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Travel Tips Disney World Florida

The great tips are provided courtesy of by Robert (Bob) Jackson

WHAT'S HERE?

Common knowledge has it that anything Disney is just for pre-teens, right? That is a myth. A terrible myth.

One of the late Walt Disney's greatest innovations - and the one upon which his company founded a whole new (and highly successful) business model for vacationing - was that a well designed and properly executed vacation destination could please both kids and adults.

For kids, the Disneyworld complex in Orlando, Florida certainly has kid-things. But for adults - with or without kids in tow - Disneyworld offers world-class, customer-focused service, variety of entertainment, and flexibility through a variety of quality food and lodging alternatives.


WHEN TO GO

Disneyworld has two traditional "low seasons" (i.e. times when crowds are lowest):
- Jan 5 through mid-February
- After Labor Day through mid December
These "low times" correspond to the best times to get discounts on hotel accommodations both in the Orlando area.

Weather in Orlando rarely gets very cold, but often gets both warm and humid.

Your family situation may dictate other travel times, of course, but I strongly suggest these low seasons if at all possible. Midsummer in hot, rainy, humid Orlando is not pleasant and the Christmas Holiday week is absolutely packed.


WHAT TO DO

Bob's Tips: Magic Kingdom

Little Kids:

Just march right up Main Street USA, through Cinderella's Castle, and do the rides at FantasyLand and then visit Mickey's Toontown fair for pictures and character meeting. Rides here are scaled for kids under 6, but adults can scrunch themselves into the rides, too. Teens will avoid these areas like the plague.

Kids and Adults - Want to do things everyone can enjoy together? I'd suggest:

  • Walk through the Swiss Family Treehouse
  • Enjoy the venerable Tiki Room show
  • Take a slow but cute ride on both the Jungle Cruise and the Pirates of the Caribbean
  • Hitch a ride on the Walt Disney World Railroad, which circles the Magic Kingdom park. Its relaxing and gives you an interesting perspective and context when your feet need a rest.
  • Tomorrowland Transit Authority (TTA) - a slow but long, casual ride through Tomorrowland, often overlooked by today's visitors. This is also a GREAT place to relax your feet and enjoy views of Magic Kingdom fireworks if you walk onto the TTA just as the fireworks begin.
  • Haunted Mansion - could be a little intense for very young children, but a very cool experience. More entertaining than scary - hint: its mostly a sedate ride, not the walk-through affair common at county carnivals.

"Big Kids" will want to do Magic Kingdom's signature rides:

  • Space Mountain - the first indoor rollercoaster and still a thrill.
  • Splash Mountain - Magic Kingdom's response to log flumes, you'll learn far more than you really needed to know about Brer Rabbit and Uncle Remus stories.
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - for some reason, this attraction is inevitably closed when I'm in the park. But on the rare occasion's I've gotten on it, its been a fun - though short and bumpy - roller coaster.
  • ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter - Not really a ride and definitely too intense for small children, this is worth a try if you're a sci-fi enthusiast.
  • Be aware: unlike the other DisneyWorld parks, Magic Kingdom serves and allows no alcohol in the park.

Dining Inside the Magic Kingdom Park (requires park admission for access):

  • Snacks: Aloha Isle just inside Adventureland. Sponsored by Dole, this place always has refreshing tropical style fruit drinks and treats. A very nice place for a small something different. Try the pineapple/vanilla swirl.
  • Counter service: Columbia Harbour House near the Haunted Mansion.
  • Try the clam chowder in a bread bowl
  • Counter service: Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe - between Fantasyland and Tomorrowland
  • A nice, big cool inside place. Sit near the silly animatronic alien performing a nightclub act with sly comments even the adults might enjoy.

Bob's Tips: Epcot

EPCOT has been many things during its development. Walt Disney himself announced it on national television as the Environmental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT): a residential community covered by a huge weather-controlled glass dome (much to the surprise of his brother who had nixed the general idea). Walt died before serious plans were underway, and his brother implemented it instead as a blend of edutainment (now called Future World at the front of Epcot) and a permanent Worlds Fair (now called World Showcase at the rear of EPCOT). It is essentially an adult-focused response to Magic Kingdom.

Little Kids:

Frankly, EPCOT isn't much of a place for tiny tots. But most little ones will enjoy or admirably tolerate the exhibits listed in the "Kids and Adults" section, below.

