When we hear someone say, “I’m going to Disney World!” we usually think of one place in particular: Magic Kingdom.
Opened in 1971, five years after the death of Walt Disney, the Magic Kingdom gave the company a chance to do Disneyland bigger and better as part of an expansive travel resort. Cinderella Castle remains one of the most iconic travel landmarks in the world, and it is the primary thing we picture when we imagine a trip to Walt Disney World.
Maybe you’re planning your first Walt Disney World vacation, or it’s been a while since your last visit. Alternatively, maybe you’re a longtime Disney parks fan who has friends and family wanting to visit, and you wish there were some way you could quickly sum-up the key “need-to-knows” for an amazing Disney vacation.
This series is for you.
This guide is the second in a series starting here on Theme Park Tourist to share the basic facts you need to make the most of a Walt Disney World vacation. Our goal is to prepare you for what to expect, as well as help you avoid the snags that spoil too many potentially great vacations.
In our first installment, we focused on what you need to know about Walt Disney World overall—give that piece a read if you haven’t yet, as it covers some of the “big picture” facts about visiting The Most Magical Place on Earth.
Today, we’ll be zeroing in on the top 10 things you NEED to know before visiting Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World’s most iconic park…
AN IMPORTANT NOTE: We mentioned this in our first piece but take some time to research Disney’s latest pandemic policies. These are frequently changing, and many policies are still in place at the time of this writing, including mask wearing indoors, some social distancing measures, and most important, that you cannot enter a Disney park without a Disney Parks Pass reservation. You can find information on the latest developments in Disney’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic here at Theme Park Tourist and at Walt Disney World’s website.
1. It’s the one people (incorrectly) call “Disney World”
Magic Kingdom is definitely the park most people associate with Walt Disney World—it’s become a cultural icon for fun, magic, and family travel. What you may not know, however, is that it’s not the only thing in Walt Disney World—as a matter of fact, it’s only one of four parks and a wide range of other activities available at the Most Magical Place on Earth.
We covered this in detail in our first piece—Walt Disney World has a lot to offer! Magic Kingdom is definitely the resort’s flagship park, but it’s by no means the only one. The reason we mention this is so you don’t make a mistake common to many first time guests: don’t limit your Walt Disney World vacation to Magic Kingdom alone.
Magic Kingdom is an incredible place with so much to do, but you will be missing out if you don’t plan to visit Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom as well. The reason why?...
2. Magic Kingdom isn’t necessarily everyone’s favorite park
We said it: even though Magic Kingdom is an incredible park, that doesn’t necessarily make it Walt Disney World’s “best” park for everyone.
Don’t get me wrong: if you love Magic Kingdom and it’s your favorite Disney park, that’s awesome! There is so much to love about it, particularly the park’s wide selection of rides and incredible knack for making you feel like a kid again. There’s a false conception, however, that it’s the only Walt Disney World park worth visiting. That isn’t always the case. As a matter of fact, many Disney regulars prefer Walt Disney World’s other three parks over Magic Kingdom.
If Magic Kingdom is Walt Disney World’s most iconic park, why do some people like the other parks better?
It’s all about personal preference. There is something for everyone at Walt Disney World, and for some visitors, Magic Kingdom might not be the right fit. Some visitors prefer the high adventure and exploration feel of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Others prefer the thrill rides and immersive nostalgia of Disney’s Hollywood Studios (home to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge). Still other prefer Epcot’s completely unique collection of attractions and festivals celebrating science, history, culture, and culinary arts.
Magic Kingdom is definitely Walt Disney World’s most kid-friendly park, which is why many families focus on it. Both teens and adults who don’t have the Disney nostalgia bug may not enjoy it quite as much. Teens, in particular, tend to dislike Magic Kingdom unless they have really warm fuzzy feelings from visiting as a kid—our experience is they largely enjoy the other three parks more.
Whatever your family dynamic, include Magic Kingdom in your Walt Disney World experience, but don’t limit yourself only to it.
3. It’s not the same as Disneyland
We’ve actually dedicated entire articles to this subject: there are a surprising number of differences between Disneyland in California and the Magic Kingdom.
It’s true that Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom share a lot of similarities—Magic Kingdom was built off of the same general template as Disneyland, only expanded. Both parks have an iconic castle, a similar arrangement of lands, and many similar attractions.
The biggest difference you’ll notice visiting Magic Kingdom is that everything is, well, bigger. The extra space in Florida allowed Disney to build a bigger castle--so large, in fact, that it actually houses a restaurant and a secret luxury guest suite inside! Magic Kingdom also houses bigger versions of mountain attractions like Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain, and a much larger Fantasyland section which was dramatically expanded between 2011-2014.
Disneyland definitely has a few things that Magic Kingdom does not: the Indiana Jones Adventure is a major one! Walt Disney World fans have hoped for Disney to bring this incredible ride to the east coast for decades, but it hasn’t happened yet (Fun Fact: the “Dinosaur” ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom has the exact same track). You also won’t find Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or Fantasmic! at Magic Kingdom—at Walt Disney World, both are located in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Disneyland also has Mickey’s Toontown, which Walt Disney World replaced with New Fantasyland.
Other differences are that some guests prefer Disneyland’s version of Space Mountain which includes music and extra effects (as well as allowing two guests per row), and some prefer the dining choices at Disneyland over Magic Kingdom (such as the Blue Bayou restaurant, located inside Pirates of the Caribbean in Disneyland).
On the flip side, Magic Kingdom has many things Disneyland does not including the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Gaston’s Tavern, and some impressive table-service restaurants like Cinderella’s Royal Table, Be Our Guest, and Jungle Navigation Co. Skipper Canteen. Once again, this is all personal preference. Just be aware the parks are different.
4. Arriving for opening gate is usually the best way to avoid long lines
Hate standing in lines? You’re going to want to plan for an early morning.
Multi-hour lines don’t have to be an inevitable part of visiting Walt Disney World—yes, there are certain times of year when heavy crowds are going to be inevitable, such as during major holidays and whenever school is out of session. However, on an average Disney day, crowds actually operate in surprisingly predictable patterns.
At the time of this writing, Magic Kingdom opens at 8:00 AM. Many families have understandable struggles getting their kids up early, are driving in from far away, or don’t take into account how long it takes to just get to the park gate (usually due to an inevitable stop at the Transportation and Ticket Center).
If you arrive early enough to be inside the park by opening gate, you are going to avoid a large portion of the crowds visiting Magic Kingdom and get a significant head start on the day. By the time most people start drifting in and crowds peak between 11 AM to 2 PM, you’ll have experienced a good range of rides already.
You can get a good gauge on what crowds are like right now both from our own reports on the park, as well as from sites like TouringPlans.com or even just using the My Disney Experience app. Crowds are usually lightest first thing in the morning as well as the last two hours of the evening since there is currently no fireworks show (that will change if the fireworks come back, though you can catch short lines during a fireworks show).
The attraction that usually sees the longest waits first thing in the morning is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. While you could start there, you might be better off hitting another high demand attraction like Splash Mountain or Space Mountain. The reason why is that most people tend to tour Magic Kingdom in a predictable pattern, usually starting at Fantasyland and traveling in a sort of reverse question mark shape. Just making the decision to break this pattern and go the other way or zig-zag around can help your chances of avoiding long lines.