Truth be told, as I was flying toward Florida I kept thinking this trip was redundant. Growing up on the West Coast, I had made the requisite visits to the original Disneyland, and figured the East Coast destination would be more of the same with maybe some alligators and flamingoes thrown in.
What I found was something else entirely, and my week in Walt Disney World would include living through a flood, having thousands of mice run underfoot, falling down an elevator shaft, shaking hands with a corrupt town mayor, lounging in a hammock at a Polynesian beach resort, and visiting ten different nations.
The Disney World property in Buena Vista, Florida, is 47 square miles—twice the size of Manhattan Island. It has its own highway system, and a public transportation system that rivals any major city’s, with busses, monorails, steam trains, and boats. The 150 Disney busses alone cover nearly 8.5 million miles a year within the park boundaries. Nearly 40,000 cheerful "cast members" work in over 2,000 different jobs at Disney World. Right now, it would take some 61 years to stay one night in each of the hotel rooms on property, and new resorts and parks are opening all the time. Disney’s Wide World of Sports, to open in May, is a 200-acre complex that should make the Olympic Committee drool.
When Walt conceived the idea of this amusement mecca, the swamp lands, cattle ranches, and pine forests were dredged and dug up, 8 million cubic yards of earth were moved, rearranged and refilled, but, according to Disney, architects and designers took care to try to incorporate the natural layout of the land into the plans.
Twenty-five years after opening day, Disney World has become 30,000 acres of sprawling grass and forests and lakes weaving around some of the world’s most creative and cleverly designed amusement, zoological, sports, and water parks, as well as golf courses, resort and shopping areas, and even a learning institute. All of it created with such efficiency, it’s almost Orwellian.
This year the fantasy world is celebrating its silver anniversary in high style. New music is heard all over the park. A "Remember the Magic" parade snakes through the Magic Kingdom. A new line of souvenir celebratory clothing is ready for visitors to buy. Cinderella’s Castle in the Magic Kingdom has been covered to look like a giant birthday cake.
Old faithful: Disney’s Magic Kingdom
We began our week with the familiar. Any Californian Disney-ite can follow the layout of the Magic Kingdom (sans Matterhorn). We attempted to conquer these 100 acres with favored rides and attractions first: zipping through the stars in Space Mountain, and flailing down the free-for-all final drop of Splash Mountain, and there was no passing up Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. We caught the animatronic Hall of Presidents show a second time just to marvel at how realistic Eisenhower’s expressions, or Bush’s nod to Johnson, looked.
Only in Orlando: The Disney MGM Studios
Opened in 1989, this movie studio/theme park highlights movies and television. Here visitors can find Disney World’s scariest ride, the 13-story falling-elevator Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, as well as movie-related shows and rides such as the Star Wars thrill ride, and the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. At the Monster Sound Show we tried our best to use a gong, some gravel, and a wind-machine to match sound effects to a slap-stick horror film. Our favorite? Jim Henson’s Muppet Vision 4D show. How often do you see soap bubbles going from screen to your lap, or fireworks lighting up the inside of a theater?
Other options (Disney World piles them on to the point of near impossible) ...are a tour of a movie studio lot, taking visitors through flood and fire scenes, or a Great Movie Ride. We did a double take at the giant cityscape at the end of one street—it truly looks like downtown Manhattan. At the time of our visit Disney was about to release the movie 101 Dalmations, so spots were everywhere.
If most attractions and rides at MGM and The Magic Kingdom offer exhilaration and entertainment, Epcot offers education and entertainment.
Epcot exists because Walt Disney dreamed of creating an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, an educational center focusing on the future. Visitors wander through exhibit and show areas such as the Wonders of Life, The Living Seas, and Journey into Imagination.
New rides at Epcot include the park’s fastest ride, the Test Track automobile safety and performance ride, presented by General Motors. Many rides and exhibits at Disney are built "in partnership" with other corporate sponsors. Also new here, Ellen’s Energy Adventure, where comedian Ellen Degeneres introduces visitors to some life-size animatronic dinosaurs. A can’t miss is the "Honey I Shrunk the Audience" 3D show, where thousands of mice scatter through the theater—clever Disney engineers installed air blasts under foot, so you truly feel the mice tails, and some other surprises.
