Disney World Reviews and Advice

For a while now, I have meant to publish a guide to Walt Disney World (WDW).  For a variety of reasons related to a recurring family reunion, I have spent at least 50 days at WDW in 10 trips over 25 years.  Over those years, I have learned a fair amount about surviving WDW.  Since we may not be going back for a while (the crowds are just too crazy, see below) I thought I would
share some of my experience.  My thoughts, review, and tips on Disney World are below the fold.

Note:  I have made updates in blue from my October, 2008 trip.

General Advice

  • If schools are out in a large part of the country, then WDW will be packed.  There are no exceptions. If kids are in school, then crowds will be much more manageable. Christmas, New Years, Summer, Spring Break, Presidents Day "“ they are all slammed.  Thanksgiving used to be the one exception to this rule, but Thanksgiving week is now packed as well.  Even the second week of November, which is only a holiday in New Jersey schools, is
    packed.  If you want to avoid crowds, you will either have to hope your school has a unique week of vacation that no one else has, or you will need to take your kids out of school.  In October, 2008, my daughter and I did visit for a week when most other schools are in session.  The park was still pretty busy, though certainly less so than Thanksgiving or the summer.  Mornings 9-11 are still the best time to see the park without bad lines.  I am told the first two weeks in December are about the last quiet periods that exist in the park.

  • Learn to use the Fastpass system "“ its the greatest thing Disney has done in the parks since eliminating the E ticket.  The fastpass system gives you reservations on certain attractions and lets you avoid the lines. In each park, your first action upon entry is to find the most popular ride you really want to ride and go get a fastpass for it, then go do something else until your reservation comes up.  One big misconception "“ Disney has never enforced the expiration time on the fast pass.  For example, a pass might say it is good for entry on a ride from 10:05am to 11:05am.  They won't let you on until 10:05, but they will let you use the pass well after 11:05, in fact
    generally until the park closes.  This is still correct.  We would often collect fastpasses in the morning, using the standby lines while crowds were low.  Then we would take a break at the hotel to swim, and then come back in the evening and use our passes.  Be careful with very popular rides.  You cannot get another fastpass until the time on your last pass.  This means that if it is 11:00am, and the fastpass return for the ride you want is 5:00pm, then you essentially cannot get any more fastpasses that day.  Think long and hard before you take a fastpass that has a time more than an hour or two in the future.

  • Call the Disney restaurant reservation line and make dinner reservations several weeks in advance, at least, for busy weeks.  If you wait until you arrive, you will find very, very little available.  Disney World has one single
    reservation number for all its restaurants "“ the number is posted on their website.  Make this for any week, not just busy ones.  I called 2 weeks in advance on a mid-October date and all the best locations were totally sold out.  Here is something to be aware of, though.  Your reservation never expires, kind of like Fastpasses.  If it is for 5:00pm, and you show up at 7:00, they will honor it.  And vice versa.  I showed up an hour or so ahead of a couple of reservations times, and they honored those.

  • If you are there during the busiest weeks, you need to hit the park by opening time.  Yeah, I know it's vacation and you want to sleep in.  But you will be able to get more done in the first hour than you can in the next three.
    Also, on busy days, fastpasses quickly run out.  At the top attractions, by 10:00 AM the earliest fastpasses may be for 3:00pm or even later.  By 11:30am, they may well be gone entirely.  We often go to a park early, ride a few rides, gather up a few fastpasses, and then go back to the pool or to DisneyQuest for a while, returning in the late afternoon to use our fastpasses. I can't emphasize this too much.  You can ride as much from 9-11 as you can during the entire afternoon when it is busier.

  • Avoid parks with extra magic hours or extended hours.  "extra Magic Hours" are the Disney practice of allowing Disney hotel guests (only) to come to a park an hour early or stay a few hours late.  This used to be a good deal, but there are now so many Disney hotels that these guests can swamp a park. Most guests stay three or four days, and see a different park each day.  Lacking any other criteria for deciding which order to do the parks in, they
    will typically head disproportionately to the park with extra magic hours.  This means that on any given day the extra magic hours park is probably the busiest spot. Also, late night is not necessarily quiet any more at the parks.  It used to be that you could go after 9:00 to Magic Kingdom and have the place to yourself.  Recently, I found the park still packed as late as 11:00 PM during Thanksgiving week (the one exception is Spash Mountain -- if its cold out at night, you can ride it as often as you like).

