The Walt Disney World Resort, informally known as Walt Disney World (or just Disney World) is the largest single entertainment complex on Earth. It is located in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, just south of Orlando.
Walt Disney World has been synonymous with family fun for over 40 years. Opened on October 1, 1971, Walt Disney World Resort is the most visited vacation resort – and the largest recreational property – in the world. A phenomenal 50 million annual visitors make the trek to enjoy fun in the sun and to experience the magic this travel destination offers.
The Walt Disney World Resort has been described as exceedingly creative and meticulously clean.
Its overall design reflects a phenomenal attention to detail that has a way of making guests feel like they’ve been transported away from reality – much more so than any other theme park located anywhere else in the world.
Spread over more than 43 square miles (greater than 27,000 acres), Disney World spans an area larger than the island of Manhattan! In fact, the resort contains the four biggest Disney Parks ever built.
What is Disney World?
Did you know that Disney World is much more than just those four amusement parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom)?
In addition, the property abounds with fun things to do. You can cool off in the hot summer sun at two exciting water parks. Golfers can choose between four professional golf courses or two fun-themed miniature golf courses. Lovers of the outdoors appreciate the recreational vehicle campground and an equestrian facility known as Triple-D Ranch.
There is little that cannot be done on Disney property, including hiking, horseback riding, tennis, boating, and even water sports.
Sports fanatics enjoy the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Disney’s Wedding Pavilion is available for those planning their nuptials (and is just one of numerous dream-wedding locations). Disney also sponsors a wildlife preserve a few miles away from the main property. This is a hidden gem, perfect for strolling around when you have a free afternoon. With all there is to do, it’s no wonder some guests return year after year!
You can sleep at one of 31 themed resort hotels (including eight that are not directly owned by Disney).
Disney also maintains and runs ancillary properties, including restaurant and retail venues at Disney Springs and Disney’s BoardWalk.
An astonishing number of dining and lounge facilities (close to 300!) dot across the property, including everything from snack booths to signature dining locations and numerous nightlife spots.
Connecting all the fun, Disney’s property has its own multi-lane highways, monorail, and a waterway (lake and canal) transportation system. Minnie Vans are available for hire to take guests between Disney properties. Disney’s newest transportation system, a gondola skyline, will soon open to provide even more transportation options to guests.
Brief History of Walt Disney
Walter Elias Disney was born in Chicago, Illinois, on December 5, 1901. When Walt was four, he and his family moved to a farm in Marceline, Missouri, where his brother purchased some farmland.
It was here that a neighbor paid him for his first cartoon gig – he drew pictures of his neighbor’s horses! Throughout his childhood, copying front-page cartoons from the newspaper honed Walt’s technical skills and cemented his interest in the field. Thanks to these early childhood experiences, Walt eventually pursued the arts of animation and entertainment that we associate with the man today.
Walt’s other great love was trains. His interest in locomotives began in Marceline, as well, where Walt’s uncle was a railway engineer who often rambled through town on his regular run. Walt and his brother would listen closely for a special signal to know when their uncle was manning the engine.
In the early 1920s, Walt began cartooning in earnest. While his first company, Iwerks – Disney Commercial Artists, was short-lived, he and his brother Roy were undeterred. They landed in Hollywood three years later where they set up the cartoon studio that would eventually bring them great success.
Where did Walt’s idea originate?
Walt took his family out for a fun-filled day at an amusement park one day, an experience that turned out less than spectacular. The park did not meet his personal standards or expectations, given the prices and the value received.
The idea was born to eventually develop his own family-centric entertainment venue that would have top-notch attractions and maintain the absolute highest operational standards. This dream inspired him for the rest of his life.
Because of the visit to the park earlier in his life, he was certain to keep his park spotlessly clean – which is why you will see trash cans every few steps.
Almost anywhere you look in the parks, you find employees (Cast Members) scanning for anything that needs to be tidied up. To this day, Cast Members strive to live up to Walt’s dream.
