So, you've got one day to see the most popular theme park in Walt Disney World. Twenty-four hours to conquer The Kingdom, the holy grail of family entertainment, all 107 jam-packed acres. Can it be done? Should it be done? I've read a lot of articles on how to see the Magic Kingdom in one day, most of which were inapplicable to me -- because like yours, my family is unique. A great plan of attack for my kids might not work at all for yours, since the right plan depends entirely on your children's ages, interests, and most importantly, stamina. So rather than an itinerary, I'll give you tips on how to maximize your time in the park, suggestions on how to beat the lines (while everyone's nemesis, they will make or break you when you have only one day) and recommendations for rides not to be missed for all age groups.
Realistically, What Can You See in One Day?
While you should be able to get to all the must-see attractions on your family's list in one day, resign yourself to the fact that you will not be able to see it all. If you have older children, you'll be able to cover a lot more ground, but with little ones, the most important advice you can take is to refrain from trying to overdo it. Think of it this way: There are about 40 rides and attractions in the Magic Kingdom. If you gave yourself 10 hours in the park, you'd have to visit something different every 15 minutes. It's not going to happen, so don't even try. It'll prove to be an exhausting, disappointing day for everyone. So, lesson one: Be realistic about what your family is capable of accomplishing. A dozen rides in a day (depending on how crowded the park is when you visit) is an ambitious goal.
What to Know (and Do) Before You Go
Making the most of one day in the Magic Kingdom begins long before you arrive. Every hour counts, and how successful you are at navigating the park depends on how well you prepare. If your family tends to just wing it (like mine), you should seriously reconsider that approach. First, consider when to visit. If you can, go in the off-season. Normally the least crowded times of the year in the Magic Kingdom are late September through mid-November, and mid-January through March.
Buy your tickets ahead of time online, and have them sent to you in the mail. This will save you the time of purchasing them when you get there, or having to go and pick them up at will call. Get yourself a map of the park and use it to come up with a strategy for which rides you plan to visit, and in what order. Make a schedule; you may not stick to it exactly, but it will let you know if you're falling behind. Let the kids each choose two or three "must see" rides at the park, and make sure you check height restriction for every ride on the list.
Be sure to check the park hours for the day you arrive, and pack according to the weather. This is so obvious, but so important! Going back to the hotel for a sweatshirt and Band Aids will throw a major wrench in your plans.
Which Route is Best?
The most popular rides usually have shorter lines early in the morning, but get jammed by mid-day. So, plan to hit those at the top of your list first. When traveling with little ones, you'll probably want to visit Fantasyland first. Even with the new and improved Dumbo ride (you can now chill in an air-conditioned play area with a pager while you wait), you should plan to check this off the list first. If you have older kids, head to either Tomorrowland to get on Space Mountain, or to Frontierland for Splash Mountain and Thunder Mountain. Have both? Divide and conquer! If no ride takes precedence over another, attack the park clockwise (starting in Adventureland), as most people do the opposite. Try to finish all the rides you want to see in one park before moving on to the next, otherwise you'll waste time crisscrossing the park.
The rides on your list will depend primarily on the ages of your kids. You'll come up with your own individual plan that works best for your family, but if you have never visited the park, or aren't sure which rides are worth the wait for your brood, here are some of our suggestions:
Dumbo The Flying Elephant (Fantasyland, any height) lets little ones soar through the air with the beloved big-eared elephant. When little kids picture Disney World, this is usually the ride they think of first. Dumbo was recently improved to add capacity, and there is now an air-conditioned circus area where kids can play while mom and dad wait for their pager to go off.
Peter Pan's Flight (Fantasyland, any height) takes kids on a gentle, soaring trip over the city of London and into Never Land, where Peter Pan battles Captain Hook to save Wendy. Try to get a FASTPASS for this one.
The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (Fantasyland, any height) will let kids float along with Piglet, go on a bouncy ride with Tigger and visit the world of Heffalumps and Woozles.
The Barnstormer (previously called Barnstormer at Goofy's Wiseacre farm) is a tame roller coaster that was recently "re-themed," and Goofy is now The Great Goofini, a stunt pilot. There are a few small plunges and twists and turns.