  • With the possible exception of the Rockin' Roller Coaster, all Disney thrill rides are tamer than their equivalents at other parks (like Six Flags).  This will disappoint thrill seekers and probably be a source of relief for others. Some rides make up for being a bit tamer with unique theming and atmosphere (e.g. Splash Mountain and Tower of Terror).  For example, Space Mountain is actually a very tame roller coaster, made slightly more exciting by
    being in the dark

  • Study Disney ticket pricing.  Once you buy a three-day ticket, each incremental day is very cheap.  For example, going from a five to a six day pass cost me $2 per person. Also, I always buy the parkhopper option "“ you never know when you might go to MGM in the day and then want to go to the Magic Kingdom for the fireworks at night or go eat in an Epcot restaurant.  Also, I always get the additional package of destinations thrown in. These include passes to the water parks, Disneyquest, and Pleasure Island.  Going to one of these locations even once pays for the added cost in the ticket.

  • One day at Disney I had the opportunity to tag along with a friend who had hired a Disney guide for the day.  This is a very knowlegeable and professional Disney employee who will take up to 8 people around a park through the day for about $125 an hour(!)  I could never pay this much myself, but I will say for those who can afford it, it is an amazing experience.  The guide had a plan for the day to do the maximum amount of stuff.  He managed our fastpasses and got us premium seats at shows without the wait.  The best part was the stress reduction - you didn't have to worry about what to do next, it was all taken care of.  Highly recommended if you have the bucks to spend.
  • The lines for kids to meet characters is typically insane.  However, on our last trip we stumbled on three prime characters - Pooh, Tigger, and Eeyore all together at the same time - with no line at all.  They often appear in a room in the very back of the UK country pavilion at EPCOT.  As you face the main structure, go into the store on the right.  The store rambles back through multiple rooms  (if you pass a bunch of Beatles memorabilia you are getting close) and in the very back room you will often find these characters, and sometimes Mary Poppins.

    Where to stay and dine at Disney

    • I can't offer a lot of help on the relative merits of hotels, as I have only stayed three places.  The "unofficial" guidebooks have pretty good advice on hotel cost-benefit tradeoffs.  It used to be there was a big advantage to staying in one of the three hotels (Grand Floridian, Polynesian, Contemporary) on the old monorail system.  However, most of the new parks are not on this system, so there is less benefit.  Of these three, the Polynesian has the best location because you can walk to the Epcot monorail and are on the Magic Kingdom monorail.  The  rand Floridian is nice, but pricey.  Its main advantage is that you get a great view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks without fighting the crowds in the park.  The GF, particularly at Christmastime, has my favorite hotel lobby in the world.  Its beautiful and busy, with a piano player and sometimes an orchestra playing.  I just stayed at the Polynesian.  The rooms have been updated nicely, and it has an excellent beach view of the fireworks.  My daughter liked the pool and the volcano water slide.  The lobby, however, is nowhere near as cool to hang out in as the GF

    • Disney Dining has gotten a lot better.  There are a number of premium restaurants we really enjoy. These include California Grill (Contemporary Hotel), Flying Fish (Boardwalk), Shula's and Blue Zoo (Swan), Citricos (Grand Floridian).  Note these are all $30 entree type places, but there are plenty of other good choices.  Wolfgang Pucks and Bongos in Downtown Disney are both good.  The California Grill has a great view, and is a fabulous spot to watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks.  We did the Polynesian dinner show this time.  The show and food was OK, but not great.  Really, the whole show was foreplay for the fire juggler/twirler, who was fantastic.  The place is much bigger than you might think, so there is a line and wait to get in.  Smaller kids will probably like the Hoop-de-doo review better.

    Disney/MGM Hollywood Studios

    This is probably the "hot" park at WDW because it has gotten more than its fair share of new attractions of late  (even more so now, see below) The two thrill rides (RRC and TofT) have huge lines, but to some extent Disney has imitated Seaworld at MGM.  Seaworld can handle huge crowds without queues because they just send people from show to show in big stadiums.  This is a bit how MGM works.

    • Rockin Roller Coaster: In my mind, the best ride at WDW.  Great theme-ing plus fun and exciting ride.  Roller coaster in the dark, with a nice zero to 60 in a couple of seconds acceleration (via an electro-magnetic catapult) and a loop and corkscrew.  Has speakers in the seat that blast Aerosmith music while you ride.

    • Tower of Terror: Also a very good ride, though short, with a nice theme and a random series of elevator free-fall drops.  Fastpasses for this and Rockin' Roller Coaster run out fast in the morning.

