Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain, and Space Mountain in Magic Kingdom
Some might say that 20 items are long for a "must do" list but they may not realize that Disney World has four gigantic theme parks and in addition to rides, Disney World also has wonderful musical shows, fireworks, parades, and other special events. These are our top favorite Disney World attractions.
This classic attraction is one of the most popular, and it's utterly quirky: you might think it's about a huge drop on a log flume ride (above), but actually most of the ride meanders past figures of Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and other animatronic characters, to the tune of a silly song about a Laughing Place, with a "Zip-ee-dee-do-dah" finale. (And the big chute drop is a lot of fun.)
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
With its train and Wild West themes and a top speed of 36 mph, Thunder Mountain is a just-right ride for younger kids. (As for Splash Mountain, kids only need to be 40 inches tall to ride.)
The third "mountain coaster" in Magic Kingdom is in the Tomorrowland area. This is a dark coaster and feels more intense the other two, though in fact, the speed is only 27 mph. Height requirement is 44 inches.
Pirates of the Caribbean
This classic attraction in the Frontierland area of the Magic Kingdom dates back to the original Disneyland in California where it was planned by Walt himself (though he didn't live to see its opening.)
By the 21st century, Pirates of the Caribbean had become a low-key, no-line-up attraction, still with a nostalgia appeal but easily overlooked: a boat ride that made a nice cool break on a hot day, floating in the dark past pirate scenes. Its popularity soared with the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie in 2003, and by the time the second movie came out, the ride had been revamped to feature the charismatic Jack Sparrow character. Now as fans float along to the tune of "Yo Ho, Yo Ho, it's a pirate's life for me", they can see Jack, and nemesis Barbossa, and tentacle-faced Captain Davy Jones.
Wishes Fireworks and Electrical Parade in Magic Kingdom
Visitors to Disney World should make sure to end up, one night, in the Magic Kingdom at the right time for the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks display which takes place at the Cinderella Castle. (This will take some planning, if you're visiting another theme park -- be sure to allow plenty of time to arrive at Magic Kingdom! You may have to transfer buses if you're using the Disney bus system, and if you're using the monorail from Epcot you need to take a second monorail or boat from the TTC Center.)
Try to view the fireworks from a spot that's either in front of the Castle or on Main Street, to see Tinkerbell flying in the sky. The fireworks schedule varies at different times of the year, and on peak days the display may happen twice -- check the calendar at the Disney World website. Wishes has a holiday season version, too.
Main Street Electrical Parade
When you're scheduling your timing to see Wishes, also plan to see the terrific nighttime Main Street Electrical Parade. Again check the calendar at the Disney World website; during busy periods, you may have two chances per night to see this parade.
Little-Kid Rides in Fantasyland, Magic Kingdom
Okay, it is cheating to group a number of rides into a single item in this "must do" list of attractions at Disney World. But anyone with small kids has to plan to spend a good chunk of time in Fantasyland, doing the Dumbo ride, the Mad Tea Party ride, the Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, It's a Small World...
The good news is that Fantasyland got a major expansion in 2014, including a second Dumbo the Flying Elephant attraction (which helps with the long lineups families have had to endure to get onto Dumbo), and two new lands, Fantasyland Forest and Storybook Circus.
Mission SPACE, IllumiNations, and World Showcase at Epcot
Epcot will probably not be your kids' favorite theme park, but don't miss a visit to this unique place. The name stands for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, a dream of Walt Disney's, who died years before Epcot opened in 1982. The park still shows its origins in its dedication plaque: "May Epcot Center entertain, inform, and inspire." The Future World area has interactive displays of new technology, and the World Showcase is often compared to a World's Fair. And if that doesn't grab your kids' interest, then these attractions will:
The outstanding high-adrenaline attraction in Epcot is Mission Space: each team of four riders enters a capsule and embarks on, well, a mission, and team member has a particular function to perform. Get ready for a serious G-force experience, and try to remember what your assigned task is. Height requirement is 44 inches.
IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
This is a don't-miss attraction not only for Epcot but for the entirety of Disney World. IllumiNations is a night-time experience that includes amazing fireworks but it's much more than that, with laser lights, pyrotechnics, and a gigantic Earth Globe, with a skin of changing images, that floats in the 41-acre lagoon in the World Showcase. Visitors are sure to be wowed by this amazing display. Be sure to end one night of your visit with this experience at Epcot! Allow plenty of time to get there, if you're in another theme park. The best plan is to arrive at least an hour early and take a walk around the lagoon beforehand, which gives a great tour of another top attraction at Disney World...
The World Showcase
Like a World's Fair, this area of Epcot has pavilions from 11 different countries: France, Norway, Morocco, China, Japan, Mexico, Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy, and the American Adventure. Each section has a pavilion, restaurants and shops, and cool performances. Many grown-ups can happily spend hours touring and dining in the World Showcase. However, on a first visit to Disney World with kids, families will probably want to just do a quick tour. A walk around the lagoon in the cool of night just before IllumiNations is a highly recommended way to at least get a look at this unique part of Disney World. Note that Epcot closes after IllumiNations.
Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, The Twilight Zone of Terror, and Star Tours
Disney's Hollywood Studios has a half-dozen "must-do" attractions on this list, starting with one of Disney World's most fun coasters: the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith, which has a rock-star storyline and tops out at 57 miles per hour (a speed it reaches in 2.8 seconds.) This enclosed coaster will probably be the favorite attraction of any teens in your group, and they'll also like the attraction that has the spot immediately opposite it, at the bottom of Sunset Boulevard:
The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
This is a don't-miss attraction for two reasons: its repeated freefall giant drop (up, down, up, down, crazy screaming -- you get the idea), and its terrific theming that's based on the fifties-era "The Twilight Zone" tv series. Guests enter an eerie hotel and encounter Rod Serling, back from the past, and warning that "You've just entered...the Twilight Zone." Great stuff, as is the whole prequel to the ride.
Based, of course, on the Star Wars movies, this motion-simulator attraction was revamped in 2011 with 3-D effects and multiple storylines: you never know where your Star Tour will go, as there are over fifty possible combinations. The story set-up is fun: guests board the Starspeeder space vessel that's haplessly piloted by droids R2-D2 and C-3PO, there's a rebel spy among the passengers (a random passenger's face is flashed on the screen) and away you go, maybe to Tatooine, maybe to underwater city Naboo.
Toy Story Mania!, Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!, and Fantasmic!
Continuing with three more great attractions in Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park (and all with names ending in with exclamation marks...)
Toy Story Mania!
This fast-moving 4-D ride is in the style of a carnival midway game: players put on 3-D glasses, board their vehicle, and swing through different areas that are like booths where players try to rack up big scores by shooting targets. The Toy Story ride is lots of fun for toddlers, kids, parents, grandparents, and even for teens and preteens who are video game pros: players who want a challenge can figure out strategies to get higher scores.
Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular!
This attraction is a 35-minute live-action show, so you'll need to do a bit of planning to catch a performance. (Depending on the time of year, five or more shows might be offered per day.) The performance has acrobatic stunts, participation by chosen members of the audience, and great special effects: the excitement starts as Indiana Jones narrowly escapes a giant rolling boulder, and continues right through to pyrotechnics, explosions, and a finale with an airplane right onstage.
Fantasmic! is one of Walt Disney World's crowning achievements. Get there at least an hour before the show begins and be prepared to be blown away."
It's impossible, however, to describe Fantasmic! The show is a combination of lasers, images projected on towering "screens" of water, real-life pirate ships, pyrotechnics, and more "Wow!" special effects. This show is popular, so as noted above, arrive early to get a seat. During busy times of the year, two performances may be offered, and the second performance may be less crowded.
Kilimanjaro Safaris and Kali River Rapids in Animal Kingdom
Kilimanjaro Safari is an outstanding attraction that will wow even those visitors who think they don't like theme parks. You'll feel half a world away from Orlando once you board your safari vehicle and head out into the 100-acre African savannah. Visitors see hippos, rhinos, giraffes (who typically come right up to the jeep), African antelopes, gazelles, elephants... During most of the day, visitors will be lucky to glimpse the cheetahs sleeping under the trees, or the male or female lions dozing on their Pride Rock, but late in the day, as the temperature cools, visitors may get a good look at these beautiful creatures.
Kali River Rapids
Moving from Africa to the Asia area of Animal Kingdom, head to Kali River Rapids for your chance to get cooled down on a hot day -- or, to put it another way, be prepared to get soaked. This is one of the few "wet rides" at Disney World; guests ride in circular rafts that seat twelve people, and several of them will get absolutely drenched, while the others laugh at the drenched ones and get somewhat less wet. (There is a place in the center of the raft to stow bags so they stay dry.) The Asian theming in the line-up area for this ride is terrific, too.
Expedition Everest and Festival of the Lion King / Finding Nemo
Expedition Everest is the fourth and most recently-built "mountain coaster" at Walt Disney World, the others being Splash, Thunder, and Space mountains, which are also on this list. Everest towers 200 feet high in Animal Kingdom (and is reportedly one of the highest elevations in Florida.) Expedition Everest is a fun thrill ride, with a scream-inducing reversal of direction and a grande finale plummet, but -- like all Disney attractions -- it's not extreme and even (most) grandparents will like the ride.
Expedition Everest is also outstanding in its theming: over six acres are filled with details from Nepal, the kind of dedicated theming that only Disney does.
Live Musical: Festival of the Lion King or Finding Nemo
For our last spot in our top-twenty list of "must do's" at Disney World: pick one of these top-quality life musical attractions in the Animal Kingdom theme park. The Festival of the Lion King show has terrific songs from the movie, amazing acrobatics, and much-beloved characters such as Timon, Pumbaa, and Simba. Meanwhile, Finding Nemo features creative staging and stunning use of giant puppets (held by the real-life singer/actors), and as a bonus, the show takes place inside an air-conditioned enclosed theater.
So That's the Top Twenty...
...And so much is missing. How could we leave out Primeval Whirl and Dinosaur in Animal Kingdom, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin and Haunted Mansion (a classic!) in the Magic Kingdom, Honey I Shrunk the Audience at Epcot... and what about Disney World's two great water parks?