Our holiday-of-a-lifetime to Walt Disney World Florida feels like forever ago now, though in reality it’s only been just over a year since we travelled there in October 2017. Once we’d actually taken the plunge and booked our trip (see Part One for more information on what worked for us), it was time to begin the research and preparation in earnest. I LOVE this part of the build-up towards a holiday. I get so excited with planning all the things we could see and do when we visit a new place and it ramps up the anticipation of having the opportunity to spend quality family time together enormously – I want to make sure we make the most of every single minute.
Walt Disney World Florida took a whole other level of research and planning though and I was in my element as I settled down on the sofa most evenings armed with Lonely Planet guidebooks; my laptop (with tabs open for just about every single family travel blogger I know of); and a notepad & pen (Mickey Mouse themed, of course!).
Having covered actually booking the holiday, the eternal debate of villa vs hotel, what time of year to visit, fast passes, memory maker, the ‘My Disney Experience’ app and suggested reading for Walt Disney World Florida in my previous post, I thought I’d dedicate this one to sharing more detailed information about the parks themselves. The third and final post (coming soon!) will contain our top tips for visiting Walt Disney World Florida plus a list of useful things I really wish I’d known in advance.
Everything You Need To Know About The Parks At Walt Disney World Florida
Walt Disney World Florida is absolutely huge – there’s no denying that. It covers roughly forty square miles in total and the number of attractions within that space is quite ridiculous. There are four main theme parks within Walt Disney World Florida: Magic Kingdom; Epcot; Hollywood Studios; and Animal Kingdom, plus two waterparks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon.
We didn’t manage to make it to the waterparks this time around which was a bit of a shame, though we had a private pool and the fantastic resort pool at our accommodation at Balmoral Resort so we didn’t feel we were missing out on the water-based fun. Hopefully we’ll be able to squeeze in a visit to each of the waterparks on our next trip to Walt Disney World Florida (yep, we’re already planning a return visit!) as I’ve heard so much positive feedback about how good they both are.
Each of the four main theme parks at Walt Disney World Florida are divided into different areas and each area contains specific rides, characters and experiences. Every park also has a fabulous night-time show that I thoroughly recommend you try and catch if your children are ok with a late night here and there. Honestly I could probably write a whole post about each of the parks in turn as there was so much to see and do in all of them, and they’re all so completely different from one another.
In this post I’ll cover a summary of each Walt Disney World Florida park one by one and will include as much information as I can about which characters you can see, what rides there are to go on, the experiences you can have, the things you absolutely MUST do, the stuff you won’t want to miss and our main ‘top tip’ for each park.
For us, our first-time trip to Walt Disney World Florida was mostly about meeting as many of our favourite characters as we could and collecting their autographs, as well as soaking up the overall experience of being in ‘The Happiest Place On Earth’. Going on the rides wasn’t really a priority, though we did try out a few with varying degrees of success. I think perhaps the girls have inherited my dislike of rollercoasters rather than the husband’s love of them!
The Magic Kingdom is THE iconic park at Walt Disney World Florida. It’s home to the magnificent Cinderella’s Castle and it just sums up the overall spirit of Disney. When you walk through the gates and step onto Main Street for the first time it’s impossible not to get swept up in the magic of it all. When I caught my first glimpse of the castle I actually got really quite emotional as it was something I’d been dreaming of seeing since I was a little girl in primary school. My family looked at me like I was mad but it really was an incredibly special moment for me and definitely one that will stay with me forever.
Areas: The Magic Kingdom is divided into six areas: Main Street, Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Liberty Square and Frontierland.
Characters: We met Peter Pan (Fantasyland); Jasmine and Aladdin (Adventureland); Rapunzel, Cinderella, Ariel and Elena (all at Princess Fairytale Hall in Fantasyland); and Winnie The Pooh & Tigger (Fantasyland). You can also meet Alice in Wonderland, Buzz Lightyear, Merida, Gaston, Tinkerbell, Tiana, the Muppets and all the Disney Friends characters (Mickey Mouse etc) in various places around the park too. We visited twice and STILL didn’t manage to catch them all!
Rides/Experiences: We ventured onto Big Thunder Mountain (in Frontierland), which, with hindsight, probably wasn’t the best choice for the girls’ first ever experience of a rollercoaster! I think we might have put them off rollercoasters for life. The teenager and us grown-ups enjoyed it though. We also sought out The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh (in Fantasyland) because Winnie the Pooh is the teenager’s absolute favourite character and her first love from when she was a baby. Other rides include It’s A Small World; the Tea Cups at Mad Hatter’s Tea Party; the Magic Flying Carpets; the Seven Dwarves Mine Train; Space Mountain; and Splash Mountain (it was closed for refurbishment whilst we were there which was a real shame as we all wanted to go on that one!). Two of the main stage shows you can see are ‘Mickey’s PhilharMagic’ and ‘The Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor’ which I would have loved to have seen but the girls just aren’t into Monsters Inc at all so we gave it a miss.
