Review and Guide
Walt Disney World is one of the most visited places on the planet. It's more visited than many of the world's biggest cities, most exotic beaches, and stunning natural features. It's also huge, dynamic, overstimulating and potentially overwhelming. But fear not, with a little research, some planning, and a decent strategy you'll be more than ready to soak up all the fun.
While my expertise may seemingly lie more with thrill rides, I assure you I have been visiting Disney parks even longer. As a matter of fact, my very first rollercoaster can be found here. If you've read any of my Trip Reports, you'll know I pay a lot of attention to detail, don't sugarcoat subpar experiences, and only give credit where credit is due. If you're interested a in clear, honest take on a place almost everyone has an opinion on, then read on. And for the sake of my readers, I've changed the format a bit.
What you'll usually find is a play-by-play account of the visit. But trying to capture 6 days, 4 parks, and over 80 hours of park time like that is just impractical. So I instead thought the information I would be passing along would be a lot more useful and manageable to readers if it were organized a little clearly. Specifically, I've got:
The Plan: An overview of what went into planning the trip, a quick recap of how we spent the week, and a few tips on some of the important Disney features that may make your visit easier
The Parks: Descriptions, recaps, comparisons, reviews - anything to help you get oriented to the rides, shows, and general feel for the four theme parks
The Resort: In case you don't know, Disney World is home to a lot more fun, both inside the parks and outside. There is some serious magic going on behind-the-scenes, which we saw on the Backstage Magic Tour. On top of that, some of the finest dining experiences in the US, let alone central Florida can be found here.
Before we begin, one important disclaimer: This is in no way objective. We all experience a vacation through our own eyes, and my view will likely be different from yours. For one, we made this visit without kids. Two, there are a decent number of things we just didn't want to do. Three, we've spent a fair amount of time at Disneyland and Disneyland Paris and we are deliberate in our comparisons. Believe it or not, Disney World is not in a bubble, and I don't think it's honest when it's treated as such.
It was hard to believe it had been 10 years since my last visit. Like many of the lucky kids who grew up on the east coast, a trip to WDW was a treasured, though not nearly frequent enough experience. Growing up in New York, “Florida” was as synonymous with “vacation” as it was with “Disney World”. Many of my early amusement park experiences started there, including my very first roller coaster. I was also lucky enough to take 2 trips in the late 90’s to perform in parades during Magic Music Days.
But since then, it’s been all Disneyland and Disneyland Paris. I’m certainly not complaining, these are wonderful places themselves, obviously – but they’re really hard to compare to the completely immersive experience you can only get in Orlando. Needless to say, a lot went into planning this trip, and that started almost a year in advance (after returning from the annual trip to Disneyland, not surprisingly.)
Most important was to make the visit during a low season. Nothing makes a park visit more enjoyable than lighter crowds, even at a place known for great capacity. Not only are lines shorter, but lodging rates are cheaper, and the weather is considerably more pleasant. Unpredictable for sure, but still more pleasant overall. January it would be, after New Years and before MLK weekend. Next was the decision to stay on property; in all my visits I’ve never stayed at a resort hotel. In doing so, we chose to go for the end-to-end Disney experience. No car, no other parks – except for the time at airport arriving and leaving, we weren’t off Disney property once. Sure, there are plenty of other things to do in Orlando, but not on this trip.
With a nice discount on tickets through my employer, we went with 3-day passes with park-hopping, which we would need to upgrade upon arrival. No sweat in doing that, Disney is happy to accommodate – you just pay the difference, and once you hit 3 days, adding more is just $5 per person per day. Quite a steal, obviously they want you to stick around as long as possible. We were able to make the change during check-in.
For accommodations we went with the Pop Century Resort, one of the value lodgings. For those who are a little less “aggressive” with their touring, spending some down time at a nicer spot may be advised, but we couldn’t justify the additional cost on a place we wouldn’t be around during waking hours. From what I hear it’s on par with the All-Star Resorts, we just wanted something slightly more secluded.
Since we were staying on-site, getting around would be all taken care of. It may not be the most efficient method of transportation, but relying on the WDW transit system certainly had its advantages. Not only is it nice to go a week without driving and saving money on a rental car is great, but the Disney’s Magical Express service takes care of airport transportation and your luggage, too.