Walt planned his amusement park over a period of several years as he continued to build his animation business. His dream finally morphed into the 160-acre Disneyland site in Anaheim, California (which celebrated its 60th anniversary on July 17, 2015).
Huge Success at Disneyland Leads to Walt Disney World Resort
Disneyland quickly became a top tourist attraction and Walt Disney dreamed of expanding on the success of his wildly popular California location. The immense – and instantaneous – commercial success of this first park sparked the visionary within Walt. He wanted to grow his revolutionary ideas and create something even bigger.
Just four years after the 1955 opening of Disneyland Resort, Walt Disney Productions started acquiring land for a second development.
Walt’s concept would supplement, and build on, Disneyland’s existing popularity. Once they had control of the land, they immediately began building Walt Disney World® Resort – which was to become exponentially-larger than Disneyland. Its flagship park, Magic Kingdom®, led the charge when it opened on October 1, 1971.
Unfortunately, Walt passed away in 1966, five years before he could see his dream fulfilled.
Insider’s Note! The first edition of this book was published on October 1, 2016, which marked the first day of Walt Disney World’s 45th year.
Like Disneyland, the Magic Kingdom Park was also an instant success, leading to the quick planning and development of additional parks and expansions over time.
The entire recreational complex eventually became four separate park venues. The second park, Epcot, finally became a reality in 1981. The two remaining parks opened in later years. Updates, additions, and expansions have taken place ever since, proving Walt’s dream is still alive and growing.
Walt’s second park vision, Epcot® Park or the “Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow,” was an idea for a completely new “planned (utopian) community.” Although the final design did not mirror Walt’s original futuristic dream, Epcot was heavily-influenced by his ideas. In fact, components of the initial plans for Epcot helped designers create a real community, Celebration, Florida, in 1996. It is located just a few miles from Disney World (though no longer owned or controlled by Disney).
Disney Imagineers stayed true to Walt’s design concepts for the final two theme parks, Disney’s Hollywood Studios™ and Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park. While one reflects Walt’s love of show business, the latter reflects his admiration for live animals.
Since Disneyland opened, Disney has built and operates nine other parks and resorts worldwide!
Theme Park Details
There are so many fun things to do at the Magic Kingdom that you could spend all day and still not see and experience everything. This park features the most rides of all of Disney World’s parks. Many people plan to spend two or three days of their vacation at the Magic Kingdom.
The Magic Kingdom follows the same model as Disneyland in California, and it has a similar layout. You’ll be impressed as you get to stroll down a real American Main Street (Main Street, U.S.A.) that was plucked from days gone by, over a century ago.
You will see the iconic Cinderella Castle towering above its surroundings at the far end of the street (similar to Sleeping Beauty’s castle at Disneyland). If you are up for a treat, eating at Cinderella’s Royal Table inside the castle will be a memorable family experience.
Your adventure continues as you travel through an exotic tropical paradise (Adventureland).
You can visit the real Old West (Frontierland), then head east along the mighty Mississippi River before finding yourself at the political foundation of the country (Liberty Square).
Next along the promenade, (or if you walk right through the castle rather than turn left at the central court) you’ll enter Fantasyland, where you’ll want to ride the Carrousel, catch Peter Pan’s Flight, and meet your favorite princesses.
The final stop on your journey is a land (Tomorrowland) that reflects Walt’s fascination with technology – including space exploration.
The New Fantasyland
The 2012 expansion of Fantasyland exploded the realm of make-believe, and was the largest in Disney’s history. It added classic castles and brand-new adventures. You can now visit with characters like The Little Mermaid, Gaston, and Belle. The expansion included Storybook Circus, a circus-themed area with attractions like Disney’s iconic Dumbo the Flying Elephant and The Great Goofini’s Barnstormer, a small roller coaster perfect for youngsters. You can even meet Goofini (Goofy) across the way at Pete’s Silly Sideshow character meet-and-greet.
All of the newer attractions are worth the visit. The most popular of these is The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a tame, though extremely fun, roller coaster. Like most primary attractions, the line will be long if you don’t use FastPass+.
