by Gretchen Foster, ALL EARS® Guest Columnist
This article appeared in the May 23, 2006, Issue #348 of ALL EARS® (ISSN: 1533-0753)
So you've finally succumbed to the kids' pleading. Or maybe those beautiful, happy TV commercials got to you. You've decided to go to Walt Disney World! You go to the Disney World website and realize they are speaking a whole new language. What is park-hopping? Why would anybody want to hop through a park anyway? A hidden Mickey? Why would they hide Mickey Mouse? Isn't he just out in the open? Then you try talking to a co-worker who has been to Disney World before, to see if maybe you can get some answers to these questions. But before you can say more than, "We've decided to go to Disney World " she starts talking at a high rate of speed about "ADRs" and "extra magic hours" -- she seems to speak that strange language, too! But she manages to tell you to check out Allears.net, which you do -- and you find more information than you thought possible about Disney World. You call the reservations number and they start asking you about when you want to go and where you want to stay and do you want park-hopper tickets -- there's that strange language again! Isn't there any way to find some simple answers about this popular amusement park?
First of all, don't ever, EVER call Disney World an amusement park! Lesson 1: It is a theme park. But it is also much, much more.
WHAT IS THIS PLACE?
Walt Disney World (or WDW, just one of the many acronyms you're going to encounter as you learn this new language) sits on 27,000 Florida acres (or about 43 square miles), and encompasses four separate theme parks, two water parks, shopping and entertainment areas, more than 20 resort hotels, golf courses, a sports complex and a whole host of other recreational activities. That's really an extension of Lesson 1: This place is huge!
Most people who are unfamiliar with WDW think of it as being very much like the original Disneyland Park in California -- the one with the castle we saw every Sunday night on the "Wonderful World of Disney" when we were kids. The first of the four WDW theme parks, the Magic Kingdom (MK) is SIMILAR to Disneyland, but it is bigger, and it's not all there is to WDW. MK is separated into sections called "lands,"each with a different "theme" (get used to hearing that term, as almost everything around WDW is built with its own special theme, or motif). There are Frontierland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Liberty Square, Main Street USA and Mickey's Toontown Fair -- you can pretty much guess the theme of each land from its name. Each land has a variety of themed "attractions," many of which are based on Disney movies. Although MK is the park usually thought of as being for "the kids," it is by no means a "kiddie" park. There is plenty for the adults to do, and it is, in fact, the favorite park of many grown-ups.
But wait... "What's an attraction?" you're asking. Attractions are the rides or shows -- the roller coasters, the carousel, the slow "dark" rides, like Pirates of the Caribbean, or Peter Pan's Flight. An attraction can also be a short movie, a live show, or a 3-D show. There are also a few attractions that are not rides or shows, like the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, which is a walk-through. Disney has a huge variety of attractions, so whether you are a thrill-ride lover or get motion sick on a porch swing, there is plenty to do for everyone.
The second park is Epcot (which used to be an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, but now it is just used as a name). This park has two sections (or "worlds") -- Future World and World Showcase. Future World is mostly about science and technology, while World Showcase is a small-scale walk around the globe. It consists of pavilions arranged around a lagoon, with attractions, restaurants, and shops from 11 different countries. I know, I know -- it sounds stuffy and "educational," and a lot of people will tell you that kids will be bored here -- they are wrong. There is plenty of fun to be had. This has actually been my daughter's favorite park from the time she was 5.
The Disney-MGM Studios (or the Studios, which many people erroneously call "MGM") is the third park and, as you might assume from the name, it is themed around movies. Again, some people think there is not much in this park for kids, but that is not true either. I actually think this park has the best balance of attractions aimed at people of all ages.
The fourth park is Disney's Animal Kingdom (AK). Although this park is themed around animals and, in fact, has many live animals, it is NOT a zoo. Attractions in this park are either rides, shows or live animal exhibits. Kilimanjaro Safaris is actually a ride through an animal habitat. Warning: AK covers a lot of ground and seems to end up being the hottest of the four parks, so try to go early in the morning.
In addition to the attractions, each park has ongoing entertainment throughout the day, usually including a parade in the afternoon and fireworks of some kind at night (except for the Animal Kingdom). When you enter each park, be sure to pick up a park map and entertainment schedule for the day.
