We’re on the home stretch of my theme park tester journey (I know, heart-breaking) but buckle up for some of the best days of my life. In this all-in-one guide to Walt Disney World parks, I’ll help you follow in my footsteps across four fairytale days in Florida…
Poetically, my final countdown of theme parks began with a race against time, as a giant meteor set to wipe out life hurtled towards Earth at Dinosaur, Animal Kingdom. Whilst we made our escape, this motion simulator took us through primaeval scenes with robotics bringing to life the biggest and baddest prehistoric creatures, including a T-rex. Is it too scary for kids? Aside from the impending destruction of our planet, Dinosaur includes loud sounds in the dark that may not be suitable for all ages. For everyone else, it promises to kickstart your senses better than a morning coffee.
For an attraction suitable for all ages, look no further than the ‘Off-Bugway Show’ It’s Tough to be a Bug. We headed to the Tree of Life for this 4D theatre attraction, where we ducked, dodged, flew, and felt like an ant surviving in the wild. But not just any Ant, this live show is hosted by Flik himself, from the animated film A Bug’s Life. I’d been recommended this show too and I’m delighted to say it’s worth the buzz, but if you’re going to venture into 90s movie nostalgia, you also have to check out The Festival of the Lion King…
We caught the 11am show, and although it was a social-distanced and shortened version - missing the Tumbling Monkey’s section - it was still absolutely amazing. Song, dance, and puppetry combined to create an electrifying performance that transported us to an African Savannah and sent the lyrics flying out of my mouth faster than Pumba finishes food. It’s easy to see why this is Animal Kingdom’s longest-running attraction, and in only a couple of months, the monkeys will be back in full swing for your future visit.
Another great family-friendly attraction lies off-world at the Avatar franchise-inspired Na’Vi River Journey. All heights and ages are welcome on this boat trip through Pandora’s glowing rainforest that’s as beautiful as dreamscapes.
And while in The World of Avatar, we also had the option to enjoy 12 acres full of outlets, shops, and diners. And there’s a good chance you’ll need some refreshments after rides here, as the ever-popular land does have some long queues. It took us an hour to board Na’Vi River Journey, but here’s a top tip: use the Genie app to check not only wait times but at which time of the day queues will be lowest for each ride.
Learning our lesson, we used the Genie app to time our arrival at the Kilimanjaro Safari and only waited 15 minutes. Now, if you’ve been following my blogs, you’ll know I’m now tied with David Attenborough for the most wildlife tours, but I saw the most animals I’ve ever seen here. We set off in an open-air vehicle through 110 acres of picturesque savannah beside freely roaming giraffes, swinging baboons and roaring lions that are part of 34 species living across the plains. And you get to experience this wild adventure all in 18 minutes. Yet what truly made this safari unforgettable was the cast members. More than expert tour guides, they had us laughing the whole way too.
Animal lovers also can’t leave this park without experiencing the Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail. We even managed to catch a glimpse of the baby gorilla being carried by his mum!
Unfortunately, one of Animal Kingdom’s biggest thrill rides, Expedition Everest, was closed for refurbishment on this day, but this didn’t stop us from saving the best ride until last…
We journeyed back to The World of Avatar for Flight of Passage. Here, we climbed atop a winged mountain banshee for a 3D flight over planet Pandora in astonishing immersive detail. But don’t just take my word for it – the ride is regularly voted as one of the best in the world. And if you think you’ve already seen Avatar, please know that all footage filmed for this attraction is entirely original.
With all that excitement, we almost forgot to eat! But foodies can also find thrills at Tiffins. Inspired by exploration and adventure, you can choose from a globetrotting menu of international cuisine that I cannot recommend enough. The food was so good that as we left the park, I had to wash it down with my go-to Animal Kingdom drink: an Avatar Night Blossom. Picture an Instagram-worthy slushy with flavours of apple, limeade and passion fruit - but that’s just a taste of my Disney escapades, keep reading to find out all about Epcot next…
This was my second time visiting Epcot on this trip, as you may remember from my Alternative Guide focusing on attractions besides big dippers. However, for this visit, we flew straight into my favourite Epcot ride: Soarin’ Around the World. The airborne adventure hang glides through the wonders of the world, and from horizons over the Swiss alps to the skies above Egyptian pyramids, I marvelled at the beauty brought to life by the IMAX projection dome.
Still on cloud nine, we were greeted by Mickey and Minnie as walked around the World Showcase, which following our previous visit, begins our list of attractions that were so nice we had to see them twice…
The World Showcase exhibits eleven pavilions, each celebrating a different country’s iconic architecture, landscapes, or food. You can walk through Japanese gardens with koi ponds, soak up Oktoberfest-style bars in gothic German villages or get lost gazing at smoking volcanos beyond Mexican Mayan pyramids. While in Mexico, we rode the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros. Inspired by Disney’s 1944 film, it's the perfect way to take in the sights and sounds of Mexico whilst keeping all ages entertained – due to its backdrop of animation and cheerful musical score.