Of course, there were new dining options developed within the expansion. Most notably, the excellent Be Our Guest restaurant (inside of Beast’s Castle!) is a must-do if you can get dining reservations in advance. The food is top-notch, and the atmosphere is unlike anywhere else at Walt Disney World.
The Three Mountains
Don’t forget the three “mountain” roller coasters: Space Mountain (Tomorrowland), Splash Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (both in Frontierland). Note: You will need to have a FastPass+ for Space Mountain if you can’t get to the park first thing in the morning. Line waits can be up to two hours on busy summer days.
The second Disney World theme park, Epcot, is divided into two distinct sections, Future World and World Showcase.
Future World has several educational exhibits of thrilling technologies. But it also has some very fun things. For example, you can take a ride on Test Track or experience the thrill of space exploration on Mission: Space. Small children immensely enjoy The Seas with Nemo and Friends, an underwater journey in a clam-mobile!
Travel around World Showcase in Epcot to experience the culture and cuisine of 11 different countries. It is also where kids can become secret agents in Phineas & Ferb: Agent P’s World Showcase. This adventure gives kids smart phone devices to embark on an interactive scavenger hunt.
Illuminations – Reflections of Earth
Don’t miss the spectacular, award-winning fireworks show each night.
Lights, camera, action! Big screen movie magic comes to life at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Down at the end of Sunset Boulevard, you’ll find The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith. These attractions are two of Disney World’s most thrilling and exhilarating rides.
Pixar Place is where you will meet up with Woody, Buzz, and the gang on Toy Story Midway Mania, a moving 4-D video game adventure.
Don’t forget to make dining reservations for the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater or the high-end Hollywood Brown Derby. Children will enjoy eating at the Prime Time Cafe or the Hollywood and Vine character buffet.
At the end of your day, don’t miss the must-see, nighttime Fantasmic water show and the spectacular Star Wars extravaganza, each with fantastic flames and fireworks!
Animal Kingdom’s incredible icon is the elaborately-carved Tree of Life. The trunk of the gigantic tree is home to “A Bug’s Life” 3-D show. Its two primary attractions, Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest, are real crowd-pleasers.
The most-thrilling of these is Expedition Everest, which is a fast and exciting train-coaster that travels up snow-capped mountain peaks before heading through the dark center of the summit, bringing you face-to-face with the Abominable Snowman (also known as the Yeti). This coaster offers a couple of unique features that are unlike anything you have ever ridden before.
The family-oriented Kilimanjaro Safaris lets you take a trip in a real safari vehicle over the Serengeti plains of Africa. As the largest animal theme park in the world, more than 250 species and an astounding 1,700 animals call it home.
Stay Cool at Disney’s Two Awesome Water Parks!
Disney has two parks for people who want to get wildly wet. They both rank in the top ten waterparks in the entire nation. Both of them have distinct themes that are every bit as well developed as the four main amusement parks.
Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park
Blizzard Beach is a water park modeled after a winter ski resort. Its theme is that a freak snowstorm has hit Central Florida. The resulting “snow melt” makes for some of the world’s most exhilarating water rides.
Guests can either ride solo or with a friend down Runoff Rapids or on one of three thrilling inner-tube slides. You can also race to the finish line on the Toboggan Racers. Slush Gusher is a high-speed, 90-foot-long thrilling ride for big kids. Youngsters have their own special area for splashing around, complete with waterslides and a snow-castle fountain. The park’s chairlift takes you up to the top of the mountain where you can choose from several water slides, including Summit Plummet, with its 120-foot drop – the world’s tallest body slide and one of the steepest anywhere on Earth!
Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park
Typhoon Lagoon’s backstory is that a typhoon raged through a tropical oasis leaving shipwrecked vessels littering the area.
The park has 23 waterslides and is home to the Surf Pool, its signature attraction. Spanning a full acre, this is the largest wave pool in North America. Listen for the sound of thunder!
