Editor’s Note: This article was first published in November of 2011. It is being republished as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists of 2013. Wait… What’s a 2011 list doing in a 2013 compilation the sensible person asks? My excuse: this article is one of PJ Lifestyle’s biggest hits, in 2013 drawing more readers than many new lists published that year. It’s one of Chris Queen’s first pieces that demonstrated he’d do a fantastic job on the Disney beat for PJ Lifestyle. I’ve given it a a face-lift with some new images for the age of Instagram… Where will this great piece end up on the list? Reader feedback will be factored in when the PJ Lifestyle Top 50 List Collection is completed in a few months.
I’m a major Disney fan — I grew up on Disney, and it has been a key influence throughout my life. From films to music to television series there’s always been some type of Disney entertainment playing in the background. I can’t think of a period in my life without Disney.
Growing up in a family that’s nutty for Disney, Walt Disney World has always been our favorite vacation destination. My parents honeymooned there and they first took me as an infant. By my count, I’ve been to Walt Disney World 25 times, though others in my family think I may have been more times. Since my nieces were born, we’ve tried to make our pilgrimages at least once a year.
I love planning our trips to Walt Disney World almost as much as I love going there. Planning helps us build anticipation and makes our trips that much sweeter. There’s no greater excitement than the expectancy that comes with a Walt Disney World trip.
My whole family have become experts for our friends and acquaintances when it comes to Walt Disney World. People constantly ask us for tips and trip-planning advice. In fact, my sister and I have talked about opening a travel agency specializing in Disney trips.
So without further ado, here’s a list of ten essential Walt Disney World experiences. If you’ve never been or if you haven’t been in a long time, hopefully these tips will help you plan and know what to expect. If you’ve been many times like me, maybe this list can inspire some good-natured debate about what’s best at Walt Disney World.
Next: Heaven for the Disney collector…
10. Shop at World Of Disney.
No trip to Walt Disney World is complete without picking up a couple of souvenirs, and while there’s plenty of shopping at the parks and resorts, there’s no better place to shop than World Of Disney at Downtown Disney Marketplace. The largest Disney Store in the world (literally), World Of Disney contains a dozen rooms filled with an extensive collection of Disney merchandise.
World Of Disney boasts around 51,000 square feet of product. You name it, and chances are you can find it there. From apparel to entertainment to housewares and cookware to typical souvenirs, there are plenty of items to choose from. Many of the items at World Of Disney are unique to Walt Disney World, while others are designed especially for certain occasions. The store is also home to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, where little girls can get a princess makeover.
Don’t let the size and scope of World of Disney overwhelm you. Like all of Disney’s parks, the store is built around a central hub — in this case it’s a sculpture of Cinderella Castle. Many of the rooms are specifically themed to make it easy to know what merchandise is in them. Even though lines can build up at some of the registers, there are a few that are off the beaten path and offer less wait.
One of the coolest things about World Of Disney is that cast members can ship your items home, or if you’re staying on Disney property, they’ll send your purchases to the resort where you’re staying.
Next: Ride into the future…
9. Ride the Monorail.
There are plenty of forms of transportation at Walt Disney World, from “old-school” ways of getting around to innovative, futuristic methods. None of them are as fascinating and unique as the Walt Disney World Monorail System. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the Monorail. As an adult, I have a similar fascination, and the monorails are still an integral part of my trips.
The eleven trains — soon to be twelve with the addition of Monorail Peach this fall — ride high off the ground on 26 inch-wide concrete beams. The system covers 14.7 lane miles, traveling three routes: an express route from the Transportation & Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom, a resort route from the Transportation & Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom that stops at three resort hotels, and a route from the Transportation & Ticket Center to Epcot.
Along each route, narrations tell you the history and trivia about the parks and hotels, aswell as previews of coming attractions. The view from the trains is stunning and in the hotter months the monorails are a cool respite from the heat.
One special treat is to ride in the front of the monorail. Up to four guests can travel in the front compartment. All you have to do is ask one of the cast members when you arrive on the platform, and if you’re early enough, you just might get to ride.
It may not seem like such a unique and innovative form of transportation these days (especially since it has changed little in 40 years), but the monorail truly is a fun way to get around.
Next: The most delicious treat in the park?
8. Eat a Dole Whip.
There’s a myriad of great stuff to eat at Walt Disney World, and there are tons of ways to satisfy any craving – or to try something new. Each of the parks have options ranging from snack bars to quick eat to fine dining.