Day 0 – Saturday, January 10th
Usually traveling from the west coast to the east coast kills a day (unless you’re crazy enough to take a redeye), but getting up at 4:30am for a flight will get you across the country in time for dinner. We had semi-successfully shifted our schedules and had taken some sleeping pills around 6pm the night before, so we actually woke up after a full night’s sleep. We headed to the San Jose airport and were on our way. Now I wouldn’t usually mention the “fun” that is the flying experience these days, but the magic started a little earlier than expected.
Through some stroke of luck or fate, we ended up getting upgraded to first class for free! This was my first time up there, so you could be sure I enjoyed every second of it – especially the full breakfast with actual utensils and free cocktails. It’s never too early for a bloody mary. No such luck on the connecting flight in Houston, but arriving on time was all I was really hoping for.
Dinner reservations were at Citricos in the Grand Floridian for 8pm, so there wasn’t a ton of time to spare. We made it from the airport to the hotel in decent time, and eventually got checked in and settled. We were back out the door and on the bus to the Magic Kingdom, transferring to the Resort Monorail line. The vacation was officially underway!
After our outstanding dinner, we headed home right as the Magic Kingdom was closing. Luckily, since the fireworks were an hour earlier, it wasn’t the massive exeunt it could have been. It was funny listening to the automated spiel on the bus ride home, hoping we had had a nice day at the Magic Kingdom. We would tomorrow.
Day 1 – Sunday, January 11th
Weather: Sunny, humid, low 80s
Parks: MK, EP
There was no question we’d be starting things at the Magic Kingdom. With the Extra Magic Hours scheduled there for the evening, we decided to split up the day by taking an afternoon trip over to Epcot. At the start of the day we were on the bus first thing, and while we had heard there would be a marathon going on, we didn’t quite realize how much of an impact it was going to have.
The bus was rerouted to the Ticket and Transportation Center, and we had to connect via monorail (usually they take you right to the front gate). As we made it to the entrance, the entry plaza inside the gates was roped off, as the marathon was “finishing” inside. Now, I have absolutely no clue what would happen to everyone who didn’t finish the marathon in that amount of time (I would have been running for all 6 days of our visit), but they swept everyone out in time for the official opening at 9am.
As you could probably expect, considering how many people had just run 26+ miles, the park was exceptionally empty. We were able to hit all the highlights in a few hours, and picked up some Fastpasses to use for later, though we weren’t entirely sure we would even need them. Everything was walk-on.
Things were not nearly as quiet over at Epcot, but considering it was almost 3pm and there were still Soarin’ Fastpasses available, it obviously wasn’t too bad. We got through all of Future World and started the tour of World Showcase, getting up to Germany for a light dinner of brats, beers, and Bavarian pretzels.
We headed back to the MK just before 8pm, and had another awesome Disney moment. I had always wanted to ride in the front of the monorail as a child, but never seemed to get around to it. Well, finally that dream came true. Not only did we get to ride up there, but I got a quick stop in the driver’s seat. There’s even a picture to prove it!
We got back into the park in the middle of Wishes, paused for a moment until it ended, and then quickly moved on to enjoy evening EMH. We hit a good handful of rides in another loop (no need to redeem the Fastpasses collected earlier) and we were out the gates just before closing at 11pm.
Day 2 – Monday, January 12th
Weather: Overcast, upper 60s
Parks: AK, MK
Morning EMH would find us at Animal Kingdom. Of course we followed the rope drop back to Everest and started the day off with one of the most anticipated rides I had been on in a while. I won’t get into it now, but let’s just say it lived up to those expectations.
We were able to see pretty much everything the park had to offer throughout the day, including a great lunch at the Yak and Yeti café. There were tons of animals to see, a bunch of fun rides and shows, even a glimpse of the parade. The crowds were pretty big for the shows, but no trouble getting in so long as you queued up 45 minutes in advance as directed. As dusk approached, we made our way out and headed over to the Magic Kingdom.
Spectromagic and Fantasmic were definitely in seasonal mode, offering only 2 shows a week, and both on the same night. This night we were headed to the former. Not quite as special to me as Main Street Electrical Parade, but still an all-time favorite. We would get to Fantasmic later in the week, but Spectromagic was definitely the priority.