Walt Disney once said of Epcot "The only problem with anything "of tomorrow" is that at the pace we’regoing... tomorrow would catch up with us before we get it built." Some of Epcot’s rides prove him right, but Disney’s engineers and creators are making efforts to stay ahead of the game.
Around The World In 1.3 Miles
Here’s a place where directions to a restroom could be something like "go past Norway and Canada, and take a left." Epcot’s second major attraction is the World Showcase, where visitors can get one of the best hands-on cultural lessons imaginable without a passport. Eleven countries have built replicas of native pavilions around a lake. We wandered along the 1.3 mile loop, stopping at Mexico’s Aztec pyramid, Germany’s Bavarian village, and China’s Beijing Temple of Heaven. Here is a stunning art gallery, and a circular theater where visitors are literally surrounded by a 360-degree film about China.
Each showcase country is staffed by its own citizens. Entertainment is offered: We craned our necks to see over the crowds as the Chinese acrobats twisted and contorted and balanced, or the Japanese Taiko drummers thundered away. We returned to the World Showcase several times for the food and culture, but mostly for a close-up view of Disney’s spectacular fireworks and laser light show llumiNations" that spills into the sky every night from the middle of the lake.
The rest of the world: other options
Looking for more exhilaration? Budget some time for one of three water-parks at Disney: River Country, Typhoon Lagoon, and Blizzard Beach. For night life Disney World offers Pleasure Island, with dance clubs of varying themes (jazz, blues, rock), or the Boardwalk area with ESPN bar (you start realizing how many companies Disney owns), dance halls, and a microbrewery. For day life, golf at one of five courses. There’s also the Discovery Island zoological park and wildlife preserve.
A zillion events are scheduled each day in the theme parks. At MGM Studios there’s the Toy Story Parade, at the Magic Kingdom there’s the Adventureland Challenge contests, or all over the park, catch a Disney character greeting where you get a chance to shake Goofy’s paw, or meet Ariel, the Little Mermaid.
The most difficult thing about Disney World is trying to master the mass of options in a finite period of time. One day we headed out and, in spite of the map, got lost and ended up at the Disney Marketplace, an area of shops that hadn’t even made our B list. We ventured into the Rainforest Cafe, and found the best fruit smoothies we’d ever had. We were also mezmerized by the animatronic birds and monkeys swinging from the ceiling. Even getting lost is fun.
What sticks in the mind at Disney World is the attention paid to detail. Yes, the rides and shows were remarkable—some exhilarating, some masterfully engineered—but we marveled at the clowns on stilts strolling the parks, watching for wide-eyed kids, or the actors at MGM Studios wandering the grounds. A crooked mayor campaigned along Hollywood Boulevard. One of his "private detectives" handed me a business card that read "Willie Ketchum, if I can’t find it, it’s not lost!" It’s also fun to search for the hidden Mickeys that architects have designed into buildings. Sure you can buy Mickey and Goofy collectibles for everything from kitchenware to underwear, but the extra details bring the fantasy to life.
Room With a Theme
Finding lodging to fit your fantasy is an adventure at Disney. There are over 27 theme resorts on property, with staff in character (our desk clerk at the Polynesian smiled graciously, and greeted us with "Aloha").
Choices include: The Polynesian Resort, the Wilderness Lodge, the Fort Wilderness Campground, the Contemporary Resort, the Grand Floridian Beach Resort, the All-Star Sports Resort, the Port Orleans Resort, the Old Key West Resort, many more, and, opening soon, the Coronado Springs Resort. Or stay at the elaborate Walt Disney World Dolphin or Swan hotels behind the World Showcase. We spent a few nights at the Dolphin, and took advantage of the hotel’s five swimming pools.
Per night prices range from $35 for a campsite to $795 for a top-of-the-line room at the Grand Floridian. For reservations, contact your AAA Travel Agency, or call (407) W-DISNEY.
