Plan the most magical trip to the Mouse House with these must-dos and hidden gems.
Walt Disney World isn’t just a theme park. It’s a bustling metropolis that’s the same acreage as San Francisco with buses, trams, monorails, boats, ferries, gondolas, a soon-to-be high-speed rail, and polka dot Minnie-vans all zipping about the resort. It’s impossible to do it all in one visit as the massive property features nearly 30 hotels, around 50 rides, and about 200 places to eat. At that scale, the magic can be a bit overwhelming. So, here’s the best of the best, from brand-new, high-tech attractions to iconic snacks to nostalgic shows that never get old. Whether you’re a first-timer or annual passholder, here are the top 25 must-dos, must-eats, and must-stays.
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Travel to Batuu
Star Wars fans can now step into the story themselves at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. The highly-themed land in Disney’s Hollywood Studios is set on the planet Batuu and the plots of the attractions, as well as character encounters, are all considered canon in the Star Wars universe. The land’s Black Spire Outpost features a bustling marketplace with a droid depot and a lightsaber workshop, a galactic space bar with droid dubstep, and a mystical boutique just for Jedi artifacts and souvenirs. The land’s two rides allow fans to pilot the infamous piece of junk on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run as well as battle the First Order on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
Ride the Skyliner
Disney World’s latest resort transportation option is just as cool as rides inside the parks. Dubbed the Disney Skyliner, this aerial gondola system connects EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and four Disney hotels with a traffic-free commute high in the sky. The gondolas can accommodate up to 10 people (or six people and one wheelchair or stroller) and soar up to 60 feet above the resort, affording guests incredible, never-before-seen views of the parks. And the gondolas themselves are super cute with vibrant colors and select character wraps.
Shrink to the Size of a Toy
Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios is fun for kids and adults alike. The themed area is designed to look like Andy’s backyard with perspective and sightlines designed to make you feel like you’re the size of a small toy. Attractions, food stands, and even the restrooms have a larger-than-life feeling with references to all kinds of toys, from Scrabble pieces to a giant, interactive Etch-A-Sketch. Slinky Dog Dash is a fun but not too thrilling ride perfect for a kid’s first roller coaster.
Trick-or-Treat With Mickey
There are several specialty-ticketed holiday park parties, but Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party is the best. These private events feature a reduced capacity and tons of extra magical theming, from ride overlays to exclusive food to meet-and-greets with rare characters. Amid the pandemic, MNSSHP has been scaled back to Boo Bash but the Halloween event will still include candy stops, character sightings, special décor, lighting, music, and more. And the best part: You get to wear a costume inside the Magic Kingdom. This isn’t a big deal for kiddos as, per park policy, anyone younger than 12 can rock a costume 365 days a year. But for adults and families, this event is your one chance a year to do a Disney-themed group costume or couple costume for Halloween photos.
Make Time for the Water Parks
Most park-goers plan a week’s vacation around the four theme parks with a spare day for shopping at Disney Springs, but Disney World also has two themed water parks: Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. And they’re so much fun. Blizzard Beach explores the hilarious juxtaposition of a fictional freak snowstorm in Florida with bobsled tracks turned waterslides and a ski chairlift with candy-colored beach umbrellas on top. The park’s playlist even includes a handful of wintery Christmas tunes…but played on the steelpan.
See Festival of the Lion King
All four parks have Disney Broadway-inspired shows, but if you only see one show at Disney World, it has to be “Festival of the Lion King.” It’s as close as you can get to the real thing because the same style of puppetry is used. And the sheer talent of vocalists will blow you away. Located in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, this theater-in-the-round experience has been shortened and modified amid the pandemic to “A Celebration of Festival of the Lion King,” but it’s still packed with star power and a must-see.
Take a Behind the Scenes Tour
Everything at Disney World is a show. Culturally, employees are referred to as Cast Members and anything inside the parks is considered “on stage.” However, there is a way to go backstage and behind the magic on select tours. These specialty-ticketed tours pull back the curtain and allow guests to learn so much more about the parks and park design, from a Behind the Seeds Tour at EPCOT which explores Disney’s hydroponic gardens to Wild Africa Trek at Animal Kingdom which explores the park’s un-seen savannas on a three-hour adventure. But for the ultimate Disney fan, Keys to the Kingdom is a rite of passage. This Magic Kingdom tour dives into the hidden gems, secrets, and even a stroll through the famed Utilidor tunnels beneath the park.
Ride Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway
The mice that started it all finally have their own theme park attraction. Located in the Chinese Theater where The Great Movie Ride used to be, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway puts guests inside a two-dimensional cartoon. No spoilers, but as the name suggests, there’s a train. And Goofy is driving. So, mistakes are made. The attraction features trackless vehicles and a pre-show with some of the most advanced and coolest special effects in the parks. Amid the pandemic, the pre-show is not running. However, ride attendees will give you all the exposition you need.
