It’s been more than five years since I last visited Walt Disney World. That’s a strange thing for me to type knowing I spent my entire childhood visiting annually, and knowing how mind-numbingly long the time in-between those annual visits seemed as a kid. Realizing back then that I’d someday grow into a person who could be away from Orlando for more than a thousand days in a row would have sent me into shock.
Yet the reality isn’t so dire. I’m in San Francisco now and I’m able to visit Disneyland at least once a year, if not more. And the freedom that comes with being an adult lets me visit any Disney park I want, and I’ve had the good fortune to journey to all of them, even a preview visit to Hong Kong Disneyland back in February. I’m confronted with one of the amazing things about the Disney parks every time someone asks me which one is the best: they all have something completely worthwhile and unique. Anaheim’s Disneyland has the most attractions—and many of the best. Tokyo has DisneySea along with Pooh’s Hunny Hunt and the best Splash Mountain. Paris not only has the finest overall resort layout but has the best Pirates of the Caribbean, nestled next to wonderful Adventure Isle. Hong Kong rests on the most spectacular piece of property underneath any of the resorts, providing remarkable views you won’t find at any other Disney park.
Still, none of these places are Walt Disney World. Disney World—especially its Magic Kingdom—takes a ton of abuse by folks on the Internet: it’s too big; it’s heartless; it’s not the park Walt built. For whatever reason, the Internet is dominated by Westcoasters, weaned on Disneyland and fiercely proud—and defensive—about “their” park. I’m one of them now, and after years of being a Disney World fanatic I’ll admit that I’ve come around to thinking that…maybe…Disneyland is the best Disney park of them all. But I think people out here really underestimate the gem that’s sitting in Orlando. So bear with me as I go off on my stream-of-consciousness rant about the greatness that is Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom:
The Orlando Magic Kingdom rests in an exquisite location, on the far side of the picturesque Seven Seas Lagoon, away from everything and accessible primarily by monorail or boat. The difficulty of reaching the park works in its favor: this “kingdom on the hill” aesthetic does wonders for making the place seem even more magical. My last time at the resort, we stayed at the Wilderness Lodge and took the boat launch from the hotel to the park. Arriving by water in front of the Magic Kingdom had to be the most intense, remarkable Disney experience I’ve had since age ten, and it’s something that I’d recommend everyone doing if they get the chance. Only Hong Kong visitors will get to experience anything that’s remotely close to it. (I’ll grudgingly admit that the Magic Kingdom is now accessible by bus as well, an early nineties development that I found pretty horrifying at the time. But even that unfortunate decision hasn’t diminished the aesthetic too significantly.)
It’s worth noting that as the boat pulled up to the park, Cinderella’s Castle filled my vision as much as the train station did, and it’s here where I’ll pick at the item that raises a Disneyland fan’s ire more than anything else. There’s no other way to say it: the castle in Anaheim is just way too small. (Apologists toss out adjectives like “quaint” and “charming,” but when I envision “quaint”, something at least 33% bigger springs to mind.) The Disney World castle, on the other hand, totally works for me. It perfectly fills up the space granted by the Main Street buildings that frame it. It’s not only visible from any location in the park, it’s visible when you drive up to the Ticket and Transportation Center and from any of the resorts around the Seven Seas Lagoon. It dominates a Disney World visit in a way that Disneyland’s doesn’t.
The Disney World castle is not only the best on the outside; it’s the best on the inside, too. (On second thought, I’ll give that credit to Disneyland Paris because it has a dragon in it. You can’t beat having a dragon. But Disney World’s is special in every other way.) You can actually enjoy a meal in there, in a beautiful dining hall that grants you a wonderful panorama of Fantasyland below. And the spectacular tile mosaics depicting the story of Cinderella in the castle’s main hallway are, I think, the most beautiful piece of artwork to be found in any of the Disney parks. They’re so great, in fact, that I don’t even know what would come in second place. I could spend hours staring at them.