Kids and Adults:

  • The Living Seas - one of the first multistory aquariums in the nation wrapped in a convincing gimmick. A very educational and interesting place for the whole family.
  • Spaceship Earth - a slow moving edutainment ride inside Epcot's signature geodesic dome
  • Illuminations - EPCOT's nightly laser and fireworks show with a variety of viewpoints around the World Showcase Lagoon.

"Big Kids" - Epcot's high-end adventures include:

Test Track - a computer-controlled, untethered car whose rather timid start leads to an exciting outdoor acceleration on a straightaway.


Food at Epcot - the variety of food at Epcot is unmatched by any other Disney property, largely due to the presence of internationally-sponsored eateries within World Showcase. Some of my favorites are:

  • LeCellier Steakhouse, Canada Pavilion - great food, very cozy atmosphere, consistently good service.
  • Coral Reef - beside The Living Seas. An upscale dining experience with a theater style view of the two story aquarium in front of you. Kids are thrilled when divers stop by to wave or a shark slithers by giving you an evil eye...
  • Teppanyaki Dining - Japan Pavilion - yes, the old knife-flinging-chef-cooking-on-a-hot-grill right in front of you. Somehow, it seems ... well, ...... better at Disneyworld.
  • Sunshine Food Fair - in The Land Pavilion - a very nice, quick reasonably priced food court style eating experience

Bob's Tips: Animal Kingdom

Little Kids - if your tykes like zoos, they'll be in heaven throughout Animal Kingdom

  • Camp Minnie Mickey is a character-intense area just for little ones.
  • Character greetings occur here all day.
  • Pocahontas and her forest friends is a cute, simple, live animal show with special seating for kids under 10.
  • The BoneYard - is a great kids play yard. The sandbox comes equipped with its own fossil dig.

Kids and Adults:

  • Kilimanjaro Safari is THE ride not to miss. A fairly long, human-escorted bumpy, nearly-real photo safari in an open zoo area You will never see the same animal combinations twice. A great family experience. Plan to ride either first thing in the morning or just before park close. Using Fastpass is a great idea here.
  • Tough to be a Bug - a dark 3D theater show that will have you jumping to your feet at the end. May be toooo intense (i.e. scary) for the little ones.
  • Festival of the Lion King - a super, high energy show based on the popular children's movie but very enjoyable for adults.
  • Flights of Wonder - a very pleasant trained-bird show
  • Maharajah Jungle trek - a walking tour through "old ruins" containing a very interesting collection of animals and birds.

"Big Kids":

  • Kali River Rapids - Disney's only serious water raft ride. Yep, you will get wet.... very wet.
  • Dinosaur - a very intense, computer controlled jeep simulator ride similar to the multi-million dollar Indiana Jones ride first introduced at California's Disneyland park in the mid 1990s (still one of my very favorite rides in the world). Intense and jarring, adults love it. Most kids under 8 will come off crying.

Food at the Animal Kingdom

Have breakfast or lunch at the Rainforest Cafe. Does not require park admission. Located at the entrance to Animal Kingdom, this facility is a miniature theme park itself, part of a chain of such restaurants around the country. Portions are large, fruit juice smoothies are a specialty (try the Rain Forest Ricky), the menu is large and diverse (and moderately pricey). But you are really there for the very cool dining environment where rainforest thunderstorms amid a collection of animatronic animals occur every 30 minutes during your meal.

Bob's Tips: Disney MGM Studios

Little Kids:

  • Voyage of the Little Mermaid (a show) - if your kids drive you nuts replaying Disney's Little Mermaid movie, they'll enjoy this puppet/live actor takeoff of the movie
  • MuppetVision 3d - (a 3D theater) a cute kiddie show starring the Muppets

Kids and Adults:

  • Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular (a show) - well, its not as good as real Hollywood, but its a fun show.
  • Fantasmic (a nighttime show) - I bypassed this show for years thinking it was a dud - bad, bad mistake. A wonderful, intense show unlike the fireworks at Epcot or Magic Kingdom, this one has a story line - Mickey defeats evil.... Bad crowd problems, but ask Guest Services about special dinner packages that combine a meal with preferred seating at Fantasmic.
  • Backlot Tour (a ride) - Universal Studios Park in California started this odd trend: drag tourists through a studio backlot littered with ruins of movie props and scare them silly with a special effect gone crazy. Worth doing as a family.
  • The Great Movie Ride - well, the kids won't "get" any of this one, but adults born in the 60s or earlier will recognize their favorite movies here.

