This is part of an ongoing series. In the original feature I explain why you should sit down and map out a multi-year travel plan to make sure you get to see and do all the things that are most important to you. Read this guide, “Why Right Now is the Best Time to Plan Your Travel Bucket List” here.
In this follow up series, I present 30 different curated Once in a Lifetime experiences and destinations for you to consider. Obviously everyone’s dream list will be different, and whatever it is that you feel you really want or need to do should be at the top of your list, but with the help of experts and my 25-years experience as an award-winning travel journalist I’ve put together some great highlights to consider. Each day I’ll present a different option (see them all here):
Walt Disney World, Orlando, Florida
Why? When I started putting together my list of 30 Bucket List Trips For Your Lifetime, I was thinking along the lines of fantasy vacations that for most people are once in a lifetime opportunities, like African safaris or visiting Easter Island. But when I asked top experts in the world of leisure travel for suggestions, I was surprised how many people chose Walt Disney World. I shouldn’t have been shocked given the numbers: in recent years an average of 58 million people have passed through the gates annually.
That’s significantly more people (nearly 10,000,000 more!) visiting a very large amusement park than go to Las Vegas. It’s more than four times the number of tourists who go to Yellowstone, Yosemite and Grand Canyon National Parks – combined. While Disney has six major resorts in five countries, including China, Japan and Hong Kong, plus California’s Disney Land in the most populous part of the U.S., well over a third of all global visitors go to the Florida mother ship. WDW is about the same size as the city of San Francisco – yet gets more than twice as many tourists. Simply put, it is the most popular resort on earth, has been for decades, and remains so for very good reasons – because it offers so much to so many different people and does it so well.
“Walt Disney World Resort is so expansive and thoroughly creative it captures the imagination of all ages and generations. Fine dining, colorful restaurants, shopping, golf, boating and entertainment are mixed into and between its four theme parks,” said travel journalist, author and award-winning radio host (Michigan’s Big Show) Michael Patrick Shiels, who used to live nearby when he covered the PGA Tour. “Disney’s themed hotels are equally diverse, with something for every taste and budget – they vary in price and are spread throughout the many square miles of the property. Then there is Disney Springs, an attraction to itself but one with no admission fee. Live entertainment, specialty shopping, boat and balloon rides, bars, a bowling alley, countless restaurants and rides are all situated around a lake. It’s a great spot for walking, people watching and spending part of a day or evening. It’s small part of the entire resort but anyplace else it would be a very big deal on its own.”
I used to write regularly and extensively on the surprising quantity and quality of golf within and around WDW, and I’ve visited several times, but not recently or thoroughly enough to give much useful advice. So I turned to the person who arguably knows more about how and why to visit WDW than anyone alive, Bob Sehlinger. 35 years ago, Sehlinger wrote the first edition of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, which h is now in its 35th annually updated edition and widely known as far and away the best resource for planning a trip, maximizing the time and minimizing the money spent while there, covering and rating everything related to WDW in painstaking detail, from detailed descriptions and critical reviews of the individual restaurants, hotels and attractions to the less well known sprts and water parks within WDW to nearby alternatives for dining and lodging outside the park, along with explanations of all the new technology that can affect your trip.
What has made Sehlinger’s book so popular (4 million-plus copies sold) and launched an entire line of Unofficial Guides (Las Vegas, Washington DC, etc.) is the fact that he has no affiliation with or reason to promote Disney. He and his staff are brutally honest and opinionated and he likes what he likes and tells you when he doesn’t. He took his own kids to Disney in the early Eighties and had a terrible experience, which led him to do the research that has made the experience better for millions since. Today he is a travel industry legend credited with being the first to apply research techniques from the fields of operations research and statistics to travel guides, and early on he developed mathematical models that could save theme park visitors more than three hours of standing in lines in just one day, by timing and mapping the peaks for each major attraction. Ever since, he has kept up with the torrent of changes, and while the original 1985 Unofficial Guide was 174 pages, the current 2020 edition is over eight hundred, and augmented by up to date online resources. As a result, he has won the highest honor in travel journalism, the Lowell Thomas Award.
