“We’re going to Walt Disney World!” That was the decision for our family vacation this year, so early one morning in January, I found myself looking out the window of our jet as we landed at Orlando International Airport. (We took the red-eye flight from LAX.)
It had been 10 years since my last visit to the “Theme Park Capital of the World” and the area around Orlando was now a sea of houses and hotels where there used to be orange groves.
Ever since Walt Disney announced his huge purchase of land (more than 27,000 acres) in 1965, Orlando has been going through a transformation. One of its largest employers was Martin Marietta, primarily a large government defense contractor, and the other was the U.S. Air Force (Orlando International used to be McCoy Field). The growing of citrus fruits, primarily oranges, was one of its major industries. But since Disney arrived, the primary business has become tourism.
I looked forward to the trip, but there was a bit of melancholy in my mind; I had worked on a lot of attractions during my 21-year Disney career (which included 11 years as an Imagineer), for Epcot and other Walt Disney World theme parks. I also worked on one (Terminator 2 3-D) for Universal Studios, after leaving Disney in 1993.
I hoped that some of those were still running as well as when I worked on them some 20 to 30 years ago. Terminator was running, but a key gag, where the Terminator rides into the theater on a motorcycle, was not working. There is one film at Epcot that hasn’t changed, “Impressions de France.” It is still a fabulous musical and visual treat, but a few of the scenes after 35 years could use updating with new visuals.
But that aside, this trip was going to be about seeing all we could as a group of 10 (4 of my adult kids, their significant others and my wife) in seven days, including several nice dinners.
So we got out our wands, ready to face Harry Potter and his wizard friends, and had our cameras ready for Mickey Mouse, Goofy and the gang -- we were there to ride lots of rides, cast spells and have dinner with the Beast from “Beauty and the Beast.” Here’s a guide to Disney’s enormous playground.
Walt Disney World
At nearly 40 square miles, Walt Disney World is twice the size of Manhattan Island. It has four theme parks, and lots of other fun things to do.
Roy Disney insisted the name of the place include his brother’s first and last name during the opening and dedication of the first theme park, the Magic Kingdom, and the rest of the resort in October 1971. Originally envisioned to contain a working city, it is now the self-proclaimed “Vacation Kingdom of the World.” The original one, the Magic Kingdom, gets more attendance than any other theme park in the world.
But there’s more than theme parks. Visitors can play golf, go boating, swimming, play tennis, and see several live or nighttime extravaganzas. And they never have to leave the property, as there are also numerous themed hotels, along with a campground. In addition, adjoining the property, is the master-planned by Disney town of “Celebration.”
The Magic Kingdom
Just like Disneyland in California, Florida’s Magic Kingdom has a castle, only it’s much taller -- taller than Disneyland’s Matterhorn. Cinderella Castle stands in the center of the first Walt Disney World theme park, and is the entrance to Fantasyland. The other lands will be familiar to Disneyland visitors: Tomorrowland, Frontierland, Adventureland and Main Street U.S.A.
There is no New Orleans Square here, and Pirates of the Caribbean is located in an area of Adventureland called Caribbean Plaza. Space Mountain in Tomorrowland was the first one built by Disney in 1975.
Many of the other rides and attractions here are similar to the ones in Disneyland such as The Jungle Cruise, Splash Mountain and more. Others are unique, like the recently opened Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, the PeopleMover, Mickey’s PhilharMagic and The Hall of Presidents.
A new suppertime favorite is the “Be Our Guest” Restaurant, where diners can eat inside Beast’s castle from the animated movie “Beauty and the Beast.”
Walt Disney’s dream was to build an “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow” -- EPCOT. After he died in 1966, the Disney Co. decided instead, to build a permanent World’s Fair type of theme park. That park, originally called EPCOT Center, opened 11 years after Walt Disney World.
It is divided into two major areas: Future World, the northern portion of the park, where major pavilions deal with topics such as energy, imagination, transportation, the land, space and the seas. In The Land pavilion visitors will find the Florida version of “Soarin’ Around the World.” An opening-day attraction inside is the “Living with the Land” boat ride that showcases innovations for farming food.
Another favorite is “Test Track,” a trip aboard a fictitious newly designed car. “Mission Space” takes riders on a centrifuge induced simulated space flight to Mars that is not for the faint of heart.
“The Seas with Nemo & Friends” is a journey under the ocean. After the ride, visitors can watch a variety of undersea life swimming around inside the massive 5.7 million-gallon saltwater aquarium.
The gateway to Epcot and Future World is Spaceship Earth, a giant 180-foot tall geodesic dome, sometimes referred to as the golf ball.
World Showcase is a collection of pavilions representing a variety of countries spaced around a large lagoon. The centerpiece of this area is the American Adventure, a multimedia, Audio-Animatronics stage show that has Benjamin Franklin and Mark Twain as hosts for a 30-minute look at American history.