Meeting the Disney characters is also a fun thing to do in the parks. You may see them at any time in any of the parks, but there are also designated places and times to meet them -- meet-and-greet spots. There are two kinds of characters: "face" characters, who do not wear masks over their faces and will talk to you, and costumed characters, like Mickey Mouse and Winnie-the-Pooh, who are completely dressed up and do not talk. Many people like to pick up an autograph book and pen and get the characters to sign the autograph book, and then have their picture taken with the characters. Adults are welcome to do this as well as the kids.
The parks generally have varying operating hours, depending on how busy they are -- they're usually open longer during "peak seasons,"which would be the summer months, and around the holidays. Your hotel staff will be able to tell you the operating hours for the time you are there, but you can also find the hours out in advance by checking the official WDW website. Also, Disney hotel rooms have a special WDW information channel on the TVs that tell you times, events and other information about the parks.
Oh, and here's another term you should know relating to park hours: "Extra Magic Hours" (EMH). EMH refers to a benefit for guests staying at a Disney resort -- on certain days the parks will open an hour early or stay open three hours later at night just for Disney resort guests.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE TO DO?
There is obviously a lot more to do than just ride rides and watch shows. For example, there are two water parks (parks with pools and water rides and all kinds of other swimming and get-wet stuff to do) on Disney property: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. They both have the same type of activities -- the big difference between the two is "theming." Typhoon Lagoon has a tropical theme, while Blizzard Beach has a "ski resort melting in the Florida sun" theme.
There are also miniature golf courses and award-winning regulation golf courses; the Wide World of Sports complex, which hosts sports events ranging from the Atlanta Braves spring training to amateur soccer tournaments; the Richard Petty Driving Experience that allows you to drive a real race car; DisneyQuest, a five-story super high-tech arcade; and Pleasure Island, a nightclub district located at Downtown Disney, which is itself a shopping and dining area. These things are just for starters -- there are so many other activities available, we can't fit them into an article called a "primer."
Many of these activities require separate admission. Which is a good way to introduce another important thing you'll need to know about: Tickets!
Admission passes to the parks are called Magic Your Way (MYW) tickets. They come with a variety of options and in two sizes: Adult (age 10 or older) or Child (ages 3 through 9). Anyone under 3 is free, and there are no discounts for seniors or the disabled. Your MYW ticket to the park covers all the entertainment and attractions in the park, but you have to think carefully about what type of MYW ticket is best for you: a Magic Your Way "Base" ticket (without any options added on) allows you all-day access to ONE single park each day for however many days you purchase, within 14 days of the ticket's first use (after that, the ticket expires). If you purchase the "No Expiration" option that means any days you don't use during this trip will still be valid the next time you go to WDW, no matter when that is. The "Park Hopper" option on your ticket allows you to go in and out of any of the four main theme parks as many times as you want each day (i.e., to "park hop"). A "Water Park Fun & More" option adds admission to water parks, Pleasure Island, DisneyQuest, and the Wide World of Sports. There is also an Annual Pass, which provides you with park hopping admission to the theme parks for an entire year, and Premium Annual Pass, which adds the other recreational choices -- but we're getting ahead of ourselves. You just want the basics now.
WHERE SHOULD I STAY?
There are several different types of hotels on WDW property. First are the hotels owned and run by Disney. They fall into four categories: Value (the least expensive), Moderate, Deluxe, and Disney Vacation Club.
The Value resorts offer pretty much your basic hotel rooms with outdoor corridors, except they have really cool Disney theming (there's that word again) that is visually appealing, to children especially. The Value resorts are Pop Century and the All-Stars (Movies, Music and Sports -- and those are their themes). Dining at these resorts is limited to a food court.
The Moderate resorts are Caribbean Beach, Coronado Springs and Port Orleans, which have rooms that are a bit larger than the Values. Although they also have outdoor corridors, they offer a few more amenities than the Value resorts, including more dining options.
The Deluxe resort hotels are just that. They are comparable to other 4- or 5-star hotels except they also have beautiful Disney theming. Many rooms in the Deluxe hotels have private balconies, and all are larger than rooms in the Value or Moderate resorts. In these hotels you can get concierge service, dine at full service restaurants, and order room service -- basically all the bells and whistles. The Deluxe hotels are the Contemporary, the Polynesian and the Grand Floridian (all three are "on the monorail line," meaning they have private monorail stations in the hotel itself and subsequently have quick access to the MK); the Wilderness Lodge, which is close to the Magic Kingdom; the Yacht Club, Beach Club and the Boardwalk, which are within a very short walk to the back gate of Epcot; and the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which (of course) is right next to the Animal Kingdom -- it actually has an African savanna behind the hotel, and from many rooms you can see giraffes, gazelles, ankole cattle or other animals.
