We love Disney. It’s such a magical place, with awesome theme parks, sumptuous dining and great evening entertainment. As much as we love to experience exotic, far-flung places and cultures, we can’t go more than a couple of years without needing another hit. These are some of the things that have made the experience extra special for us.
The best park
It would be easy to say everyone has their favourite, but I’m not sure that’s actually true, I can’t even get it down to my favourite two. So this is going to have to be the best 3 Parks in Orlando. And for the purists, yes I know Walt Disney World is technically in Kissimmee.
As well as having some pretty neat rides, and 2 of the best shows in the Disney Kingdom, Finding Nemo, and Festival of the Lion King, this is, in my opinion, the most pleasant park to amble around in. With lakes, mountains, and lush greenery, not to mention the abundance of wildlife it really is a beautiful place to take a stroll. Make sure you hit the Kilimanjaro Safari in the afternoon. Up until our last visit we have always hit this first to avoid the queues, this works but you also avoid all the animals. On our last visit we hit the safari about 3pm and our way was repeatedly blocked by Rhinos and other animals that we had been straining to glimpse on previous occasions. When the park opens head straight for Expedition Everest and try to grab a front seat, it’s an excellent example of Disney does it best.
There are some big ticket star attractions at Epcot, such as Soarin, Test Track presented by Chevrolet (which was much better when it was GM Test Track), and the excellent, if vomit inducing, Mission Space, but for us, hands down, the best thing about Epcot is the World Showcase.
Eleven individual countries are represented in separate lands that circle the World Showcase Lagoon. Authentic shops, restaurants, and attractions, immerse you in the sights, sounds, tastes and culture of each land, even the cast members are indigenous to the countries they represent. The attention to detail really is astounding. From Bratwurst in Bavaria, to crunchy crab snacks in Japan, the World Showcase at Epcot really has it all!
Universal Islands of Adventure.
In a move sure to anger the Disnophiles I have included a non-Disney Park. (How dare he? I hear you cry). Well for a long time, I have to agree there really was no comparison. No one did it like Disney, the other parks were just parks, but Disney was, and still is a magical immersive experience. Then came a bespectacled little wizard from England and changed it all. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter (TWWOHP) really did raise the bar, and it’s not like Islands of Adventure was a bad park before this. Hulk Roller coaster, The Jurassic Park River Adventure, Dudley Do-Rights Ripsaw Falls and Popeye and Bluto’s Bilge-rat Barges, among several others are great rides, but somehow it was still a just a theme park, albeit an excellent one. So what do you do if you need some magic? Bring in a wizard!
It’s impossible not to be taken aback by Hogsmeade, it feels like you have been transported into a Dickensian world, with cobbled pathways, tinker shops, and a rustic ale house. And these are not just store front facades either. Choose a wand, or rather be chosen by a wand at Olivanders, purchase a chocolate frog at Honeydukes, or quaff down a pint of Butter Beer in the Three Broomsticks Tavern, they are all exceptionally detailed and fully functioning outlets. TWWOHP is also complimented by 2 excellent attractions Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, an impressive simulator, and Dragon Challenge, a traditional roller coaster.
The best overall attraction.
Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
I’ve avoided saying ride, as I don’t believe that in the majority of cases “ride” really encapsulates the experience. I have considered the queuing area and pre-ride in coming to my decision.
That said Twilight Zone Tower of Terror wins on all 3 counts.
As the rope drops, follow the hordes down Hollywood Boulevard to the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Pass through the cast iron gates and in to the beautifully detailed foyer. A secret passageway leads you to an impressive boiler room where you access the service elevator that takes you on a ride to the 13 floor then sends you plummeting back down to a chorus of shrieks from your fellow passengers. There are a few twists and turns along the way that add to the excitement, and it’s never the same ride twice so repeated riding is highly recommended.
