A guide to Disney World parks

Disney's Animal Kingdom features the ride Expedition Everest.

Walt Disney World

Disney's Animal Kingdom features the ride Expedition Everest.

There are four theme parks at Walt Disney World: Animal Kingdom, Disney-MGM Studios, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. The resort also includes the Downtown Disney shopping, dining and entertainment area and Disney's Wide World of Sports. Interstate 4, Exit 62, west of Orlando. (407) 934-7639; www.disneyworld.com. Hours vary. Single-day admission to any of the four theme parks: $67 plus tax adults, $56 plus tax ages 3-9. Discounts for Florida residents.

For "unofficial" information - including menus of all the restaurants - check out www.allearsnet.com.

Least crowded times: January to President's Day, mid-April to late May, Labor Day to mid-November, early December.

ANIMAL KINGDOM

The newest Disney theme park has had trouble finding its identity. Even now, with the new Expedition Everest ride and Finding Nemo stage show (which we haven't seen), it's not a place we spend an entire day.

Arrive early here, and not just to avoid lines. The animals are friskier before the day heats up. In the mornings, we've seen the male lion standing on his rock, roaring like crazy, and the Bengal tigers walk up to the glass and look us straight in the eye.

The safari is different each time (except for the story line), depending on how active the animals are and how into his or her job the safari driver/narrator is.

MAGIC KINGDOM

The original Disney park in Florida is still what most people think of when they imagine Disney World.

Unless posing with the characters is your prime objective, walk past them at the entrance and on Main Street. There will be plenty of chances to catch up with them in Mickey's Toontown and around the park.

We used to make a beeline for Dumbo, the Winnie the Pooh ride and Peter Pan, but these days, we're moved more by the three mountains (Space, Splash and Big Thunder) and Pirates of the Caribbean.

None of us, though, will outgrow Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin or Mickey's Philharmagic.

Magic Kingdom gripe: This is the site of the worst parking lot at Disney, one of Walt Disney's few miscalculations. To get to the gate, you have to walk or take a tram to the "Transportation and Ticket Center," then get on a boat or monorail to reach the entrance. Since we like to start at Magic Kingdom and end the day at Epcot, we park at Epcot and ride the monorail from there straight to the door at the Magic Kingdom. Even if you don't go to Epcot, it's still a good parking strategy.

Other Magic Kingdom downers: Snow White's Scary Adventure (too tame for grownups and older kids, terrifying for little ones expecting happy, singing dwarfs) and Stitch's Great Escape (dark and lame with a blast of chili dog belch in your face).

EPCOT

This salute to the future and to the countries of the world is our favorite park. We sometimes arrive before opening at 9 a.m. and stay until the park closes at 9:30 p.m.

We hit all the biggies in the Future World section, which usually opens at 9: Test Track, Soarin' (a simulated hang glider ride over California) and Turtle Talk with Crush (an interactive show starring the animated turtle from Finding Nemo). It's always different and he reacts to questions from children in the audience. Still don't quite understand how that works.)

Then we hit the World Showcase, which circles a lake. If we don't have a dinner reservation, we get a munchie in each country.

Feel free to laugh at this next tip; all our friends do. But then, after they go, they understand. If it's late afternoon when you begin, circle the World Showcase from Canada to Mexico. If you don't, the setting sun will be in your eyes all the way from Germany through France, and that's not fun.

DISNEY'S HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS

Because many of the big attractions at Disney's movie park are live shows - the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Playhouse Disney Live (with Bear in the Big Blue House, Stanley, Pooh and more), the Lights, Motors, Actions Extreme Stunt Show, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage - it's important to get a schedule and plot when to see what.

I always feel like we do an extra lot of walking here, trying to reach venues at the appointed times.

This is the best park for getting autographs and photos with the Disney characters. The Playhouse Disney and Toy Story gangs have regular spots, and other characters position themselves in the plaza in front of the giant Sorcerer's hat throughout the day.

