The all-age guide to the coolest restaurants, rides, shops and places to go in Walt Disney World.
by Lauren Passell
Welcome to Walt Disney World
It’s hard to wrap your brain around the immenseness of Walt Disney World – it’s twice the size of Manhattan, or roughly as big as San Francisco. If you don’t have a game plan before you arrive, you could miss some of the infinite buried treasures the parks have to offer. I highlighted some of my favorites, focusing on attractions that kids will love, and the corresponding activities that are perfect for adults. Disney is a dream when you’re a kid, but it can still be pretty exciting for us older kids, too.
Culture for Kids: Arts and Crafts Around the World
Kids can get their own taste of culture in each of the countries with Kidcot Fun Stops — activity areas located in every country where kids are invited to play games and make crafts based on that country’s culture. EPCOT might not be the most popular spot for young kids, but Kidcot Spots make it more bearable when mom and dad want to explore the entertainment (and alcohol) of World Showcase.
Culture for You: Drink Around the World
Although the Magic Kingdom is totally dry, all of the other parks and hotels are ripe with places to kick back with alcohol. In World Showcase parents can sample drinks from around the world, including margaritas, Tsing Tao, Jagermeister, grappa, Sam Adams, sake, wines, champagnes, Casa, French Nuvo, and Molsons, and way, way more. There are 11 countries (that take up a stretch of more than a mile) in World Showcase, so pace yourself. That’s a lot of booze!
Resort for Kids: The Polynesian
There are 32 hotels and resorts on the Walt Disney World property, but the Polynesian is the only one with a tropical feel. It’s heavily themed, with a volcano in the swimming pool, tiki torches and music lining the sidewalks, hula dancers offering dance lessons in the lobby, and in true, kitschy form, guests receive a lei when they arrive. The Polynesian is also on the Magic Kingdom monorail line, so if you’re in the park and need to get home quickly for naptime (or temper-tantrum breaks, or more diapers), it’s a breeze. A sweet, Polynesian breeze. There’s also a great, family-friendly luau dinner show that gets everyone involved in dancing and eating like an islander.
Resort for You: Yacht & Beach Club
The Yacht & Beach Club is perfect if you’re looking to escape the kiddie-centric focus of the Magic Kingdom area hotels. It’s a beautiful property, reminiscent of the New England seaside, set around a 25-acre lake that’s only a few minutes away from the Boardwalk – which offers adult-friendly spots like the ESPN Club and Dueling Pianos, a bar with nightly karaoke. (It’s also only a short walk away from EPCOT.) It’s less theme-y than some of the World’s other resorts, but you’ll still get Mickey Mouse morning wake-up calls and Donald Duck shaped waffles.
Dancing for Kids: Magic Kingdom Dance Parties
If you’re hanging at the Magic Kingdom past bedtime for one of the special events (like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Spooktacular), kids can get down with their bad selves at the Get Up and Boo-gie Dance Party in Ariel’s Grotto (Fantasyland) or Stitch’s Club 626 (Tomorrowland.) Djays spin Miley Cyrus and The Jonas Brothers, but also throw in some Motown and oldies, so you can twist again in a sea full of kiddies — with Stitch, Sebastian and Flounder, too. (They seem to be hosting the soiree.)
Dancing for You: The Boardwalk’s Dance Hall
After an entire day of listening to It’s a Small World and The Mickey Mouse Club March, I always feel like getting some (adult) drinks and listening to pop, hip hop, and rock at the Atlantic Dance Hall on the Boardwalk. There’s a huge dance floor, and on Tuesday through Saturday nights, you can request your favorite songs, from classics like Push It and Billy Jean to modern hits from Lady Gaga, and dance to them in front of the ginormous screen in the background, which plays the songs’ music videos. (You must be 21 to get in.)
Shopping for Kids: EPCOT’s Mouse Gears
From clothing and toys to kitchen ware, stationary, treats and jewelry, your little Disney fans will be able to find (way too many) things they’ll be dying to bring home, no matter their age or latest Disney obsession. You may want to bring breadcrumbs because this place is huge, and it’s entirely too easy to loose your family as everyone scatters to grab mouse ears, plastic figurines, and Winnie the Pooh cookies. (Hint! Throughout the park, you and your kids can look for hidden Mickeys — silhouettes of the famous mouse that engineers have built into the landscape, and on rides and buildings. You can find one at Mouse Gears, in the wheels and cogs on the store’s outdoor sign.)
Shopping for You: EPCOT’s World Showcase
If mouse ears aren’t your thing, head to EPCOT’s World Showcase, where you can find authentic goods from all around the world. There’s personalized, hand-carved silver rings in Mexico, beautiful kimonos and tea kettles in Japan, Lulu Guinness bags in England, and I always buy my dad a cool beer stein in Germany.
Rides for Kids: Toy Story Mania
Who needs scary rides when you can get downright cute? Try totally kid-friendly attractions like the 3D Toy Story Mania in Disney MGM Studios that lets you shoot targets like you’re in a video game, the Kilamanjaro Safari in Animal Kingdom, where you head out to the Savannah amongst lions, elephants and giraffes, or Pirates of the Caribbean, which has been pleasing kids and adults since the park opened in 1971 — it’s one of Walt’s original designs (minus the Johnny Depp animatronic at the end, which was added after the release of the film.)