Fine food and fun
Dining at Disney presents a deluge of choices. There’s character dining such as breakfast with Admiral Goofy at the Disney Beach Club Resort, or Breakfast with Tigger and Pooh at Disney’s Old Key West Resort. There are dinner shows, such as a Luau at the Polynesian Resort, or the hoe-down style Hoo-Dee-Doo Musical Revue at the Wilderness Lodge. Or, each resort has fine-dining restaurants—we loved Harry’s Safari Bar and Grille at the Dolphin. The World Showcase is also full of fine food from all over the world.
For an interactive experience, pick a cafe such as the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant at MGM Studios where you dine in vintage ’50s convertible cars, and watch old sci-fi clips.
The Disney Institute
Sensory overload? Here’s a way to slow down. The peaceful Disney Institute offers classes in, among many other things, horticulture, culinary arts, rock climbing, and cartoon arts. Many classes are taught by famous guest artists and musicians. Visitors can stay in bungalows at the Institute.
A word of caution before you go: Disneymania is contagious. One Ohio woman we met had each of her fingernails hand-painted with a different Disney character. She comes to Disney World four or five times a year. ("There’s nothing like Christmas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort," she said.) At the end of our trip, numb from a week of trying to do it all, I found myself perusing the Mickey Mouse kitchenware store, or ooh-ing over the Mickey-shaped soap. Five times a year—maybe not, but it sure did knock my Mickey-socks off.
With youngsters in tow, it’s important to do your research ahead of time. If your kids are too small to set out alone, look into toddler-specific areas such as Toontown in the Magic Kingdom—most of these areas will be bordered by areas of interest to you too.
If your kids are less than amazed by your choice of attractions, but you want to keep them within close range, there are many places that offer the gamut of entertainment. Epcot, for example, is full of educational exhibits and interactive games and attractions that can guarantee to entertain even the coolest of teenagers.
If your kids are old enough to spend the day on their own, and have different interests—pick your fancy, set a meeting time and place, and enjoy.
If none of the above works, all over the park are interactive kiosks where you can talk to a live person and get quick information, such as a close place to feed a cranky kid, or what’s nearby that could possibly get your two-year-old to stop screaming.
Remember, Disney World is huge, and it’s easy to get turned around, especially if you are at knee level. Take time to teach your kids where to go, and what directions to ask for if they get lost. Disney is well versed in crying children, so don’t hesitate to ask a cast member for help.
Upcoming Disney on Land and Sea
Wide World of Sports
Disney’s new Wide World of Sports center will include facilities for aerobics to archery to weighlifting and wrestling. Or you and 7,499 others can be spectators at an Atlanta Braves Spring Training game. There’s also a field-house for basketball, an 11-court tennis center, a softball quadraplex, beach volleyball courts, a track-and-field venue, and more.
The Animal Kingdom
Next year Disney will introduce the granddaddy of Disney theme parks—the Animal Kingdom. Divided into three sections, live animals, mythical animals, and extinct animals, the park will offer rides, exotic landscapes, and natural settings for thousands of wild creatures. The Animal Kingdom is scheduled to open in the spring of 1998.
Disney Cruise Lines
Disney cruise ship Disney has taken its ability to offer something for everyone on the water. The Disney Cruise Line will sail its first ship The Disney Magic, early in 1998. On board are entertainment and areas that are kid-specific, family-specific, and adult-specific. There are even kids-only (Mickey shaped of course), and adults-only pools. Some of the first cruise itineraries will include days spent at Disney World, and then setting sail from Port Canaveral, Florida to Nassau and Disney’s own island Castaway Cay. Special Disney touches on board include the Animator’s Palatte dining room. As you dine, the restaurant changes from a room full of black and white animations, to a room full of color from floor to ceiling. AAA offers special members-only discounts; see page 53 for details. Contact your AAA Travel Agency.
Photography courtesy of chensiyuan/Wikimedia Commons
This article was first published in May 1997. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.