This week we a taking a little step backwards. We have been talking about a Walt Disney World vacation but what does Walt Disney World mean? It is much more than just the rides and characters.
Walt Disney World is 27,000 acres or 43 square MILES. That is the size of San Francisco or twice the size of Manhattan. It includes 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, a shopping district, a sports complex, several golf courses, 27 themed hotels, 9 additional hotel properties, and a residential community.
Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California in 1955. Walt loved being in the park and watching all of his guests enjoying his creation the legend is that Walt witnessed a family leaving before the park closed one night and he approached them to ensure they enjoyed their stay. The family had such a great time but they could see the traffic building on one of the highways from one of the attractions and wanted to beat the crowds. Walt wanted a place where a family could be fully immersed and the parks could continuously expand so he started “The Florida Project” anonymously purchased huge tracts of land from 1960 to 1965.
Walt passed away from lung cancer in 1966 and his brother Roy delayed retirement to oversee the project and make his brother’s visions a reality. WALT Disney World (the only theme park named for Walt himself) opened in 1971 with three hotels, two golf courses, a campground, and the first of the four theme parks … the Magic Kingdom. It opened with 23 attractions (20 reproductions from Disneyland and 3 brand new) and broken into 6 lands – Main St, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.
The Magic Kingdom is what you think of when you think Disney World. This is where you will find the castle, and all the classics …. it’s a small world, dumbo, thunder/splash and space mountains. A lot has changed since in opened with three new lands and a current total of 33 rides/attractions. ToonTown was added and taken away. The “New Fantasyland” expansion added Storybook Circus and the Enchanted Forest to Fantasyland.
There is so much to do in this park if you are able to you definitely want to spend two full days here. If you can do your first and last day here. If you think you will be spending most of your time here you definitely want to consider one of the Magic Kingdom area resorts. The Grand Floridian and Polynesian are all just a short monorail or boat ride away – Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness are also accessible by boat and you can even walk from the Contemporary. If you are leaving after fireworks, after a long day in the parks not having to worry about folding up your stroller and riding a bus with a sleeping baby can sometimes be worth the extra bucks.
Walt also envisioned EPCOT or the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. His original vision was for a model community which would have been home to twenty thousand residents and a test bed for city planning as well as organization. It was to have been built in the shape of a circle with businesses and commercial areas at its center with community buildings, schools, and recreational complexes around it while residential neighborhoods would line the perimeter. After Disney’s death, Walt Disney Productions. decided that it did not want to be in the business of running a city without Walt’s guidance. Instead Imagineers came up with two concepts Some Imagineers wanted it to represent the cutting edge of technology, while others wanted it to showcase international cultures and customs. At one point, a model of the futuristic park was pushed together against a model of a World’s Fair international theme, and the two were combined.
Today, the park is still divided into two sections: Future World, made up eight pavilions, and World Showcase, themed to eleven worlds nations. EPCOT doesn’t have as many attractions as the other parks but if you take the time to slow down and explore all of the pavilions you can see why this is many people’s favorite park. EPCOT has become a popular destination for it’s festivals. The festival of the arts weekends in Jan – Feb which celebrates visual, theatrical and culinary arts- The Flower and Garden Festival which runs from March to May and features farm to garden outdoor kitchens, beautiful landscapes, character topiaries and seminars with home & garden experts. The big one – the Food & Wine Festival – is celebrating its 2nd year by running over 70 days from September to November. It features almost 30 International Marketplaces with tapas style food and drink pairings, Special Events, Celebrity Chefs, Seminars, and the Eat to the Beat Concert Series featuring artists like Wilson Phillips, Boyz II Men and Hanson.
Many families with young kids think they should skip EPCOT. While I think you may not need a whole day there definitely take some time to explore the Seas and Imaginations pavilions interactive exhibits. And if you have a princess fan there is a princess meal in Norway and most of the princesses meet in the countries where their stories originated. China is the only place you can meet Mulan. There are also some great live shows and performances in the pavilions that are so much fun for kids. My favorite is in the UK. While typically the garden tucked in the back of the United Kingdom pavilion is the perfect spot for taking a quiet break with a lovely English garden, topiaries and children’s hedge Maze. A few times of day The British Revolution take the Gazebo and rock out to some covers of your favorite British bands.