Shop the World’s Largest Disney Store
Disney Springs used to be a couple of stores with discounted merch, but in the last couple of years, it’s exploded into a full outdoor shopping experience with its own attractions, signature dining, and the largest Disney store on the planet. World of Disney is a must for anyone souvenir hunting. It has it all, from ears to apparel to home decor and homewares. Most of the merchandise on Main Street U.S.A. and other big shops in the parks will show up here, too. So, save your time in the parks for rides and head here for one-stop shopping. And for a double must-do, World of Disney and Disney Springs, in general, are full of holiday spirit in November and December.
Take a Magic Shot
Immersive tech is woven into Disney attractions and restaurants all the time. If you’re in line for Expedition Everest, you might see posters change on the wall. And those posters might just have your name on them. It’s a magical, additional layer to the parks and it’s popping up in more and more Disney PhotoPass locations with Disney Magic Shots. These digital downloads feature a surprise addition to the picture like a character cameo or a lighting effect such as Mickey bokeh. Magic Shots are always changing as there are nearly 50 different special effects and some rotate seasonally. The brand new Super Zoom Magic Shots takes a Boomerang-esque video of you inside the park at a bird’s eye level but then zooms in Where’s Waldo-style to find you.
Attend an After Hours Party
If meeting characters is priority number one for you or your kiddo, a Disney After Hours event is a great way to meet lots of characters in a short amount of time with little wait. These specialty-ticketed time blocks at Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios have reduced capacity and occur after regular park hours, typically 7 p.m. to midnight. Most park rides are available, too, so it’s a great way to get on the coasters with notoriously long wait times such as Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Space Mountain. These events have paused amid the pandemic, but given the announcement of Boo Bash, dates might be added soon.
Happily Ever After Fireworks Show
Select fireworks returned to Disney World on July 1 and that includes the best nighttime spectacular at the Magic Kingdom. Find a spot in front (but not too close) of Cinderella’s Castle for Happily Ever After. The 18-minute show features incredible fireworks and a nostalgic score from Disney classics, but the real draw is the projection mapping technology. The castle and nearby turrets transform into scenes and buildings from tons of Disney films. Newbies will try to crowd the very front, but the best view of the projections is at a slight distance, further back around the hub.
Snag a Gideon’s Bakehouse Cookie
For years, Disney World guests lined up early at The Polite Pig barbecue joint not for the pulled pork, but for the iconic half-pound-each cookies that sold out daily. But the Orlando bakery responsible for these doughy wonders, Gideon’s Bakehouse, finally got their own shop at Disney Springs with a full menu of ooey, gooey goodness. If you’ve never tried a Gideon’s cookie, it’s unlike any other as the cookie is seemingly turned inside out with all the chips and mix-ins completely covering the outside. And on the inside? If you’re #TeamChewy, it’s sheer heaven as the completely cooked treats somehow have the consistency of raw cookie dough.
Try All the Dole Whips
Available at Aloha Isle in the Magic Kingdom and Pineapple Lanai at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, the Dole Whip is the Disney park snack. And it’s vegan! Don’t let the creaminess fool you. It’s actually just frozen pineapple in soft serve form. The treat has earned quite the cult following and these days you can find Dole Whip swirls with other flavors, from raspberry to orange, as well as seasonal soda and juice Dole Whip floats. One of the best combos is Redd’s Revenge (a float with strawberry Dole Whip and strawberry Fanta) at Sunshine Tree Terrace.
Attend One of EPCOT’s Food Festivals
Eating and drinking around the world at EPCOT’s World Showcase is just the beginning of grazing at the Mouse House. Menus, entertainment, and country pavilions get turned up to an 11 during the park’s four annual celebrations: Festival of the Arts, Flower & Garden Festival, Food & Wine Festival, and International Festival of the Holidays. Each festival means dozens of extra food booths, outdoor kitchens, and seasonal kiosks. And it’s all themed. For the arts festival, there’s a pop art pop tart and a Piet Mondrian sponge cake. And the flower and garden fest brings the return of the incredibly popular frozen violet lemonade. It’s basically the PSL of Disney.
Dine Inside Cinderella Castle
Disney dining reservations are notoriously hard to snag as sit-down bookings open up 60 days before a trip. (And before the pandemic it was 180 days!) One of the hardest, most-coveted reservations is Cinderella’s Royal Table. It’s not really about the food but rather the ambiance as the dining hall is literally inside Cinderella Castle. You get to take a special gold elevator and look out over Fantasyland and the rest of Magic Kingdom. Alternatively, if you can’t get in at Cindy’s, Be Our Guest is just as magical for Beauty and the Beast fans. The restaurant inspired by Beast’s castle features the ballroom, a mysterious West Wing, and, yes, you can “try the gray stuff.”
Eat All the Mickey-shaped Food
The most iconic park treats are always Mickey-shaped, from waffles to ice cream bars. However, the quintessential Mickey-shaped treat is the Mickey Pretzel. This snack, which can be found at all six theme parks and water parks, has become quite polarizing on social media due to the dip debate over the peel-top cup of cheese that it’s served with. The faux, ballpark nacho-style cheese gets called a lot of things, from perfection to plastic. Try it and see where you stand. (This writer is passionately pro-peel-top and loves plastic cheese.)