After the parade, we made our way to the hub for the fireworks, and since their conclusion coincided with the closing of the park, there was a mass swarm to the exit afterward. We would usually take our time and avoid such a crowd, but with dinner plans and many late nights ahead, we decided not to wait it out. We were headed for Big River Grill and Brewery, so we caught a bus to the Boardwalk Resort, and were able to get a table right away. This is one of the few sit-down meals we had that didn’t take reservations. Not that reservations were needed as far in advance as I had made them, but as you probably suspect, I like to plan in advance – just in case.
As we worked our way back to our hotel, we were lucky enough to catch a bus to Epcot. Since it had closed later than Magic Kingdom, they were still running buses. It was much more convenient to connect at a park than to have to head to Downtown Disney to change.
Day 3 – Tuesday, January 13th
Weather: Rain, low 70s
Parks: EP, AK
Our exhaustion was finally catching up with us a bit as we missed the official beginning of morning EMH at Epcot, though we were still there before the end of the hour. We made the mourning tour of Future World and were headed to World Showcase just before noon. As would become custom, we shared a Margarita in Mexico on our way to continuing our loop. This time we made it from Italy to Morocco officially, and quickly visited France and Canada to watch their films.
The weather eventually went sour, and we were able to put the umbrella that I had been carrying along all day to good use. The good news was it would put a huge dent in the crowds for evening EMH at Animal Kingdom. Not that there would be that many people otherwise, but the rain meant no crowds instead of light ones.
Our assessment was right on as we were able to hit all the major rides with pretty much no one in line ahead of us. They were down to two trains on Everest, and the wait was still just in the station for the final hour. Needless to say, we took advantage with multiple re-rides.
The good thing about evening EMH at Animal Kingdom, since the park closes so early, is that you’re able to enjoy all 3 hours and still get out at a decent time. That worked perfectly as we had reservations for The Wave over at the Contemporary Resort. We took a direct bus, and as would become habit, arrived considerably ahead of our reservation but were seated almost immediately anyway.
After dinner we thought we’d luck out and catch a monorail to a bus at the Magic Kingdom, but the park had closed a couple hours prior, and bus service had stopped. Instead we made the dreaded change at Downtown Disney (once the bus came to pick us up at the Contemporary, that is.) It had cooled significantly, and this wasn’t exactly fun, but we eventually made it home.
Day 4 – Wednesday, January 14th
Weather: Sunny, upper 60s
Parks: Tour, HS
A bright sun greeted us for a completely unique day. Not only would we finally get to Hollywood Studios, but we were off on our long awaited tour. Now we had done the most in-depth tour Disneyland had to offer (Walk in Walt’s Footsteps), and while that was very cool, we didn’t feel like we learned much or saw anything that surprising. In fact, we stayed “on stage” the entire time. Backstage Magic was the complete opposite of that.
Seven hours, 3 parks, and all of it – as you would expect - behind the scenes. The only times we were on stage were for restroom breaks, for lunch at the Whispering Canyon Café, and the parade at the conclusion of the tour. You can read the details below, but I’ll just say now this is exactly what we wanted to see. No, there wasn’t any mind-blowing secrets or surprises or insider tips (if it’s not part of an official press release, they can’t talk about it), but everything we saw was simply amazing. You can imagine in your mind how Disney World operates, but to see it firsthand was truly impressive.
The tour let out a few hours before evening EMH at Hollywood Studios, so we made our way over there. Crowds were the heaviest we had seen (approaching MLK weekend, and nicer weather), and we had been spoiled by doing most of our ride-heavy touring in the mornings. Here we would just have to suck it up and wait. Only Toy Story Mania was out of the question at that point, so instead we used Fastpasses and had a couple moderate standby waits for the main attractions. The only tough wait was a misleading time posted as 20 minutes for Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster, which ended up at 50 minutes. I don’t know if a show had just gotten out or what. That was the longest wait we would endure by far.
We mostly rotated between RnR, ToT, and checking on Toy Story. Eventually the wait dropped to a reasonable half an hour in the last hour of EMH, and we got to enjoy it. No fancy dinner this night, it was just too late. We had grabbed a bite earlier at Sunset Ranch Market.
Day 5 – Thursday, January 15th
Weather: Sunny, low 60s
Parks: MK, HS
Morning EMH had us heading to the Magic Kingdom and we instinctively toured Tomorrowland and Fantasyland first. Little did we know those were the only two lands open, until we found ourselves waiting at a rope to enter Adventureland. We had done half the park in the opening hour, so there was little wait before we were off to do the other half. We finished up the other half and headed over to Hollywood Studios for a very late lunch and to see all the non-ride fun we had missed the evening before.
We encountered a mechanical delay while waiting for the monorail, and eventually made it to our destination alive, but starving. Food was mercifully allowed into the Beauty and the Beast show and we finished up our meal right as the show started. We walked through One Man’s Dream and also saw the Indiana Jones and Lights, Motors, Action stunt shows.
The finale at the park was Fantasmic, of course. Boy is this a completely different experience than it is at Disneyland. I’ll save my judgment for the review, but I’ll just say two words: “crowd control”. Yikes.
Dinner was at downtown Disney, and I finally ran into something I hadn’t planned all the way through. No, I hadn’t forgotten dinner reservations. I had forgotten that not only can you not get from one hotel to another without connecting, but you can’t get from a park to Downtown Disney without doing the same. A helpful cast member suggested a couple nearby resort options to make a “quick” change, and we ended up at the sprawling Key West Resort. It looked nice from the bus stop.
Our meal was at Cap’n Jacks, right on the water with a great view of the steamboat that is Fulton’s Crab House, not to mention the top of the Illuminations fireworks. We followed dinner with a stroll around the Marketplace side, too cold and too tired to head to the West Side. Maybe we’ll see La Nouba and check it out someday, but not this day. Instead we briefly visited the immense World of Disney and picked up a couple souvenirs. It was nice to finally have a direct bus back to the hotel.
Day 6 – Friday, January 16th
Weather: Sunny, low 50s
Parks: MK, Epcot
Our last day greeted us with the weather we had feared – cold. Ok, compared to the -5 degrees it was in the Midwest it wasn’t so bad, but you don’t vacation in Florida with the intention of wearing sweaters and jackets. Oh well, I suppose there was finally a downside to visiting in the offseason. To think we had started off the week in t-shirts and shorts.
Yet another day was started at the Magic Kingdom. Even without the morning EMH we were able to see pretty much the entire park again by the early afternoon. The last day is always a little bittersweet, but we were still definitely able to enjoy every second of it. We fittingly ended up on Thunder Mountain (now both the first coaster I’ve ridden, and the most recent.)
There was an attempt to create some Disney magic ourselves by picking up a pair of Space Mountain Fastpasses before we left to bestow on a lucky couple. Only problem was the couple we eventually decided on seemed more confused by our offer than delighted. Turns out only one of them liked Space Mountain, and we couldn’t really renege our offer, or only give one, so it was more awkward than magic. Oh well, we tried.
Again we arrived at the second park for a late lunch, this time at Epcot and more specifically Sunshine Seasons Food Fair. Sadly the Soarin’ Fastpasses were all gone, but we managed to get around some of Future World and some of World Showcase as we picked up with drinks in Mexico (again), and then Canada and the UK. We took the long loop around as we said goodbye to all the pavilions and settled in front of France for Illuminations.
Originally dinner at Bistro de Paris had been scheduled for 7pm, an hour before Illuminations, but upon learning that the dinning room isn’t exactly the best place to see the show, we moved back dinner. Following the show in the windy cold, we headed in for our lovely meal, and even made it out in time for one final ride on Mission Space.
Saturday, January 17th
The only consolation for running out of days at Disney World is that, if you plan it right, you get to sleep in on your last morning. We woke up to that crazy lady on the TV constantly counting down the “top 7 must sees”, and eventually packed up, checked our bags, grabbed some breakfast, wrote our postcards, and caught the Magical Express bus for the airport.
The trip home was thankfully uneventful, though we did spend a fair amount of time starting to sort out the 1200+ photos we had taken. They’ve since been whittled down to a more manageable 500 or so, and we were lucky to capture a lot of great moments. I’ll save my closing comments for later, but I wanted to mention that this vacation was everything we hoped it would be. We were able to see and do everything we wanted to, there were no major – or even moderate – missteps, and we survived the grueling 6 days of touring with no permanent physical damage. We definitely consider ourselves lucky to have taken a vacation like this, and we look forward to doing it all again before too long. It will definitely be less than another 10 years!