Florida’s Walt Disney World: why the world's largest theme park is fun for adults - and worth the cost
Walt Disney World is big. Eye-bogglingly big. Spread across 25,000 acres in Orlando, it’s the largest theme park resort in the world. 77,000 people work there - that’s the population of Putney, for reference. The complex is twice the size of Manhattan. At this stage, only half of the land is being utilised, with every indication the World will continue to grow and expand.
That swathe of former Florida swamp land has been converted into four main parks - Magic Kingdom (the original hub of Disney World, opened in 1971 - think the big Magic Castle, Main Street), Hollywood Studios, EPCOT (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow - self-styled as a ‘permanent World’s Fair - you may know it notionally as the giant golf ball building), and Animal Kingdom. These four main parks only account for 1000 acres of the Disney World footprint. The rest? 31 official hotels, of differing levels of luxury (and price), 2 water parks, an entertainment hub called Disney Springs, a monorail, and a network of roads.
It is, as I said, big.
Unmanageable? I don’t think so, if you’re judicious and exercise a little forward planning. The individual parks within the resort are easy enough to schlepp around on foot, and the monorail that joins them is frequent, clean and easy to catch. Though talking about logistics as an opening salvo for discussing the House of Mouse feels contrary to the spirit of the place. This is a monument to fun, to imagination. So is it fun? Or does the relentless cheer of the employees and pronouncements on how magic everything is start to grate? Reader: I had a blast.
Disney: more than a child's paradise?
Most children, from toddler-sized up, are easily catered for at Disney World. Spinning teacups, Mickey Mouse, dozens of brightly coloured, iconic princesses and heroes walking the avenues, delightful rides that will enthral (they also have multiple contingencies to help children on the Autism spectrum or those with cognitive disabilities, including break areas for the over stimulated and disabled entrance to rides). But what can adults get out of it?
Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge: better than your imagination
The park is a waking dreamland for a certain kind of film-goer: as an avid lover of sci-fi and science fantasy, I found myself holding back tears on multiple occasions. The Star Wars themed area of the park (Star Wars: Galaxy Edge in Hollywood Studios) was a million childhood play sessions bought to better-than-my-imagination life: look, there’s a landspeeder, oo, a droid repair shop, oh, my god - is that - yes - the Millennium Falcon. The two feature rides - Rise of the Resistance and Smuggler’s Run - (in which you pilot the Millennium Falcon - be still my Han Solo adoring heart) are an ingenious mixture of simulators, videos, animatronics, all of which immerse you utterly in a Galaxy Far Far Away - at one point I literally screamed with delight, but I’m loath to reveal details so if you do go you can be similarly exhilarated. It was utterly joyous.
Similarly I laughed like a loon for the entirety of their latest attraction Tron: Lightcycle Run, an indoor roller coaster in which you straddle the titular ‘lightcycle’ and careen through the fluorescently lit, futuristic landscape of the Tron universe while Daft Punk thumps on the soundtrack. At just under 90 seconds ride time, it’s a short ride but a thrilling one. (It behoves me to add that a companion said the seats - in which you are hunched over your lightcycle and strapped in from behind - felt like a breast screening, so the more generously endowed lady passenger should be fore-warned).
Avatar: Flight of Passage is the type of theme park ride that necessitates dusting off hyperboles - it really is spectacular, and, judging from the friends who rode it who hadn’t seen James Cameron’s space opera films, not reliant on familiarity with the source material. This dynamic simulator experience takes you on a ride on the back of a Banshee, a dragon-like creature.
Straddling a bike, you’re ‘synced’ into your avatar Na’vi (blue, seven foot aliens, for the uninitiated) before swooping above the landscape of Pandora: past flying mountains, underneath waterfalls (complete with real-life water spray for added verisimilitude), almost under-foot of stampeding animals. It’s breath-taking - there are moments you feel as close to flying as a human can get without leaving the ground. Small warning though: if you’re prone to motion sickness, this trip might leave you woozy.
Ok, but I'm not a sci-fi nerd: what else is there?
The rides at DisneyWorld are myriad and varied - it would take a telephone book to detail them all - but a quick word for their Safari, which is jaw-dropping. The Harambe Wildlife Reserve has 30 species of animals inhabiting 110 acres of diverse natural habitats (spy hippos, giraffes, zebras, oh my!). An open-air guided tour takes you through the landscape to gawp at these gorgeous beasts. How many animals you’ll see depends on the time of day and year - thank you, Florida sun - but it’s a lower speed, inspiring expedition if roller-coasters aren’t your thing.
Is it worth staying on site?
While there are plenty of motels, hotels and accommodations around the complex, if your budget allows, staying in one of the Disney World resorts will save you considerable commuting time, and many of the hotels come with early access to the parks - giving you a jump on the queues in the morning. I stayed in the Contemporary Resort, which allowed easy access to each park via the Monorail. Far from being garish, the interiors were tasteful - mid-century Americana with subtle nods to the film The Incredibles, but not so you felt you were inside a cartoon. The resort has multiple restaurants, including the swanky California Grill, where the meals are sumptuous and there's a clear view to watch fireworks over the park at 9pm (the staff threaten to tip over from friendly to obsequious, but some things are to be expected in Theme Park America).
Orlando is served by two international airports, Orlando International Airport and Melbourne Airport International. The latter - Melbourne - has significantly shorter customs queues on entering the US. Although it is theoretically further away from Disney World, the shortened airport processing times will likely save you transit time overall. TUI flies direct to Melbourne from London Gatwick, Belfast International, Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester and Newcastle.
What is it like negotiating the park?
On that matter: the employees at Disney World really want you to have a good time. I was led on a private tour (which run $130 per hour for up to 8 guests for a minimum of 6 hours. I can only apologise, but sometimes journalists get a few perks) and when I noted the queues I was skipping looked substantive (some, like the wildly popular Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, are reportedly two hours long at peak time), the guide was quick to point out you can join a vertical queue - that is, book into a ride at a specific time via the Disney phone app, and be notified shortly beforehand that your time to ride is ready to go (you do have to be prompt or else you’ll miss your window), so you don’t have to stand in line.
Similarly, when I fretted about younger visitors getting hot and bothered in the Florida sun, the guide pointed out the queues for all rides were under cover and there were multiple air-conditioned areas throughout the park to take a breather. Toilets are frequent, too. The message was clear: with a little pre-planning, you can significantly reduce potential irritants.
What you will need, I’m afraid, is money. Not necessarily the coinage that could run to a private tour, but you’ll be eating and drinking on site, and that does add up - although packages from TUI are available that give you a dining credit per night, which will go a considerable way to covering costs and allowing you to safely budget for a trip. That said, this is a blow-out holiday option for most folks: great if you’re looking to celebrate a major milestone or save up for something spectacular.
Is it worth it? If you are a dyed-in-the-wool cynic, or vehemently anti-capitalism, the continual cheer and world-of-wonder atmosphere of Disney World may not divert you. But for this over-grown geek, emphatically: yes. I'm already saving up to head back.