The waves are so big that even surfers can enjoy it. Before the park opens each morning, group surfing lessons are offered for ages eight and up. Typhoon Lagoon boasts some other popular attractions, including the brand new family ride, Miss Adventure Falls, and Humunga Kowabunga with its extreme – near-vertical – five-story drop. Younger children love the water play area designed just for them, including Ketchakiddee Creek with its spray and play, tot-friendly action.
Other Fun & Activities
In addition to their four theme parks and two water parks, Disney has many other recreational facilities.
Disney Springs® is a huge shopping complex with fast service restaurants and themed, sit-down dining and entertainment. There is something to do for everyone in the family, including riding around the lake in floating cars and hovering high overhead in giant balloons. It is split into four parts: Marketplace, Town Center, The Landing, and West Side.
Cirque du Soleil, which will close on December 31, 2017, performs their resident show, La Nouba, on a nightly basis. One of the biggest draws, House of Blues, has an exciting concert venue, large restaurant, and bar.
ESPN Wide World of Sports® Complex
This huge sporting facility is a major draw for athletes and fans alike. It is where Disney hosts hundreds of professional and amateur athletic events each year. It is also the site for the Atlanta Braves’ spring training, and it is home to national AAU events every summer.
Other Relaxing Recreation
Disney has championship golf courses, miniature golf courses, health and beauty spas, boating, and fishing opportunities. Even the greatest thrill-seekers will enjoy para-sailing on the Seven Seas Lagoon. These activities can keep your family entertained on days you don’t want to visit the theme parks.
Disney Resort Hotels
Because Disney World was designed to be fully integrated, the best way to enjoy all its offerings is to stay at one of the many hotels “on property.” There are prices and amenities to fit any family budget.
High-quality furnishings, immaculately clean grounds and facilities, and attention to details will make your hotel stay feel like a home away from home.
Staying right on Disney property gives great guest benefits, including free transportation to and from the Orlando International Airport.
Free Airport Transfer & Transportation
Disney’s Magical Express Transportation is a complimentary shuttle service that provides round-trip service from the airport to all of the Disney resorts. Upon arrival at the airport, you get to skip the tedious baggage claim process. You’ll head straight to Disney’s Magical Express Welcome Center and hop on a comfortable bus for the journey to your resort.
Disney will make sure your luggage is safely and promptly delivered to your room to be waiting for you when you check in. This certainly takes the hassle out of getting to your hotel when you arrive in Orlando, and at the end of your stay it makes leaving less stressful as well. Reservations for this no-cost service are made when booking your trip at a Disney hotel.
Disney also has free boat or bus transportation to the parks and other attractions. They even transfer your purchased merchandise from the parks directly to your room for free. Using package delivery empties your arms so that you are not weighed-down with souvenirs.
Extra Magic Hours Benefit
Probably the best thing about staying on property is the Extra Magic Hours (EMH). This perk gives you and other resort guests access to the theme parks for one or two extra hours each day. EMH let you in to a park before other guests (who are staying at other area hotels). EMH also lets you stay in a park long after other guests are asked to leave.
Disney Deluxe Resorts
Disney’s has eight high-end resort properties that offer uniquely-themed accommodations. Each of these provide top-notch accommodations and fine dining. Their premium recreational activities complete any vacation experience.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
Disney’s Beach Club Resort
Disney’s BoardWalk Inn
Disney’s Contemporary Resort
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Disney’s Polynesian Resort
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
Disney’s Yacht Club Resort
Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts
Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts (part of the Disney Vacation Club) feature spacious accommodations. They offer amenities including living rooms and either full kitchens or kitchenettes.
Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
Disney’s Old Key West Resort
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas
Disney’s Beach Club Villas
Disney’s BoardWalk Villas
Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (Opening July 17, 2017)
Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
Moderate Resorts and Value Resorts
If you plan to spend all your days at the parks, you don’t need to spend a lot on your hotel accommodations. The final two classes of resorts will save you money.
These resorts offer the exact same finishing touches at a fraction of the price — and customer service is just as great! Because they tend to attract families, the noise level may be higher, particularly at the Value resorts where kids are encouraged to run around and play.
Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort
Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter
Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside
The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort (The associated Campsites technically fall under a separate Campsite category)
Disney’s All-Star Movies, Sports and Music Resorts
Disney’s Pop Century Resort
Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
Using Your Own Car
If you decide to drive during your Disney World vacation, there are a couple of important things to know. Guests staying at any Disney resort or hotel will be given complimentary parking passes for use at any of the theme parks. Otherwise, parking costs $20 per day at the four main theme parks ($22 per day for recreational vehicles).
The good news is that parking is transferable to other parks during the same day. So if you purchase Park Hopper passes, you won’t have to worry about paying more than once per day for parking everywhere. Parking at the remaining Disney recreational facilities is always free.
Disney Transportation Options
Disney has an extensive water transportation system. Water taxis and ferryboats are an excellent and fun way to travel around the resorts and theme parks. Magic Kingdom is accessible via water taxi from several hotel properties, including Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Disney’s Polynesian Resort. Epcot is also accessible by ferryboat from numerous resorts, including Disney’s Beach Club Resort, Disney’s Boardwalk Inn and Villas Resort, and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin Hotels. The fun at Disney Springs is accessible by ferryboat from Disney’s Port Orleans Resort, Disney’s Old Key West Resort, and Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort.
Disney’s convenient and complementary bus transportation system provides easy access around its massive property. Every 20 minutes, you’ll be able to hop on a bus from your resort and travel to any of the theme parks or Disney Springs. While most trips are direct, there are a couple of journeys that require bus-to-bus transfers.
A ride on the Walt Disney World Monorail System is worth the experience, even if you arrive in Orlando with your own automobile. The three-rail system makes several stops, taking guests between Epcot and Magic Kingdom, and provides transportation to the Magic Kingdom resort hotels.
Disney’s newest taxi-ride system is called Minnie Vans. Guests can rent a van to take up to eight people from one location on Disney property to another.
Coming soon is Disney’s brand new take on an old classic. Gondolas will soon fly above the parks, taking people between Epcot or Hollywood Studios to several Disney Resort hotels.
Who Runs the Show?
When the Magic Kingdom opened in 1971, the Walt Disney World Resort employed about 5,500 employees. They are known as Cast Members, to keep employees mindful of Walt’s idea that the parks would be an extension of the big screen.
Today, more than 70,000 Cast Members work together to make the magic happen. Disney World is, by far, the largest single-site employer in the United States, with around 3,700 different job classifications. Disney spends well over a billion dollars on annual payroll (almost two billion when considering added benefits).
College Students and International Support
Anyone visiting Disney will instantly recognize the huge number of college-aged and international employees. In order to meet their on-going needs, the company has a couple of related programs.
Walt Disney World College Program
Many college-aged employees are contract employees working under the Walt Disney World College Program. This is a Disney-sponsored college internship that is available to American college students. It is designed to help keep the Disney dream alive at a low cost while giving students real-world business experience. This program employs much of the theme park and resort “front line” Cast Members.
While working in positions related to their degree majors, students give up two semesters in college for the opportunity to travel to Orlando and help with operations.
Disney established four off-property housing communities (apartments) within 15 miles (24 km) around Walt Disney World, which is owned and operated by them. Most students, along with other Cast Members, live in these apartment complexes while they work at the resort. The company provides efficient bus transportation between their job locations and housing. The residential needs of Cast Members are taken care of in a safe, strictly-controlled environment with tight security measures.
Walt Disney World Academic Exchange and Cultural Exchange Programs
There is also the Walt Disney World International College Program, an internship program that offers international college students (ICP’s) from all over the world the same opportunity, and shared housing, just mentioned.
The Cultural Exchange Program is a 12-month exchange program that allows people from all over the world to live in America and work at one of the Disney World parks. Most of the Cast Members in Epcot’s World Showcase work under this program.
Walt Disney World Resort Guide Book
To find out more about Walt Disney World and how to plan the vacation of a lifetime, get our guide book here!