In December 2012, Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid, will open and is sure to be a big hit with little girls. Riders will enter Prince Eric's castle and take a ride on a giant clamshell.
For School-Aged Kids
Pirates of the Caribbean (Adventureland, any height) is another classic you won't want to miss. Wooden boats float through a maze of underground caves, where you encounter pillaging pirates, cannons and towns ablaze. Look for Jack Sparrow at the end.
Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin (Tomorrowland, any height) takes kids into a virtual video game where they are at the controls. They become junior rangers and maneuver a spinning space cruiser, aiming at enemies with lasers. The lines can get brutal on this one, so try to get a FASTPASS.
Haunted Mansion (Liberty Square, any height) is possibly a little scary for the youngest amongst the school-age crew, but depending on how brave your little ones are, it can be fun for all ages. It's like Casper, not Poltergeist. Your ride through the old mansion takes you through rooms filled with ghosts and ghouls who sing and dance.
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad (Frontierland, 40 inches) is a roller coaster that winds you across rickety train tracks and through the hills of an old gold-mining town. While not as scary as Space Mountain, it's one of the more thrilling rides in the Magic Kingdom.
Swiss Family Treehouse (Adventureland, any height) is one of the most unique attractions (but admittedly not the most thrilling) at the park. You'll wander up a six story treehouse, inspired by the famous book Swiss Family Robinson, and through the family's humble living quarters.
Tomorrowland Speedway (Tomorrowland, 32 inches) is a mini-race car ride ideal for the younger (10 and under) school-aged crowd. It's slow-moving, and there are rails that guide the cars around the half-mile track.
Teens will also love many of the rides listed above, especially Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean. But if those don't impress them, try these:
Splash Mountain (Frontierland, 40-inches) is a flume ride that twists and turns through caves and over waterfalls. Older kids and teens will love the five-story fall, which will leave you soaked!
Space Mountain (Tomorrowland, 44 inches) is the big daddy of thrill rides in the Magic Kingdom. It's an indoor roller coaster that roars through a dark starry sky, making you feel like you're blasting into space on a rocket. The coaster climbs 180 feet and reaches about 29 miles per hour, but it feels much faster. Try to get a FASTPASS for this ride.
The Wheel of Progress (Tomorrowland, any height) stage show may not be their first choice, but it's worth a stop if you have time after the other must-see attractions. The lines aren't too bad, and teens will get a kick out of this trip through the history of technology, which will give them some insight into what life was like before smart phones and iPads.
Time Saving Tips
There are lots of ways to save a little time in the Magic Kingdom. Make use of several of them, and a few extra minutes here and there becomes a big chunk of extra time for rides.
Quick and Convenient Meal Options
You'd cover a lot more ground in one day if you didn't have to stop and feed the kids. But since good parenting must prevail, plan your meal and snack times wisely. Plan to eat breakfast before you get to the park. During the day, there are a variety of quick dining options. Suggestions for on-the-go meals: Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe (Tomorrowland), Pinocchio Village Haus (Fantasyland), Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn & Cafe (Frontierland), The Lunching Pad (Tomorrowland), Casey's Corner (Main Street, USA), Tortuga Tavern (Adventureland).
Sitting down for one air-conditioned meal with table service is a great way to break up the long day. Try Liberty Tree Tavern (Liberty Square, American), Tony's Town Square (Main Street USA, Italian) or the Plaza (Main Street USA, American).
Hotels Closest to the Magic Kingdom
If you're planning an overnight stay, you'll want to find a room as close as possible. While you'll pay more to stay at one of Disney's resorts, if you can swing it (especially just for one night), it's worth it. Close proximity to the Magic Kingdom and being able to make use of Extra Magic Hours can add a couple hours to your day. Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Disney's Contemporary Resort are within walking distance to the park, and they, along with the Polynesian Resort, are all on the park's monorail system, which means quick and easy transportation to and from the park. Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground and the Wilderness Lodge are a short ferry ride away. The value resorts are a bit farther from the Magic Kingdom (they're located near Animal Kingdom and ESPN's Wide World of Sports), but do have the advantage of bus transportation and Extra Magic Hours.
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