“When I think of a ‘Bucket List’ it implies someplace very special to you that by definition you haven’t experienced,” Sehlinger explained to me. “Because Disney is so ubiquitous in our lives with television, movies, Broadway shows, theme parks, all manner of products, and programs for children, it may surprise you that I’m proposing Walt Disney World for your Bucket List. But my thoughts here are for those of you who have never been. You should give Walt Disney World a look. Its entertainment product is so vast and diverse that it literally has something for everyone – make that plenty for everyone. It’s not just for children and its rides are only what draws the most attention. I could, for example, devise a Disney World dream vacation for you that totally excludes the theme parks. There’s just so much.”
“Walt Disney World is an unique entertainment venue, offering a quintessential interpretive experience that knits together the past, present, and future – a world conceived by and presided over by imagination…it’s a remarkable example of what man can achieve when at his best. Ersatz? Yes, but entertaining and edifying at the same time. Many a guest credits Disney World with expanding their horizons and starting them down a life changing path.”
“Disney World is differentiated by a basic business philosophy to greatly exceed guests’ expectations. With every new attraction, Disney swings for the fences seeking to incorporate a “Wow!” factor that leaves its patrons almost giddy and begging for more. Another differentiating element is Disney’s near obsessive attention to detail and theming and ability to appeal to a broad demographic. While other parks target families with young children, teens, or young adults, Disney parks are designed so family members irrespective of age can enjoy almost everything together.”
How? “Disney World is easily accessible, served by an international airport with non-stop flights to and from 84 cities, while Orlando boasts the largest rental car inventory in the US. The weather is good most of the year and there are hundreds of lodging choices including hotels, rental homes, condos, and airbnbs. There is something for every budget and desired level of luxury.”
“On the downside, Walt Disney World is exceedingly expensive, often uncomfortably crowded, unnecessarily complicated, and in warm weather months, nearly intolerably hot. All of these, however, can be mitigated by solid advance planning.”
“I’ve often said that when it comes to Walt Disney World, you either need a good plan or a frontal lobotomy. The challenge is achieving some balance. A plan will help you organize your Disney World visit and eliminate clustering around a park map trying to decide what to do next. It will also make you feel more confident. The trick is not to load too much stuff into the plans and to understand the need for rest time, swimming, and enjoying the resort features of your hotel. Remember, the idea is to have fun, not to try to see everything or get your money’s worth. Most of all, don’t let the plan wag the dog. Stay focused on enjoying yourself.
The Parks: WDW has four main theme parks, not including the water parks, entertainment zones and such. The thing that has been getting all the recent buzz is the major new Star Wars Galaxy Edge area, but while vast, this is not its own park, but rather part of one of the others, as are all the main movie franchised zones including Frozen and Avatar. Sehlinger breaks it down for us.
“Disney World comprises 43 square miles, an area twice the size of Manhattan. Situated strategically in this vast expanse are the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom theme parks; two water adventure parks; a sports complex; golf courses; 43 hotels; a campground; more than 100 restaurants; four interconnected lakes; a shopping and entertainment complex; 7 conventions venues; a nature preserve; and a transportation system consisting of 4-lanes highways, elevated monorails, gondolas, and a network of canals. Disney World incorporates all this in a verdant landscaped setting punctuated by some of America’s most memorable architecture. Disney employees are called “cast members” and are among the friendliest, best trained elite of the hospitality industry. Their contribution to a guest’s enjoyment of Disney World is legendary.
The Magic Kingdom: A successor of Disneyland largely corrected the mistakes Walt Disney made in California. It’s the most visited theme park in the world and serves up the most diverse array of attractions. From Dumbo the Flying Elephant, every child’s dream ride, to Disney classics such as Pirates of the Caribbean and Peter Pan’s Flight. Anchoring the park are the ‘mountains:’ Space Mountain, a rollercoaster in the dark; Splash Mountain, a log flume ride based on the Brer Rabbit saga; and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a runaway mine train. All of the foregoing draw huge crowds so arrive before park opening and hit them first thing. The Unofficial Guide offers step-by-step Touring Plans for each park to minimize you time in line.