Night-time Show: The ‘Happily Ever After’ fireworks over Cinderella’s Castle. This is something you definitely won’t want to miss. The show starts at 9pm and you’ll need to find a good spot near-ish the Castle at about 7.30pm (8pm at the absolute latest) in order to get a good view – it’s worth the wait, I promise. The storytelling narrative, seeing the Castle all lit up with the moving illuminations, the spectacular fireworks show and the music all combined together was enough to bring me (and the teenager) to tears. Truly one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Must-Do: Watch the ‘Festival of Fantasy’ Parade which happens at 2pm every day. We were lucky and stumbled across it just as it was starting and managed to snag a spot right at the front of the safety ropes. It’s path travels around the park so you’ll be bound to catch it at some point no matter where you happen to be. Seeing all the classic and favourite Disney characters together was magical, the music is infectious and there is a real party atmosphere.
Top Tip: Do the ‘Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom’ Quest! It’s an interactive scavenger hunt that takes you through the whole of the Magic Kingdom and it’s brilliant fun. The aim of the quest is to stop Hades (God of the Underworld) and all the Disney ‘baddies’ from taking over the Magic Kingdom. The quest starts at the Firehouse on Main Street (not far from the main entrance to the park) where you’ll get given a map, spell cards and a sorcerer’s key. Once you’ve received your training on how to use them all you can set off on your adventure to find all twenty magic portals and complete as many missions as you can. And best of all, it’s free! We didn’t manage to complete it all but we’ll try again next time for sure.
Useful to know: Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party take place in the Magic Kingdom if you plan your trip around being there during the festive season. They’re not included in your park tickets though – you’ll have to pay extra for these. We didn’t go and watch the Halloween Party though I think if we’re there at the same time of year again we’d go and see it as it’s supposed to be super fun.
Epcot has a completely different feel compared to the other three Walt Disney World Florida theme parks – it’s a totally different experience. I wasn’t really sure what to expect and it turned out to be really fun as we met lots of characters, took a trip around the world and journeyed through space and time before getting lost in one of the biggest Disney shops I’ve ever come across!
Areas: Epcot is divided into two main areas – Future World and the World Showcase. Future World is home to the Epcot Character Spot, various rides and the iconic ‘golf ball’, whilst The World Showcase is divided into eleven different countries (Canada, UK, France, Morocco, Japan, USA, Italy, Germany, China, Norway and Mexico) all situated around the perimeter of a huge lake.
Characters: We met Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and Goofy at Epcot Character Spot in Future World, plus Baymax (from Big Hero Six) and Joy and Sadness (from Inside Out) in a little area just opposite. Meeting Mickey Mouse was the moment it all suddenly felt real to me and it hit home that we were actually there, in Walt Disney World Florida, getting a cuddle from Mickey Mouse. And yes, I cried. We then went on to meet Anna and Elsa at the Royal Sommerhus in Norway, Belle in France and Pluto as we were wandering around the lake. You can also meet Mary Poppins & Alice In Wonderland (in the UK), Sleeping Beauty, Mulan (in China), Donald Duck (in Mexico) and Snow White (in Germany) as you make your way through all the different countries.
Rides/Experiences: We only did one ride at Epcot – ‘Spaceship Earth’, which is inside the giant golf ball itself and we used a Fast Pass for this to bypass the queues. Ella, our resident history buff, absolutely LOVED this as it’s essentially a journey through time from the beginning of Earth right up to modern day civilisation. It’s very well done and my favourite part was the journey through the stars (I’m a sucker for twinkly lights). Epcot is also home to the popular ‘Frozen Ever After’ and ‘Soarin’ rides, plus Innoventions and Image Works ‘What If?’ Labs which I think Mimi would have loved as she’s fascinated by science and inventions. Sadly we didn’t have enough time to visit these – next time for sure. They’re also both indoors so they would be good if you get caught in one of the sudden downpours that Florida is known for. I think there is also an aquarium where you can see sea turtles, fish and coral reefs as well as all things related to Finding Nemo.
Night-Time Show: ‘IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth’ is the night-time show at Epcot and it’s essentially a spectacular fireworks display set to music. If you watch the video at the end of this post you’ll be able to see Ella’s look of wonder as the sky lit up in a rainbow of colours – seeing my girls’ reactions to every new thing we experienced was one of my most favourite things about our trip. We used a Fast Pass for this too which I would recommend as it gets you a better view in a specially designated area rather than having to find a spot to watch it from amongst all the crowds around the lake.
