The largest economic driver in Florida since oranges, Disney World is a 25,000-acre parcel of land that exists somewhere between the vestiges of the American dream and parenting hell. It’s in Orlando but the only notion of that while inside the massive network of movie-themed parks and man-made lagoons is the searing hot weather; it’s the abstract but immediately recognizable Main Street, USA; it’s packed with touring kids from all over the world who only know America by its Disneyfication. See the Eiffel Tower in the background at Epcot mere blocks away from an ancient Chinese pagoda; go home to the Animal Kingdom Lodge with the movie-house sized Tree of Life with exotic African animals grazing in surrounding areas. It takes a lot to make a place this magical. But over the decades, Disney World has been just that and even now it’s ever-expanding with magical innovations. It’s over-stimulating, packed with people, overpriced, searing hot, but it’s Disney World. Don’t forget the sunscreen.
The nucleus of Disney World, Magic Kingdom, is where kids of all ages can socialize with Mickey, Minnie, Arielle and all our beloved friends from the Disney universe. Follow Main Street, USA, to the end and there, rising majestically into the sky is the iconic Cinderella’s Castle, a 189-foot beauty surrounded by lush greens, rose bushes and a mystical moat. Elsewhere in Magic Kingdom are all the classic attractions that adults remember from their childhood days – the Country Bear Jamboree, Hall of Presidents and "It’s a small world" are still standing in all their animatronic glory; the Haunted Mansion is thrilling as always and 40-year-old NASA-approved Space Mountain enables families to explore the limits of the galaxy in a fun and informative interactive ride. An exciting new expansion to Fantasy Land is underway, but visitors can still check into the Beast’s Castle and hang out with Belle and the dancing utensils in the Be Our Guest Restaurant, a French and American fine-dining restaurant in their three grand dining rooms, or delight in one of the big-top tents in the Storybook Circus, modeled after the classic American circus in the movie Dumbo.
Initially conceived as a utopian-futuristic living city that would test new systems on a climate controlled and totally enclosed community, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or, as we now call it, Epcot, has turned into a major resort focused on educating kids on science and technology, as well as celebrating the contributions of different countries all over the world. Epcot is actually made up of two worlds: Future World and World Showcase. Future World explores human innovation and applications through pavilions dedicated to science and technology – it’s centered around Spaceship Earth, the iconic Epcot landmark, an 18-story geodesic dome that allows passengers to travel through time, showcasing the history of human communication all way into the future. The World Showcase is a permanent world’s fair, consisting of 11 pavilions each dedicated to a country, surrounding a man-made lake. Each pavilion embodies the country they represent through elaborate themed architecture, stage shows, attractions, shops and restaurants that follow their respective culture and cuisine.
Budding cinema buffs and their stargazing families can go straight to the heart of American cinema in the Disney-verse at Hollywood Studios. Evoking the romance of classic Hollywood, this theme park is home to attractions that celebrate the golden age. Made up of six themed areas, the whole park comprises a network of streets and buildings that resemble more of a real motion picture studio than any other Disney theme park. Hollywood Studios begins with Hollywood Boulevard, the main promenade that begins at the entrance and leads straight down to the Sorcerer’s Hat, the iconic landmark of Hollywood Studios. Visitors can wander through backlot sets resembling San Francisco and New York, or learn about Disney animation at the Animation Courtyard, which also features a walk-through exhibit of the life of Walt Disney. The American Film Institute Showcase is a walk-through exhibit that displays iconic movie props and costumes from the last century of filmmaking. See props and set pieces from Titanic, Scarlet O’Hara’s costume and the film score from Gone with the Wind as well as other relics from Casablanca, The Lord of the Rings, 1978’s Superman and more! The Movie Palace, a full-scale reproduction of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre also houses unique and timeless props – see the Ruby Slippers from The Wizard of Oz, an Elizabethan dress from Shakespeare in Love and a carousel horse from Mary Poppins.
Located high atop Disney’s Contemporary Resort, the California Grill is an upscale restaurant that overlooks the lagoon, Cinderella Castle and surrounding forests. Far from offering mediocre theme park foods, the California Grill offers a casual and laidback atmosphere, a diverse but notably Californian menu comprising flatbreads, sushi, Gulf coast seafood, Bison steak and a long list of decadent desserts. Diners particularly enjoy their 500+ wine list, made up of mostly California bottles (hey, even parents need pacifiers). For a real treat, families are encouraged to book a later reservation to catch the fireworks – the lights go down while the music begins to play and families get an immersive experience of the fireworks right outside the huge panel windows. Because of its popularity, the staff at the California Grill highly encourage visitors to make a reservation months before they arrive.
The Animal Kingdom Lodge is a Disney-fied response to the original Hearst Castle, with large and tropical designed pools, an exotic wildlife reserve which includes safari animals such as okapi, lions, giraffes, rhinos and zebras, gorgeous African-inspired architecture and The Lion King-themed playgrounds and arcade, and more. It’s rare in North America to be able to hear a rhino wailing from just outside of one’s window, but if there’s any place the can make this particular kind of magic happen, it’s Disney World. Their beautiful Africa-inspired accommodations range from studio to full family-sized villas, with carved teak furniture and windows and balconies overlooking the Uzima pool and all 30+ species of African wildlife in their various savannas. Parents who need a break from their kids can check the little ones into the Children’s Activity Center at Simba’s Cubhouse and go for a spa day or a romantic meal at their fine-dining restaurant, Jiko, which offers a blend of traditional African, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine.