Travel Review: Walt Disney World, Florida
We all associate Walt Disney World with Mickey and Minnie merchandise, princess castles and frantic family fun. But it is also synonymous with bringing the happiest childhood memories to life, with lashings of nostalgia.
So when we found out that Toy Story Land was opening at Disney’s Hollywood Studios at the Walt Disney World Resort, Florida, we were there faster than Buzz could say, “To infinity and beyond”…
A Friend in Andy
After making the hop over from the UAE to Orlando, Florida, with Emirates, we dashed to our hotel – Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. But more on our magical hotel later, because we had a theme park to explore!
We were lucky enough to be in town for Toy Story Land’s opening weekend, and were as excited as eight-year-olds on Christmas morning as we arrived at the bright and colourful world of Woody and co.
A little background on the new Disney opening: if you’re familiar with Toy Story – which, lets face it, we all are – you’ll know that Woody and Buzz are Andy’s toys, and they live in his back garden, in an exciting world built by Andy himself.
Well, that is exactly what you walk into at Toy Story Land. The world has been built to make you feel like you have shrunk down to toy size, and you are quickly swept up in all the fun, as you bump into Buzz, encounter marching green soldiers and line up for the fun rides.
Disney is known for not doing things by halves, and this is the perfect example. The Slinky Dog Dash is a family-friendly roller coaster, and as you queue up, you’ll notice all of the fun details, like Andy’s larger-than-life plans for the ride, as well as the giant toy boxes that Andy would have built the coaster on.
Worth every queuing moment, the Slinky Dog Dash is an absolute must-ride. Fun and thrilling – but not terrifying – the ride shoots you up and has you slinking up, down and around, before ending with a joyous rendition of the movie’s classic You’ve Got a Friend in Me, performed by everyone’s favourite singing penguin, Wheezy. It’s the kind of ride you’ll want to queue up for again, the moment you jump off.
From there, we made our way over to the second big attraction, Alien Swirling Saucers. A Toy Story take on the classic teacups ride, you’ll be spun around with the aliens, who famously live in an arcade game, eagerly awaiting “The Claw”.
After a morning of fast-paced fun, it was time to sit down for a bite to eat. Woody’s Lunch Box is the ideal spot, with a menu of tasty sandwiches – the grilled three-cheese sandwich is every bit as indulgent and comforting as you’d hope. Just make sure you follow it up with a chocolate-hazelnut lunchbox tart. It’s basically like a Pop Tart that has somehow been improved with a bit of Disney magic.
After Toy Story Land had been explored to the max, and we had our obligatory selfies with Woody, Buzz and Jessie, we went to check out the rest of Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Bringing the glitzier world of Disney to life, you’ll find a Chinese Theatre, encounter mini movies being made, and maybe even run into a Star Wars Stormtrooper march.
It’s in this park that you’ll find some of the biggest rides Disney has to offer. Not for the faint-of-heart, Aerosmith’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster shoots you forward at almost 60mph, as you race to make it to one of the band’s gigs on time. And the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror scares guests with a drop of 40m. They are both rides to scream your heart out on, and don’t forget to buy the always-hilarious ride photo afterwards.
Before we knew it, it was dinner time and we had a date back in time at the 1950s-themed Prime Time Café. A classic all-American diner that serves hearty portions of traditional home cooking, with waiting staff that aren’t afraid to tell you to get your elbows off the table and shout at you if you don’t finish your greens – just like the good old days.
We tucked into the fried chicken, which came as a recommendation, and it was genuinely one of the best plates of chicken we had ever had. Crispy but juicy, we finished every bite.
Be sure to end your day at the park with one of the iconic Disney shows. We caught Fantasmic, a water, light and fire show, starring Mickey and all his friends acting out thrilling moments from all-time favourite movies like Pocahontas, the Lion King and Cinderella.
Walk on the Wild Side
After an action-packed day, we retreated, exhausted, to our hotel, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, and once again were transported to another world.
It felt like lightyears away from the hustle and bustle of the parks. The spacious and calming hotel has been designed to feel like an African lodge. We could have lost hours on our balcony, watching the giraffes wander by. Another highlight was encountering a flamboyance of flamingos relaxing by a pond near the swimming pool. We had to remind ourselves we were in Florida, not on an actual safari.
It’s well worth taking the time to wander around the hotel, checking out the many animals that live on the grounds. You can also take trips out with the rangers, getting a little closer to the wildlife from the safety of a mini safari truck.
There are plenty of food and beverage options at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. For a hearty sit-down breakfast, make your way to Boma, or for faster self-service the Mara does the trick. Breakfast could be anything from a piled-high buffet, to fruit, eggs and bagels – always served with bottomless cups of coffee, ideal for fuelling a day of exploring the park.
The rooms at the hotel are super-spacious, with views out over the green parks. And you’re guaranteed to find a Disney movie to watch on the in-room TV – no matter what time of the day or night.
Got to be Magic
The most iconic Disney park has to be the Magic Kingdom. This is where you’ll encounter the famous mouse himself, walk Main Street USA, and stare in awe at the Cinderella Castle.
