“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. (Yes, 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.”
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.
DinoLand U.S.A. is a combination fantasy and science fiction approach to prehistoric animals.
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. 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 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 (park hopper lets you visit more than one park in a day) or even annual passes to Disney’s and Universal’s parks, which make admission cheaper if you are a frequent visitor.
Packages: If staying at a Walt Disney World hotel, there are many packages available that include admission 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.