Twice the size of Manhattan and filled with thirty-four resorts and hotels, four theme parks, a shopping and dining destination (the newly expanded and renamed Disney Springs) – not to mention two water parks – there’s a reason that Walt Disney called his second Disney destination in Orlando a “World”.
With its own laws, its own transportation system (boats, buses and monorails, oh my!), and experiences that you won’t find at any other Disney park in the world, there is no place like it on the planet. I recently travelled to Orlando for a jam-packed two and a bit days at Walt Disney World, somehow fitting in all four theme parks, and though it’s hard to narrow down your must hit list at the parks, here are just ten of my tips for any visitor to this incredible tourist destination.
1. Link up your wristband and download the Walt Disney World app
The Walt Disney World experience starts before you arrive, as you pick the colours of your wristbands – that will give you entry into your hotel resort and the parks, depending on what your ticket type might be. It makes entry and exit so easy (though you will have to make time for the metal detectors at all parks), and also opens up a world of interactive experiences around the parks. Since the wristband knows your name and where you’re from, you might see your name popping up in random places – like in the queue for the Aerosmith Rock n’ Roller coaster at Hollywood Studios, where you get turned into a music poster. Since you don’t expect it, it takes a while for you to realise just what has happened. Disney Magic! That’s what just happened.
But what really makes these wristbands special (which, by the way, are easy to take on and off – this isn’t a music festival situation), is that they connect your data to an app on your phone or tablet device. The app is pretty excellent in itself, with park maps, regularly updating ride waits and more. But it also stores all the photos and videos that rides around the parks take of you, allowing you to watch it on the go. You can pay extra to get prints without watermarks, and to keep the digital copies for life. But what you can access for free is pretty marvelous. Spending a bit of time getting all this set up before you get there is a great idea – and then they’ll either mail you out the wristbands or they’ll be sitting waiting for you at the hotel. You can also use the wristbands for a set number of “Fast Pass +” entries each day, giving you priority entry to the park’s best rides.
2. Eat and drink your way around the world at Epcot
When it comes to Epcot, Walt Disney World’s second park, it’s fair to say most of the attractions are a bit dated. There’s an enjoyable novelty to this though, and there are some first class attractions to be found, too, including one of the fastest rides at any Disney park – Test Track – and Soarin’ Around the World which just (re)opened. But the real attraction for many is permanent world’s fair which features the food and Disney-fied cultural experiences of 11 countries. And yes, this includes alcoholic beverages. We recommend wandering the run of 11 countries and take in as many culinary delights as you can. And also margaritas.
Also look out for the “Flavors Around The World”, which allows you to sample different Coke brands that exist exclusively in regions around the world. Unlike the World’s Fair, here the samples are all free, and gives you a pretty amazing taste of what the rest of the world experiences on a daily basis.
3. Ride the Tower of Terror
This ride is my personal favourite of the parks and is a must-experience ride. The Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror first launched at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in 1994, before expanding the concept to three other parks a decade later. At its most basic level, the ride is essentially just an over-produced, over-accelerated drop tower ride – not that different to what you’ll experience at any park, anywhere in the world.
But the production behind the ride, alongside the unpredictability of the drop (randomised on every encounter), and a special feature that sees you move in and our of the vertical motion shaft (something which wasn’t replicated in the other versions of the ride), makes it one of the best rides in the world. We won’t tell you much more about it, so as not to spoil the surprises… but make sure to include this in your itinerary, and enjoy the rush!
4. Explore the new Disney Springs
Previously known as “Downtown Disney” (a name which those who have attended Disneyland in California will also be familiar with), Walt Disney World’s shopping, dining and entertainment destination rebranded as “Disney Springs” a little under a year ago, with the new “Town Centre” area (pictured in the insert above) – a premium shopping area with Spanish Revival architecture – opening less than 3 months ago. While I was there, some of the shops were still yet to open but all construction had been completed.
This area is one of four distinct areas in the Springs, also made up with The Marketplace, The Landing and West Side. Around the area you’ll find a massive cinema, a LEGO store, a wide range of dining options, a mini theme park of sorts and much, much more. It might be hard to find time to spend there when you’ve got so many parks to attend, but entry is free and it’s a great way to finish up Walt Disney World experience before you travel home.
5. Stay at a Disney Resort and enjoy the Disney Transport Options
Of the 34 on site resorts and hotels, 28 are owned and operated by Disney and by staying at their own accommodation, you aren’t just able to use that fancy wristband to get in and out of your hotel, but you’re able to use a wide range of Disney’s free transport options to get to and from the parks.
Depending on the hotel you’re staying at, you’ll have immediate access to the on site Monorail, their boat network or their bus system. Across the two nights we spent at the park, we utilised all three transport options to get between the four theme parks and our hotel, easily hitting up to three parks a day as we tried to fit in as much as possible.
Every day, too, there are different perks for staying at one of the hotels, but the best one are the Magic Hours, which gives those staying at a Disney Resort an extra hour – or even more – at a different park every day. Disneyland, for instance, was open an extra two hours one of the nights, allowing us to stay well past midnight.