As we continued exploring the World Showcase, we noticed the wait time for Spaceship Earth was surprisingly low. There’s a lot new at Epcot in 2022, including a re-designed main plaza with a fresh colour scheme, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind (featuring a first of its kind 360 degrees rotation and reverse launch) and – coming soon – Moana: Journey of Water, a garden maze that’s the first-ever attraction inspired by the hit film. But we decided to take things back to the beginning with this classic attraction – quite literally. Spaceship Earth travels to the dawn of humanity, as you witness all the new ideas and inventions that took us from the Stone Age to the moon. And if that doesn’t impress you, don’t worry, it’s still good for an incredible picture…
For food at Epcot, you’re spoiled for choice. There are over 50 restaurants offering everything from All-American dining to authentic Japanese sushi. Highlights include the Garden Grill located inside The Land pavilion in Future World – where you can also hang out with Chip n’ Dale. And Tokyo Dining – an upscale, dim-lit Japanese restaurant sitting on top of the popular Mitsukoshi Department Store. But personally, I always like to be alternative, and Flower and Garden Festival offers just that. Surrounded by freshly shaped shrubbery in the form of Disney characters, you can find eco-gems such as the Honey Bee-stro – an outdoor kitchen featuring all-natural food and drink infused with nectar. And the Isla de Fresca, a booth all about the Caribbean with tropical dishes and plant-based desserts.
For a cheeky cocktail between attractions, I highly recommend La Cava del Tequila in the Mexico Pavilion. Their infamous Avocado Margarita is best-selling, and you can even carry it around the park (just not on the rides).
Suitably refreshed, we went from one culinary adventure to another and experienced Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. This 4D experience opened Paris' Walt Disney Studios Park and arrived in Orlando just in time for Disney World’s 50th anniversary in October 2021. And in no time at all we were shrunk down to rat-sized Chef Remy, letting us dash through dining rooms and visit the film’s famous restaurant that was indeed Magnifique!
After all these globetrotting pursuits, there was only one fitting way to finish the day: a live show celebrating all the countries that inspired Disney creations. In fact, that description rather undersells Harmonious. It is one of the largest night-time spectaculars ever created for Disney parks and a centrepiece of their 50th Anniversary festivities. We were dazzled by a medley of music that soundtracked choreographed fountains, pyrotechnics and giant screens recreating the magical worlds of Disney in 360-degrees.
Next, find out if Hollywood Studios can compete with this blockbuster entertainment…
- Experiencing the Voices of Liberty
With so many epic attractions landing at Hollywood Studios in recent years, this was the very first day that we bought both Genie + and Individual Lightning Lanes passes. For Star Wars fans, I would strongly suggest you do so too, as the brand-new Star Wars land, Galaxy’s Edge, has two equally epic rides that are ever-popular from dawn till dusk. “Search your feelings… you know this to be true.”
First, we felt the full force of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. This attraction has multiple ride systems featuring the franchise's favourite characters. The immersive story begins with your recruitment by the Resistance for a secret mission in the fight against the First Order. To avoid any spoilers, I’ll settle for Disney’s own description of this attraction: it’s unlike any other experience at their resorts!
The second major Star Wars ride is Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Here, you finally get your chance to sit in Han Solo’s seat and take control of the fastest ship in the galaxy. Never flown a spaceship before? No experience necessary. You’ll get training on the job for this interactive thrill ride. Parents beware, it is loud, dark and bumpy, but as long as they’re over 97cm, I think they’ll be happier than baby Yoda eating eggs.
Beyond the Star Wars rides, me and mum must have spent a whole hour just exploring the elaborate pageantry of Galaxy’s Edge. The character experiences are an underrated selling point of the area - we got to see Kylo Ren, Rey, Chewie and countless stormtroopers. We even drank some blue and green alien milk that is apparently customary to try and compare in this land. For the record, it’s blue for the win!
The next attraction we used our Lightning Lane passes for was Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway. For any young family, this ride is perfect. As the name suggests, scary alien spaceships are out, and a leisurely drive is instore. However, there is one caveat - physics doesn’t apply here. Instead, we ventured into a cartoon world full of slapstick gags and mind-warping landscapes. And here’s a fun fact, despite featuring the classic duo of Mickey and Minnie, this ride only opened in 2021 The new aspect of this experience is the technology; it’s a trackless dark ride that doesn’t require rails and is, therefore, able to reverse and rotate to wildly entertaining results.
