’s Philharmagic…and it’s imperative that you do all of this before noon. Now take a break and have lunch and then do some of the park’s air conditioned and shorter-lined rides and attractions (Hall of Presidents, Carousel of Progress, Monsters Inc Laugh Floor, Enchanted Tiki Room, TTA Peoplemover) leaving yourself time to see the afternoon parade, if this is something you are interested in. Lines will start to shorten as people have dinner, families with younger kids leave for “bedtime” and crowds gather for the evening parade and fireworks. Earlier I mentioned that it was a good idea to devote two full days to the Magic Kingdom. If you do so, plan one night around seeing the parade and fireworks and another to take advantage of the shorter lines during them. Make sure to experience Pirates of the Caribbean and the Jungle Cruise in Adventureland in the evening and return to Fantasyland for anything you may have missed in the morning.
Best Rides to Fastpass: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Peter Pan’s Flight, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, the Jungle Cruise (or, if traveling with children, Enchanted Tales With Belle and Princess Fairytale Hall: Meet Elsa & Anna.)
What’s Not to Be Missed: Virtually everything at Magic Kingdom is worth riding at least once during the course of your trip. Make sure not to be intimidated by the drop and “splash” visible from Splash Mountain even if you are intimidated by thrill rides. It is one of the best themed attractions anywhere and proceeds the drop with over five minutes of storyline featuring singing and cavorting rabbits, bears, fox, and other woodland creatures. Other absolute “must-sees” are the Disney classics Pirates of the Caribbean and the Haunted Mansion (and for true history buffs, the Carousel of Progress,) Peter Pan’s Flight, It’s A Small World, Wishes fireworks, and if you enjoy thrill rides: Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain.
Stuff to Skip: The Country Bears Jamboree, the Hall of Presidents, and Carousel of Progress will all be over the heads of young kids. Enchanted Tales with Belle can be skipped by adults. Stitch’s Great Escape is an abomination that should be skipped by everyone.
Where to Eat: Breakfast with princesses inside the castle at Cinderella’s Royal Table is the hottest reservation at Walt Disney World and must be reserved at 7am the day the reservation window opens (180-days ahead.) The only other restaurant worth going out of your way for is Be Our Guest, the Beauty and the Beast themed restaurant in the new expansion of Fantasyland. This reservation should also be aquired at the earliest possible date for dinner. Eating lunch there is just as worthwhile and a bit easier to accomplish but lacks the benefit of serving booze. Magic Kingdom counter service dining is adequate but exists to quickly feed the masses before it strives for any real quality. If huge buffets are your thing, the Crystal Palace will suffice.
Insider Tip: If you need to quickly make your way up or down Main Street during a parade, go inside one of the buildings on the Adventureland side. It’s all one giant store and connects from Casey’s on one end to the train station on the other.
In Short: Epcot is a massive theme park that is literally two parks combined into one. The World Showcase features an array of rides and exhibits all ostensibly with a science, technology, and historical motif. Spaceship Earth, the giant “golf ball”-looking building on every piece of promotional material you have ever seen, houses a slow-moving ride past scenes depicting the history of human technology. The Seas is a giant saltwater aquarium featuring exhibits hosted by characters from the Finding Nemo film. The Land includes a boat ride through a giant working greenhouse, a film where characters from The Lion King explain conservation, a giant food court and family style restaurant, and it’s showcase attraction: Soarin, a mock hang-glider ride over the sites of California. Imagination includes a wacky dark ride featuring a purple dragon character named Figment that exists only to appease hardcore Disney fans and sell kids merchandise as well as the even more perplexing Captain EO 3D film from the 80’s starring Michael Jackson, that was resurrected a few years ago as a tribute after the pop star’s death. Test Track is a newly re-opened thrill ride based on the modern design of automobiles. Mission Space is another thrill ride that puts guests through space training exercises on a replica of a real NASA simulator. Rounding out Future World are Ellen’s Energy Adventure, a 45-minute multimedia presentation about the world’s natural resources featuring Ellen DeGeneres, Bill Nye the Science Guy, and animatronic dinosaurs (because whatever) and Innoventions, a hodgepodge of science exhibits, interactive kids stuff, Disney characters, and a motion simulator that allows guests to design and ride their own roller coaster.
World Showcase is a giant lagoon surrounded by representations of eleven countries: Canada, United Kingdom, France, Morocco, Japan, the United States, Italy, Germany, China, Norway, and Mexico. Some include small rides or theater shows. All have a variety of restaurants, bars, food vendors, shops, and (of course) country-appropriate Disney character appearances. The pavilions are staffed by exchange students from the actual countries.