EPCOT is home to some of Disney’s best restaurants. If you want to try a few you may want to stay at one of the EPCOT area resorts where it is an easy walk to EPCOT’s back entrance- the International Gateway. There is also some great nighttime entertainment on the Boardwalk and at the nearby Swan and Dolphin that these resorts are easy to stumble back to.
A Short boat ride away from EPCOT is Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It is currently under construction to make way for the new Toy Story Land (opening date unknown) and Star Wars Land coming in 2019. While many are skipping this park until the construction walls come down it is home to many of my favorite attractions. Themed to Hollywood’s Golden Age it used to be a working studio and backlot. Now home to everything Star Wars and arguably the best thrill rides. It wouldnt be a trip to Disney for me without a ride on the Tower of Terror or Great Movie Ride. If you are thrill seeker, or Star Wars fan this is a not miss. It is also home to Disney Junior, Toy Story Mania, Frozen SIng Along, and other stage shows loved by preschool aged children. Though there are only a few in-park restaurant choices the theming is so fun and classically disney it makes it so hard for me to decide where to eat on our DHS day. If you don’t want to spend a whole day here try to come at night so you can experience the new Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular a new nighttime show.
Disney’s newest theme park Animal Kingdom will celebrate it’s 20th anniversary in just a few weeks. Animal Kingdom is broken into areas inspired by Asia, Africa, Dinosaurs and soon Avatar. Many people seem to think this is just a zoo and while it is a theme park that focuses on animals by no means is it a zoo.
There are fun trails where you can view wildlife but these are often out of the way and missed by people rushing to get from one attraction to the next. Also often missed is Rafiki’s Planet Watch a conservation station with a petting zoo, animal experts, conservation information, character meets and live veterinary procedures. Animal Kingdom is definitely better enjoyed when you slow down.
Don’t miss the headliners though Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris are incredible! Try to ride them first thing in the morning then at night as they are completely different experiences. The Lion King and Finding Nemo shows are also not to be missed. We will have more on Pandora: the world of avatar when it opens in May but there is definitely a push to increase the nighttime experiences in the park with live entertainment, the tree of life awakening and the new Rivers of Light show.
There aren’t as many attractions for young children in this park but if they enjoy animals you can spend a lot of time here. The dino boneyard is a fun place to explore and they have a Wilderness Explorers activity inspired by the movie Up! Where children earn badges by participating in different challenges around the park. If your family aren’t big fans of animals or nature you can definitely hit the rides in a few hours and head out for the next adventure.
Disney also has two water parks Typhoon Lagoon- themed to a tropical island recently hit by a typhoon and Blizzard Beach where an enterprising alligator tries to capitalize on a freak snow storm in Florida. These are not like your smelly water parks at home but truly themed, enjoyable experiences that only Disney could achieve. If your family has young children definitely spend some time at blizzard beach. Older children will enjoy the water coasters at Typhoon Lagoon.
Maybe you aren’t a big theme park person and you just want to spend 1 to 2 days in the parks or you are going for a longer trip and you are looking for something to do on your ‘rest’ or non-park days. We will talk about some off property options next week but there is SO much to do without ever stepping into a park or leaving the Disney bubble.
Disney Springs is a shopping and entertainment complex on property. I used to skip Downtown Disney entirely but since it has been refurbished and rebranded to Disney’s Springs it is a must do! There is now unique shopping in addition to all your favorite brands. Vera Bradley, Kate Spade and Coach offer disney merchandise exclusive to their Disney Springs store. I love the Marketplace co-op which offers unique disney merchandise not found on property otherwise. D-signed and The Dress Shop are two new locations to pick up unique Disney merchandise. The World of Disney is the largest Disney store in the world and is home to many of the theme parks most popular souvenirs.
Dining options have drastically increased over the last few years with Planet Hollywood and (Fultons) Paddlefish undergoing complete overhauls. Newly opened are The Boathouse, Homecomin’, Blaze Pizza, DLuxe Burger, Frontera Cocina, Morimoto, and STK. Food Trucks and Bakeries including the cupcake ATM at Sprinkles are continuously being added. In addition to Jock Lindsays and the Coca Cola Rooftop Bars – Wine Bar and Edison are slated to open in the next year.
There is a dine in movie theatre, upscale bowling alley, cirque du soleil show, live music at house of blues and raglan road, amphicar rentals and a hot air balloon!
ESPN Wide World of Sports hosts ticked sports events throughout the year including Pop Warner Football and cheerleading. The most popular is Atlanta Braves spring training!