For more family-friendly twists and turns, check out Slinky Dog Dash. Its drops are moderate, but its backdrop of Andy’s yard is oversized and sure to deliver huge nostalgia.
For lunch, we inevitably found ourselves back in Galaxy’s Edge, but not at the restaurant you might expect. The go-to reservation on this side of the cosmos is Oga’s Cantina - the famous bar in A New Hope where bounty hunters, galactic smugglers and the odd Jedi hang out. But for a quick pit-stop snack, Docking Bay 7 is my top tip. Housed in an old hangar bay, you can feast on local Batuuan beef, Endorian chicken, Takodana Veggie Dippers and other common bites with a Star Wars twist. The best part? You can click and collect the food with a mobile order!
With our bellies full, the afternoon was reserved for a live show with our seats firmly on the ground. First, we watched Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular - my favourite Hollywood Studios show. Treating us to scenes straight out of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indy dodged traps and fought bad guys in death-defying stunts with old-school special effects that added a true sense of realism. Expanded upon these old Hollywood tricks, after the main show the cast demonstrates how to take a (fake) punch, wield whips and ‘safely’ fall from buildings.
I also must give a quick shout-out to the hilarious Muppet Vision 3D in Grand Avenue , and Toy Story Mania, a fun-filled 4D shooting game in – you guessed it – Toy Story Land. But with our stomachs settling down, it was time to live life in the fast lane again…
The legendary Rock 'n' Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith took us through three high-speed inversions, two rollover loops and one corkscrew, as we raced through LA landmarks listening to the band’s signature songs, such as Walk This Way. Yet be warned, you may need a hand to walk straight afterwards. This iconic attraction opened all the way back in 1999, but still rivals the fastest rides in the world.
By night, we caught two projection movies beaming onto the walls of the Chinese Theatre: Disney Movie Magic and the Wonderful World of Animation. After a memorable day, this nostalgic tribute to 90 years of Disney and Pixar animation was the perfect way to end the experience with where it all began.
However, my diary of Disney theme parks isn’t over just yet – keep reading for one more final guide on where to find the magic…
Bad news: my final day of theme park testing promised awful weather in the early afternoon. But where better to learn how to dance in the rain than at Magic Kingdom!
Armed with Genie + and Individual Lighting Lane passes in the morning, we still managed to get on Peter Pan’s Flight, Haunted Mansion, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Space Mountain, Jungle Cruise and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. A huge thank you must go to Genie+ for getting us into all these attractions.
Remember, whilst the Disney Genie app is a free service that lets you personalise your experience – using info such as ride wait times– Genie+ is a replacement for the previous FastPass system and costs $15 per person per day. For the most popular attractions, I have to say that the Lightning Lane access that Genie+ provides is invaluable.
Out of our action-packed morning, I’d also like to sing the praises of Pirates of the Caribbean. This immersive dark ride first opened all the way back in 1973 and will still have you hollering “A Pirate’s Life for Me”, as you voyage through cannon fire and ransacked seaports. And of course, it wouldn’t be Pirates of the Caribbean without a special appearance from Captain Jack himself!
During days of stormy weather, you can also rely on Captain Jack to steady the ship and keep Pirates of the Caribbean open. Other attractions that remain available during thunder and lightning include the likes of Winnie the pooh, Journey of the Little Mermaid, PhilharMagic (which includes a wonderful new Coco character scene) and many more indoor events.
It is the big coasters that go down, such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Jungle Cruise, and the Seven Dwarves Mine Train. For the latter ride, lightning struck right at our entry time. However, rest assured that if this happens to you, like us, you can get a pass to return as soon as the ride is back up and running – which doesn’t usually take long.
To take shelter from the rain, we headed to the Enchanted Tiki Room. This vintage attraction opened even before Pirates of the Caribbean, in 1963 at Disneyland Park. In 2022, it’s Magic Kingdom’s Polynesian paradise where you can experience a theatre show conducted by over 200 animatronic birds – it’s cuter than it sounds, trust me! Its ground-breaking technology also paved the way for attractions such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion.
To finish the day and sign off from our journey at Florida theme parks, we experienced the brand-new night-time event Enchantment. The firework and light show bonanza took place from Cinderella Castle all the way down to Main Street, USA, as timeless Disney songs and characters took us through generations of childhood dreams, living up to shows promise of ‘empowering us to still believe in ourselves and magic.’
And in these testing times, I dare you to experience the fairytale of Disney parks and not believe. Because more than ever, those magical moments brought my family together, and I can’t wait to hear all about your time here too, that on a rainy afternoon back in Britain, will bring a whole lot of sunshine to my day. In the meantime, thank you so much for following this theme park tester journey, and to the whole team at Ocean Florida that made this wonderful adventure possible!
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