Disney Vacation Club (DVC) resorts are part of Disney's own version of a time-share, but if rooms are available, anyone can stay there. DVC resort rooms have kitchenettes/kitchens and more room than an ordinary hotel room. The larger rooms have more bedrooms and bathrooms, a living room, and private laundry facilities. The DVC hotels are: Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, Old Key West, the BoardWalk Villas, the Villas at Wilderness Lodge and the Beach Club Villas.
Also on Disney property are Shades of Green, a resort hotel exclusively for members of the U.S. armed forces and their families (usually listed under the Deluxe category) and Fort Wilderness, a campground where you can bring your tent or camper or rent a cabin.
Finally, there are those hotels that are on Disney property, but are not owned or operated by Disney. The WDW Swan and Dolphin are located near the BoardWalk and the Yacht & Beach Club and are considered to be in the Deluxe category. They are beautifully themed and guests at these hotels are entitled to most (but not all) of the benefits reserved for Disney hotel guests. The Downtown Disney hotels are located at the very edge of the property and are close to Downtown Disney. They are nicer hotels, but not in the Deluxe category, nor do they have the Disney theming and details. (Since this is just a primer, I won't even begin to tell you about the hundreds of hotels and motels located OFF Disney property... they really are too numerous to mention!)
HOW DO I GET AROUND?
The big debate about getting around WDW is whether to rent a car. Asking this question is like asking "Pepsi or Coke?" -- and the answer depends on who you ask. (There are only Coca-Cola products at WDW, by the way -- no Pepsi!) The four parks are actually located several miles apart on the WDW property, and each has its own parking and entrance gate. You can walk between Epcot and the Studios, but as for the other destinations, you're going to need some type of other transportation -- whether it's Disney's buses, boats, or monorail, or your own car. The Disney transportation system is excellent -- it's clean and safe and free to Disney resort guests.
However, if you are impatient (like me) or don't want to have to take even those three extra steps at the end of the day (like me), it might be worth it to rent a car. Parking is free if you are staying at a Disney resort (although there's a charge for valet parking, and at certain non-Disney resorts). The bus lines to get back to your hotel at the end of the day can be long, and, especially if you are staying at a Value resort, it can be a bit of a walk to the bus stop from your room. Also, buses don't go from hotel to hotel, so if you are staying at one hotel and want to go to a different hotel for dinner, you have to take a bus to an open theme park or to Downtown Disney and then from there to the other hotel -- and do the same thing in reverse when you are ready to go back to your hotel. We also occasionally go off-property (that is, to a non-Disney location) to go to a store, so we use a car for that as well. Note that if you are not renting a car, some of the shuttle services from the airport will include one grocery stop en route to your hotel at no charge.
If you just need a car for a single day or change your mind about wanting a rental car once you get there, there are Alamo car rental offices on Disney property near the Magic Kingdom (at what's known as the Car Care Center) and at the WDW Dolphin resort.
WHAT'S TO EAT?
One phrase will do here -- anything you want! There are well over a hundred places to eat on Disney property and you can literally get anything from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to a full, formal dinner prepared by a world-renowned chef. And it is all top-quality. They are wonderfully responsive to special dietary needs (it's a good idea to call ahead for these). There are restaurants in the parks, in the hotels and at Downtown Disney.
I would definitely recommend looking at some of the menus on Allears.net before your trip. When you are standing in WDW with a hungry family, trying to decide where to go, there are so many choices it is almost overwhelming. If that happens though, just go to (or call) your Disney resort's Lobby Concierge or visit Guest Relations in the theme parks; the Cast Members (that's employees to you and me!) there are great at helping you find just what you are looking for. There are three things I want to mention, though.
Advance Dining Reservations (ADR): When you make a reservation at most restaurants in the non-Disney world, the restaurant holds a table for you at a specified time. That is your table, whether you show up or not. At Disney, when you have an advance reservation, you will be given the next available table, so you may have to wait a short time. You can make ADRs from home as early as 180 days before you arrive at WDW. (If you are staying at a Disney resort, you can book ADRs up to 10 additional days after your arrival date.) If you are flexible about when and where you eat and you are going at a time when the parks are not expected to be jam-packed, you don't really need to plan all your meals before you go. You can also make an ADR at your hotel or by calling WDW-DINE. However, if you want to be sure to dine at a special time, day or restaurant, or you are going at an especially busy time (especially around a holiday) it would be a good idea to make your ADRs as soon as you can.