(On a side note, Disney offers a Dining Plan to its resort guests. For one reasonable price each day, guests can enjoy dining and snacks, including many fine dining experiences. At certain times of the year, Dining Plans are offered free with room reservations!)
One of the best snacks at Walt Disney World is the Dole Whip. It can’t be much simpler: a non-dairy, soft-serve pineapple frozen treat. It’s available by itself, as a float with pineapple juice, or swirled with vanilla soft-serve. And it’s nothing short of amazing!
Dole Whips are available at the Aloha Isle snack counter in Adventureland at the Magic Kingdom and at Captain Cook’s at the Polynesian Resort. The soft-serve is also available in vanilla or chocolate, or as a Coke or root beer float. But why would you settle for something so ordinary when you can have a delicious, one-of-a-kind Dole Whip?
Next: The best place to stay for a Disney World vacation…
7. Explore the Resorts.
There’s no substitute for staying on Disney property. Staying at a Disney resort has many wonderful perks, such as Extra Magic Hours (special early openings and late closings at various parks throughout the week), complete access to Disney transportation, and the Dining Plan.
If you’re unable or choose not to stay in a Disney resort, you still owe it to yourself to check them out. Take some time during your trip to ride around to a few of the resorts and see how beautiful they are. Just like the parks, Walt Disney World’s resort hotels are completely immersive experiences.
Five of the resorts are a quick ride from the Magic Kingdom. The Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Resort, and Grand Floridian Resort are on the monorail loop, and you can visit each of them in just a few minutes. Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (my personal favorite) and Fort Wilderness Campground are a short, pleasant boat ride from the Magic Kingdom.
If you’re at Epcot and looking to take a break and explore, next to the United Kingdom pavilion is
a boat launch that will take you to the Swan and Dolphin hotels, as well as the Yacht Club, Beach Club, and Boardwalk Resorts. The other resorts are available by bus from any of the parks or the Transportation & Ticket Center, but require extra travel time.
I like to take the time while I’m there to take a look at the resorts where I’m not staying. The resorts are even more magical around Christmas, when they’re exquisitely decorated — another example of how Disney succeeds by nailing every detail.
Next: Bonuses for planning your trip carefully…
6. Take Advantage of Holidays and Special Events.
Walt Disney World is magical any time of the year, but there’s something even more special about the Disney touch during holidays. Disney’s cast members take extra care to create unique experiences at various times throughout the year.
From mid-September to the beginning of November, the Magic Kingdom celebrates Halloween. You’ll find clever, detailed jack-o-lanterns, scarecrows, and other fun Halloween finery throughout the park.
On certain nights during this Fall period, the Magic Kingdom offers Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, a separately ticketed event in which the park is open to a limited number of guests. Here you’ll encounter characters dressed up for the occasion. The kids can trick or treat and the parade features the cast of The Haunted Mansion while the fireworks show is taken over by the Disney Villains.
At Christmas, the park comes to life with holiday magic all its own. Christmas decorations throughout the parks, resorts, and shopping areas are exquisite and themed to the most intimate detail. The Magic Kingdom hosts Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, another event with separate tickets and limited capacity featuring special parades and fireworks, cookies and hot chocolate, and a snow on Main Street USA.
At Epcot’s Candlelight Processional, a celebrity narrator reads the Biblical Christmas story, while a choir of cast members sings carols. Epcot’s World Showcase pavilions offer storytelling and crafts. Disney’s Hollywood Studios hosts the Osborne Family Spectacle Of Dancing Lights, the world’s largest outdoor lighting display. Many of the resort hotels have unique Christmas experiences and displays as well.
Epcot offers a pair of special events that aren’t tied to a particular holiday. The International Flower & Garden Festival features beautiful topiaries and lovely gardens every spring, while the International Food & Wine Festival boasts special tastings of dishes and drinks from all around the world in the fall.
These events offer an extra special bit of magic for those who attend. Crowds can be a bit heavier during the special events and holidays, but they’re rarely insurmountable.
Next: Dark rides are not just for kids!
5. Relive Your Childhood With The Fantasyland Classics.
There’s a certain misconception that Walt Disney World is for kids, especially Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom.
On the contrary, the Fantasyland attractions pay the greatest homage to the classic Disney films and the entertainment that Walt Disney’s name was built on, which makes Fantasyland a great place to relive your childhood.
OK, so adults may look silly on a few of the Fantasyland rides — try not looking awkward on the carousel or Dumbo The Flying Elephant — but that shouldn’t stop even the most jaded cynics from enjoying the rest of what Fantasyland has to offer.
