There are twelve Disney parks worldwide; six of those are Castle Parks. Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland Park led the way, followed by Cinderella representing Walt Disney World and Tokyo Disney Resorts. Next came Le Château de la Belle au Bois Dormant at Disneyland Paris. Hong Kong’s Disneyland’s original castle (opened in 2005) was transformed into Castle of Magical Dreams in 2020 to represent all of Disney’s princesses and queens. Enchanted Storybook Castle at Shanghai Disney Resort is the latest (and the greatest in terms of sheer size and scale).
I’m a lifelong lover of all things Disneyland, an avowed Disney geek, and now, a Disney author of 100 Disney Adventures of a Lifetime, Eat Like Walt, and Walt’s Disneyland. In this six-part series, I’ll highlight some of my favorite adventures and magical experiences around the Disney world. Let’s go castle hopping together! Together, we’ll visit each park after their recent anniversary. Just the way that Castle-hopping is one of the adventures I highlight in my book, I invite you to virtually visit each park with me!
“Roy was always my big brother and he always took care of me.”
While that quote from Walt can apply to many instances, I like to think of it in regards to Walt Disney World. Roy hadn’t planned on leading the Florida project —but he did, all in honor of his brother’s final wishes. It was Roy that insisted Walt’s first name be added to the property’s name, because “there would not be a Disney World without Walt.” Thus, my friends know to always call it Walt Disney World in my presence; no shortcuts allowed. I have been known to ask strangers to raise their right hand and pledge to do the same. One of my pals always writes “WALT Disney World” when sending me a text or email. I think you get the idea…
Having been raised in southern California, it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I started visiting Walt Disney World. And now I have the pleasure and privilege to write about it. National Geographic’s 100 Disney Adventures of a Lifetime is chock full of entries across Walt Disney World’s parks and resorts. It’s always hard to pick favorites, however here are a few of my highlights:
Cinderella Castle stands at 189 feet at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World. Compared to her American sister, Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, she is significantly larger. Steven Vagnini, co-author of the just released sixth edition of Disney A- Z shares about the showpiece: “Teams of designers at WED Enterprises studied European palaces and castles, including Fountainebleau, Versailles, and the chateaus of Chenonceau, Chambord, and Chaumont. They also turned to the original designs for the 1950 Cinderella film prepared by the Disney Animation staff.” As with the other castles, it is an attraction unto itself. Next time you walk through the entry passage, please tip your Ears to Disney Legend Dorothea Redmond, one of my heroes. She designed the five mosaics that depict Cinderella’s story. Behold the faces of Cinderella’s stepsisters, which feature a color representative of their reactions as they behold her trying on the glass slipper: Look for one “green with envy” and another “red with rage.” The 15-by-10-foot panels were created with a million pieces of multicolored Italian glass, real silver, and 14-karat gold.
The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue opened on September 5, 1974. Although Walt passed away eight years before the first performance, the much beloved revue at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground is a live stage show created in the vein of both the Diamond Horseshoe Revue at the Magic Kingdom and its predecessor, the Golden Horseshoe Revue at Disneyland (one of Walt’s favorite attractions in his original Magic Kingdom). Claire de Lune, Johnny Ringo, Dolly Drew, Six Bits Slocum, Flora Long, and Jim Handy star in the audience participation production at Pioneer Hall. Stomp your feet and clap your hands during a sing-along or two. A few guests are invited—sometimes coaxed—onstage and are cast as characters in the frontier saga, so if you‘re the shy type, prepare to squirm in good fun. The show is accompanied by an all-you-can-eat family-style meal that includes the restaurant’s signature dish, fried chicken (also a favorite of Walt’s).
Become a Wilderness Explorer, just like Russell, the perky sidekick from Up (2009). And you can do it without traveling to Paradise Falls in a balloon-powered house.
The Wilderness Explorers program at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is the big idea of two committed groups: the cast members from Disney’s Animals, Science and Environment (ASE) department and the Walt Disney Imagineers. The ASE cast members worked with Walt Disney Imagineering to further the park’s mission to bring awareness to conservation and protecting the planet. The Imagineers took that concept and partnered with Pixar and its artists to bring Up to life through badges, artwork, and design.
The result is one of the most fun, educational, and interactive attractions at any of the Disney parks. Follow in Russell’s footsteps as you take nature-themed challenges on a self-guided adventure. To begin, take the pledge: “A Wilderness Explorer is a friend to all, be it plants or fish or tiny mole.”