Must-Do: Visit the humungous Disney gift shop ‘Mouse Gear’, which is right opposite the Electric Umbrella restaurant (where we ate dinner that evening whilst waiting for the night-time show to start) in Future World. All the parks at Walt Disney World Florida have gift shops of course, but this one was something else! We bought souvenirs for ourselves – I collect magnets for our fridge from every place we visit and the girls collect keyrings (Ella and Lola) and snowglobes (Mimi) – and wandered around with our mouths open just taking in the vast amount of Disney related paraphernalia.
Top Tip: For all the other parks at Walt Disney World Florida I recommend that you take a picnic and snacks with you as we found the food to be pretty unhealthy and expensive. However, at Epcot there’s no need – the World Showcase is literally jam-packed with food stalls from all around the world and the variety of food on offer is huge. You definitely won’t go hungry at Epcot!
Useful to know: Disney’s Boardwalk area is very near to Epcot. It’s somewhere I really wanted to go to but we didn’t quite have the time to make it over there. I think you can walk there from Epcot and it’s supposed to be a really lovely place, especially in the evening as you wander around the boardwalk taking in the sunset and all the twinkly lights.
If you have a Star Wars or Pixar fan in your family (who doesn’t?!), or you happen to love 1950’s America, Hollywood Studios is the place to be. I have to admit, Hollywood Studios was probably the theme park I was least looking forward to out of all there is to see at Walt Disney World Florida and boy did I get proved wrong – I ended up loving it. In contrast, this was the park that the husband was most excited about – he’s a huge Star Wars fan and let’s just say it met and exceeded all of his expectations. I’ve never seen him look so happy (apart from when Liverpool FC won the Champions League Final back in 2005)!
Areas: Hollywood Studios is divided into five areas: Animation Courtyard, Echo Lake, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard and the brand-new Toy Story Land (which wasn’t open when we visited).
Characters: We met BB8 and Chewbacca in the Star Wars Launch Bay, and we made sure to visit Olaf from Frozen at Echo Lake. Meeting Chewie was one of the highlight’s of the husband’s whole trip. You can meet Kylo Ren at the Launch Bay too, plus a variety of Disney Junior characters (including Doc McStuffins and Princess Sofia) at the Animation Courtyard.
Rides/Experiences: We used a Fast Pass to watch ‘For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-A-Long Celebration’ and it was fantastic. It’s only half an hour long, you get to sing along with some of the iconic songs, and two ‘Royal Historians’ tell a condensed version of the story with plenty of jokes and laughs along the way – they were hysterical! Plus there is a special surprise at the end. The older two girls and the teenager weren’t particularly impressed but the littlest girl, the husband and I all thought it was fab. Of course all the Star Wars attractions were excellent too – we watched the ‘A Galaxy Far, Far Away’ show and had a look at all the props and costumes in the Star Wars Launch Bay – Neil was in his element. He and the teenager then went off to ride Rock ‘N’ Rollercoaster whilst the girls and I took shelter from a sudden downpour in ‘Walt Disney Presents’, which is essentially the incredible story of his life from birth to death and how he created the magical world of Disney purely from his imagination. I loved it (seeing his actual writing desk was a bit of a special moment) though littler ones could potentially find it a little bit boring.
Hollywood Studios is also home to ‘Beauty Aand The Beast Live On Stage’, ‘Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular’, ‘The Voyage Of The Little Mermaid’, the ‘Tower Of Terror’ and you can even take part in some Jedi training.
Night-time Show: Hollywood Studios was the only Walt Disney World Florida theme park that we didn’t watch a night-time show at and I REALLY wish we had. The main one is ‘Fantasmic!’, which is based on Fantasia, a film I loved as a kid.
Must-Do: Make sure you hang around in Hollywood Studios long enough for one of the Citizens of Hollywood street shows to pop up. We emerged from a shop on Hollywood Boulevard and came face to face with the most fantastic performance. This little show was one of my favourite things about Hollywood Studios – they have no set schedule and can literally pop up anywhere and everywhere so keep your eyes peeled.
Top Tip: We have a long standing family tradition of having an ice cream every day when we go on holiday. We had an excellent gelato at Epcot, but eventually concluded that the best ice cream in the whole of Walt Disney World Florida can be found at Hollywood Scoops on Sunset Boulevard – they were absolutely enormous and utterly delicious!
Useful to know: The March of the First Order (more Star Wars!) takes place on the hour every hour from 10am to 5pm every day down Hollywood Boulevard. If you stand in the right place you could end up nose to nose with a Stormtrooper like the husband did. Also, Toy Story Land is now open and it looks absolutely brilliant.
I absolutely loved Animal Kingdom and it didn’t feel like you were in a Disney theme park at all – it was another completely different experience from the usual Walt Disney World Florida expectations.
