There’s a time for work… and there’s a time for play.
Obviously, the majority of my time here at Walt Disney World with the Disney College Program consists of work in one form or another (4:00 A.M. wake-up calls, beyond-midnight shifts, and entire days on your feet), and that’s plenty of material for another post by itself. But when I’m off work, when I clock out and have the day free for myself, that’s when the ‘play’ part comes into play (no pun intended). Fortunately, there’s four world-class theme parks literally on our doorsteps.
WDW (because I can’t be arsed to type out the entire name every time I refer to it) consists of four major theme parks. Magic Kingdom, the original park, which opened in 1971 after Walt Disney grew dissatisfied with Disneyland in California. Epcot, formerly EPCOT Center, which grew out of Walt’s vision to create a technologically advanced futuristic city. Disney’s Hollywood Studios, an amalgam of movie magic, Hollywood-themed areas and stunt shows. Disney’s Animal Kingdom, a wonderful blend of savanna, jungle and the more fantastical.
Over the course of this program, I’ve visited all four of the parks multiple times – and although I still haven’t experienced everything WDW has to offer, I’ve ridden enough attractions, eaten at enough places, and seen enough shows to form a list of my favorite parks – and my not-so-favorite.
Let’s start from the bottom and head upwards.
4. Disney’s Hollywood Studios
DHS is, to me, a park that isn’t worth the price of full admission. (Nearly 100 dollars!) Sure, it has two of the best attractions on property – the thrilling Los Angeles highway extravaganza that is Rock N’ Roller Coaster and the spine-tingling drop of the Tower of Terror – but these gems aren’t enough to save this park from relative mediocrity.
The theming is minimal and disjointed, and the vestiges of the park’s beginnings as a makeshift ‘studio’ park remains. Paths lead seemingly nowhere and into each other, and there’s too many instances of dead space where things are, somehow, cluttered and deserted at the same time. While the other parks immerse the guest into whatever ‘land’ they are visiting, the way the districts are laid out at Hollywood Studios make this impossible.
While boundaries do theoretically exist – open a park map and you’ll notice sections such as ‘Animation Courtyard’ or ‘Echo Lake’ – the thematic distinctions are virtually nil. Even in areas where Imagineers do try to create a sense of place, they stumble due to the park’s preconceived notion as a ‘studio’. The Streets of New York, for example, would be a wonderful example of architecture and immersion, if it weren’t for the exposed beams and scaffolding just on the opposite side of these lovely facades.
That being said, however, Sunset Boulevard and Hollywood Boulevard are two wonderful areas that offer some of the best that Disney showcases, both in terms of ingenious, groundbreaking attractions and masterful theme. If only the level of thematic integrity could be extended across all of the property.
3. Magic Kingdom
The original WDW park, opened in 1971, Magic Kingdom is doubtless the most recognizable theme park in the history of the world, with the spires of its Cinderella Castle an ubiquitous landmark since its construction.
The renovated Fantasyland with Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, The Little Mermaid and Storybook Circus is one of the most charming areas in any Disney theme park. Many of the classics make their home here: The Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Pirates Of The Caribbean, just to name a few. It’s also full of several understated gems like the Hall of Presidents, Tom Sawyer Island and the PeopleMover.
But for some reason, Magic Kingdom has never appealed to me in a big way. Perhaps it’s the fact that it’s more geared to the younger generation than the other parks, or maybe it’s just that it’s too similar to Disneyland, a park that I’ve visited far too much over the years (having lived in Anaheim). Which leads to my final point:
Growing up in California, I was sorely disappointed with the quality of the duplicate attractions in Florida. Space Mountain is barely a shell of its magnificent Disneyland cousin, which features onboard audio and a smoother, more intense ride. Pirates Of The Caribbean is nearly double the length in California. Splash Mountain features far more Audio-Animatronic figures on the West Coast, which livens up the whole down-home atmosphere. Finally, Fantasyland in Florida is missing a lot of the classic dark rides that give Disneyland its charm, such as Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride, Alice In Wonderland and Storybook Land Canal Boats.
Also, where are the submarines?? There’s just something missing without the telltale yellow subs floating their way down the Fantasyland lagoon. There’s just no coming back from that one.
Probably one of the most ambitious theme park concepts ever envisioned, Epcot is a marriage between two concepts – a forward-thinking look into future technologies, and a blast into the past with historical replicas of a dozen or so nations, clustered around a picturesque lagoon that never fails to enamor tourists that pose for countless pictures per day with the nations as their background.
Sure, the majority of World Showcase is a glorified shopping mall, but it’s a very pretty shopping mall indeed. Plus, there’s the roster of world-class attractions in Future World – Mission: SPACE, Test Track, and one of my all-time favorite attractions, Soarin’. It’s filled to the brim with charming attractions that fly under the radar, such as the Living With The Land boat cruise through simulated farmland and Spaceship Earth, an educational tour through thousands of years’ worth of Earth history.
That being said, though, Future World is in dire need of an update. Nearly half of the area is sitting either unused (such as the former Wonders of Life pavilion) or depressingly underutilized (the Imagination Institute and Universe of Energy come to mind). There are a couple of duds mixed in with the headliners, and while Journey Into Imagination may be a fan favorite, there’s no denying that it’s overstayed its welcome.
Although, I could spend the whole day inside the Mitsukoshi store in Japan, browsing the Pokemon merchandise and the Japanese snack foods, so it evens out, I suppose.
1. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
I absolutely adore everything about this park.
The attractions are phenomenal. Everything pulls its weight, and there aren’t any duds like Journey Into Imagination or Frozen sing-alongs that bring down the quality of the entire park. Kilimanjaro Safaris is probably my favorite attraction in any Disney resort; Expedition Everest is one of the best roller coasters in Florida; Dinosaur is a cutting-edge thrill ride packed with technological innovations and theming; and Kali River Rapids is one of the standouts of its genre.
Festival Of The Lion King is, bar none, the best stage show Disney has ever showcased in a theme park. Flights of Wonder is positively charming, and Finding Nemo – The Musical is a lavish production that would feel at home on Broadway.
It’s positively oozing with atmosphere. Every inch of this park has been lovingly crafted with superhuman levels of attention to detail. Take a walk around Africa’s Harambe and just look at the second-story windows, the handcrafted signs promising air conditioning or computer repair, the cracks in the walls. Or head to Dinoland U.S.A., where Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama promises a different kind of atmosphere – but packed with hidden vignettes and meticulous levels of detail all the same.
I can’t say enough good things about this park. Everything works together to elevate Animal Kingdom into a cohesive whole, a journey that starts when you enter through the meandering jungle of paths that is The Oasis, continuing into Discovery Island and your first view of the majestic Tree of Life – with hundreds of unique animals carved into its gigantic trunk – and staying with you until you finally exit the park at the end of the day, bemoaning that fact that Animal Kingdom always closes earlier than you’d like.