Pros: So many great attractions and restaurants, it's hard to know where to begin
Cons: Overpriced hotels, some parks are not as good as others
They call it the "happiest place on earth" for a reason. In fact, there's nowhere else I'd rather be at any given moment than Disney World. What's interesting about the Walt Disney World resort, which includes four theme parks, two water parks, and countless hotels and restaurants, is that the sum truly is greater than its parts. Standing on its own, some of the theme parks are not as strong as others. Clearly the Magic Kingdom is the heart and soul of Walt Disney World, and cannot be rivaled by the other parks in Walt Disney World, such as MGM Studios. And even the Magic Kingdom itself pales in comparison to its California counterpart Disneyland. But when you put all that Walt Disney World in Florida has to offer together, suddenly it becomes a much more tempting vacation retreat than even the two Disney parks in California.
So here's a list of what I consider to be the can't misses of Walt Disney World that are too good to be true, and the must misses that are not worthy of the Walt Disney World name (you'll see that the positive far outweighs the negative overall).
The Best Attractions
Of all the reasons to go to Walt Disney World, let's be honest, you're going for the attractions, with technology that puts most major theme parks (such as Busch Gardens or Six Flags) to shame. In no particular order of preference, here are the absolute best attractions:
1.) Splash Mountain
No trip to Walt Disney World is complete without a ride on this classic log flume ride in the Magic Kingdom. It's a perfect mix of singing Disney robotics for the childr in each of us and thrill ride with three major waterfalls (the last one is the famous waterfall that you can see from outside). Don't worry about this ride being too intense, I'm not at all a fan of wild rides, and tend to avoid roller-coasters, but I love this one, and the big drop is exhilirating once you get past the first couple scary seconds.
2.) Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
Located right next to Splash Mountain, this is probably the only "roller-coaster" that I'll go on. It's not a typical roller-coaster with giant drops, and there's certainly nothing like the kind of upside-down loops you can find on some of the crazy thrill rides at Universal Studios (such as The Incredible Hulk roller-coaster at "Islands of Adventure," which turns my stomach just to watch), but I would hardly call this ride dull. It's got some sharp turns and forces that at times feel like they're lifting you out of your seat, and is the perfect thrill ride for those who don't normally like thrill rides. The most interesting thing about this ride is that the tracks look so rickety that they appear as if they're going to fall apart, but it's all part of the show.
3.) The Haunted Mansion
Another must-see of the Magic Kingdom, and easily a contender for best theme park ride of all time, this one never stops being fun, with its holographic ghosts (including the ghost at the end that follows you home) and a lot more humor than you'd expect if you've never ridden on it. I've noticed little children get scared usually before going on the ride, because they expect a scary ride, but the truth is that there's really nothing at all scary about this attraction. Even the way to get onto the ride is fun, as you enter a room with no apparent way out in which the ceiling appears to grow (an elevator taking you down to the actual ride), and I love it when the lights go out in that room just before you enter the boarding area. This ride is just pure genius throughout.
4.) Mickey's Philarmagic
One of the newer attractions in the Magic Kingdom park, it's a 3D show, but of much higher quality than I've come to expect, with mindblowing graphics that take you through classic Disney movies like "The Little Mermaid" and "The Lion King." There's also some great effects to interact with your senses during the show, such as the smell of apple pie during the "Beauty and the Beast" segment, or seeing Donald Duck's rear end hanging out of the back wall of the theater at the end of the show (similarly to seeing The Sweedish Chef in the back of the theater near the end of Muppet Vision 3D, if you've done that attraction). Kids and adults alike will love this one.
5.) It's a Small World
Yes, I know some people think this one is annoying, but it's one of my all-time favorites, and I'll never get tired of it. It also doesn't hurt that it's one of the quicker boarding rides in the ultra-popular Fantasyland section of the Magic Kingdom. You take a trip around the world in this ride, seeing charming animated figures singing to you, and at the end, enter a room with a utopian vision of the world as all races living in harmony. More politicans could stand to go on this ride, and the world might be in better shape.
