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An Illustrated Overview of Disney World and its Theme Parks: Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom
Wonders for All Ages
Whether you are planning an upcoming visit, remembering a past vacation or just discovering what Walt Disney World is all about, this article will give you a visual and informative taste of the Magic that grew from the mind of Walt Disney.
First opening in 1971, Walt Disney World has become a fond, enigmatic rite of passage for families around the world. Memories made here not only last a lifetime, they are perpetuated across generations. Parents who had the privilege and opportunity to experience the Magic of Disney as children are now passing those same joys along to their own children and grandchildren.
Walt Disney World is a tribute to the philosophy and life of Walter Elias Disney... and to the talents, the dedication, and the loyalty of the entire Disney organization that made Walt Disney's dream come true.
May Walt Disney World bring Joy and Inspiration and New Knowledge to all who come to this happy place... a Magic Kingdom where the young at heart of all ages can laugh and play and learn - together.
-- Roy Disney, 1971
What exactly is the "Magic" of Walt Disney World?
For us, the Magic lies in simply having the opportunity to be a family in a manner that is unparalleled, at home or elsewhere. Disney World, in a sense, is a refreshing break from everyday life that allows the family unit to reconnect, re-energize and reaffirm bonds - all within an atmosphere of adventure and wonder. Here, you can experience those singular moments of pure joy that may only last a few fleeting seconds, but are remembered long after, with a level of consistency unrivaled by most other travel destinations.
And, this Magic certainly is not limited to families with young children as you do not have to look far to find friends of all ages, couples on a getaway or honeymoon, or even conventioneers experiencing the same, welcome, refreshing opportunity to escape the normalcy of everyday life in a uniquely immersive environment.
If you let it, the Magic of Disney World surrounds you. Our best advice to those planning a trip is to think about and understand beforehand the collective personalities of the people with whom you are traveling. Saying that Disney World is a big place is an understatement. Honestly, it is a challenge to see and do absolutely everything Disney World has to offer in a week, or even two. Do some research and be prepared to extract those experiences that will matter most to you and your group.
More detailed descriptions and photos are provided below for each of the four major Disney World theme parks:
Patterned on California's Disneyland, Disney World opened with the Magic Kingdom as it's cornerstone park in 1971. With over 17 million visits annually, Magic Kingdom is the world's most popular theme park.
Decades of change in the real world outside of Disney are lost in the timeless nature of Magic Kingdom. To it's credit, Disney has steadfastly stuck to the original vision for this park. Although a few attractions have come and gone over the years, the park looks, feels, sounds and even smells (remember the scents of the fragrant flowers throughout the park?) the same to those who return here years or decades after previous visits.
Three modes of Disney transportation to the park - monorail, ferry boat and bus - all converge within a hundred yards or so of the entrance gates. Excitement builds as guests weave their way underneath the monorail line in their approach to the turnstiles. Once through, guests are greeted by the Walt Disney World Railroad Station, which anchors one end of Main Street USA.
Anchoring the other end of Main Street is the iconic Cinderella Castle, which serves as the central hub around which all other "lands" of the Magic Kingdom are located.
Loaded with classic attractions spread among the different themed lands, Magic Kingdom is a favorite among young and old alike. Although you will not find any true "thrill" rides by modern standards, Disney has done a good job of maintaining and adding to Magic Kingdom's inventory of cross-generational attractions.
What’s New in Recent Years at Magic Kingdom
Evidence of Disney’s dedication to constant improvement of classic ideas can be seen in the recent history of refurbishments. Space Mountain was closed for the balance of 2009 to revamp the sound, lighting, pre- and post- ride experiences. The Haunted Mansion has experienced major updates in 2007, 2010 and 2011 covering tweaks to the ride experience, queuing graveyard area and, most impressively, the ghost hitchhikers can now actually interact with guests in their doom buggies.
On a much larger scale, the old site of Mickey’s Toontown Fair has been closed to make room for an expansion of Fantasyland. This expansion began in 2010 and opened in 2013 to rave reviews as an immersive, interactive experience that surrounds guests with worlds patterned on Disney properties Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, among others. The expansion also includes attractions geared towards younger guests like character meet-and-greets, dual (that's right, now there are two!) Dumbo the Flying Elephant rides with an interactive indoor waiting queue, a splash zone to get wet, a Seven Dwarfs-themed junior roller coaster, a Beauty and the Beast-themed attraction, restaurant and more.
It's a Disney-fied World
Born from Walt Disney's vision of a futuristic city of tomorrow, EPCOT was the second major theme park to open in the Disney World complex in 1982.
The acronym EPCOT stands for "Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow." Walt Disney's original vision for EPCOT never fully materialized, but evolved into the EPCOT we see today.
While in early concept development, the idea for a park based on the city of tomorrow was merged with another idea for a park based on international cultures. These two distinct themes are manifested in the two major areas of EPCOT: Future World and World Showcase.
Future World sits at the main entrance to EPCOT, adorned by the 180 foot tall geodesic sphere known as Spaceship Earth. While you would never guess from it’s appearance alone, the iconic ball is an outer shell for a relaxing sit-down ride through the world history of communication.