Optimal Touring Strategy: Head to Test Track first, proceeding around Future World counter-clockwise to Mission Space, The Sum of All Thrills in Innoventions East, Spaceship Earth, The Seas with Nemo, and Soarin (plan a Fastpass for here between 12-1pm). Enjoy lunch inside the Land pavilion. If traveling with kids, see the rest of the attractions in The Land, Imagination, and then return to explore the rest of Innoventions, planning a Fastpass for the Epcot Character Spot in the afternoon. If you have time before 4pm, check out Ellen’s Energy Adventure. Then head to Mexico for a ride on the Gran Fiesta Tour. Let the kids explore the Kidcot fun spots or take part in Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure. If they can last that long, make sure to grab a spot for Illuminations, the nighttime fireworks and laser show on the lagoon.
If you are traveling with adults, head to World Showcase after lunch and begin touring in whatever direction you choose, making sure to visit the shows in France, Canada, and China, as well as the American Adventure show. Plan ahead for a dinner in one of the pavilions, and also make sure to enjoy some of the live street entertainment, a few alcoholic beverages, and at the end of the night do not miss Illuminations.
Best Rides to Fastpass: Soarin, Spaceship Earth, Mission Space (or, if traveling with young children: Spaceship Earth, The Epcot Character Spot and Turtle Talk with Crush)
What’s Not to Be Missed: Soarin is one of the best attractions at all of Disney World. Spaceship Earth was hurt slightly by changes made a few years ago but still offers the best glimpse at what all of Epcot’s Future World attractions used to be like. Illuminations is an epic nighttime extravaganza that everyone should see once. For the mature, cultural and travel-minded, all of World Showcase is not to be missed.
Stuff to Skip: Innoventions (with the exception of The Sum of All Thrills,) the Imagination pavilion, and Ellen’s Energy Adventure are all skipable if you are short on time. Kids and thrill seekers can skip all of World Showcase, while others might want to devote the majority of their day to this section (if you are into food, drinking, live entertainment, shopping, and “cultural stuff” then I’m looking at you) while skipping all but the top tier attractions in Future World.
Where to Eat: You really can’t go wrong eating anywhere in World Showcase. My favorites include Via Napoli in Italy for authentic pizza and pasta; Rose & Crown Pub in United Kingdom for great pub fare, awesome beer and spirits, the “Hat Lady” piano player, and great fireworks views; and Biergarten in Germany for an Oktoberfest buffet, huge mugs of beer, and live entertainment nightly. The Canadian beer and cheese soup is a legendary favorite of Disney fans but its restaurant, Le Cellier, has become absurdly popular in recent years. In the words of Yogi Berra, nobody goes there anymore because its too crowded. If you really want to try the soup, stop in at lunch and order it to-go. Unless it’s exceptionally busy, they will allow it. (Or try it at the Canada booth during the Food & Wine Festival in the fall.)
In Short: The park is designed half as a “working” film studio lot and half as a tribute to the old days of Hollywood. Properties represented as rides and shows include Toy Story, Star Wars, The Twilight Zone, The Muppets, Indiana Jones, Beauty and the Beast, and the rock band Aerosmith.
Optimal Touring Strategy: At park opening proceed directly to Toy Story Mania (do not pass go, do not get a picture in front of the Chinese Theater, do not stop for a Mickey ice cream bar, do not wait for Grandma if she has to stop and reach for her asthma inhaler.) Ride it once and make sure you have a Fastpass booked for later in the day because you will want to ride again. Then head down Sunset Blvd to ride Rock’n’Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror, followed by The Great Movie Ride and Star Tours. Plan the rest of your day around showtimes for theater productions that interest you making sure not to miss Muppet Vision 3D, Lights Motors Action, and One Man’s Dream (while it remains in operation.) Plan to end the night with a viewing of Fantasmic (make sure to arrive very early for a good seat.)
Best Rides to Fastpass: Toy Story Mania, Tower of Terror, and Star Tours
What’s Not to Be Missed: Toy Story Mania, Tower of Terror, Muppetvision 3D, the Great Movie Ride, Fantasmic, and during the Christmas season, the Osbourne Spectacle of Dancing Lights.