The best place to stay
There are four main “tourist” areas in the Orlando area. International Drive, Main Gate/192, Lake Buena Vista and the Park hotels inside Disney World. We haven’t actually stayed in the Main Gate/192 area, as this offers the least appeal unless your only consideration is price. Even then there is very little difference between this area, and International Drive, which offers a more central location, and better local facilities.
Having stayed at the other 3 locations several times, including the best “Disney” location, which is on the Boardwalk, for us there is a clear winner, Lake Buena Vista, more specifically one of the hotels that are within steps of Disney Springs (formally Downtown Disney). Our particular favourite is the Buena Vista Palace, as this not only shares the best location directly across the road from Disney Springs, it is also geared towards conference attendees, and so serves as a respite from the hordes of screaming children that can be enjoyed elsewhere.
As the best way to get around the parks is to drive, it makes sense to stay in the area that offers the best nightlife, so you can park the car and walk to the watering holes. Disney Springs has a number of very good restaurants, including the excellent Wolfgang Pucks Grand Café, and we are starting to see some good bars returning following the great Pleasure Island purge of 2008. Some of our favourites are the bar at The House of Blues the Lava Bar at Rainforest Café, and the bar at Raglan Road.
Disney Springs is also the best area to access the Disney transport system. If you stay in a Disney hotel, and want to us the system to go to a different hotel, you can only do this by changing at Disney Springs, or at the Transport Hub at Magic Kingdom. There are direct links to all the Disney hotels from Disney Springs.
Oh yes, one other thing, did I mention the price? The Buena Vista Palace is comparable in quality to the Disney “luxury” hotels, but costs less than the Disney “Value” range.
The best event.
Epcot International Food and wine Festival
Ok, I admit it. I’ve only included a best event section so I can talk about my favourite thing in all of the parks, The Epcot International Food and Wine Festival.
This annual event runs from late September to early November, each year, and sees the already excellent World Showcase at Epcot truly turned up to 11. (Dates Just announced for 2016 September 14th through November 14th)
The 11 countries that normally make up the world showcase are gate-crashed by food stalls from the world over, as Epcot becomes an epicurean epicentre, and the party capital of Disney World.
On our last visit in 2014 there were 26 food and drink stalls, each purveying a variety of tipples and nibbles to represent their countries individual taste and flair. The number of booths appear to grow each year, which is great unless you intend to partake in the ever popular “eat your way around the world”, or the intoxicating drink your way around the world challenge. In addition to some excellent comestibles there is plenty of entertainment, spanning from cooking shows, to live music.
You can pick up a passport from the Festival Welcome Centre, which lists each of the stall and their offerings. This is handy to help you plan your visit, and also to keep a record of how far you get if you try the drink challenge, trust me you won’t remember. Hic…….hic……
The best restaurant
Victoria and Albert’s
The majority of our travels thus far have been taken pretty much with an open ended budget. This has afforded us the opportunity to eat in some of the best restaurants in the world, from Venice to New York and from Hong Kong to Las Vegas. It may therefore come as some surprise that not only is Victoria and Albert’s the best restaurant we have eaten at in Orlando. It’s the best restaurant we’ve eaten in anywhere – Take that Harry’s Bar!
Located inside the Grand Floridian Hotel, with a single seating each evening, and one-to-one service, the beautifully appointed dining room host just 14 Italian linen draped tables. But the sumptuous surroundings, and impeccable service are not the story here. Please enter the Master of Pasta, the God of Cod, his Holiness of Eton Mess, the Chef de let’s party Mr Scott Hunnel.
We’ve basked in the glory of Chef Hunnel’s brilliance on 3 separate occasions now, each time choosing the Grand Prix tasting menu, so it’s no fluke. The first time I had the Foie Gras it felt like my brain had been rewired to allow additional space to be allocated to the taste sensation. From the Amuse-Bouche, to the Steam-Punk delivered coffee, without exception everything we have eaten here (which between the 2 of us is about 50 different plates) has been exquisite. So when I finally decided to drop down to one knee, after 10 years with my now wife, this is where I did it.