Disneyland Paris always receives notices for its beauty, and it is indeed beautiful. Yet I think Disney World’s beauty is at least comparable. Its ornate Main Street is my favorite, and it’s capped by the spectacular Crystal Palace, easily the most handsome building in any Disney park. The park feels more expansive than any of the other Magic Kingdoms, though never empty or desolate. And the Florida climate really does wonders for the flora of the park: the greenery is more lush than at any of the other Magic Kingdoms, and its thirty-year-old trees have grown and filled out in extraordinary ways.
I like some of Florida’s attractions better than their siblings in Anaheim. In Orlando, Space Mountain is a real structure—an actual building—unlike Disneyland, where it looks like a façade built on top of a utility warehouse. And boy, is the Florida Space Mountain big, as big as something called “Space Mountain” should be. Its enormous queue builds an incredible sense of anticipation. The ride itself is quite different than Anaheim’s, more roller-coaster-y, with real dips, albeit small ones. I’m not sure if it’s possible to objectively assert that one’s track is truly superior to the other’s, but I will say that Florida’s lift hill is awesome. Envision Disneyland’s whole boarding area tilted at a thirty-degree angle, dangling in front of you as you contemplate the inky blackness ahead. It’s a much cooler experience.
My favorites don’t stop with Space Mountain, and I’ll now shock everyone by saying that I think that the two quintessential Disney attractions—Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion—are also better in their Florida incarnations. This will be a hard sell, but we’ll start with the easy one first: the Haunted Mansion. Disney World’s exotic “House of Usher” exterior taps more directly into my subconscious; it’s immediately recognizable as the canonical haunted house before even being told what’s inside. If you like Disneyland’s understated exterior better, I’ll let it slide because you’re not going to convince me that the inside of the ride isn’t better in Florida. The entrance foyer is more elaborately themed and immersive, and the addition of a library, portrait gallery, and a ghostly piano player all draw the ride out and give it a more leisurely, creepy pace. If I met someone who hadn’t ever experienced the Haunted Mansion, Orlando is where I’d want to teleport them.
Here’s the bigger selling job: trying to convince you that Florida’s Pirates is better than the original. Let’s defuse all of those arguments welling up in your head right here at the beginning by first stating what’s wrong with the Florida Pirates. It doesn’t have the elegant bayou introduction, and no Blue Bayou restaurant. The skeleton/cave sequence is a lot shorter. And the end is shorter too, with no “creaking timber” room. But for my money, you get a lot in return. The Orlando Pirates is the first themed queue Disney ever built, and it’s huge and well-done. If you argue that an attraction starts not at the point you get in the ride vehicle but rather at the queue-up-point (and I think most Disney fans would argue that this is indeed the case) then the Florida Pirates isn’t so short.
I like the ride’s Spanish fort exterior, with its bellowing cannons and barker bird outside. I like the “grotto” boarding area with its pirate ship on a moonlit sea, and I like the fact that since the ride has a separate disembarkation area, the boats arrive mysteriously empty rather than full of people who’ve obviously weathered the attraction without any trouble. I think the rock work in the caves looks better, and its lighting is less garish than the over-the-top rainbow colors at Disneyland. And the beginning section doesn’t veer off into the confusing goofiness that Anaheim’s does, with grog-swilling skeletons and a comical musical background. (For more about this objection, you can take a look at this earlier post.) The final scene at Disney World, with the Pirates wallowing in captured gold and treasure, feels a tad more like an “ending” to me, but I could see how someone could disagree; in reality it’s likely no better or no worse an ending than Anaheim’s.
So now are you convinced? Probably not, but that’s okay. My point, of course, is not that Disney World has all of the best Disney park moments. Some fantastic Disneyland attractions are missing entirely: the Indiana Jones Adventure, Roger Rabbit’s Car-Toon Spin, Pinocchio’s Daring Adventures, Alice in Wonderland, and Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. But Disney World is home to far more classic Disney moments than it’s generally given credit for.