The attractions in Fantasyland, like pretty much everything else at Walt Disney World, do a flawless job of capturing the essence of their source material. Snow White’s Scary Adventures puts you right in the middle of the action of Walt Disney’s first animated feature. The spinning, dizzying teacups of the Mad Tea Party match the trippy feel of Alice In Wonderland. Peter Pan’s Flight is every bit as breathtaking as Wendy, Michael, and John’s first trip to Never Land, while guests travel right into the storybook with The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh.
And then there’s “it’s a small world,” probably one of the most iconic attractions in the Magic Kingdom. Some people despise it, while others become even more enthralled every time they ride it. In reality it’s a sweet, charming little ride that can leave even the most cynical guest singing along on the way out.
Over the next couple of years Fantasyland is undergoing an unprecedented expansion, nearly doubling the land’s size and adding several more attractions, including ones based on Beauty And The Beast and The Little Mermaid, along with a double-capacity Dumbo ride and so much more. It’ll be exciting to see how Fantasyland evolves with this project.
Next: An African safari in Florida…
4. Enjoy the Spectacular Sights of Kilimanjaro Safaris.
One of the most enjoyable attractions in all of Walt Disney World is Kilimanjaro Safaris at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The crowning jewel of Walt Disney World’s most recently added theme park is a truly breathtaking experience. It’s the closest thing to being on an actual African safari.
Your journey begins as you enter the Africa section of Animal Kingdom. The setting for this “land” of the park is the fictional village of Harambe, a town that has transformed itself into a wildlife preserve. As you wind through the queue line for the safari, you encounter videos and signage that educate you on the types of animals you may see there.
Once you board your open-sided vehicle, you’re off to see an astounding collection of animals from antelopes to zebras. My favorite animals there have to be the giraffes, and on one recent trip we had a truly spectacular encounter with them. For some reason the vehicles ahead of us were delayed, and we had to stop. One giraffe kept getting nearer and nearer to our vehicle, until it stopped about 20 feet from us! Needless to say we were able to get some great pictures.
Kilimanjaro Safaris carries an added fascination for folks who are interested in what goes on behind the scenes. The animals there are in as natural a habitat as could be designed. Completely natural barriers and hidden artificial berms keep the animals away from the safari vehicles. The landscape has been transformed to look less like Florida and as much like Africa as possible. The area is a prime example of Disney’s creativity and attention to detail. Of course, since it’s Disney, there’s a well-thought storyline for the safari.
Kilimanjaro Safaris is an astounding experience, and the nearby Pangani Forest Exploration Trail is a fitting complement to the safari where families can take a leisurely stroll to see the animals. Both attractions are animal experiences in a way that only Disney can deliver.
Next: Pixy dust in the dark…
3. Take In the Beauty of the Parks at Night.
As magical as Walt Disney World always is, the parks become even more spectacular after dark. Though Disney’s Animal Kingdom closes before dark so that the animals can be maintained and fed, the other three parks take on a life of their own at night, and they even have special events.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios becomes even more glamorous after dark. The Hollywood Boulevard, Echo Lake, and Sunset Boulevard areas of the park take on an added character. The Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster looks more energetic and exciting, while the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is much eerier at night.
The most special nighttime event at Hollywood Studios is Fantasmic! which takes place select nights in an amphitheater designed to pay tribute to the Hollywood Bowl. In Fantasmic! Mickey Mouse, in full garb as the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, battles the most ferocious of the Disney Villains in an unforgettable fire and water show.
At Epcot, the nighttime magic is noticeable as well. Though it often closes earlier in the evenings, Future World looks amazing after dark, especially the iconic Spaceship Earth and the beautiful planets at the entrance to Mission: SPACE. World Showcase is even more stunning at night, with each nation’s pavilions looking even richer under the lights.
The centerpiece of the nighttime experience at Epcot is IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, which features fireworks, lasers, pyrotechnics, and other lighting effects in a truly moving presentation. It’s a show you’ll never forget.
Nothing beats the Magic Kingdom for an exciting, special night. Every land seems to come to life when the sun goes down. The streets bustle with a different vibe, and the kinetics of each attraction seem to be even more inviting. Cinderella Castle is a sight to behold, and the fireworks are always worth staying out late for.