    • Toy Story Ride:  This is the new hot ride at DisneyWorld.  A next generation of the Buzz Lightyear ride at the Magic Kingdom, this is a moving car with a 3D shooting gallery.  Really cool and fun.  BUT.  When the park opens, all several thousand poeple come right here.  There was a 20 minute wait just to get a FastPass.  This will dissipate some when the novelty wears off.  The good news is the lines for the Rockin Roller Coaster are way down in the morning.
    • Indiana Jones Stunt Show and Lights-Camera-Action Car Stunt Show:  Each of these are about 30 minutes long and are outstanding.  Really amazing shows, the best at Disney right now.  Get fastpasses for the roller coaster and tower of terror early and then hit these shows in their early shows "“ the late shows overfill.

    • Star Tours: This is one of those simulator rides,, like BodyWars at Epcot, but themed Star Wars.  Used to be the big attraction at MGM but is now aging.  My kids still like it

    • Great Movie ride: Classic Disney animatronic ride.  Adults like it, but kids are sometimes bored because they don't recognized a lot of the movies.  My kids liked it, and I always enjoy it.  Disney does not really build many animatronic rides like it used to (Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, etc.)

    • Beauty and the Beast show, Little Mermaid Ride:  These are good for the little ones.  I must admit the Beauty and the Beast show, which I dreaded, was pretty decent.

    • Muppet 3-D: A fun show, but aging.  Not as good as newest Disney 4-D offerings

    • Backlot tour:  Pretty fun, though I would like to see more of the legitimate backstage stuff, rather than the one really brief view we get.  Has a special effects show in the middle the kids liked.

    • Fantasmic: This is the evening fireworks / animatronic / live action / laser show at MGM.  I actually never saw it, but it gets great reviews.   I have seen people lining up hours before the start time. I just saw it this time and was wildly disapointed.  Mostly music and some movies projected on water curtains.  Not worth it, IMO

    Animal Kingdom

    Intended as a cross between a zoo and a theme park, I don't think they do either well.  I have yet to meet anyone who is
    really enthusiastic about this park.

    • Animals-  has animals, but if your kid wants to see the animals, its a long walk through big crowds for only a few. The safari ride is OK but the animals are in hiding a lot

    • Everest-  new roller coaster, themed as an Everest ride with visits from a Yeti.  Again, basically a pretty tame roller coaster except for a twist "“ the coaster goes backward in the dark for a stretch.  The theming is very good on this one.  The fastpasses run out really early in the day, at least right now while it is new.  If you are faced with a 90 minute wait in the standby line, as we were, you might try the single rider line, where we got on in 20 minutes. Now that the ride has been around of a while, the fastpasses last a lot longer.

    • Kali River Rapids "“ basically one of those 12 people in a boat going down the river and getting soaked rides.  Good theme-ing.  Be aware "“ you will get really, really wet, wetter than on similar rides I have been on.  By wet I mean the possibility of being totally soaked to the bone just short of having been thrown in a pool.

    • Bugs Life-  this is my least favorite Disney 4-D offering, and it can scare kids

    • Lion King show "“ a live action musical, this is a pretty good singing and dancing show

    • Dinosaur - I really hate this ride.  In a car that runs around a really bumpy road in the dark with some flashing lights and a glimpse once in a while of an animatronic dinosaur.
    • Primeval Whirl - For those that know roller coasters, this is what is called a "mouse" coaster.  There is no big drop, just lots of turning and spinning in a car.  Sort of the mad teacups go down a winding hill.

    Epcot

    Really two parks in one, there are Science-themed rides in the front and country pavilions in the rear.

    • Soarin': Right up there with Rockin' Roller Coaster as the best attraction at WDW.  Basically you are in a moving chair (like a ski lift chair with a seatbelt) that is put right up in front of an IMAX screen.  Very nice sense of flying with beautiful visuals without being scary or thrilling.  Just fun.  I would have said it was my favorite attraction but I found it to have a low repeat value "“ the second time was not nearly as cool as the first.  Lines are still long.

    • Test Track: Another of the top attractions at WDW.  Possibly the most technically complicated ride, which also means that it breaks down the most.  Not to be missed, though.

    • Mission: Space: I have heard two schools of thought on this ride:  Some think it sucks, and some think it is OK.  The problem is that it is possibly too realistic. You are put into a really, really claustrophobic little vehicle and
      spun and thrown around.  Many people, even those with amusement park iron stomachs, get sick on this ride. Here is what is going on.  Most of the ride is just being thrown around in a simulator.  But to simulate the G-forces at takeoff, they actually spin you vertically rather fast.  If you stare forward at the screen, the visual clues generally tell your body "this is G-forces from takeoff."  If you look away from the screen, your body says "eek, I am spinning really fast."