Future World is also home to EPCOT's premier thrill rides, Mission: SPACE, Test Track and Soarin’, which are set among many pavilions dedicated to science and technology.
World Showcase sits around a two-mile diameter lake known as World Showcase Lagoon and is comprised of 11 different international pavilions representing a variety of cultures from around the world: Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, The American Adventure, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada.
To help create an air of authenticity, most cast members in the shops and restaurants of the international pavilions are college-age students from the represented country.
As most countries within World Showcase have a signature restaurant, the World Showcase houses some of Disney World's most noteworthy and eclectic dining opportunities.
What’s New in Recent Years at EPCOT
In an attempt to add more appeal for younger guests in the World Showcase, Disney has added a rather unique and thoughtful interactive program called Agent P's World Showcase Adventure based on the Phineas and Ferb cartoon franchise (first introduced under the Kim Possible brand). Reviews are an enthusiastic thumbs up for this program.
The end result of the combined themes in Future World and World Showcase gives EPCOT the feel of a rather large and impressive World's Fair.
Note: Future World and World Showcase maintain separate hours of operation, with World Showcase generally opening and closing a couple of hours after Future World.
Thrills and Hollywood Hills
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Formerly known as Disney MGM Studios, Disney's Hollywood Studios first opened in 1989 and takes it's theming from the golden age of 1930s and 40's Hollywood.
As such, Disney's Hollywood Studios brings together an interesting mix of attractions based on the movie industry and other forms of media entertainment.
Art Deco architecture inspired by Tinseltown abounds throughout the park and is anchored by a central plaza featuring a 10-story replica of the sorcerer's hat Mickey wore in the Disney classic Fantasia!.
Instead of the familiar division of park areas by "lands", Disney's Hollywood Studios uses "streets" such as Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards.
In terms of marquee attractions, Disney's Hollywood Studios separates itself from the other Disney parks by offering visitors three movie- based live action shows (Fantasmic!, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt Show) as well as two of the best thrill rides available in all of Disney World (The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith).
What’s New in Recent Years at Disney's Hollywood Studios
A revamped Star Tours attraction opened in 2011 dubbed Star Tours - the Adventure Continues. This newest 3D version of the deep space flight simulator features variable adventures so that guests can experience different story elements and character interactions each time they ride.
And, of course, Star Tours serves as a cornerstone for other Star Wars universe tie-ins available at Hollywood Studios: the highly sought after spots in the Jedi Training Academy where young (12 and under) jedis-in-training undergo a morning program that culminates in light saber battles with Darth Maul himself; and, the super popular Star Wars Weekends available during the early summer season.
2009 saw Disney Hollywood Studios debut The American Idol Experience, which lets guests audition and compete in daily singing competitions just as grand in feel as the nationally known television franchise (with a live audience and all the production trappings to boot).
Toy Story Mania! Mania
2008 brought about one of the most popular new- fangled all-ages techno-meets-movie-inspired-ride experiences to be developed by Disney Imagineers is Toy Story Mania!, which puts guests inside the Toy Story movie world to compete in an interactive arcade-style series of shoot-em up midway games. Since its initial opening, Toy Story Mania! has consistently had some of the longest wait times for any attraction in all of Disney World. Even FASTPASS kiosks tend to run out of their daily allotment of tickets by midday (or sooner) on most days.
First opening in 1998, Animal Kingdom is Disney's most recent edition to the Walt Disney World park complex.
Largely themed around animals in African and Asian environments, Animal Kingdom aims to transport visitors to these exotic locales through lush landscaping, themed architecture and adventures geared towards creating lasting impressions of far away lands.
By far the largest of the four Disney World parks, Animal Kingdom's 500 acres offer some of the most unique experiences of any theme park in the world. Although the 1000+ animals that call the park home are the namesake of the park, Animal Kingdom should not be thought of as a typical zoo.
At Animal Kingdom, the most memorable visitor experiences that involve animals are through well designed and highly imaginative user interfaces not found at typical zoos. Disney strives and succeeds in presenting animals in more natural environments with appropriate space for their well- being. It's rare through a normal tour of Animal Kingdom to notice a cage of the typical sort.
Not Just About the Animals
From thrill rides to stage shows, Animal Kingdom offers more than just live animal attractions. Thrill rides Expedition Everest and Dinosaur and shows It’s A Bugs Life! (animatronic 4D) and Finding Nemo (live stage show) top the list non-animal dependent attractions. Kali River Rapids and Primeval Whirl also earn honorable mentions as worthy tour inclusions.
The unique look and feel of Animal Kingdom is accomplished through the separation of major areas of the park by forests and waterways.
Tours of this park are defined less by straight-line pavement, buildings and bright sunshine and more by meandering, shaded paths through towering trees and over picturesque bridges that lead to exotic far-away lands.
If its been a while (say five or ten years) between visits to this park, you will really appreciate how much some of the trees have grown over time!
Animal Kingdom uses the tried and true hub-and- spoke layout design with the 14-story tall Tree of Life as the centerpiece around which the other themed lands of the park are placed - although this basic park layout is less apparent to visitors due to the park's dense foliage.