Epcot: What we know as Epcot [Experimental Protype Community of Tomorrow] today is the regretful remains of Walt Disney’s vision to create an entire prototypical community of the future, one where people lived and worked rather than ride little boats through the fantasy kingdom depicted in the Disney feature, Frozen. All this was scrapped by corporate Disney when Walt died and was replaced by a theme park. The theme park, however, is a pretty good one and decidedly different. Featured attractions include Test Track, a ride that simulates automobile new-model testing; Soarin’, a relaxing simulation of a flight around the world; and pavilions representing the culture, architecture, and cuisine of foreign countries.
Epcot is Disney’s most open and expansive park. Arranged in a figure-eight, one half is called Future World and contains the majority of park’s attractions. The other half, surrounding a lake, is World Showcase, home to all the foreign pavilions. Disney parks are stunningly landscaped but Epcot’s expanded vista, where you can see all the way from one end the park to the other, provides scope and scale not possible in the other parks, making a perfect venue for the annual International Flower and Garden Festival. Epcot hasn’t gotten much love lately but that’s all changing with a number of new attractions being created throughout the park. Because of its open layout, Epcot handles crowds better than the other parks and is more adult oriented and educational.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios: It was called Disney MGM Studios when it opened in 1989, planned and constructed as a response to Universal Studios’ decision to open a movie-themed park in Orlando similar to its very successful park in Los Angeles. Competition always lights a fire under Disney, and the creation of the new Disney Park was accomplished at warp speed and opened before the Universal park. This was very much in contrast to the slow-mo almost plodding tendency of Disney when launching a new park or attraction. The Disney Park was very educational and offered a solid introduction to television and motion picture production. Over time, the park changed its name to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and evolved to become more like an amusement park with the addition of thrill rides while closing or de-emphasizing its educational attractions.
Today it’s a fun park with special emphasis on promoting Disney intellectual assets such as Star Wars, Little Mermaid, Toy Story, and Frozen. In 2020 it premiered Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, an immersive “land” based on a fictional planet and home to Disney’s most ambitious and technically advance attractions, Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Rise has been heralded as the best attraction in any theme park worldwide. Other headliner attraction are Star Tours, a flight simulation adventure; the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror that includes a plunging elevator; Rock ‘n Roller Coaster, a coaster in the dark on a wild spin through Hollywood; Toy Story Mania, a moving shooting gallery based on Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story; Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, the first attraction anywhere starring Mickey Mouse, and several theater presentations including a Frozen sing-along.
Many of these attractions are new and have altered long-time traffic patterns in the park. For the latest advice on how to run this gauntlet check out TouringPlans.com, the official website of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. The site also offers daily crowd predictions and a lively discussion board among much more.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom: You might say the Animal Kingdom, opened in 1998, is also the offspring of competition, this time with Busch Gardens in Tampa, a combination amusement park and zoo. Disney methodology is to scrutinize what other players are doing well in the market and then to set about doing it better in as preemptive a way as possible. At the Animal Kingdom the zoological exhibits and attractions are truly ground-breaking with the animals on display in detailed replications of their natural habitat. The plum here is the Kilimanjaro Safari attraction where guests board a truck for a ride through a very realistic savannah where dozens of species from ostriches to lions are showcased. Smaller species reside in enclosures so realistic that the animals are often difficult to spot.
Sticking with fruit analogies, the big banana in the park is Pandora the World of Avatar which interestingly doesn’t contain any animals at all. The land is a recreation of the sets of the movie Avatar. Amazing in its execution with floating islands and otherworldly flora, Pandora is built around two attractions: Na’vi River Journey, a tranquil boat ride through Pandora’s rainforest; and Flight of Passage, a flight on a dragon’s back over the forests of Pandora. Besides Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at the Studios, Flight of Passage is the most popular attraction at Walt Disney World and Disney’s response to the celebrated Harry Potter attractions at Universal Orlando. Also high on the hit parade is Expedition Everest, a dynamite roller coaster that zips around and through an eye-popping facsimile of Mount Everest. Similar to the other parks, the best touring strategy for the Animal Kingdom is to arrive before park opening and experience the attractions cited above first thing. Expect Flight of Passage, however, to be swamped immediately, so if you expect to be at the park all day hit the other attractions first and save Flight of Passage for late afternoon.”