Pick up your complimentary handbook from any Wilderness Explorers station to get started. There are three easy steps to exploring: Use the map to find the locations throughout the park. Learn about insects, botany, flamingos, ecology, safaris, habitats, recycling, animal nutrition, hiking, veterinary medicine, forestry, bats, tracking, gorillas, conservation, Mount Everest, birding, fossils, dinosaurs, and tigers (did you know they are one of the most endangered creatures in the world?). Follow the instructions on each page to complete the activity, then look for a Troop Leader—easily identified by their uniform and orange satchel—to collect your badge. Go at your own pace; the fun can be done over several days.
Finish the entire mission and become a Senior Wilderness Explorer. I am proud to say I recently achieved this accomplishment. Caw! Caw! Rawr!
Also at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, two backstage experiences are exceptional:
Up Close with Rhinos offers a truly unique encounter with white rhinoceroses, the second largest land animal on Earth! Meet members of a “crash,” the term used for a herd of the heavy-horned mammals. The Animal Care Team will take you on a 60-minute guided backstage tour where you will be one of the few to encounter these massive creatures up close. You’ll learn how they are cared for, their biology, and their behavior. For the safety of the animals, cameras are not allowed on this tour.
Caring for Giants explores the elephant herd at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, the park’s largest inhabitants. This is your chance to observe these brilliant and sentient souls from as close as 80 to 100 feet away. Animal educators conduct the behind-the-scenes experience; they’ll detail the elephants’ day-to-day routines and provide you with fascinating facts, such as how these giant pachyderms go through six sets of molars in a lifetime. You’ll also get a chance to learn about different conservation efforts Disney supports that help preserve elephants in their homelands around the world.
Guests must be four years of age or older for both Up Close with Rhinos and Caring for Giants..
EPCOT, as many of you dear readers know, stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It was Walt’s dream to build a self-reliant city. Disney Legend Marty Sklar offered insight about how Walt’s futuristic thinking was realized and how far ahead of the curve Walt Disney World was, even in the 1980s, decades before there was a green movement: “For me, the Land and Living Seas pavilions are the most EPCOT of all pavilions. We actually have living systems in those projects. There are new ways of growing food being demonstrated in The Land pavilion, and that was absolutely the kind of thing Walt was trying to do.”
The Living with the Land attraction looks at the continuation of and commitment to Walt’s legacy. It is also a must for me every single visit to Walt Disney World and an unsung hero of the park, in my opinion. The gentle cruise offers a brief history of farming and lessons about how to live and eat responsibly. The covered boats glide past the living laboratories and carefully controlled ecosystems growing fruit and vegetables and raising fish. The fresh produce raised in The Land pavilion is served at park and resort restaurants including the Garden Grill; several eateries in Walt Disney World Resort use the fish—nearly 5,000 pounds each year. But wait there’s more! The Behind the Seeds walking tour is back. I’ve been waiting a few years for its return and it ex-seeded my expectations.
Home for the holidays has special meaning for those who consider the Disney parks “home.”
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa is one of the most resplendent hotels at Walt Disney World. With its Victorian decor and five-story lobby featuring stained glass domes, the Grand Floridian becomes a spectacular winter wonderland during the holidays. When it comes to the decorations, coordinating the holiday charm to align with the Victorian time period is top of mind for the designers. And the trees are themed to “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” For more than 20 years, the life-size gingerbread house—standing at more than 14 feet tall and with room inside for six adults—is one of the most popular seasonal displays. Guests have the opportunity to watch it being assembled over the course of a week, which is truly a spectacle. Fun Fact: Since sustainability is always in mind at Walt Disney World, the baked components are removed, and the structural components—with their sugary residue—are repurposed to feed the local bee colonies during the winter months when food sources are harder to find.
For many, including me, taking the monorail to see the festivities is also holiday tradition.
Last and certainly not least, Voyageur’s Lounge at Disney’s Riviera Resort.
The cozy, library-inspired setting tucked away off the lobby is one of the best ways to connect with Walt at Walt Disney World. (It also serves as my office when I am working there.) The volumes—part of the show; affixed and not available for reading—feature Walt’s world adventures and the types of books he collected during his trip to Europe in 1935. Many inspired the movies and attractions we love today.
Browse the titles and memorabilia on the shelves. The items and reproductions offer a glimpse into Walt’s travels and his lifestyle. Relax and stay awhile: Coffee (Walt’s favorite—always black), tea, light bites, pastries, and cocktails are available at the adjacent Le Petite Café.
Happy 52nd anniversary, WALT Disney World!
Next we will celebrate Disneyland (our sixth and final castle park) plus the 100th anniversary of the Walt Disney Company. See ya real soon!
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