6.) Festival of the Lion King
Taking a detour now to Disney's Animal Kingdom, this has become my absolute favorite attraction in the park, a somewhat Cirque Du Soleil inspired show with more going on than you can possibly take in with your two eyes. It's got interaction with the audience, characters, music, acrobatics, everything. To tell you the truth, I wasn't even a big fan of "The Lion King" as a movie, but that doesn't stop me from loving this one.
7.) Kali River Rapids
Another favorite attraction I have at the Animal Kingdom is this water rapids ride on an inner tube, which is not quite like any other inner tube ride. First of all, it's got a message thrown into it about environmental conservation, but not in a preachy way like you might expect. Second, on a hot Floria day, there's nothing else quite like cooling off on this ride, in which you will get completely soaked. So be warned, to put any valuables in the center area of the tube under plastic (I once got my wallet destroyed by keeping it in my pocket during this ride). In particular, there's a waterfall near the end of the ride in which you will get hit by a huge wave if you're facing backwards when you happen to go down the waterfall. Part of the fun of this ride is wondering if you're going to happen to be on the part of the tube that will get the most wet when it happens.
8.) Kilimanjaro Safaris
The last attraction you have to see at the Animal Kingdom park is this ride, which gives you the feel of going on a wild safari ride, and an opportunity to get some pictures of zebras, elephants, giraffes, and much more. The only problem is that the vehicle often moves too quickly to catch a great picture (and as a tip, you can get better animal pictures during a feeding at the Animal Kingdom Lodge), but it's all part of the fun of being caught up in the fantasy feeling of being on safari that makes this one so much fun.
Moving over to EPCOT Center, the newest attraction is this flight simulator in which you're lifted in a hangglider high into the air, and with a giant IMAX style movie screen in front of you, and the feel of wind blowing by you, you can experience the sensation of flying over several different environments, with a surprisingly realistic feel. The only downside to this hot new attraction is that it's so popular that you'll often have to wait at least an hour to get on!
10.) Star Tours
True, it's starting to show its age a bit (the last time I was on this ride, they had to stop it midway through and start it from scratch, with the robot pilot saying for a second time "this will be my first flight" to much amusement in the room), but it's one of the best motion simulators there is, even if you're not much of a Star Wars fan (I've always preferred Star Trek myself).
And now, the Worst Attractions
Fortunately, there's not too many of these, but stay away from them!
1.) Stitch's Great Escape
You might think you're about to go on a wild ride when these giant harnesses start pressing down on your shoulders at the start of this show, but it actually goes nowhere. The harnesses serve to supposedly give you the feeling that Stitch is pressing down on your shoulders, and you will feel a lot of pressure from the harnesses during the show, which is quite irritating. Then to make matters worse, most of the show is in the dark, and you get the "thrill" of smelling Stitch burping in your face and drooling slime on you. Needless to say, this is one of those attractions that is just filled with screaming children the moment the light goes off, and it is not at all child-friendly, which is why I wonder why Disney chose to incorporate such a child-friendly character as Stitch that no adult could love into such a ride. This one is by far the worst Disney attraction I've ever experienced, and should be eliminated in place of something better immediately.
2.) The Living Seas
A long time ago, when EPCOT Center was a better park than it is today, this was a cool ride through acquariums of fish, but now it's just the same old lame movie that they used to use as an introduction to the ride, and a fake elevator ride down under the ocean (in which you don't get to see any fish at all), without any ride at the end. When I got off the elevator expecting to see a ride or something to actually do, I was not alone, and you could see the dissapointment on everyone's faces.
3.) The Universe of Energy
Another EPCOT attractions that's been ruined by adding "celebrity" Ellen DeGeneres to what's now a boring 45-minute movie/ride, which is 45 minutes of your life that you'll never be able to get back again. It's beyond gimmicky, not at all educational as it promises to be, and not even close to thrilling.
