How is Walt Disney World different from every other theme park on the planet? I could offer many answers to this question, but Occam’s razor applies. The truly unique aspect of Disney’s Orlando complex is its scope. The company has crammed a sports complex, an entertainment district (arguably two), and four theme park gates into the place we describe in total as Walt Disney World. Each individual gate has its own quirks, though. Here’s a guide to understanding the differences at the four Disney World parks.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Let’s start with the theme park that’s the most difficult to conceptualize. You may think of Animal Kingdom as a glorified zoo. Well, the largest zoo in the United States is the San Diego Zoo, which is 100 acres in size. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is 580 acres. You could fit five San Diego Zoos inside of it and still have almost enough room for an entire Disneyland (85 acres)!
By saying this, I’m hoping to get across the point that you’ll walk at Animal Kingdom more than at any other Walt Disney World park…or any theme park, for that matter. You should avoid crisscrossing Animal Kingdom as much as possible to save wear and tear on your feet.
I suggest a circular approach wherein you start with either the right side of the park (DinoLand U.S.A.) or the left side of the park (Pandora – The World of Avatar). Oh, who am I kidding? You’re heading straight to Pandora, where you will discover a magical realm that’s the pinnacle of Imagineering today. From there, you should choose attractions at either Discovery Island or Africa followed by Asia. This counterclockwise strategy will minimize your walking while maximizing your park enjoyment.
Photo Credit: Matt Stroshane, Disney
I do want to bring your attention to a couple of aspects of Animal Kingdom. One is that the temperature here is warmer than the other parks. Disney does this by design, as they want the most comfortable habitat for the animals that live at the park. Remember that you’re the invited guests here, while they’re the residents. Their happiness is more important than yours, as you can deal with it better than them thanks to your warm blood, thick skin, and big brain. You’re tougher than a zebra, right?
The other aspect is that the rides at Animal Kingdom are terrific. Expedition Everest, Avatar Flight of Passage, Na’Vi River Journey, and DINOSAUR are as good as it gets, and Kilimanjaro Safaris embodies everything spectacular about the park. While enjoying the attractions, please don’t lose sight of the zoo aspect, though.
Please take the time to interact with the animals as much as possible. Watch them interact with one another and the humans. You’ll gain a deeper appreciation of how much Disney has accomplished in bringing Animal Kingdom to life.
Finally, one of the pleasant surprises of Animal Kingdom is the food. Several restaurants such as Tusker House, Tiffins, and Yak & Yeti are among the most beloved meals at Walt Disney World. Disney experts know that a quick bus ride to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge increases the superior food options. Boma, Jiko – The Cooking Place, and The Mara are all sublime. Thanks to the fusion of several cultures of cuisine, Animal Kingdom and its accompanying resort are places where you’ll never go hungry.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
Right now, talking about Hollywood Studios is akin to talking about a baby that’s still in embryo. Yes, it’s a fully functional park that’s remained in operation for almost 30 years. Yes, it features the newest themed land at Walt Disney World, Toy Story Land. Yes, Toy Story Land is phenomenal, and Hollywood Studios hosts several other world-class attractions.
Less than a year from now, however, Hollywood Studios will open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. At that point, everything else that I say here borders on irrelevant. Star Wars Land will instantly become THE place to be at Walt Disney World, and the next-best thing will be like the best television program airing against the Super Bowl. Nobody will know or care what that is.
Having acknowledged the obvious, here’s the truth about Hollywood Studios. It’s been derisively described as a half-day park for most of its existence. Right now, half-a-day might be an exaggeration, as the park suffers from a dearth of rides. Oddly, the ones that they have are so spectacular that tactical Disney fans view this park as delivering tremendous bang for the buck.
On the “right” side of the park, the place where you turn right from the main throughway, Hollywood Boulevard, you’ll find Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. These side-by-side attractions are as good as any one/two combo in the world. On the “left” side of the park, you’ll find the new Toy Story Land and, eventually, Star Wars Land.
The left side is much better than it was just a year ago, when the primary selling point was Star Tours. By this time next year, it’ll be more popular than a theoretical Beatles concert reunion tour featuring back from the dead George Harrison and John Lennon.
Other than the top-heavy, scarce nature of the rides, the other issue with Hollywood Studios is the food. The number of A-list restaurants here starts and ends with Sci-Fi Dine-In and 50’s Prime Time Café. The Hollywood Brown Derby certainly has its supporters, but it’s a Signature Dining experience that many people find overpriced. After these three restaurants and the new offering, Woody’s Lunch Box, the pickings quickly grow slim.