Disneyland fans like to trumpet their park’s rich history, but hey, Disney World has been open for thirty-four years now…that’s a lot of history, too. Best of all, there’s more “live” history at Disney World than there is at Disneyland, where they’ve had to toss out the old stuff to make room for the new; in Florida, there’s room for it all. Imagine visiting the Carousel of Progress, then strolling over to the PeopleMover to get a gander at Walt’s “Progress City” model. Sounds like the Disneyland moment of your dreams, right? Yet it’s a moment that only existed for six years in Anaheim while it’s been at Walt Disney World for thirty. Best of all, you can still experience it today as long as you’re willing to work around the Carousel of Progress’s spotty operating schedule. The history doesn’t stop there: want to visit the Country Bear Jamboree? Climb through the Swiss Family Treehouse, complete with the original plumbing and organ? Ride an unabridged Jungle Cruise? Fly in the StarJets while sitting atop the PeopleMover station? A lot of your best Disneyland memories are right there waiting for you in Orlando.
Like Disneyland, Disney World has its own storied past. Visions of the long-retired Swan Boats and Home of Future Living dance in Disney World fans’ heads as often as dreams of the Flying Saucers and Adventure Thru Inner Space do for Westcoasters. Disney World’s Tomorrowland circa 1975, with its towering Jetsons-style entrance fountains, might be more exciting and picturesque than any Tomorrowland has ever been. You won’t find a more classic Disney attraction than If You Had Wings, an amazing combination of Disney quirkiness and ‘70s travel sensibilities, wrapped up in a great big colorful package and capped with an exotic X. Atencio-Buddy Baker theme song. And you can’t argue that Disney World’s Nautilus-themed subs weren’t way cooler than the plain Disneyland ones. You just can’t. I won’t listen.
Walt Disney World gets dinged by Disneylanders as feeling big, corporate, and heartless. But believe me, nostalgia is a weird thing: Disney World’s Magic Kingdom is every bit as heart-warming as Disneyland…it’s just what you’re used to. The immersive world you inhabited when you visited Walt Disney World in the ‘70s is still unmatched at any other Disney resort. People made a big deal about Paris’ Disneyland Hotel being located in the park; at Disney World, the distinction was so blurry that while staying at the resorts it really never occurred to me that I wasn’t in the park. The Contemporary and Polynesian Resorts were as much a part of the Magic Kingdom as Tomorrowland and Adventureland. So was the monorail, elevated from “ride” status at Disneyland into a real transportation system. And the Electrical Water Pageant that nightly paraded around the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake (and still does) delivers just as much delight—if not more—than the Main Street Electrical Parade did out west.
You might notice that in describing what’s great at Disney World, I haven’t included much that’s been built since the late ‘70s. That isn’t out of some bias against the new stuff, because a lot of that new stuff is great: Tower of Terror is one of the best attractions ever built, and the suite of hotels built since the mid-‘80s are the best at any Disney park, if not the best at any single locale in the world. Both water parks are excellent, and though there are some things I don’t like about Epcot and Animal Kingdom, they’re not without their charms, either. In short, there are more fun things to do at Disney World—even if you completely exclude the Magic Kingdom—than at just about any other vacation destination I can think of. Yet despite the additions, for me, nothing has trumped the fun to be had at the core property situated around the Seven Seas Lagoon and Bay Lake. For me, Walt Disney World hasn’t become a better, more fun, place, and were I to make any criticism of the resort, it’s that: over the years Disney World has gotten bigger, but it hasn’t truly gotten better.
That’s not to say that it’s gotten worse, either. Take my advice: don’t waste your time arguing with Disney fans that Walt Disney World is or isn’t the best. Don’t waste your time arguing that any of the other resorts are the best, either. Just sit back and enjoy the fact that they’re all worthwhile, and that the Disneyland ideal is accessible to more people than ever. In fact, it’s just about the only thought that could have brightened my spirits as a kid more than the thought of our annual Disney trips: who knew that when I’d grow up I’d have five uniquely different Disney resorts to explore?