Our Top Ten Favorite Disney World Attractions

>> Monday, December 28, 2009

This month we took Jo (age seven) on her first trip to Disney World in Florida. After five days, six nights, and countless miles walked, we returned home tired but happy. We went armed with good information, and learned even more, so this week we thought we would chronicle our experience in list form, for the edification of anyone planning a similar trip.

Why don't we begin with the things we loved? Today's list: our top ten favorite attractions! We enjoyed many more things than are listed here, and often the things Jo loved we didn't, but these were the consensus favorites among parents and kid alike.


1) Toy Story Midway Mania

If you've played the Buzz Lightyear Space Ranger Spin in the Magic Kingdom park, you may be tempted to skip the Toy Story Midway Mania ride at Hollywood Studios, thinking you've already been there and done that. You'd be wrong. Yes, both rides put you and a co-pilot in a car with laser guns, letting you shoot targets, but Toy Story Midway Mania is lightyears better than Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin--so much so that once we played Midway Mania, we swore we would never stand in line for the Space Ranger Spin again.

What makes this ride so incredible? For one thing, it's in 3-D, and GOOD 3-D. Wearing 3-D glasses, you are pulled through six "mini-games," where you shoot at targets on richly animated screens with art straight out of the Pixar movies. Your shots translate into paint balls, baseballs, rings, or plungers depending on which mini-game you're playing, and the interface is so seamless and real you'll feel as though the little toy gun on the car is actually shooting things. The ride is massively addictive--so much so that we used every single Fast Pass we could on it, and stood in line another two or three times without Fast Passes.


2) Expedition Everest

We're cheating a little here--this wasn't a total consensus pick. Jo loves roller coasters, but the theming on some of the rides--like this one, and on the Tower of Terror--scares the pants off her, and she refuses to ride a second time although she screamed in excitement the first time she rode both. Expedition Everest is first and foremost an excellent roller coaster, taking you both backward and forward on the same ride, and spinning you in and out of a dark mountain. But what really puts Expedition Everest over the top is the incredible theming--from the brilliant Nepalese outfitter shop you queue through in line, to the sound effects and Yeti animations during the ride. (It was the Yeti animation that did Jo in.) Expedition Everest is the perfect synthesis of Imagineering and flat out rollercoastering we've ever been on.


3) Soarin'

Easily a consensus pick at number three, and hands down Jo's favorite ride, as her number one wish is to be able to fly. Soarin' comes pretty darn close to giving you the feeling of independent flight, strapping you in to a long row of seats that are mechanically lifted up into a round, Imax-like screen. There, you swoop in and out of clouds and over a series of aerial flyovers of California, from the vineyards at Napa Valley to the city of San Diego and all points in between. Soarin' is absolutely the best thing at Epcot (by far) and deserves multiple rides. Like Midway Mania at Hollywood Studios, we used every Fast Pass we could on this one--and you'll want to. The wait time for this ride is insanely long, perhaps the worst standby line wait we experienced in any of the four parks at any time the whole week. (This is helped, some, by games you can play on massive computer screens while waiting in line.) When they open the gates to Epcot, make for the Land pavilion, get a Fast Pass for Soarin', then jump into the standby line, which shouldn't be too awful first thing. If you love it as much as we did, you'll want to come back and get a new Fast Pass for it each and every time you can...


4) It's a Small World

All right, we're going to take some grief over this pick. People who revile It's a Small World remember the repetitive song, which is sung over and over (and over) again in many different languages. What people don't seem to remember is the art of It's a Small World, which was created by Mary Blair, a legendary mid-century Disney concept artist. Her work is also featured on the Peter Pan ride, which is well worth your time, but the line for Peter Pan is three times as long as the one for It's a Small World, and there's less of her genius art to be seen. If it's the song that's keeping you away, plug your ears and go back with open eyes and pay more attention to the sets than the dolls. It's a Small World is like riding through a forty year old piece of art.

5) Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror

This was the other one Jo refused to ride twice, but only because of the atmospheric theming. The two days we were at Hollywood Studios in mid-December, this ride had insanely short wait times--basically, you could ride this one as quickly as you could walk up the line queue to it. (I once got on in five minutes.) And Tower of Terror is worth repeated rides. Essentially a "Whoa Belly" ride, at its heart this is a raise you up and drop you ride, but where it stands apart from the usual up-and-down stomach churner is its randomly programmed sequence of raises and drops: no two rides are ever the same. You're also treated to periods of darkness and periods of light--including glimpses outside, which let you see all the way to the Magic Kingdom. (If you don't have your eyes closed.) The Twilight Zone theming in the hotel is great, and the ghost effects at the beginning of the ride are a neat prelude to the ride to come, but the theming effects will definitely keep younger riders from going twice. (The creepy little girl singing "It's raining, it's pouring..." did it for Jo.)

6) Nemo: The Musical

In past visits (all as adults, and without Jo) we've skipped the shows. Why bother when there are all those great roller coasters and thrill rides? But this year we hit the shows for Jo's sake, and many times were were blown away--as we were with Nemo: The Musical. The songs were just okay, but what really made the show outstanding was the puppetry. All the characters are rendered as puppets, handled by visible operators and moved around the stage on foot, fly-wire, and even bicycle. Nemo: The Musical has Broadway-level production values, and is worth the combination wait and show time of an hour out of your day. (It's also a great way to get off your feet and into the shade for a while, so plan your visit to the show for a time when you think a rest will do everyone some good.)

7) Turtle Talk with Crush

A hidden gem in Epcot, Turtle Talk with Crush can be found in The Seas pavilion. Skip "The Seas with Nemo and Friends" ride (seriously--we'll cover that in our top ten worst attractions post) and ask the cast member at the entrance to steer you around the back way to Turtle Talk. Another interactive Pixar feature, you and the kids sit in a small auditorium, and Crush, the wise, aged surfer-dude tortoise from Finding Nemo, swims up on a screen made to look like a large aquarium to talk to you. And when we say "talk to you," we mean it. He doesn't talk "at" you, he asks and answers questions from the audience. The computer animated turtle reacts in funny and surprising ways, and the guy hidden away doing his voice has great jokes in his repertoire--as well as actual facts about sea turtles. The best fun comes when he's stumped by the inevitable random kid questions--like "How does ice cream get flavored?" which one kid in our session asked. The same technology is used on the Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor, which just missed our top ten list but is also terrific, live-show fun.

 8) Peter Pan's Flight

As we said before, this ride features great art. Pay attention, in particular, to the early scenes of London and Neverland, as seen from above. The real charm to this ride, of course, is that you board little stylized pirate ships, thinking you're going on another of those static drive-you-around rides, or worse, that you'll soon be bobbing in a water track ala It's a Small World. But then you cruise through Wendy's bedroom, and suddenly the boat takes flight, up and out the window, and never lands until ride's end. It's the magic of that flight that makes the line for Peter Pan stretch around the corner no matter what time of day, and makes this one of the few non-thrill rides to actually offer Fast Passes. Despite the constant loading and unloading of the boats, the line for this one is slow. Use up a Fast Pass on it if you plan to ride, which you should.

9) It's Tough to be a Bug

Disney's Animal Kingdom wasn't open the last time Wendi and I visited, so it was as new to us as it was to Jo. Hidden in the base of the Tree of Life at the park's center is a "4-D" auditorium--"4-D" because it not only shows you a movie in 3-D, it has real effects too--including a stinky smell from a stink bug, squirting water, and ants in your pants. This one's sure to have you screaming and laughing, and (like most of the shows) gives you a good excuse to rest your feet--this time in an air-conditioned theater. Don't skip this one.

10) The Maharajah Jungle Trek

This is perhaps our oddest pick, as it's not really a ride at all. It's a path. A path you walk. But this zoo walk through the pens of creatures from Asia--including Komodo Dragons, foot-tall fruit bats (!), pythons, Bengal tigers, and dozens of exotic birds--is on par with the best traditional zoos. Zoo keepers stand ready at each of the enclosures to tell you about the animals, and we were treated to up-close and personal looks at almost all the animals--including a close encounter (just feet away!) with the Bengal tigers which we'll all remember. Disney likes to advertise that Animal Kingdom is not a zoo, but at its heart it really is--and it's a good one.

Tomorrow: our least favorite Disney World attractions!


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