Enjoy Fine Dining—Yes, Really—on Property
If you think theme park food is just corndogs and soft serve, book a table at Tiffins. The restaurant inside Animal Kingdom park combines Latin American, Asian, and African cuisine–the signature bread service alone is worth booking. If you can’t snag a table at Tiffins, try its first-come, first-serve Nomad Lounge next door. Outside the parks, several of the resort’s upscale restaurants are bucket list-worthy, from California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort (which has incredible fireworks views and monorail-themed swizzle sticks) to the AAA Five Diamond Award Victoria & Albert’s at the Grand Floridian.
Have Breakfast With Mickey
Character dining is an absolute must. The premium of avoiding meet-and-greet lines for character photos is worth every penny. Inside the parks, Tusker House has the best food and character interactions. Located inside Animal Kingdom, Mickey and crew have ridiculously cute safari outfits and the African-meets-American breakfast can’t be beaten. Outside the parks, fans love the new-ish (and boozy) Topolino Terrace. The view is incredible, but the food is meh. If you’re going to shell out the big bucks, head over to Four Seasons Orlando for breakfast with Goofy. It’s not promoted, but Mickey and Minnie visit, too. And they’re in adorable, preppy ’80s tennis outfits.
Cheers at the Enchanted Rose
Cinderella might have the castle, but Belle has the bar. The Enchanted Rose lounge at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is like stepping onto the set of the 2017 live-action Beauty and the Beast. The aesthetic is everywhere, from oil paintings to a grand fireplace with the Beast’s magic mirror and the enchanted rose in a glass cloche. The bar is divided into three themed spaces and an outdoor patio, but the room to ask for is the library as you’ll spot familiar characters such as Mrs. Potts, Lumiere, and Cogsworth all subtly placed on the floor to ceiling bookshelves.
Do the Monorail Bar Crawl
Enchanted Rose is one of many immersive themed bars at Disney World and you can experience a handful of them on the Monorail resort line. The loop stops at Polynesian Resort, Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and literally runs through the Contemporary Resort. Hop off for the Seven Seas Lagoon, a giant fishbowl cocktail complete with gummy fish, or the Polynesian Pearl at Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto. The tiki-inspired bar is highly interactive with reactions that trigger throughout the room depending on which drink you order. No spoilers but one cocktail just might create rough, stormy seas and an island downpour.
Brave the Beverly
Tasting sodas from around the world at Club Cool is a theme park rite of passage. The Coca-Cola attraction in EPCOT was closed amid the park’s ongoing revitalization of EPCOT Center, but Disney confirmed it’s coming back. And that means guests can try Japanese apricot punch, melon Fanta, and the infamous Beverly soda once again. This bitter Italian soft drink (which Italy discontinued in 2009) lives on at Coca-Cola tasting experiences and elicits extreme love-it-or-hate-it reactions. It’s the cilantro of the soda world. In the meantime, while EPCOT’s front half is still under construction, there’s the Coca-Cola Store at Disney Springs, which features international soda flights as well as domestic soda ice cream float flights.
Rent DVC Digs
Disney Vacation Club, Disney’s timeshare-esque program, has some seriously over-the-top villas, and you don’t have to be a DVC member to stay in one. You won’t even want to leave for the parks because the designs are so dream-worthy. The waterfront Copper Creek Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge has a modern, PNW aesthetic with a private hot tub. It’s a great way to unwind and watch the Electrical Water Pageant at night. And over at Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, you can sleep in a treehouse! But the most jaw-dropping mouse digs are at Polynesian Resort. The over-the-water DVC bungalows have a private plunge pool and one of the most gorgeous tiled bathrooms on the property.
Relax in Luxury at Disney’s Riviera Resort
Disney hotels are divided into tiers: value, moderate, and deluxe. The marquee deluxe is the Grand Floridian. And it’s fine. It has a premium location. But there’s a new deluxe in town and the rooms and pools are so much better. Disney’s Riviera Resort is inspired by Walt and Lillian Disney’s travels along the Mediterranean Coast. (The Voyageurs’ Lounge even features some artifacts and reproductions from The Walt Disney Archives.) The hotel riffs off of 19th-century France and Italy with Mickey and Minnie in berets, delicious lemon madeleines at Le Petit Café, and Disney artwork reimagined as Impressionist paintings. There’s even mayonnaise on tap for your pomme frites at the quick-service Primo Piatto.
Treat Your Kiddos to a Themed Room
There’s Disney magic at every price point and the best themed rooms are actually in the moderate category. The Royal Guest Rooms at Disney’s Port Orleans Resort are outfitted with tons of regal details, from Aladdin‘s magic carpet to an enchanting headboard inspired by The Princess and the Frog with a secret activated fireworks display. And over at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, you can sleep in a pirate ship. Read: Not cute bedding. Actual ship bed frames. And the bedside tables are (empty) rum barrels.
Port Orleans and French Quarter Resorts have not reopened yet and no date has been given for their reopening. Same with Trader Sam's, Victoria and Albert's and Typhoon Lagoon. Currently the monorail doesn't stop at the Polynesian, so you need to get off at the Transporation and Ticket Center or Grand Floridian and walk back to the Polynesian. Or take a boat from the MK or a bus from any park.
Thanks for the tips.