There is something for everyone in this park, from story experiences like the Enchanted Tales with Belle – an experience that sees guests take on the most famous Beauty and the Beast roles – to thrilling rides like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train – which will have you singing Heigh-Ho for days – and the Haunted Mansion, which is a family-friendly but jumpy ghost-train ride.
The storytelling at Magic Kingdom is out of this world. There are a whole host of rides that will fully immerse you into the narratives of classic Disney movies, as you float along reliving all of your favourite scenes. Without a doubt, our top pick has to be the Pirates of the Caribbean ride, which features a swashbuckling Captain Jack Sparrow that is so realistic, you would be forgiven for thinking that Johnny Depp was there on set.
No visit to the Magic Kingdom is complete without meeting Mickey Mouse. Make your way to the Town Square Theatre, where you will have to queue for a little while, but it is totally worth it to get a selfie with the most famous mouse in the world.
Although we were delighted to meet the mouse of the house, the real highlight had to be the sheer joy on the faces of young children in the queue. Their favourite character had been brought to life and they were absolutely thrilled. So, so cute!
Because the fun never stops at Disney, on our second day we made our way to Animal Kingdom. A park dedicated to all of the wilder elements of the Disney world, it’s here that you will see the Tree of Life, spot the big five game animals on the Kilimanjaro Safaris, and enjoy the thrill of Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain – a roller coaster that is guaranteed to satisfy the most discerning of thrill-seeking tastes. It was so good, in fact, that we jumped off the ride and went straight back into the queue for round two.
The highlight of Animal Kingdom, however, has to be the new Pandora – The World of Avatar area, inspired by the James Cameron film. With floating mountains and banshees in the sky, we felt like we had landed on another planet.
No trip to Pandora is complete without a go on Avatar Flight of Passage. Be prepared to queue for a while here as it’s an extremely popular ride, but trust us, it’s worth the wait. An augmented-reality simulator will make you feel like you’re flying around in the world of Avatar, on the back of one of the film’s banshees. It is a truly breathtaking experience.
Fine Dining, Disney Style
While there is always a time and a place for really good fried chicken and top-notch burgers and fries, you don’t necessarily want to live on nothing else for days on end. So one of the things we were happiest to learn is that Disney is far from just a fast-food hotspot.
In Animal Kingdom, we loved Satu’li Canteen. It is a quick-service restaurant, but you can build your own protein bowls, selecting all the ingredients, so you know exactly what you’re tucking into.
For a higher-end dining experience, Hollywood Studios has you covered at the Hollywood Brown Derby, which is modelled on a restaurant that was super-popular with golden-age celebrities in Hollywood like Rita Hayworth, Lucille Ball and Shirley Temple. Tuck into contemporary American cuisine – the steaks and Cobb salads are phenomenal. Just make sure you leave room for the grapefruit cake – the original California eatery was famous for it, and it’s still served there to this day.
Another option for those looking to dine somewhere special is the California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. The restaurant has panoramic views over all the parks, so it’s worth visiting for the scenery alone. And it serves up sensational sushi. We shared a selection of maki rolls, and loved every single bite.
Stick around at the restaurant for an alternative view of the Magic Kingdom’s nightly Happily Ever After fireworks show. The Cinderella Castle is centre stage, and watching the show from above is absolutely spectacular.
Arriving in Style
We flew to Orlando directly from Dubai with Emirates. There is no escaping the fact that it’s a very long flight – more than 15 and a half hours, in fact! But with Emirates, there is plenty to keep you entertained.
We were lucky enough to be in business class, so we enjoyed a pretty solid night’s sleep as soon as we boarded our plane (after a welcome refreshment or two). Then, after we were woken up for our delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs, we spent the rest of the day brushing up on all things Disney while onboard.
The in-flight entertainment system currently includes all of the Star Wars movies, as well as a back catalogue of Disney classics, like both Alice in Wonderland movies, all of the Toy Story flicks and Beauty and the Beast. That was more than enough to keep us entertained throughout the flight.
Although the aircraft we flew on didn’t have a lounge area like onboard the A380, it did have a refreshment area, where there were snacks and drinks available no matter what time of the day or night. As it turns out, cheese and biscuits is the perfect snack to enjoy as you watch Mulan for the 100th time.
One of the best things about flying with Emirates to Orlando has to be the jet-lag friendly flight time. Leaving the UAE just before 3am, there is no way you won’t be tired as you board, so you’re almost guaranteed to get a few hours of shut-eye, which will see a chunk of the journey fly by.
The flight lands in Orlando mid-morning, so you should get to your hotel by the early afternoon. As long as you’ve had plenty of rest onboard – and can fight the urge to have a sneaky nap once you land – you should be able to hit the hay at a normal time, helping to combat some of the dreaded jet lag that comes with a long flight.
The same is true for the return leg – while you lose around a day, thanks to the time difference – the flight leaves Orlando at 2pm and arrives into Dubai at a very sociable midday the following day.