Disney's Hollywood Studios is host to the ABC Super Soap weekend in the fall and Star Wars weekends in May. Unless you are a fan, avoid the park then.

DAD'S TOP 5

1. Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The Aerosmith shtick is dated, but the ride's 0-to-60 launch into a corkscrew never gets old unlike, say, Steven Tyler.

2. Expedition Everest. Disney's newest coaster may not have the initial adrenaline rush of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, but the backward, runaway train portion of the ride is almost as fun.

3. Test Track, right. The all-too-brief rush of a car hitting a high-banked turn at 60-plus mph is such a thrill that it makes you wonder: What must it be like racing on Daytona's high curves at 200?

4. Monorails. Nothing brings back childhood faster than the parks' iconic transportation. Alas, if only the Florida Legislature shared my (and Walt's) fondness for light rail.

5. Epcot. I've heard all the "it's-just-a-glorified-food-court" criticism of this park's World Showcase and, frankly, I don't care. I like it and it helps that there's always a cool international beer to be had on a hot afternoon.

-- Peter Couture, Times staff writer

A KID'S TOP 5

1. Expedition Everest. This ride was scary at first, but I really liked it after I did it a couple more times.

2. Space Mountain. You may not really be in space, but it looks like it, and it's kind of like Big Thunder Mountain, only indoors and in the dark.

3. Test Track. You get to pretend you are testing one of GM's newest car models, only at GM you don't ride around a building at 65 mph.

4. Pirates of the Caribbean. Help Captain Jack Sparrow defeat the evil Captain Barbosa and his clan of Pirate Skeletons (I wish they would cut the phony "dead men tell no tales" stuff).

5. Turtle Talk with Crush. You get to talk to Crush from Finding Nemo and ask him questions about life in the sea. (And maybe get a visit from Dory and the Whale!)

-- Emma Couture, 8

A TEEN'S TOP 5

1. Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. The feeling of being pressed into your seat while you shoot through a loop and a corkscrew is great. No matter how much you ride it, it's always fun. I've been on it so many times I can practically recite the stupid preshow.

2. Expedition Everest. I love the view from the top of this coaster, going backward in the dark, and all of the special effects (except for that fake bird by the broken train tracks). Even the line for Expedition Everest is good. It winds through a museum dedicated to Mount Everest and the Yeti that supposedly lives there.

3. Tower of Terror, right. Tower of Terror has a great waiting area. You go through a deserted hotel lobby and then down into the boiler room before boarding a "service elevator." The elevator shoots up 13 stories and then drops. My favorite thing about Tower of Terror is that it is random, so you never know how many drops there will be or how long they will last.

4. Test Track. The preshow video is lame, as are some of the "tests," especially the environmental test chambers. The ride around the track at 65 mph makes up for all of that. It's especially fun at night.

5. Splash Mountain. Splash Mountain is my favorite ride at the Magic Kingdom. It's cute but still exciting. Sort of like if It's a Small World had a five-story drop.

-- Hannah Couture, 14

MOM'S TOP 5

1. The Epcot Food and Wine Festival in the fall. Our kids are adventurous eaters, so we have great fun plotting which foods we're going to try from which countries. It's a good adults-only outing, too.

2. The Osborne Family Festival Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Christmastime. It's overdone and hokey, with faux snow falling on you as you walk down the movie backlot at Disney-MGM, but something about it always puts me in a holiday mood.

3. Big Thunder Mountain. I'll do Expedition Everest and Rock 'n' Roller Coaster once or twice each visit, but I love the old-fashioned thrill of riding Big Thunder with my hands in the air the whole way.

4. Turtle Talk with Crush. Even after a dozen viewings, I love the idea that the animated turtle can adapt to questions from children in the audience.

5. Anything else the rest of the gang wants to do. I'm just along for the ride and the company.

A guide to Disney World parks 12/21/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 11, 2009 1:05pm]

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