6. Ride the tallest ride at the parks, Everest Expedition at Animal Kingdom
Almost every Disney park in the world has a mountain themed park – the most iconic, perhaps, being the Matterhorn Bobsleds at the original Disneyland in California, which opened in 1959. Interestingly, the ride was the first steel coaster in the world, and features two high speed “bobsleds” running through the mountain, are you’re chased by the abominable snowman. Some 40 years later, Disney’s Animal Kingdom took this concept and opened “Expedition Everest — Legend of the Forbidden Mountain” which features another fictional creature: the Yeti.
At the end of the day this is just a damn fun ride – in fact it’s one of the best coasters you’ll find at any Disney park. But there’s also a lot of fun facts about this ride that make it a one-of-a-kind experience. At the time it was built, it was the most expensive roller coaster in history, costing some US$100 million. It became the 18th mountain ride at a Disney park (think of Space Mountain, Splash Mountain etc.), as well as the tallest artificial mountain at any of Disney parks around the world and the tallest ride in Walt Disney World (beating Tower of Terror by 6 inches).
It was the first coaster at any Disney park to go both forward and backwards in the same ride – a feature which has since popped up in rides like the Big Grizzly Mountain Runaway Mine Cars at Hong Kong Disneyland. The Yeti that features in the ride is also “the largest and most complex audio-animatronic figure ever built by Walt Disney Imagineering”. It reaches speeds of 80 km/h (almost double that of the Matterhorn) and runs for almost 3 minutes. It’s easily the most popular ride at Animal Kingdom, so make sure you get your Fast Pass + on this one. It alone is worth the visit to the park – at least until Pandora: The World of Avatar opens next year.
7. Spend your morning with the animals
While Expedition Everest might be worth the trip, the real reason you head to Animal Kingdom is for the animals, with a wide range standard attractions included in the prices of admission – such as the Kilimanjaro Safari, which lets you ride in an open-air vehicle around a lush African savanna and see animals from around the world. It’s this attraction which, at 580 acres, helps mark Animal Kingdom as the largest theme park in the world. You can also explore other animal attractions on foot, and get to see them do things like feed the meerkats at certain times of the day, as pictured above. It’s like any zoo, but with a bit of extra Disney Magic (I think I’m seeing some hidden Mickey ears above too!). And just a couple of months ago they started offering nighttime safaris for the first time, which you can read more about HERE.
But there are also some extra special experiences for those willing to pay for it, such as the recently introduced Sense of Africa tour, which is a three and a half hour long breakfast and tour “designed to immerse guests in the richness, culture and history of this African-inspired resort and give a backstage peek at the care, feeding, well-being and social interactions of the resident animals. A typical tour begins with a unique twist on breakfast at Boma—Flavors of Africa, followed by encounters with animals such as okapi, giraffe, ostriches and red river hogs. Sense of Africa is a feast for all five senses.” While we didn’t get to this ourselves, by all accounts it’s a magnificent experience. But if you can’t do that – it is a large time and cost commitment after all – then the wide range of experiences at the park, as well as the on site resort Animal Kingdom Lodge, will provide plenty of other ways you can enjoy yourself with the animals. And you’ve gotta do that!
8. Eat a Mickey shaped… Well, really anything.
You haven’t truly been at Disneyland unless you’ve eaten your way through Mickey Mouse. My personal favourite are the vanilla ice creams, covered in chocolate, and available pretty much everywhere, in all parks. But you can pretty much find anything shaped like the iconic mouse. And plenty of it is chocolate.
9. Book yourself a table in a Disney Princess Castle
Every Disneyland park has a Princess Castle at its heart, but Walt Disney World’s Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom is the only one that has a restaurant inside it. The entry for the “Cinderella’s Royal Table” is located on the back side of the castle and does require pre-booking. So make sure you look into that in your next visit to the park.
There are a tonne of unique dining options spread around the parks, some of which you can walk up to and enjoy, and others that you’ll need to pre-book. While we can’t speak for all of the food, it’s an experience of dining in a themed room that could make the fantasy’s of your young ones come through. Or maybe you’re in your late 40s and just want to be a pirate for a day. We won’t judge. But we’re sure that’s a thing.
Oh and keeping on Cinderella’s castle for the moment – we hear there’s a room at the top of the castle that you can stay in, originally built for Walt to stay in, but unfinished at the time of his death. This is part of the park’s now incredibly exclusive on site accommodation range, such as the Disneyland Dream Suite in California. But you can’t actually buy the privilege. It’s something you have to be invited for, or win. So, you know – do that!
10. Watch the Star Wars Fireworks Spectacular
Though it’s great to watch the fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle (especially as we did while riding Splash Mountain on our second night), you can’t miss the new Star Wars fireworks display “Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular Fireworks” at Hollywood Studios. They don’t happen every night, but they’re pretty spectacular indeed when they do, featuring the music from the films and some stunning synchronization. A great way to end a day at Disney.
So check the website to make sure they’re on one of the nights you’re there. And also make sure you get a photo with a certain Wookie before you do at Star Wars Launch Bay, which – alongside the Star Tours ride – will keep Star Wars alive at the parks until the anticipated Star Wars Land opens up in the park in a few years, alongside Toy Story Land. We also hear Hollywood Studios will get a new name – its third since it opened in 1989.
For more details about the park, head to their official website.
Unless otherwise mentioned, all photos are by the author. The writer attended the park as a guest of Walt Disney World and stayed as a guest of the Disney’s Yacht Club Resort.