It seemed obvious to me to begin a first visit to Walt Disney World at the Magic Kingdom. Isn’t it what most of us picture when we think of Disney World? The iconic Cinderella castle, the Victorian storefronts of Main Street, princesses and pirates?
What some first-timers may not know (I didn’t, until I began planning our visit), is that there are four distinct parks within Walt Disney World, not counting the two water parks. Because we were allocating time and money between the Disney and Universal theme parks, we didn’t get to Epcot or Hollywood Studios this time, choosing to focus on Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom instead (and a full day at each, rather than attempting to park-hop). I doubt you could make a wrong choice among the four, but I think Magic Kingdom was the perfect place for us to start.
According to the Undercover Tourist crowd calendar, it was a good day to be at Magic Kingdom. After tucking everyone in for an early bedtime the night before, I called the WDW information line (1-407-824-4321) for park opening hours and parade/event times and went over our strategy. TIP: These times are adjusted by Disney to handle anticipated traffic, so do confirm park hours and event start times within the week of your visit.
I jotted down the times, and made a short list of priorities–rides and events that were must-sees, based on recommendations from guides and friends. Then I made sure the alarm was set to get us there at least a half hour before park opening time. This was one of the best moves of the entire trip. TIP: Plan to arrive early at the parks (or late in the day), and don’t miss the opening ceremony at Magic Kingdom.
Clockwise from top left: riding the monorail; the train with Mickey and Co. arrives at City Hall; waving to Mickey; moving down Main Street at opening time.
Disney is unique from Universal (and I suspect every other theme park in the world) in that it is a layered, theatrical experience. As with theatre, it invites you to suspend your disbelief and enter the story. As the sun rose up over the gates of the Magic Kingdom, and the character train pulled into the station, the five-year-girl in me wriggled free of the last of my grown-up constraints, and started jumping up and down with her hands in the air, waving to Mickey Mouse, tears running down my cheeks. I can’t even describe it, except to say God bless Walt Disney, and please let me make lots of money so I can spend it on that feeling again.
Once the gates were open, I reminded everyone of the plan: make a beeline for the Space Mountain Fast Pass kiosk at the back of the park, assuring them we would slow down and look at everything we’d passed after we had the passes in hand. TIP: go to the most popular ride first and print your free Fast Pass, which gives you a window of time in which to return for the express line.
A Fast Pass kiosk.
How to Use Disney’s Fast Pass System
- A Fast Pass is a ticket that reserves you access to the express line (called the Fast Pass lane) during a scheduled window of time.
- Fast Passes are free with park admission. Each park visitor can be issued one active Fast Pass at a time.
- Fast Pass self-serve kiosks are located near the front of the line for popular attractions. There is no queue for them.
- Above the kiosks, there is a digital display showing what time current Fast Passes will tell you to return. Be sure to first check the display for the current wait time in the regular line. If the wait was less than 20 minutes, we usually just got in line.
- Swipe your plastic park pass card, and take your Fast Pass. Come back during the time printed on the Fast Pass, and show it in the Fast Pass lane.
- I’ve heard there’s an unwritten rule that Fast Passes are accepted after the scheduled time has expired (not before), but we didn’t test this.
When we got to Space Mountain, the posted wait time was minimal–about 10 minutes–so we decided we’d just get in the regular line. Now, I had never in my life been on a roller coaster of any kind, and I was looking forward to checking it off my life list, but I had no intention of starting with Space Mountain, except that my 70-year-old mother, in an adrenaline rush, said “Let’s go!” TIP: Don’t let your mother talk you into stuff.
Friends, by the end of the week, I was riding way more extreme coasters, with arms up in the air and eyes wide open like a pro, but you will never get me or my mother on that ride ever again. I opened my eyes once, saw a flashing red light, and shut them again. It was the longest two minutes and thirty five seconds of my life. I still have PTSD. I don’t know if it was designed to mimic an extremely traumatic journey through the birth canal, but it was sheer primal terror.
The kids loved it.
Here’s one of the reasons the Magic Kingdom was a great place to start a visit to Disney and Universal with older kids: the rides at Magic Kingdom are mostly quite tame compared to the other parks. Some of them are delightfully vintage. Had we started at one of the more thrill-filled parks, the rides at Magic Kingdom might have seemed a little anti-climatic to my big boys. As it was, Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad were great warm up acts.
Entering Space Mountain (top left), then onto Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
My nine-year-old was the ideal age for the Magic Kingdom rides and shows. Though princesses are not his thing, he loved Captain Jack Sparrow’s Pirate Tutorial (and all the moms loved Captain Jack Sparrow). TIP: Catch at least one of the live shows. They are one reason Walt Disney World is in a league by itself.
Are you exhausted yet? Because by early afternoon, we were. Then, as if by magic (or human engineering genius), it was parade time. Just as the Littlest Who was starting to whine, the Move It! Shake It! Celebrate It! Street Party came moving and shaking down Main Street and revived his spirits. It also diverted enough traffic away from the rides for Patrick and the big boys to seek more thrills. Disney has this people thing figured out to a freaky degree. TIP: Ride lines can be shorter during parade times.
After the parade, we got ice cream cones, and executed our midday exit strategy. We had all agreed in advance that we would return to the resort by mid-afternoon to rest up and recharge for the evening parade and fireworks. Next to arriving early, this might be the single most useful piece of advice I can pass along. TIP: Plan to leave the park in the afternoon to rest and return in the evening. Go for a swim. Take a nap. Have dinner. Chill out for at least two hours. Then go back and watch all the foolish other people melting down, with a delicious sense of schadenfreude.
We returned to the park just in time to watch the sun set from the ferry.
I don’t know how to describe the Nighttime Spectacular, except imagine if fireworks were a wrap around experience. Pictures don’t capture it. I watched it twice, mouth agape. By the time the 11 pm Electrical Parade rolled around, our coach was fast turning back into a pumpkin. We walked our happy, weary way back down Main Street, feeling like a hundred years had passed in one enchanted day.
Up next: Universal Studios Islands of Adventure, and the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.