The Mexico pavilion also has a boat ride with Donald Duck, Jose Carioca and Panchito from the movie “The Three Caballeros” as guides. A new ride is in the Norway pavilion: “Frozen Ever After,” based on the hit movie “Frozen.”
China, France and Canada all show Circlevision format films. Live shows are on tap at the other countries.
Each country has a restaurant with native cuisine and drink -- including alcoholic beverages. Visitors can order a pint of ale at the Rose & Crown, or sake in the Japan pavilion.
There is also a table-service restaurant in the Land pavilion that serves foods grown in the pavilion.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
It opened in 1989, nearly a year before Universal and was designed as homage to the golden age of Hollywood. The centerpiece is “The Great Movie Ride,” with an entrance through a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theater and full size three-dimensional scenes from many of Hollywood’s greatest movies. There is also a large arena where visitors can watch the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular.
Here is where Star Tours landed, and also Muppet*Vision 3D. For the daring, the first Tower of Terror is at this park as is the “Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith.”
Some of the original opening-day attractions at the park have been bulldozed to make room for a “rebirth” of the park (including a new name) with two new lands; one will be based on the “Toy Story” movies, and Florida will have its own version of “Star Wars” land.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Animals are the stars of this unique Walt Disney World theme park, real, prehistoric and soon, science fiction. The real ones can be found in the entrance area, called the “Oasis,” and three of the lands: Discovery Island, Africa and Asia.
Discovery Island is the center of the park and features the park’s centerpiece: “The Tree of Life,” a large artificial tree with animals sculpted into the tree’s trunk, branches and above-ground “roots.” Beneath the tree is a theater where “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” plays.
In Africa, the main attraction is a safari ride in real vehicles called “Kilimanjaro Safaris.” On the tour, riders can see real animals including lions, elephants, zebra, giraffe and many more in an environment designed to replicate their habitats.
The land of Asia is home to another park landmark, a scale version of Mount Everest and the roller coaster ride Expedition Everest. It takes riders forward and backward, and they will confront the Yeti, a fictional animal supposedly found in the Himalayan mountain range.
DinoLand U.S.A. is a combination fantasy and science fiction approach to prehistoric animals. It has an area aimed for kids called “Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama,” which is kind of like a Route 66 carnival and tourist trap. Another section contains the Dino Institute, where riders board vehicles that take them on a time travel journey back to the age of the dinosaurs.
Coming in May will be the new science fiction land Pandora – The World of Avatar. Based on the James Cameron film, it will take visitors to the moon of Pandora where the fictional movie is based. Two rides are scheduled for the land. One is a boat ride, touring through the planet’s unique biomes. The other will be a flight aboard one of the mountain banshees featured in the film.
Adjacent to the theme park is one of Walt Disney World’s unique hotels, Animal Kingdom Lodge. For those willing to pay the price, they can have rooms with a balcony that overlook large savanna areas with various animals normally found in Africa, meaning guests could wake up to find a giraffe staring inside their room.
Shopping and more around Disney World
Disney Springs, located around a lake, now sports more than 50 food facilities ranging from fast food and snacks to lounges and bars, to full service sit-down restaurants; make reservations during the busy season.
More than 100 shops offer merchandise ranging from Disney souvenirs to a Coca-Cola store where you can get a photo with its Polar Bear mascot. At one end sits a permanent location for Cirque Du Soleil. There’s also an AMC movie theater complex, a House of Blues, and live entertainment throughout.
Disney’s BoardWalk: This is another, smaller, dining and shopping complex situated between Epcot and several hotels.
ESPN Wide World of Sports: Baseball, soccer and other sports can be seen at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex. It is also the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves.
How much you’ll pay
Airfare and hotels: Costs vary depending on time of year. The two weeks around Christmas or any holiday, and spring break season are very busy times of year. Economy hotels, even on property, can run $90 a night, staying at one of the prime high-end hotels can easily run $400 to $500 a night or more. (Note: The military community can book reservation at Shades of Green Resort, a DoD owned hotel at Disney World.) There are many other alternative places to stay in the Orlando area, and for Walt Disney World, in the nearby town of Kissimmee, many offer free shuttle services to the various theme parks and other attractions.
Park admission: One-day admission also varies, with a bottom of $113 for one Disney park in the “value season” to $132 per park per day for peak season. But other options are multi-day and “park hopper” tickets (which let you visit more than one park in a day) or even annual passes to Disney’s and Universal’s parks, which make admission to the parks cheaper if you are a frequent visitor.
Packages: If you’re staying at a Walt Disney World hotel, there are many packages available that include admission (though the prices are pretty much the same) to its theme parks, and if you purchase one of Disney’s “Magic Your Way” vacation packages, you also can get the Disney Dining Plan. Prices begin at $48 per night for adults, and $20 for kids (3-9) for the Quick Service meals plan to $106 per night for adults for the Deluxe Dining plan that includes three table-service meals, two snacks and a refillable drink mug.