4.) The Great Movie Ride
This was once a pretty decent ride, and unlike the last two, this one wasn't ruined by change, but rather the lack of change. This one is just plain showing its age, and normally I wouldn't mind that, but when it features movies that were included in the ride simply because they were contemporary when the ride was created, such as "Alien" with Sigourney Weaver (which is hardly a classic movie), then it's hopelessly out of date. The robots don't even look the slightest bit realistic here, which is fine on a ride like "It's a Small World" where you know what to expect, but I actually found myself laughing hysterically at how ridiculous the Wicked Witch of the West looked like when she popped out in the Land of Oz. It's time to update this attraction.
This one might provoke some controversy to put on my worst list, because it's the only one I included on my worst list that it actually a popular attraction. But I'm going to be honest, I wanted off this ride the moment I got on, and couldn't wait for it to be over. When it was over, I felt sick to my stomach because it shook me back and forth so violently and I had just eaten (it took the Lion King show to then put me in a better mood about the Animal Kingdom park). There are some cool dinosaur robots on the ride that look more realistic than those in the "Universe of Energy" attraction, but you hardly get to see them, because it's so dark for most of the ride. In fact, even though this isn't technically considered a roller-coaster, it's probably more wild than Space Mountain.
The Best Restaurants
The food at Walt Disney World has generally gotten a bad rap, as it's actually quite good if you know where to go, and far surpasses most theme park food (for instance, at Universal Studios, you're pretty much resigned to hot dogs and hamburgers and stuff like that). Here's the best, again in no particular order:
1.) Cindarella's Royal Table
If you've never eaten in the castle at the Magic Kingdom before, then you are missing out on a thrill, but it's not just the gimmick, they also have great food, particularly the prime rib (and I can never get enough of their pretzel bread). The only downside is that starting this year, you need to use a credit card to reserve a meal here, even for dinner.
2.) Liberty Tree Tavern
Everytime I make a trip to the Magic Kingdom, I have to go here for lunch. But I should note that for dinner, it's an entirely different experience altogether, and was a rather dissapointing character meal (not because of the characters, but because of the inferior quality of the food and the increased crowds that mean worse service as well). But for lunch, it's very adult friendly, and has a great menu with highlights including pot roast and turkey that taste homemade. Don't miss this one!
3.) Aloha Isle
This is the best kept secret in all of Walt Disney World, and I'm going to do you a favor and let you in on it. In the Adventureland section of the Magic Kingdom, look for this little hut that looks like it just serves standard refreshments and ice cream, and get the Dole Whip Soft Serve pineapple flavor (if you must get another flavor, then get the swirl with vanilla, but make sure you get pineapple). There is no better thrill for a sweet tooth in the world that I've ever tasted, and I would do just about anything for a Dole Whip right about now.
4.) Boulangerie Patisserie
Another great desert place is in the French pavillion, with all sorts of homemade pastries. I'm particularly partial to the lemon tarts, which I don't believe are actually listed on the menu any longer, but which you can still get if you know to ask for them. Try one and tell me it's not one of the best things you've ever eaten (next to Dole Whip of course).
5.) The Brown Derby
The only good place to eat in the entire MGM Studios park, and also a bit overpriced, but a nice atmosphere nonetheless. There's really not much to say about it, it's a pretty standard American style menu, with consistent and reliable food, and if you're planning on spending the evening at MGM and care about what you eat, you basically have to come here.
This is probably the best Disney restaurant I've ever been to, located on Disney's Boardwalk near the Epcot Center resorts (such as The Beach Club and The Yacht Club), with unbelievably good Mediterrenean cusine, and some of the best service in all of Disney World. Now that I've been exposed to this excellent restaurant, it's going to be a necessity for all future Disney trips.