"Big Kids" - MGM's high-end adventures include:

  • Tower of Terror (a ride) - a rather unique adventure in a freefalling elevator wrapped in a storyline from Hollywood's heyday. Not a good choice for those terrified of heights, but one of the most adrenaline-producing rides at Disney.
  • Rock and Roller Coaster (a ride) - a high speed steel, dark indoor rollercoaster to blaring Aerosmith music - essentially, Space Mountain on loud steroids.
  • Star Tours - one of the park's older, high-end rides, essentially a motion simulator rather than a ride. Entertaining, though a bit dated.

Food at Disney/MGM Studios (requires park admission for access):

  • Sci-Fi Dine In Theater - a cute take-off on the old drive- in theater. You are seated in a "car" that seems to be outside in an open-air drive-in looking at a large movie screen running an eclectic (and funny) blend of "B" grade black and white movies. The fare is a cross between a 50's soda shop and today's burger joints.
  • Mama Melrose's Ristorante Italiano - in the Muppet Courtyard - still one of my favorite Italian-style restaurants anywhere in the world. It literally reeks of garlic and olive oil and has a number of great pasta dishes.

Bob's Tips: Downtown Disney

Downtown Disney is largely a shopping, eating and arcade/movie theater Mecca. No rides or serious edutainment, per se. But still a place for adults to drop some of that money burning a hole in their pocket.

Cirque du Soleil - Its expensive, its hard to get to, its hard to explain. But if you need a destination for a group of adults tired of the parks, this is an absolutely unforgettable 2 hour experience. A high energy performance of high wire, gymnastics, dance, clownsmanship, and dramatic music.

Food At Downtown Disney

  • Fulton Crab House - this seafood specialty place always smells a bit tooooo fishy for my nose's tastes, but my taste buds love it.
  • Portabello Yacht Club - Italian style dining. Ask for a table outside if its available.

On the MARKETPLACE side of Downtown Disney. (no park admission required)

  • Rain Forest Cafe - if you missed it at Animal Kingdom, try to catch it here. The Disney versions of this franchise restaurant are the nicest of the chain.
  • Ghiradelli Soda Fountain - Like Chocolate? the snack shop here is the place to fix that urge.

The following restaurants are also at Downtown Disney, but I've found them a bit overrated. You may think differently:

  • Wolfgang Pucks (in full menu and Express versions) - California Cuisine with a flair
  • House of Blues
  • Planet Hollywood - Orlando is home to this national chain
  • McDonald's - yes, Mickey D at Disney... scary, huh? Actually one of two full menu McDonalds on Disney property (the other is near Animal Kingdom).....

WHERE TO EAT

One of my very favorite things to do at Disneyworld is eat. The variety of environments in which to eat is unsurpassed and frankly is a large part of my personal entertainment experience. Disney's food is quite good, if sometimes a little pricey.

Tip: At Guest Services anywhere in the park, be sure to request the VERY handy American Express Walt Disney World Guidebook (part of American Express's "White Glove Treatment" features, but given to anyone who asks). This compact book has an excellent and up-to-date summary of dining throughout all parks.

Tip: Reservations: No but Priority Seating: Yes. Food service at Disney varies from walk-up, McDonald's style counter service to very exclusive private dining. Nearly every guest will eventually eat something from counter service; smart people will carefully select unique restaurants and make priority seating arrangements WELL in advance. Disney uses "Priority Seating" rather than a reservations system for its table service dining within the Disneyworld complex. Priority Seating is NOT a reservation - it is what some home-town restaurants refer to as "call-ahead" seating. No guarantee is made of time for seating, but my experience has been that if you are a little early, you get seated right on time and generally at a better than average table. Most (though not all) table service locations in the Disney complex honor priority seating. Priority seating arrangements can be made through a central phone number (407-WDW-DINE) or at the Guest Services booth in the parks.

Tip: Eat Smart. Vacations have a tendency to be filled with fatty fried foods. Disney is making an effort to provide alternatives to traditional greasy theme park fare. I have noticed some combination plates for kids allow you to substitute a cold bag of crisp, uncooked peeled baby carrots for fries. Drinks almost always offer a juice or milk at a reasonable price (often lower than sodas). More and more park restaurants are offering a vegetarian plate, as well. Keep these healthy alternatives in mind - healthy eating may keep you and your family in better spirits and with more energy through the long days of parkhopping.

Tip: Disney loves to feed kids. I've noticed that food for kids (including milk, juice, kids plates, etc.) at most of the "Counter service" dining establishments is very reasonably priced by theme park standards. Sometimes it is so specially priced that adults are not allowed to order it without kids in tow.....