There are 3 Championship Golf Courses, one walk on 9 hole course for young golfers and two themed min-golf courses with 2 18 hole courses each. Winter Summerland and Fantasia Gardens offer fun for the whole family. There are three full service spas on property and a multitude of health clubs where you can book spa and salon services.
There are also the resorts. Later in this series we will cover the resorts in detail to help you decide where to stay but here are just some highlights of activities the resorts offer.
Start your day at a character or themed breakfast at one of the resorts. I love Kona Cafe at the Polynesian or 1900 Park Faire at the Grand Floridian. Some of the resorts like Wilderness Lodge feature tours or hidden Mickey challenges. Many of the resorts offer marine rentals – paddboats, watermice and even pontoon boats. The Contemporary Resort has a waters ports center with parasailing, wakeboarding, tubing, water skiing, and more. Most if not all the resorts offer Movies under the stars where you can enjoy a free outdoor viewing of your favorite disney movies. Some resorts offer fishing, surrey bike rentals or carriage rides.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge is also fun to explore – try to make a dining reservation at one of the fabulous restaurants here or take the free culinary tour which teaches you about the art and cuisine of Africa that inspired the restaurants. You can also take some time to explore the trails that allow you an up close view of the savanna. Here, there are Cast Members who are incredibly knowledgeable, and can teach you about the animals and life on the savanna.
The Boardwalk has some great arcades, activites and nightlife! The dueling piano bar at Jellyrolls is always an amazing time. Or pop over to the Swan and Dolphin for Karaoke!
The Polynesian is one of my favorite places to spend non-park time. There is a luau dinner show celebrating Polynesian culture. Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto is an intimate environment with great drinks and interactive elements I am trying to collect all the souvenir drink glasses they offer. Kona Cafe and Ohana both feature amazing Polynesian inspired food – time your ADR right so you can watch the Magic Kingdom Fireworks from the beach before or after your dinner. Don’t forget to grab a Dole Whip at the nearby pineapple lanai 😉
You can spend days at Fort Wilderness and not even touch what it has to offer. It is a resort & campground with both campsites, and cabins. The Tri-Circle-D ranch has a petting zoo, stables, pony rides, horseback riding and wagon/carriage rides. They have archery lessons, tennis, bike rentals and trails, canoe & kayak rentals, waterways and bicycle trails. You can also swim, and play tennis or volleyball at the complex.
Fort Wilderness also contains one of the hidden gems of Walt Disney World: Trail’s End Restaurant. This is an all-you-cant eat cafeteria found in Pioneer Hall. They even have a take out window so you can bring it back to your room or walk it down to the beach or a rented watercraft for the fireworks. My favorite is the Hoop De Doo Revue the longest continuously run dinner show in the US it features corny renditions of some of Americana’s favorite songs and folklore also there is a song about strawberry shortcake before the serve the most amazing dessert you will ever enjoy. Mickey’s Backyard BBQ offers guests featuring cowboy tricks, live country western band and dancing with your favorite characters. At night Chip and Dale join a complimentary campfire singalong. Of course you can buy all the ingredients to make everyone’s favorite campfire snack – smore’s.
There are also two residential communities. The first in nearby Celebration was designed and operated by Disney in the 90s the land has since been sold and the community is now run by the residents. It features shops, business, a high school and over 3,000 homes. The newest residential community is a luxury community called Golden Oak after Walt Disney’s ranch in California. It features almost 300 homes in 4 neighborhoods each with a distinct architectural style.
All of the Disney infrastructure is supported by it’s own improvement district, Reedy Creek. When they began building the Disney Company petitioned the State of Florida for the creation of the Reedy Creek Improvement District, to have almost total autonomy within its borders. Services like land use, building codes, water control, waste treatment, utilities, fire protection, and emergency medical services are still overseen by the district.
People always ask, “Why are you going to Disney World again.” As you can see if there is SO much to do. There is a rule when my husband and I go on vacation – we each must try something new each day of the trip. It may be a new attraction, restaurant, food item or activity. We have been dozens of times and still have no problem finding something!
There is definitely something for everyone. Trying to convince your non-Disney loving partner to plan a trip? Pull them in with a spa treatment, tee time, fishing or Atlanta Brave Spring Training Ticket.
There is plenty to do without ever having to leave the resort. Next week I will go off property and tell you about some of the other theme parks and area attractions.