Areas: Animal Kingdom is divided into five main areas: Discovery Island (home to the Tree of Life), Africa, Asia, Pandora and Dinoland.
Characters: We didn’t actually meet any characters in Animal Kingdom – it was the final theme park at Walt Disney World Florida that we visited and we’d already filled up our autograph books by then! So we left them at our villa at Balmoral Resort and simply soaked up as much of the experience as we could as it was our penultimate day of the holiday. You can meet Pocahontas; Russell and Dug (from ‘Up!’) and Mickey Mouse & friends at Discovery Island, plus Donald Duck at Dinoland (I think – that was the one area we didn’t manage to visit).
Rides/Experiences: There is SO much to see, do and experience at Animal Kingdom. It was one of our longest days at the parks and we did over 12,000 steps that day! We managed to squeeze in the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail (the baby gorillas playing together were so cute!); the Maharaja Jungle Trek (tigers are my absolute favourite so I loved this); and the Flight of Fancy bird show (brilliant – hearing a bird sing ‘how much is that doggy in the window?’ was both unexpected and entertaining, plus we learnt just how much phenomenal work Walt Disney World Florida puts into animal conservation). The husband and teen rode the Kali River Rapids whilst I took the girls for an ice cream and they came back soaking wet with huge grins on their faces so I think that was a hit. They also braved Expedition Everest as well – not for the faint-hearted. I desperately wanted to do the Na’vi River Journey in Pandora but we weren’t able to book a Fast Pass and the queue was over three hours long so we sadly gave it a miss this time. The best experience by far though was the Festival of the Lion King show – it was absolutely spectacular and we all loved every second of it. We used a Fast Pass for it and it definitely gave us better seats and a shorter wait-time than if we hadn’t so I’d recommend doing that if you plan to see it.
In addition to all of this there is also ‘Finding Nemo: The Musical’ to watch, ‘Avatar Flight of Passage’ to ride and Killimanjaro Safaris you can go on to see all the animals. And finally you can take on the Wilderness Explorers challenge where you can earn and collect 30 different badges from all over the park by completing a series of self-guided trails. We didn’t know about this until we were half way around and I think you might need to visit Animal Kingdom more than once to do it all, but it’s definitely something we’d like to try on a future visit.
Night-Time Show: The night-time show at Animal Kingdom is called ‘Rivers Of Light’ and it is a water and light show set to music. It was so beautifully choreographed and all of us thoroughly enjoyed it. We used a fast pass for this and it was well worth it for getting better* (*fantastic) views.
Must-Do: Eat dinner at The Rainforest Café. It was the best meal of our whole holiday without a doubt and definitely worth the little bit extra we spent on it. I had salmon with honey and sriracha sauce, steamed jasmine rice and stirfry veggies and it was utterly delicious! It’s so much more than just a meal though – it’s an experience in itself with the sounds of the rainforest around you, colourful fish swimming in giant fish-tanks next to you, and the star-filled night sky above you. It’s amazing! Make sure you book a table in advance as it gets very busy and the queue is long if you haven’t reserved beforehand.
Top Tip: Take the time to simply wander around the Africa area of Animal Kingdom. We came across some fantastic groups giving performances of toe-tappingly energetic music and the most wonderful, jaw-dropping dance routines – they were absolutely brilliant. You can see a snippet in the video at the end of this post. Make sure you soak up everything you can about both Africa and Asia and take in the incredible attention to detail. It was so authentic – you really felt like you were actually there.
Useful to know: Every ten minutes after night falls at the Animal Kingdom, something magical happens on Discovery Island…the Tree Of Life Awakenings.
Oh gosh I wish we could go back right now! As I mentioned, we’re beginning to plan our next trip to Walt Disney World Florida and writing this post has made me realise just how much we didn’t manage to do whilst we were there last year (as well as how much we did do!). I think to do it all properly you would need about a month in total, spending a week at each park to make sure you caught every show, got to go on every ride and collected an autograph from every character. I guess we’d better double our efforts with saving up for it!
This video covers our whole trip and all of us love watching it over and over as it brings back such wonderful memories of our family holiday of a lifetime to Walt Disney World Florida.
I hope that this guide to the theme parks at Walt Disney World Florida has been useful in helping you plan your holiday-of-a-lifetime. There are plenty more things I could have added but it would have turned into an even more epically long post and so I’m saving them for Part Three (coming soon). If you’ve been to Walt Disney World Florida and have anything to add, please feel free to leave your suggestions in the comments so that readers can see them and use them too.
Please note: I have not been asked or paid to write this post. All thoughts, feelings, opinions, ideas, words and photographs are my own.
(Joining in with the Fearless Family Travel link-up)