Tip: Plan your big meals in advance: if you plan a special dining experience, make your priority seating reservation early (maybe even before you arrive). Think about arriving earlier than standard meal time or perhaps plan to got at a time most people wouldn't be thinking meal. I've had good success at having lunch at either 11:00/11:30 or 3:00pm and planning dinner for 4:30 or 5:00 pm. I've mentioned intra-park locations in the park narrative above. Let me mention a few favorites outside the parks below.

In the Magic Kingdom Area Hotels (park admission not required):

It may seems strange to think about eating at a hotel restaurant since typical hotel food shares a reputation with hospital food as being marginal, but as with many Disney properties, the in-hotel restaurants are often unique and charming. And even though they are considered part of the "Magic Kingdom" complex, Disney hotel dining experiences do not require park admission to gain entry, although you may have to pay for parking. Here are some of my favorites:

In the Grand Floridian Resort - on the "Resort Monorail" line in the Magic Kingdom area

Narcoossee's - high end table service - overlooking the 7 Seas Lagoon in front of the Magic Kingdom, this is a special place for dinner if you can get priority seating during the hour for fireworks at the Magic Kingdom. The accompanying sound track for fireworks is piped into the restaurant during the display; guests without seats at the windows overlooking the lagoon can go out on the balcony to enjoy the short fireworks program. Pricey, but worth it for a special outing.

In Disney's Wilderness Lodge - This place is a little off the beaten path; if you're not staying there, you may never stumble across it. Still, the entire Wilderness Lodge area is one of my favorite places in the whole Disneyland complex whether I'm staying there or not.

Artist Point - high end table service: Formal but not snooty dining experiences specializing in Pacific Northwest style food. Sometimes the menu gets a bit eclectic, but a great place for a romantic dinner if you're just a little adventurous. One of the BEST places to eat during the Christmas holiday decoration period, as this restaurant is decked out in style.

In Disney's Contemporary Resort - - on the "Resort Monorail" line in the Magic Kingdom area. This large A-frame hotel is probably one of the most familiar symbols of Disneyworld. It nearly fell apart in the early 1980's from neglect, but now is one of the places I frequently stay and enjoy.

California Grill: on the top floor of the Contemporary Resort (some elevators don't even go to this private floor) this pricey dining experience has some of the best views in Disneyworld. Catch it at fireworks time for Magic Kingdom and enjoy a private show among the blazing sky. The menu tends to be odd, but enjoy the environment and you'll be fine.

In Disney's Polynesian Resort - on the "Resort Monorail" line in the Magic Kingdom area.

Kona Cafe - Probably my favorite casual dining place in the Magic Kingdom Area.

Great, reasonably priced breakfasts. My favorite is fresh orange juice, Kona Coffee, and the Tonga Toast - two cinnamon-encrusted pieces of french-style sourdough bread with bananas in between... sort of like french toast with a chunky banana pudding filling.

Nice lunch or dinner menu with just the right blend of conventional and off-beat foods. Try the pot stickers as an appetizer. The fresh fish dishes - especially if one is offered Hong Kong steamed style - are excellent choices. Try the unadvertised "Lilikoi juice" - a blend of passionfruit and other fresh juices. And they have some of the most tempting desserts in the area.

Ohana - a Hawaiian format, family-style all-you-can eat experience. Lots of food and a Polynesian setting. Being very fond of the ACTUAL Hawaiian islands (see my Hawaii travel site), I found the setting a little hokey for my taste (and I don't care to be referred to as "cousin" throughout my meal), but it was an interesting experience. Probably would be very memorable for a family with small children and/or hungry teens.

In Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge - O.K., unless you are staying at the A.K. Lodge, it may be a bit far to go for food - unless you're already at Animal Kingdom next door. But should you be in the area, there are two unique dining opportunities in Animal Kingdom Lodge:

Jiko - the more upscale and intimate of these two, specializes in fairly simply and light-side cuisine, if with a somewhat African bent. Features a wide selection of South African wines, if you're into that. I particularly enjoyed the selection of unusual appetizers fixed on stage and had a wonderful sea bass wrapped in banana leaf.

Boma - probably the most unusual buffet restaurant I've ever eaten at. Had a wide range of salads, meats and desserts. Even a little kids buffet with Mickey-ronie and chicken fingers. Everyone can find SOMETHING they will like. The African-type cuisine was remarkably good; the American style food was below par. Try the Smoked Tomato Soup and Zebra Desserts, if they are available.

Bob's Best Bets for hungry adults:

Breakfast at Kona Cafe in the Polynesian

Lunch at Epcot's Coral Reef

Dinner at Epcot's LeCellier

By Marie Ospina
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