Editor’s Note: This article was first published in September of 2013 as “The 5 Most Underrated Walt Disney World Experiences” It is being reprinted as part of a new weekend series at PJ Lifestyle collecting and organizing the top 50 best lists. 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 soon… Click here to see the top 40 so far and to advocate for your favorites in the comments.
A Walt Disney World vacation offers a ton of truly special experiences — from thrills and chills to charming family attractions. The resort has truly lived up to its reputation as the “Vacation Kingdom of the World.” Every year millions from all over the world travel to central Florida to enjoy popular attractions like It’s A Small World, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Expedition Everest, and Mission: SPACE.
First-time guests — and even a few seasoned guests — often miss out on off-the-beaten-path attractions and little underrated gems throughout Walt Disney World. Sometimes these experiences go unnoticed because they’re older and don’t take advantage of flashy new technology. Others wind up being “best kept secrets” for guests who stay on property. Occasionally, guests just walk by others without even noticing them.
Here I’m presenting a list of my top 5 most underrated experiences at Walt Disney World. They include a couple of Tomorrowland attractions that are retro-fantastic, a quaint getaway from the bustle of Adventureland, an entire resort that guests often overlook, and a special nighttime treat. The common thread between all of them — besides that fact that I think they’re underrated — is that they’ve all been around practically since Walt Disney World opened.
Without further ado, here are the top 5 underrated experiences at Walt Disney World. Enjoy…
5. Carousel of Progress
The Imagineers — going all the way back to Walt Disney’s day — have taken pride in their ability to tell stories in unique ways. One prime example of a quintessential Disney storytelling innovation is the Carousel of Progress.
Walt personally supervised the development of the Carousel of Progress for the 1964-65 World’s Fair. The attraction employs an inventive theater-in-the-round concept and one of the earliest examples of Audio-Animatronics to tell the story of how “industrial advances over the past century have changed everyday living for an American family.” Even the theme song, the Sherman Brothers’ “There’s A Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow,” reflects a certain nostalgic exuberance.
Is it corny? Yes. Are the old-school Audio-Animatronics a bit outdated? You bet. Is it worth checking out? Without a doubt. At the very least, the Carousel of Progress is an air-conditioned respite from Florida’s often oppressive heat. But if you’re willing to let its message sink in, you’ll get an infectious glimpse into Walt Disney’s optimistic futurism. Let’s face it — the chance to see the future through Walt’s eyes makes the Carousel of Progress worth the ride.
4. Tomorrowland Transit Authority
Cruising above the streets of Tomorrowland and around Rockettower Plaza is a fun little attraction that directly links to Walt Disney himself. Formerly known as the WEDWay PeopleMover, the Tomorrowland Transit Authority (or TTA) provides a neat tour of Tomorrowland while demonstrating technology that is so sensible and impressive that you can’t help but wonder why we don’t see it used more often.
The Tomorrowland Transit Authority employs linear induction technology, utilizing magnetic pulses to accelerate the PeopleMovers efficiently and without engines. (The same technology accelerates the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds!) The smooth, clean ride creates a cool breeze, perfect for those hot Florida days. The attraction’s leisurely tour is also a welcome chance to get off your feet for ten minutes or so — even longer if you can sweet talk cast members into letting you stay on for a second or third go ’round.
The PeopleMovers played a crucial role in Walt Disney’s initial Florida Project concept. These days, they’re only in use to tour Tomorrowland. Guests get to witness sneak previews of Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Tomorrowland Speedway, and Space Mountain. (If you happen to catch the ride through Space Mountain when it’s not working, you get the rare sight of the roller coaster with its lights on.)
Don’t let the fun jaunt of Tomorrowland Transit Authority pass you by. You’ll miss a great chance to cool off, get off your feet, and see Tomorrowland in a truly unique way.
3. Swiss Family Treehouse
Tucked away in a corner of Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom lies a quaint walk-through attraction that pays tribute to one of Disney’s most enduring and best live-action films. It’s truly an unassuming attraction that packs its own special experience.
The Swiss Family Treehouse honestly isn’t much, but for fans of the classic movie Swiss Family Robinson (my all-time favorite live-action Disney picture), the replica of the family’s iconic treehouse provides a nice respite from the action in Adventureland. You’ll find it directly across from Aloha Isle, so you can either walk off your Dole Whip or burn some calories to prepare for it.
In addition to the recreation of the island home, the treehouse provides some stunning six-story high views of Cinderella’s Castle and Space Mountain. These breathtaking sights are worth the disruption in the otherwise immersive atmosphere of Walt Disney World. Needless to say, they’re great photo opportunities as well.