Rides for You: Rock ‘n Roller Coaster
If you do want scary, you’ve got plenty of it. The Rock ‘n Roller Coaster in MGM is not for the weak-stomach– it starts out with a heart racing bang, and then goes on to loop and twist along the indoor track to the sound of Aerosmith songs. MGM’s Tower of Terror drops guests down an elevator shaft, riders on Animal Kingdom’s Everest run wildly backward down a snowy mountain (while being chased by a Yeti), and Splash Mountain in Magic Kingdom throws riders down five stories into the briar patch. (Don’t forget to smile for the camera.) Some of these rides have height restrictions, so you and your hubbie might have watching the kids, but you’ll get a kick out of screaming like a teenager on rides like indoor Space Mountain all by yourself.
Dining for Kids: Cinderella’s Royal Table
Snag a reservation at Cinderella’s Royal Table and your kids will feel like they’re in a fairy tale. Tip: You can only call 180 days in advance, and if you don’t, forget it — it books up right away. It’s the only restaurant inside the monumental Cinderella’s Castle where Cinderella, Prince Charming, Sleeping Beauty, and all of their royal friends will visit for photos and autographs while your kids feast upon French toast sticks or mini-hot dogs.
Dining for You: The California Grill
For a grown up meal and one of the best views of the Magic Kingdom, check out the Contemporary Resort’s California Grill, complete with an impressive wine list (by the bottle or glass), sushi, tenderloin, and other things you wouldn’t find on a kid’s menu. (There is a kid’s menu, though, and a dress code. No tank tops, swimwear, hats, or torn clothing.) Make your reservation before the nightly Magic Kingdom fireworks and you’ll get a stunning view of some of the most fantastic fireworks the parks have to offer. If you’re feeling daring, order the “Unplugged” — a variety of vegetarian samplers chosen by the Chef. It’s not on the menu, but it’s one of my favorite things in any of the Disney restaurants.
Golf for Kids: Fantasia Gardens and Winter Summerland
Guests who want to get competitive can get their golf on by utilizing the two cleverly themed and thoughtfully detailed family-friendly mini-golf courses. Fantasia Gardens, styled after the Disney film Fantasia, showcases dancing hippos and marching brooms, and elaborate water displays while playing music from the film. Or kids can play with Santa, his elves, and Mickey and his friends at Winter Summerland, where they try to make it to the North Hole and avoid Squirty the Snowman, who squirts water when golf balls roll by.
Golf for You: Magnolia Golf Course
Serious golfers will be impressed and challenged by the Magnolia Golf Course. Like any PGA Tour location, this beautifully manicured golf course (named for its 1,500+ Magnolia trees) has elevated trees and greens, rolling hills, and of course, a bunker in the shape of the mouse himself. It’s perfect for anyone who needs a break from the parks.
Self Indulgence for Kids: The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique is any girly-girl’s dream come true — they can be transformed into their favorite princess by undergoing a magical makeover complete with up-do, manicure, costume and shiny makeup. Boys can play, too, by opting for the “cool dude” transformation (think: spiked hairdos, colored gel, sparkles.) There are two locations — one in the Downtown Disney Marketplace, and one in Cinderella’s Castle. If you aren’t planning on doing the makeover, you’d best avoid both places because when your little one sees girls marching out with their outfits, she’s going to want to join in.
Self Indulgence for You: Spas
Disney has 3 full-service Spas — the Grand Floridian Spa, Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa, and the Mandara Spa at the Walt Disney World Dolphin, all of which offer the usual array of massage treatments, beauty products, plus special treatments for teenagers, and access to Disney health clubs. If you’ve been running around after your kids all day, you’re going to need a little pampering.
Racecar Driving for Kids: Tomorrowland Speedway
In the Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland Speedway, guests who are at least 54 inches tall can drive their own gas-powered race car while their shorter friends can ride in the passenger seat, jetting around the .4 mile-long speedway at a whopping 7 miles per hour. But don’t let the pace fool you: due to the loud noises, it sounds like you’re going a lot faster.
Racecar Driving for You: Richard Petty Driving Experience
Unlike the Tomorrowland Speedway, the Richard Petty Driving Experience isn’t for kids. Adults can drive (or ride shotgun) in a NASCAR-style stock car at speeds of up to 120 mph around the mile long track. Drivers choose from 4 packages, from the Rookie Experience, a 3-hour, 8 lap joy ride, to the Ride-Along Program, where speedracers can take 3-laps at an incredible 145 mph.
Swimming for Kids: Kiddie Pools
It’d be hard to travel too far in Walt Disney World without walking by one of the 20+ brilliantly themes pools. A clown-faced water slide propels guests into the pool at the Boardwalk, Disney’s All-Star Music Resort has two guitar- and grand piano-shaped pools, and the zero-depth entrance at the Polynesian looks like a beach — a great way to introduce water-wary kids to swimming. Most of the pools have kiddie sized areas, so kids of all ages can cool off and splash around.
Swimming for You: Blizzard Beach Water Park
At the ski resort-themed Blizzard Beach, dare devils can take the 55 mph plunge long (the tallest, fastest water slide on record) down Summit Plummet, Disney’s own ski jump-themed water slide. Prepare for the biggest wedgie you’ve ever had, and after readjusting your suit, check out Toboggan Racers, Teamboat Springs, Runoff Rapids, and Cross Country Creek, and 10 other attractions the park has to offer.