7.) Garden Grill
I was a bit hesitant to include this one because it's really not the best quality food, but I needed to include at least one character meal on my list, and this is the best character meal I've experienced (don't be afraid to go even if you don't have kids, the characters will still interact with you as long as you show interest, and it's surprisingly fun if you let yourself get into the spirit of things). The characters here include Chip and Dale (easily the best Disney characters ever!), Farmer Mickey, and the lovable dog Pluto, who for some reason, seem more energetic than they do elsewhere. The reason this character meal is so great is that the restaurant is circular-shaped, so you get more interaction with the characters than other places in which they randomly go from table to table and have more trouble getting around to everywhere. It's also a fun restaurant because it's revolving, and during parts of the "ride/meal," you get to see parts of the boat ride in the Land pavillion. The food isn't that bad for a character meal either, it's just not amazing is all.
The Worst Restaurants
1.) Mama Melrose
Vile, disgusting, lousy, just a few adjectives that come to mind when I think back on Mama Melrose, an Italian restaurant located in MGM Studios. It's got a nice atmosphere, and the service isn't bad, but the food is just so poor, especially considering how easy it is to make good Italian food (I've made better pasta at home), and the menu doesn't even provide much variety.
2.) Toluca Turkey Legs Company
Now I'll admit that the giant turkey leg filled me up well for the price and tasted decent enough, but if you're like me, and don't do well with preservatives in your food, avoid at all costs! I had stomach cramps for days afterwards, starting almost immediately after I ate the turkey leg, which I've come to realize is a sign of preservatives throughout the years. That means the food is also not very fresh, and is another reason to avoid it.
The Best Hotels
Finally, Disney hotels, which I've come to realize are a bit of a rip-off compared to the condos you can stay in for much cheaper offsite. But if you must use a Disney hotel, and sometimes it's fun just to be staying on property and wrapped up in the magic of it all, there are better places than others.
1.) Caribbean Beach
If you need a fairly cheap resort and want some quality, this is probably the hotel for you. It's quiet, clean, got a fun theme, some beach access where you can see the fireworks at EPCOT from a distance, and a decent food court. The only downsides is that you could be staying in a room that's located very far from the food court (I often had to walk nearly 15 minutes to get there), the bus service is sporadic throughout the hotel, and it takes awhile to check in. But overall, you get a decent amount of quality for your buck.
2.) The Beach Club
One of the better more expensive hotels, without going all out for the cost of The Grand Floridian, which is simply not included on this list because I have yet to spend the money to see how it is (although that may soon change now that I'm in the process of planning a Disney wedding, but that's another story...) It's got lots of great swimming pools, a nice ice cream shop (Beaches and Cream, which may be a bit overrated, but gives you a ton of ice cream for not very much money), and generally high quality. But like I said, it sure is pricey.
And the Worst of the Hotels...
Port Orleans Resort - Riverside ... Yes, I'm sure this will spark some controversy, but hear me out. It's a lovely resort to walk around the grounds, and you do get free boat access to Downtown Disney (which is not all that exciting unless you're dying to spend tons of money outside the parks for some reason), and it's certainly not that expensive (the same cost as the Caribbean Beach resort), but there's at least one MAJOR problem. Every night I was there, at about three to four in the morning, I was woken up by a serenade of EXTREMELY LOUD birds right outside my room. When I called the front desk to ask if it was normal to be sleeping in the Tiki Bird room, she told me they knew all about this, and it had something to do with the type of trees at the hotel, but that usually nobody complained about it. Now, granted, I am a light sleeper, but I can't see how anyone can sleep through that! An additional problem is that the food court was fairly limited in variety, especially in comparison to the giant food court at the Caribbean Beach resort. I can't, however, vouch for the quality of the French Quarter section of the Port Orleans resort, which I've heard might be higher quality.
Obviously, all of this is just scratching the surface of what there is to do at Disney World, but hopefully I've given you a few ideas for what to do and what not to do on your next trip down. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your next trip to Walt Disney World today, you can never go too many times.
If you enjoyed this review, check out my Disney blog at http://mouse-trap.blogspot.com/