    • Spaceship Earth "“ another classic Disney animatronic ride, it's pretty good, sort of a time traveling Pirates of the Caribbean.  Its a good ride to save for later in the day "“ it typically has pretty short lines.  Lines are still short, but the last half has been updated with with a new interactive piece that my kids liked a lot.

    • Living with the Land "“ our kids hate this ride (BORING) but my wife and I like it.  There are always some really cool things growing in the greenhouses you tour

    • Oceans "“ As a standalone aquarium, it would be weak, but its not a bad attraction to spend some time in, especially if the kids like sharks and such

    • Honey I shrunk the Audience "“ still a very good 4-D movie experience

    • Countries- My wife and I love to walk around the lake and do the countries.  The rides in Mexico and Norway are very miss-able.  The two 360-degree movies at China and Canada are good, and the animatronic show at USA is very good and classic Disney.  We find the walk around the lake relaxing even without rides.  Try to find a schedule of performers.  Typically each country will have performers through the day (acrobats at China,
      drummers at Japan, story tellers at Italy, a Beatles impersonation band at UK, a rock band in kilts (!) at Canada).  We enjoy all of these.  I have eaten at all of the restaurants over time.  They are all weaker than Disney offerings outside of Epcot.  The show is fun in Germany, and the food is OK at Italy and France.  Japan is a good imitation Benihana's, complete with show by the chef at the table.  Morocco, which is the one restaurant no Disney visitor seems willing to try, is actually our favorite for dinner.  We actually had a Thanksgiving dinner there (everything else was full) and enjoyed that Pilgrim tradition of cous cous and belly dancing. I don't know if this was temporary for October or a new feature, but they had something called the International Food and Wine festival.  For this were added a lot of other little country buildings with 2-3 local foods and 3-4 different wines for sale.  The food choices were often good and typically far superior to typical food cart options.

    Magic Kingdom

    The Magic Kingdom has the most attractions but can also be the most frustratingly crowded, particularly in the late afternoon during and after the parade and fireworks.

    • Space Mountain:  An aging ride, with a tame and jerky roller coaster made more fun by being in the dark.  People still flock to it, though, and my kids like it.  Most of my friends report their only fear on Space Mountain was either a) wrenching their neck or b) hitting their head on the ride scaffolding that seems to be whizzing by in the dark.  Lines get long here.  Rumors persist that an 18-month closure and refurb is in the works for the Florida Space Mountain.  Such a refurb was completed a while back in California.

    • Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin: One of the hot newer rides, it combines a ride with a shooting gallery.  Simple and good fun.  Still fun, but less popular now with the much improved concept at Hollywood Studios.

    • Speedway: Kids still love this ride, which consists of gasoline engine cars on a track, but the lines are long

    • Haunted Mansion: Needs a facelift, but it's a Disney classic and still a must-do.  Disney must listen to me. They have done an update to several parts of the ride.  Not wildly different but improved none-the-less.

    • Pirates of the Caribbean: Usually a nice short-line ride to be saved for later in the day when the big attractions are full, but on my last visit it was mobbed.  Disney added four Johnny Depp models to the ride, and everyone wanted to see them.  This is probably still my favorite animatronic ride.  It is very well done.  For long-time visitors, even better than the Johhny Depps is the new fake waterfall effect they added at the beginning.  Lines back to being shorter.

    • Splash Mountain: Along with the two other "mountain" rides has the longest lines in the park. This is my family's overall favorite at the Magic Kingdom.  Nice long ride, good themes, animatronics, and a thrill at the end.

    • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: A very tame roller coaster.  I think it's boring and painful to ride as it jerks around so much.  My kids only think it is OK

    • Tom Sawyer Island: A free play area that my kids really liked.  A nice break from the traditional theme park rides.

    • Jungle Cruise: Ridiculously long lines that move really slowly.  An original of the park, this is now a very weak ride.

    • Dumbo/Aladdin carpets: Parents with small kids know these rides, and know that the lines are always horrible and slow moving

    • Pooh: A nice ride for little kids, replaced the old Mister Toad's Wild Ride.  Very well done, but again the lines are crazy

    • Peter Pan: Still a good ride for kids, but the lines are crazy

    • Philharmagic: Excellent 4-D movie with a big theater so everyone in line usually gets in.