The exception to the "no reservations" statement is the princess character meals in the castle -- you have to prepay these ADRs with a credit card when you make them (unless you are utilizing the Magic Your Way dining plan, in which case your credit card will be used as a guarantee) and you usually have to make the ADR as soon as the phone lines open on the 180th day before your arrival date.
Character Meals: These are meals where the Disney characters come around and socialize with you while you are eating. They are usually all-you-can-eat or buffet-style meals. If you want a nice, quiet relaxing meal, this is NOT the place you want to be. They are usually crowded, loud and rowdy, but lots of fun -- and if you have little ones, they are a must-do. Some character meals feature the "classic" characters: Mickey Mouse, Minnie, Donald Duck, Goofy and Pluto, or Chip & Dale. Others feature Winnie-the-Pooh and his friends, Eeyore, Tigger, Piglet. Still others spotlight the Disney Princesses, like Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, Belle, Jasmine, and more (if you have a little girl, you probably know who they are!) Character meals are very popular, especially the ones that feature the princesses, so make your ADRs as soon as you know when you will want to go.
Magic Your Way (MYW) Dining Plan: Disney will sell you a vacation package that includes tickets and accommodations called a Magic Your Way package. You can also add on a dining plan option. Basically, you pay one set price and get one snack, one counter-service meal and one table-service meal for each night of your stay. This can be a big savings -- in fact, sometimes Disney even runs special promotions that throw in the dining plan for free! (The current free dining plan promotion is good for vacation packages from August 13 to September 30 that are booked before June 4.) The MYW dining plan can only be added to Disney packages for stays at Disney resorts; it cannot be bought separately.
BOOKING YOUR TRIP
Now you know just enough about WDW to be dangerous -- so it must be time to actually book your vacation. Where do you go to do it? You can book through your favorite travel agent, through AAA, or directly through Disney. In fact, there are even some travel agents out there who specialize in booking Disney travel, such as Mouse Fan Travel , which advertises on Allears.net. If you call Disney directly (1-407-W-DISNEY), by the way, you are actually calling the Walt Disney Travel Company, a travel agency that can book airlines and rental cars as well as the Disney part of your vacation.
There are two ways to book a Disney vacation: you can book a package that includes your accommodations, park passes and sometimes a dining plan or transportation, or you can purchase each component separately. You should do some very careful comparisons here to be sure you are getting the best deal. Get as much information as you can from your travel agent or Disney or websites like Allears.net before you decide whether a package is better for you than buying your travel components individually.
Hopefully you now understand a little bit better about WDW and how things work (or at least what people are talking about when they try to help you). It is a great place to visit and you won't believe how easy it is to get caught up in the Magic of Disney.
And, by the way, a "Hidden Mickey" is an image of Mickey Mouse (either a full image, a head, or the three-circle logo you will see everywhere) in a place you wouldn't normally expect to see it -- like worked into the pattern of a carpet. These can be found all over WDW.
I hope you have a wonderful vacation!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Gretchen Foster, a web programmer, is a self-proclaimed Disney nut who was inspired to write this primer after helping a friend plan her first WDW trip. Foster, whose own first trip to WDW was in July 1972, has visited the Orlando mecca eight times, with an additional visit to Disneyland Paris. She lives in Connecticut with her daughter and daughter's fiance, her dad, and a small menagerie of four dogs, two cats, a rabbit and a hedgehog, and notes that her favorite Disney characters are all trouble-makers: Donald Duck, Chip & Dale and Figment.
This primer just reveals the tip of the WDW iceberg. For more in-depth information about the Orlando vacation destination, explore our website, especially these pages:
Ticket FAQ: http://allears.net/pl/ticket.htm
Resort Hotel Fact Sheets: http://allears.net/acc/faq_hot.htm
Resort Hotel Photo Galleries: http://allears.net/acc/gallery.htm
WDW Menus: http://allears.net/menu/menus.htm
Beyond the Theme Parks: http://allears.net/btp/beyond.htm
Is there something we left out of our Primer? Some indispensable piece of information you would share with First-Timers? Drop us a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.