My Disney Top 5 - Things First Time Visitors Don't Expect to Find at Walt Disney Worldby Chris Barry, contributing writer
One thing that I can say for sure is that the Walt Disney World resort still continues to surprise me. Each time I visit, I learn something new. I see something different. We eat something or somewhere where we haven't in the past. I even experience new shows and attractions. There are still things that were open on the first day I set foot on property years ago that I haven't seen or experienced. It's one of the joys of being as rabid a fan as I am of the place. I don't grow tired of it. It keeps changing. I'm still discovering new aspects of it each and every time I visit. One wouldn't think that, especially considering the fact that we've pretty much taken yearly visits as a family for the past 16 years. So, if I'm still getting surprised, what does someone who first sets foot on Walt Disney World soil think of the whole place? After all, new people visit the resort each and every day. I can't speak for every newcomer. But this past summer I got to see one particular new visitor, my very own brother, visit Disney for the very first time.
I think it's safe to say that my brother Michael wasn't expecting Walt Disney World to be all that much. I'd like to think that he had some sort of innate faith in me, his own flesh and blood, that something must indeed be special about the place since I go so often and spend so much time each month writing about the place. Still, if you've never been, what are you expecting? Can you really fathom what you're in for?
I remember my first time. I researched the heck out of the place and was still completely blown away and shocked by the sheer magnitude of it all. In my brother's case, I kind of got the feeling that he was expecting a bigger Hershey Park or maybe a more impressive version of a Six Flags and I'm quite sure he wouldn't be alone. Not much can really prepare you for a trip to Walt Disney World. It's a whole lot more than what it seems.
There are truly surprises around every corner, but I think there are a few major things that people just don't expect to find when they think of Walt Disney World. They're simple things that people can't imagine finding at a theme park. Once they do, they begin to realize that Walt Disney World is just a bit more than just a theme park. Let's narrow some of those things down with my Top 5 things that first-time visitors don't expect to find at Walt Disney World.
5 – Music
Disney has always been big on music, whether it be in their animated or live action films, so it was no surprise that Walt incorporated music so deeply into Disneyland; that certainly carried over into Walt Disney World. But I think your average guest never expects the music to be such an integral part of the park experience. Once you arrive, you soon come to realize that music literally fills the air all around you. Pieces of music are created just for the Disney parks, and all of it is so incredibly well thought out. There's attraction music, attraction queue music, restaurant music, hotel and resort music, music for different lands, and even transition music between lands so that the music blends in as you go from one land to another. There's even underwater music in places like the volcano pool at the Polynesian.
What most impresses me, however, is the variety of actual live music being played on property. Whether it's the oompah band playing in the Biergarten in Epcot's Germany pavilion, the British Invasion band playing out in the gardens in the UK, or the authentic African music being performed by Burudika several times daily in the village of Harambe in Animal Kingdom, you'll be able to hear quality live music being performed just about everywhere in Walt Disney World. Let's also not forget that several times per year, the American Gardens Theater in Epcot's World Showcase plays host to world class live music in a wonderful setting alongside the lagoon. A few years back during the Food and Wine Festival, I sat and enjoyed some great food from the neighboring Japan pavilion while listening to the Commodores play live. Let's not forget, this is all included in the price of admission. I could keep going and going. I haven't even mentioned The Main Street Philharmonic and the Dapper Dans at the Magic Kingdom, Mariachi Cobre in Epcot's Mexico pavilion, the Tam Tam Drummers in Harambe, the amazing Voices of Liberty in the American Adventure, Yehaa Bob Jackson at Port Orleans Riverside, The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra, the Pandora Drummers, and so many more.
4 – Top Shelf Adult Beverages
People drink in theme parks and waterparks. That's a given. However, the average amusement park visitor can pretty much expect to find two or three American beers and perhaps some sort of frozen tropical concoction at best. You could order a Budweiser or a Bud Light in Disney but why would you? I think the first-time visitor would be quite surprised at the quality and diversified menu of adult beverages throughout Disney property. Like any fine resort, Walt Disney World goes above and beyond to cater to cocktail lovers, wine enthusiasts, and craft beer connoisseurs with a seemingly endless selection of grown-up beverages available just about everywhere on property.