One of the best things about the Magic Kingdom at night is the parade. This park has a history of great parades at night (check out this article I wrote about that history), and the current one, The Main Street Electrical Parade, is no exception. One of the most special events is the oldest parade at Walt Disney World: the Electrical Water Pageant, which takes place on the shores of Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon in front of each of the resort hotels near the Magic Kingdom.
Next: Four coasters not to be missed…
2. Brave the Mountain Range.
For its famous family atmosphere and vast selection of rides for all ages, Walt Disney World manages to pack some genuine thrills into its parks. Attractions like the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster are heart-stopping. Mission: SPACE simulates zero gravity, while Test Track roars along at 65 miles per hour. Even some of the tamer classic rides like Pirates of the Caribbean and The Haunted Mansion have a tinge of scariness to them to go with the fun.
But there’s no better collection of thrill rides than what many affectionately call the Walt Disney World Mountain Range: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, and Expedition Everest. The first three are in the Magic Kingdom, while Expedition Everest is in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Space Mountain looms over Tomorrowland in stark, retro-futuristic white. With its spires and exposed support beams, it’s clear that something intriguing awaits inside. You may only hurtle along at 28 miles per hour but the suspense and disorientation of the darkness make it feel infinitely faster. Space Mountain is a historic attraction as well, since it’s the world’s first completely indoor roller coaster and the first major ride to have made its debut at Walt Disney World before opening at Disneyland.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is one of two mountains in Frontierland, and it’s a Disneyfied twist on the old mine train concept. Big Thunder Mountain rises 197 feet in the air over the western edge of the park, representing the farthest west part of Frontierland in both style and geography. It’s a rip-roarin’ runaway train ride through the steep canyons and rock formations of Utah.
Splash Mountain, right next door to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, is Disney’s version of the log flume ride. The attraction is based on the characters from the beloved, long-out-of-print film Song of the South. Splash Mountain follows the adventures of Br’er Rabbit as he tries to avoid the clutches of Br’er Fox and Br’er Bear and find his “laughing place.” It feels like an easy, yet fast-paced, ride along the river until you encounter the big drop which sends you careening down the hill at 40 miles per hour.
The newest addition to the mountain range is Expedition Everest. This may be one of the most carefully and painstakingly created attractions in all of Walt Disney World. The entire queue line is meant to immerse riders into the spirit of an outpost at the foot of the Himalayas, and every detail is based on years of research. The ride itself is a heart-pounding ride on a tea train through the Himalayas — but something’s clearly amiss. An encounter with the Yeti sends the train forward and backward at breakneck speeds down the mountain. One tip: when you reach the top of the mountain, look around for a brief but breathtaking view of Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The four mountain rides are definite must-do attractions for thrill seekers of all ages. Each one provides a distinct yet genuine brand of excitement to the parks.
Finally: The best ride in the park…
1. Feast Your Eyes (And Ears — And Nose) On Soarin’.
The most amazing experience at Walt Disney World is also one of the hardest to explain. Soarin’ is a truly unique multimedia attraction that must be seen to be believed. Originally a gift from Disneyland, Soarin’ is a tour of some of California’s most beautiful areas — from the Golden Gate Bridge to Lake Tahoe to DisneyLand — from the point of view of a hang glider.
The perspective on Soarin’ is truly unique and immersive. You float between hot air balloons, alongside fighter jets, over cowboys on horseback, and above Los Angeles’ traffic. A golf ball whizzes just past your head. Fireworks explode right before your eyes. Soarin’ truly recreates the sensation of hang gliding in a memorable way.
Soarin’ is a feast for the senses as well. Specially designed fans create the perception of the wind in your face. Scent machines give you the impression of actually smelling the pine trees and orange groves. The majestic score by Academy Award winning composer Jerry Goldsmith suits the mood of the trip through the Golden State.
The attraction is an engineering marvel as well. While Imagineers (Disney’s creative folks) were debating the way to make the experience of Soarin’ work while efficiently moving guests through the ride, Imagineer Mark Sumner got his childhood Erector set out of the attic and set to work on a solution. The actual ride system mirrors his Erector set concept nearly identically.
Soarin’ is a quintessential Disney experience. It’s the only ride I’ve ever seen guests applaud at the end. It’s also one my family loves to enjoy over and over again. You will too.
I’ve read somewhere that you could spend an entire year at Walt Disney World and not do everything. I believe it. These ten tips are by no means an exhaustive list of the best attractions and most unique experiences at Walt Disney World. Instead, think of this top ten list as a start to finding your own magical, essential experiences, and share with me in the comments section what your favorites are.