Photo Credit: https://blog.dvcrequest.com/dining-spotlight-50s-prime-time-cafe-at-disneys-hollywood-studios/
When you visit this park, you should plan to eat somewhere else. You can take a boat to International Gateway at Epcot, which is the back entrance to the World Showcase. And that’s good because…
Epcot is the tidiest of the four parks in its design. I think of it as having a front end and a back end. The front part is Future World, where Epcot hosts most of its heralded rides. You’ll find Spaceship Earth, Mission: SPACE, Soarin’, Test Track, and others here. Conversely, the back half of the park currently includes only two rides, Frozen Ever After and Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros.
Based on this information, you may jump to the conclusion that Future World is better. I’m not here to settle that debate. Instead, I’ll simply state that both halves of Epcot are spectacular in their own ways. At Future World, Imagineers have honored the wishes of Walt Disney by creating a series of edutainment-based attractions.
When you ride Living with the Land, you’ll learn about the history of agriculture and then see hints of its future. On Mission: SPACE, you’ll appreciate the physical trauma that astronauts suffer as they break atmosphere and head into outer space. Even Test Track demonstrates how much automotive engineers must factor into their vehicles to protect passengers.
The World Showcase at the back of Epcot is educational in a different way. When you visit the pavilions here, you’ll gain a better understanding of international culture. You’ll get to watch shows, concerts, and live performances that exemplify the represented countries here.
Since the 1.3 miles of the World Showcase are circular, you may grow fatigued walking around the area. My suggestion is to pay attention to the location of all pavilions (My Disney Experience is a godsend for this) to avoid unnecessary walking.
The joy of the World Showcase is the food. Frankly, only suckers plan to eat all of their Epcot meals at Future World. With all due respect to the Electric Umbrella, Sunshine Seasons, and Coral Reef, you’re much better served dining at one of the pavilions. The international cuisine here is divine.
Also, and this is IMPORTANT, this section of the park hosts international exhibitions more than half the year. During these events, pop-up kiosks serve even more food. Generally, these meals are cheaper and sometimes count as a snack credit on the Disney Dining Plan! When you visit Epcot during an exhibition, plan to eat at the World Showcase a lot.
Presuming that you’re like most people, you’ll spend more time at Magic Kingdom than any of the other three theme parks. The numbers bear this out. According to theme park attendance data, Hollywood Studios averaged 29,375 guests a day in 2017. At Epcot, the average was 33,425, while Animal Kingdom had easily its best year ever with 34,247 daily visitors.
Magic Kingdom crushed all other parks in the entire world. Its daily average attendance was 56,027 in 2017. Yes, it had claimed almost as many visitors as Epcot and Hollywood Studios combined. Thanks to the clever design of the park, however, you won’t feel overwhelmed by the crowds most of the time.
Magic Kingdom features Walt Disney’s favorite structure, a hub and spokes. The hub is the area around Cinderella Castle. The spokes are the paths toward the six themed lands that comprise Magic Kingdom. This design does an excellent job of dividing park traffic into relatively equal segments.
Anecdotally, New Fantasyland and Tomorrowland seem like the busiest parts other than Main Street, U.S.A., which everyone has to enter to reach the other parts of the park.
The FastPasses at Magic Kingdom work differently than any of the other parks. Due to the large volume of popular attractions here, Disney doesn’t use tiering. According to the FastPass system, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain, and Pirates of the Caribbean are the same as the Barnstormer, Dumbo the Flying Elephant, and Mad Tea Party. So, you’ll schedule the rides that you want rather than picking one from the top tier and two from the second tier. It’s a more efficient method that I wish Disney would adapt at the other parks.
The times when you must worry about crowd traffic here are during parades and fireworks presentations. People tend to congregate in the same areas along the parade path and in the areas with the best line-of-sight to Cinderella Castle. You can sidestep the issue by heading toward parts of the park unaffected by these events. Alternately, you should plan to pick a spot at least half an hour prior to the show to guarantee yourself a good spot.
The other thing to know about Magic Kingdom is that the food here isn’t on the level of the other three parks. Sure, you’ll find plenty of options, but it’s akin to Hollywood Studios in that most of them are substantially below the best restaurants at Animal Kingdom and (especially) Epcot.
Be Our Guest is the notable exception, and Cinderella’s Royal Table has its supporters as well. Both of these dinners are Signature Dining experiences, meaning that they’ll cost more or require two Table Service entitlements on the Disney Dining Plan.