    • Hall of the Presidents: Closed at my last visit, I don't know if it is forever or just temporary.  Part of a general Disney trend away from their traditional pure-animatronic rides and attractions.  I am told current younger generations are bored by these.

    • Steam Railroad: I actually love this "“ its relaxed and you can ride as long as you want.  Also, its the best way to get around the park when the parade has all the streets clogged

    Water Parks

    The two water parks right now are Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach.  Typhoon Lagoon has a better wave pool but in all other respects Blizzard Beach is the better park.  Blizzard Beach has more, better, higher, and longer slides, and a better kids area.  We love the teamboat springs ride in particular, and the chairlift provides a nice alternative to stair climbing once in a while.  Beware that in winter, they always close one or the other of these parks, so check in advance.

    Other

    DisneyQuest: For years we never went to DisneyQuest (in downtown Disney) because we thought it was just a big arcade.  It actually is a mini-theme park on its own, with 10 or so virtual games or attractions.  My kids loved it, but beware, you can get lines here, but not as bad as in the theme parks.  My daughter and her cousins particularly loved the part where you can design your own roller coaster on a computer, and then go ride it in a simulator.

    Pleasure Island: The dance halls are kind of fun if you want to leave the kids behind for a night, but the most fun place is the Adventurers club, which has live and animatronic shows in a bar setting.  They let the kids stay until about 9PM, and had a lot of fun little skits and sing-alongs.  We all loved it.

    Hoop-de-doo Review. We have seen this probably five times as for years, until my kids grew older, it was a family favorite.  This is a fun dinner show, though the location is a little awkward to reach over in the Fort Wilderness campground.  The dinner is family style fried chicken and ribs, if I remember right.  I must look particularly goofy since I got picked out of the audience at least three times out of five to be highlighted for embarrassment by the players.

    • Doug G.

      Excellent guide! My wife and I traveled to WDW earlier this year. One of the coolest things we did that you did not already mention, is draw Mickey Mouse. At Disney/MGM you can walk through their 'animation studios'. This is mostly just a self-guided exhibit, but there was a Cast Member there who invited us into a classroom where you sat down in front of a big drawing table with a pencil and sketch paper, and another Cast Member taught us how to draw Mickey Mouse. The classroom is probably big enough to hold 75 people, but there were only four of us for our session. It only takes about 10 minutes, and you get to take your drawing home with you. It's probably the best and cheapest souvenir anyone can get at WDW. I never saw mention of this attraction anywhere, but it is totally free, just go to the animation studios and ask about it.

    • Sol

      Is the animation studio exhibit still there? It was by far my favorite part of the park back in the mid-90s (when I was in my mid-20s). But I thought Disney had closed their Florida animation studio AND eliminated 2D movie animation all together.

      (Also am a huge fan of Star Tours. And I badly want to go back to the Canada 360 movie, as I vaguely remember there being a bit with a fiddler and a bunch of other musicians -- if I am right about this, and it is, as I suspect, Emile Benoit, I figure I probably know many of those musicians now.)

    • Katie.O

      i thought everything was wonderful including all the rides. we particularly like that when there was a huge parde that all the garbage was picked up in a flash. me and my family have been to WDW 2 times and we have had nothing but excilent treatment at all the parks. we have stayed at the fort wilderness campgound it was the most wonderful exsperince we ever had and we cant wait until we go again some time!

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    • john fisher

      Having been to Disney World and other theme parks, a dude ranch vacation is a far better choice for many reasons. Price, quality, security and wholesome fun are among the reasons.

    • Becky Motta

      Our family's favorite attraction is Fantasmic at MGM, so I was sorry that you hadn't experienced it in all your trips to Disney. Use of great music--most of the cartoon movie themes, too, all the Disney characters in costume, great, great stage show, lots of footage from the classic cartoons (viewed on three large sheets of water, which act as screens). Then, of course, you get to see Mickey Mouse be the hero of the storyline running through it, similar to Fantasia. It is an incredible experience that closes the park in the same way that the light & firework shows close Epcot & MK, except that you're seated in an outdoor stadium, staring across water at a huge mountain--and all of it becomes the acting/stage area! It's really fun to eat at the Brown Derby and then go to Fantasmic. I hum the theme music for weeks afterward!! (And I've been 4 times in the last year!!) If it's the least bit chilly/rainy, purchasing a WDW throw is a practical souvenir--you can sit on it or cuddle under it. You do need to go early--at least a half hour--but it is so worth the wait. The crowd always does "the wave" as time gets close and the program's about to begin!! I'm ready to go back....