You still can't walk around the Magic Kingdom with a drink in your hand—something I hope never changes. However, you can drink some fine French wines at Be Our Guest restaurant in Fantasyland, and over at the Skipper Canteen in Adventureland you can order yourself a Kenyan Tusker Lager, a Tampa Bay Brewing Old Elephant IPA, or the Kungaloosh Spiced Excursion Ale brewed exclusively for Walt Disney World.
If you're a wine lover then you've come to the right place. The wine lists and sommeliers at Disney's on property restaurants are second to none. Places like California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort is truly exceptional featuring 80 wines by the glass and about 250 different bottles to choose from. The sommelier staff is about as knowledgeable as you'll find anywhere, and will help you pair just the right vintage to complement your excellent meal.
It's not just in the hotels either. There's a huge variety of drinks, beer, and wine available throughout Epcot's World Showcase. A cold Konig Ludwig Weissbier is just the thing to wash down your bratwurst and pretzel at Sommerfest in the Germany pavilion. Would you ever imagine there to be 200 different tequilas available at La Cava del Tequila in the Mexico pavilion? My own personal favorite, and one that I shared with my brother this past summer, is the Sake Bar tucked away in the back of the Mitsukoshi Department Store. The staff is wonderful and knows the history and significance of the different bottles they have for sale and for sample. Honorable mention will always go out to the best frozen drink anywhere on Disney property, the Grand Marnier Slush, which is available at the Les Vins des Chefs de France counter in the France pavilion. Once again, these are just not the type of beverages the uninitiated think about when they think about Walt Disney World. It's a nice surprise for sure.
3 – Top Notch Food
I've traveled all over. We've been to many, many restaurants. Not to mention that growing up in New York City has provided me with just about any dining option imaginable. Yet, when the conversation comes up from time to time about my most memorable meals and I emphatically include a Walt Disney World restaurant on my list, the non-Disney folks can't believe what they're hearing. My wife's 40th birthday was spent dining at the aforementioned California Grill at the top of Disney's Contemporary Resort. That meal will forever go down as one of the best meals I've ever had. High quality, delicious food from start to finish, prepared perfectly and presented beautifully with an amazing waiter/sommelier who paired several wines for us throughout our courses. It was simply an exceptional meal. If you want a burger or a churro or a bucket of popcorn, you can get that at Walt Disney World, but you can also get some of the best meals to be found at any resort anywhere and I know for a fact that's simply not what comes to mind when people think of Disney.
This past summer was my 50th birthday celebration at Walt Disney World. I was fortunate to be there with 27 of my most treasured friends and family members. When my parents offered to treat me to a special celebratory dinner on property, there was no other choice for me but Artist Point at Disney's Wilderness Lodge. This is the type of dining experience that I know people don't think exists in a place like Walt Disney World. Gourmet food. Fantastic wine list. Top notch staff. It's everything you could want in a fine dining establishment. As the meal ended and we were sitting there talking I turned to my brother and I said, "I bet you didn't expect a meal like that here." He firmly agreed and said, "No, I definitely did not, but that was just excellent. They know what they're doing in this place." Sadly, of course, Artist Point is now closing, so I'm thrilled that I had the final wonderful meal that I had there this past summer.
2 – More than Mickey Mouse Ears
Shopping at Walt Disney World is always a big deal for me. I love to collect Disney stuff. I wrote about it here on MousePlanet for years. However, I'm quite sure that the Disney shopping experience is so much broader than any newbie could possibly imagine. The first place, besides the Yacht Club, that my brother and I ventured into on this past summer's trip was World Showcase. We were wandering the gardens of the UK pavilion admiring the flowers and the architecture, and he was hesitant to head into the shops. "No. No. Not a gift shop!", he said as we headed into one of the buildings. I think he was pleasantly surprised that it was a whole lot more than Mickey Mouse ears. He's not the shopper that I am. That's for sure. But he soon realized that the merchandise available in places like World Showcase and in Animal Kingdom was interesting and unique, especially for a theme park.