Stuff to Skip: If you don’t have children, feel free to skip Voyage of the Little Mermaid and the Disney Junior stage show
Where to Eat: While none of them will win any awards, the park has a lot of fun sit-down restaurants including the faux-drive in theater themed Sci Fi Dine In Theater, the awesome throwback to your parents’ generation 50’s Prime Time Cafe, and the authentically themed Hollywood Brown Derby. Hollywood Studios quick service dining is adequate but uninspired. Best selection is on Sunset Blvd at the World War II era themed Rosie’s All American Cafe and surrounding spots.
Insider Tip: The park is currently in the beginning stages of a complete overhaul that has led to closure of over half of the park’s attractions. Don’t let it deter you. Hollywood Studios is a compact park with great theming and the attractions that do remain are almost all among Disney’s best.
Insider Tip #2: If you’re curious, the episodes of Nitro that took place at the park were filmed in front of the main entrance, with the hard camera facing the pathway from the boats to the front gate. And I’m fairly certain that the long pathway used as an exit from Fantasmic was where Kevin Nash threw Rey Mysterio into the side of a trailer, lawndart-style.
In Short: While I often like to crack jokes about Disney’s “nah-ta-zu” ad campaign for the park, it is important to emphasize that the park is not, in fact, a zoo. The unique park is divided into four (soon to be five) richly themed areas all with nature and wildlife as the common denominator. From thrill rides, to carnival games, to (yes) animals: this park has a little something for everyone.
Optimal Touring Strategy: Definitely arrive early and head right to Expedition Everest. Then head to Africa to ride Kilimanjaro Safari and see the Festival of the Lion King. Schedule your Fastpass+ selections to allow for riding Dinosaur, Primeval Whirl, and Kali River Rapids in the late morning. Spend the rest of your day exploring the animal exhibits, browsing the unique shops, taking in the scenery, making sure to allow time to see a showing of Finding Nemo: The Musical.
Best Rides to Fastpass: Kali River Rapids, Dinosaur, Primeval Whirl, Kilimanjaro Safari
What’s Not to Be Missed: Expedition Everest is the best roller coaster and arguably the best overall ride in all of Walt Disney World. Finding Nemo: The Musical is a Broadway-level production. The park is also best enjoyed by exploring and taking in the sights and sounds…don’t miss your opportunity to do this.
Stuff to Skip: If you’re only interested in rides, the nature exhibits and all shows except for Finding Nemo and the Lion King can be skipped. But with a little planning you can easily see all of the park’s attractions in one day so nothing needs to be skipped. Except for Kali River Rapids. I hate getting wet and the ride absolutely soaks you. If you’re like me and don’t want to be miserable all day, avoid the temptation to ride it.
Where to Eat: Animal Kingdom has some of the best counter service spots in all of Walt Disney World including the excellent barbeque and great views of the Flame Tree BBQ and the exotic assortment of stands at the new Harambe Market. For sit-down dining with more unique fare than even its Epcot counterparts, try Yak & Yeti in Asia. The Dawa Bar is also a must-visit in Africa for libations and entertainment.
Insider Tip: Animal Kingdom is the hottest of the Disney theme parks. The lush tropical flora increases the humidity to levels even higher than normal…hard to conceive of in the Florida summer. Plus guests often have no choice but to visit the park during the day, as it closes at dusk unlike other parks that can be enjoyed in the cooler nighttime. Dress accordingly and be prepared to sweat.
I’ve spent a great deal of time talking about Fastpass and “Fastpass+” in this article. Back in the late 1990’s Disney debuted “Fastpass” as a way to allow guests to bypass the longest lines on the most popular rides. You put your ticket into a machine at the ride entrance, got a slip of paper telling you what time to come back later, and when you returned, you rode with no line. Things worked swimmingly. More recently Disney rolled out the new “plussed” version whereby guests reserve a Fastpass time from home, months before their trip, and simply go ride whenever they have booked. Only three can be reserved and all must be used before you can start reserving more in the park. There are reasons for this, some good and some bullshit. There are benefits and disadvantages for guests as well. The short of it is, however, that this is now an extra layer of planning that needs to be accounted for if you want to have the best experience possible, especially during busier times of year. It is also important to note that in order to book Fastpass experiences in advance of your trip, you must have a ticket for everyone in your party to link them to. Guests who opt to purchase park admission at the gate (bad idea) can not make Fastpass selections until they enter the park and even then it must be done at often crowded kiosks. Yes, in a cruel twist of fate, the lines to get a Fastpass+ are often longer than for many actual rides!