Sadly, I’ve read reports that the Swiss Family Treehouse is an “endangered attraction.” Disneyland has done away with it already, replacing it with Tarzan’s Treehouse. (I promise I’m not hating, Disneyland fans, but which is more enduring, the classic Swiss Family Robinson or a cartoon featuring Rosie O’Donnell as a baby gorilla? Really.) For years, rumors have swirled about that the attraction may not be long for this World, due to ADA compliance issues and things like that. It would be a shame for this pleasant, off-the-beaten-path treat to go away.
2. Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground
Walt Disney World offers a vast array of lodging at all price points, from family-friendly rooms at value resorts like Pop Century to extravagant suites at deluxe resorts like Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort. What many guests — particularly first timers — don’t realize is that Walt Disney World also boasts one of the world’s best campgrounds. Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground opened in November 1971 and includes 799 campsites, 409 air conditioned cabins, and a bevy of activities on 700 acres nestled on the shores of Bay Lake.
I’ve heard or read somewhere that you can spend a week just at Fort Wilderness, never going to another area of the park, and have plenty to do. I’m inclined to believe it. Visit the horses and Disney animal memorabilia at Tri-Circle-D Ranch. Rent a boat at the dock and tool around Bay Lake. Take in a sing-along, marshmallow roast, and movie under the stars with Chip & Dale. Enjoy the Trail’s End Buffet or the Hoop-De-Doo Musical Revue. Do a little shopping at the Trading Posts. Catch some waves or rays at the pools.
I know what some of you are saying — “I can’t handle ‘roughing it.’” Fort Wilderness contains conveniences and comforts that make a camping vacation a joy, whether you’re staying in a pup tent or a luxury RV. The Imagineers have placed restrooms, showers, and laundry stations conveniently throughout the campground. Disney’s advanced transportation system means you’re mere minutes away from all the action even when you feel like you’re away from it all. Fun experiences, natural beauty, and new friends are always steps away, and they make Fort Wilderness worth trying out at least once.
1. The Electrical Water Pageant
As magical as Walt Disney World is during the day, the parks and resorts transform into something even more special after dark. Special nighttime events enhance the experience for guests. Nighttime parades like the Main Street Electrical Parade and SpectroMagic have entertained guests for years, but I’m fond of one charming little parade that outshines them all.
My favorite underrated Walt Disney World experience takes place just outside the Magic Kingdom along the shores of Bay Lake and the Seven Seas Lagoon after the sun goes down. The Electrical Water Pageant is one of the longest continually running attractions at Walt Disney World.
In 2010, I wrote an article for Celebrations magazine about the history of Walt Disney World’s nighttime parades. About the Electrical Water Pageant, I wrote:
When Walt Disney World was in the final stages of construction in 1971, Disney executive Bob Jani was fascinated by the difference between the environs of the Magic Kingdom in Florida and Disneyland in California. The blackness of the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake contrasted with the urban sprawl that lay just outside the gates of Disneyland. Jani saw what was practically a blank slate as an opportunity to create something truly unique.
Jani came up with a brilliant idea; he had engineers mock up an electrical whale using lights on a flat panel. When the whale was floated out onto the lake and lit up, Disney executives on a nearby boat were impressed, and they gave the green light to what would become the Electrical Water Pageant.
The Electrical Water Pageant made its debut on October 24, 1971. Fourteen 25-foot tall lighted floats, each with its own generator and 800-watt sound system, portray an array of aquatic life, including seahorses, whales, and turtles. In typical Disney fashion, the pageant concludes with a patriotic medley, in which the floats depict American flags, along with red, white, and blue stars. The pageant uses over 50,000 light bulbs.
Interestingly enough, the pageant has remained largely the same over the years.
Today, the Electrical Water Pageant begins its journey at the Polynesian Resort around 9:00 (or a little later if the Magic Kingdom fireworks are scheduled at that time), then on to the Grand Floridian Resort, the Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness, and the Contemporary Resort. Guests at these resorts can gather on the beaches to view the splendor of the pageant; astute guests who time their monorail or boat rides right can even see the pageant in more than one location. The pageant often concludes in front of the Magic Kingdom when Extra Magic Hours are in effect there.
The Electrical Water Pageant serves as a whimsical reminder of Walt Disney World’s early days. It’s a simple pleasure — one that the entire family can enjoy.
There you have ’em. Great experiences at Walt Disney World lie around every corner, and many of them can become special surprises if you take the time to discover some of the underrated gems. Disney fans, what are your favorite underrated experiences?