Over the years, we've returned home with Murano glass from Italy, unique kitchenware from Mitsukoshi in Japan, Beatle t-shirts from the UK, fine watches from Main Street U.S.A, and of course, my wife's beautiful blue crystal collection from Kunstarbeit in Kristall from Germany. Nowadays Disney Springs has truly transformed itself into a shopping mecca. If you could find it at a high-end mall in places like Long Island or Westchester in New York, then you can find it in Disney Springs. It's not my particular cup of tea, but it's there for those that have the desire. I'll stick with the collectibles on Main Street U.S.A and the unique fare available in World Showcase. The blue crystal that my wife has collected over the years, for example, is only available in this country at the Arribas Brothers stores in Disney Springs, the Magic Kingdom and Epcot's Germany and Mexico pavilions. If you walked into my house and looked at my fireplace mantel, you would never guess that the dozen or so pieces were all purchased at Walt Disney World. Most people incorrectly assume it's all t-shirts and Mickey ears.
1 – The Sheer Enormity of the Place
Last spring, I chaperoned a chorus trip from our high school to Walt Disney World. I gave the kids a little "Disney primer" before the trip, explaining the history, design, attention to details, and innovations that can all be found all over the resort. It's when I got to the size of Walt Disney World when you heard audible gasps from the crowd, which contained many, many first-time visitors. We live on Long Island remember, right in New York City's backyard. So, when I said that the Walt Disney World Resort is the size of two Manhattan Islands, there was a noticeable pause...followed by several iterations of the following sentence, "Wait...what??" "What do you mean, two Manhattan Islands?" When I reiterate that the resort is indeed twice the size of Manhattan, there is a bit of amazement in the eyes of those that have never been. It's hard to comprehend how one place could be that large. After all, it's not a town or a city. It's an amusement park... right...and some hotels? How could it be that large?
You can't really appreciate it until you drive through those Walt Disney World arches and you're told that everything you see from now on is all owned by Disney. It especially sinks in if you're headed way up at the Magic Kingdom and you drive that long stretch of road surrounded by mostly woods and you realize just how massive the property is. It's one of those things that still never ceases to amaze me. My favorite way to impress this notion on someone is to take the monorail ride from Epcot up to the Magic Kingdom. You get a uniquely higher perspective and frame of reference as you pass by acre after acre of forest. It sinks in a bit more than traveling the same road by bus or by car. It's especially cool if you happen to see deer running beneath the tracks and you realize that parts of the property are still actually pretty wild and natural. The same can be said of being out in a boat on Bay Lake. It's something that you don't expect and can't truly appreciate until you're actually there.
As I look back on this list, I realize that despite all my visits and experiences at Walt Disney World, these five things still impress me each time I'm there. I thoroughly get lost in the music that surrounds me everywhere I go on property. It helps to create and solidify that Disney bubble that I can't wait to enter once I'm there. I indulge in fine wine, drinks, and excellent food whenever I'm visiting, trying new places, new dishes, and new spirits each and every time. I'm still a Disney shopper and while I have no interest in going to the shopping mecca that is Disney Springs, I don't need to. I could spend a significant amount of any given Disney day wandering through the shops of World Showcase and be very happy. And still after all these years, the sheer massiveness of Walt Disney World takes my breath away. It's something that, in this day of Google Earth and GPS, will never happen again. No one will ever be able to secretly purchase that much land and turn it into what Walt and his dreamers did in Central Florida. It's a once in a lifetime occurrence and makes Walt Disney World one of the most unique places on Earth.
These things make me stop and appreciate Walt Disney World to this day. I remember what it was like when I first experienced these and all the other things that make the place so amazing, but I am accustomed to them. I get great joy out of turning other people onto the wonders of Walt Disney World. That's why I bring people like my brother there. It's why I spoke to the group of kids I was chaperoning before our trip. it's why I continue to write these articles after all these years. I can honestly say that I love introducing people to Disney and seeing that look of amazement in their eyes when they get their first dose of magic.
That's all for this time. As always let me know what you have to say about my choices. Click on the link below, let me hear your thoughts and I'll see you next time with another Disney Top 5.