The Plan: “If you decide to give it a shot, here are some more tips:
1. You can easily build a trip around art, architecture, golfing, music, landscaping and gardening, dining, camping, fishing, boating, horse riding, walking, and shopping among others.
2. Try to go during a less crowded time of year: Late August thru December 20th excluding Labor Day, Halloween, and Thanksgiving weekends; Winter and Spring excluding President’s Day weekend, Spring Break, and Easter.
3. Physical demands are considerable: walking 6-14 miles a day in crowds and hot weather. Prepare by walking/hiking at home incrementally increasing the distance. Do a test run at a state or local fair. Understand the limitations of your group.
4. Resign yourself to not being able to see everything. You don’t have that much time or money.
5. Learn about the attractions. Know the potential of each for frightening children or adults.
6. Take advantage of advance reservations for attractions (FastPass+) and dining.
7. Arrive at the parks at least 30 minutes before park opening with passes in hand.
8. Experience the newest and most popular attractions first thing in the morning even if means criss-crossing the parks.
9. Be prepared for surprises (good and bad). Be flexible.
10. Pay attention to your feelings. You’re not on the quota system. The idea is to have fun.”
The TouringPlans.com site lets members create their own efficient custom itineraries, cherry picking the rides and attractions most important to their families, then scheduling the best way to fit them all in with the least amount of waiting.
Not surprisingly, there is a very high level of detail and information on WDW’s official website as well.
Where to Eat: “I usually have a car so I can eat wherever I want including outside of Walt Disney World. At the Magic Kingdom the standout is the Liberty Tree Tavern where it’s Thanksgiving every day. At Epcot, choose from among the ethnic eateries in World Showcase. I’m partial to the Biergarten Buffet in Germany and Restaurant Marrakesh in Morocco, as well as the Regal Eagle Smokehouse in the U.S. Pavilion. At Disney’s Hollywood Studios it’s the tasty but expensive Hollywood Brown Derby. In the Animal Kingdom try Flame Tree Barbeque (casual) and Tiffin’s (upscale). In the resort hotels I’m fond of Citricos for food and ambiance at the Grand Floridian, Kimonos Japanese at the Swan, and if you’re on an expense account, Shula’s [steakhouse] at the Dolphin. There are many choices at Disney Springs but for good food and entertainment, Ragland Road, an Irish Pub is my pick.”
Where to Stay: “The most architecturally interesting are the Animal Kingdom Lodge and the Wilderness Lodge. The Contemporary and the Bay Lake Tower are within walking distance of the monorail and the Magic Kingdom. Because I always have a car I really like Old Key West where I can park close to my unit. Port Orleans French Quarter is compact and offers the best amenities and value of the moderate resorts. The Caribbean Beach, Art of Animation, Pop Century, and Riviera Resorts are connected to Epcot and the Studios by the Skyliner gondola system.”
I would add that for luxury travelers, one of the least known – but probably very best – lodging choices within the park is the Four Seasons Orlando. Not many people associate the two top-shelf global brands, Disney and Four Seasons, but the new build, just a few years old, is a full-featured luxury resort with both “regular” deluxe hotel rooms and private residences, amenities like an amazing spa, 5-acre tropical island pool complex and a world-class Tom Fazio golf course and sports center, yet it also offers all the benefits of being an official on-site Disney hotel, including character breakfasts, advance ride reservations and Fast Pass+.
Journalist Shiels visited the region extensively this winter and has another suggestion: “The Disney hotels are unique and convenient and offer a lot, but some families prefer to retreat to the rental home options nearby. I visited Balmoral Resort, 30-minutes away in Haines City, which caters to the Disney crowd with extremely affordable, multiple-bedroom homes in a gated, resort community. There are common amenities, but each home has its screened-in, attached swimming pool, which you don’t get at any hotel. This way parents and grandparents can join in the fun or relax as portions of the family duck in and out of Disney throughout the day or stay late for the fireworks.”
Travel Agents: Savvy experts can help you sort out when to go, how to get there, add-ons and all the important details. This is why when planning these kind of Bucket List trips I always recommend using a good travel agent or travel advisor. In addition to making sure you get it right, they can often save you money or get you upgrades and more bang for the buck. For more on why you want to use a travel agent and how to go about it, read my earlier article on this topic here.