Welcome back guest writer, and my brother, Matthew Long!
Months ago, Andrew asked me to write something for Wandering in Disney. I said I’d love to and asked what he wanted me to write about. He left it up to me, but suggested a Top Ten of my favorite Disney parks attractions. I love rankings and I love Disney attractions, so that seemed like a great idea. Then I didn’t write anything for a long time, because I got busy, distracted and lazy, not in that order.
When I finally decided to get down to business and started putting that list together in my mind, I kept thinking about everything I love about Disney parks aside from the attractions. To be clear, I’m defining attractions how Andrew has in past rankings posts: a ride or a show for which you have to stand in line, basically. I love rides, and I like shows, but I also love eating and looking at things and just generally wandering (in Disney?!) around seeing places.
So here’s a list of some of my favorite things to do aside from attractions. I’ll rate attractions in my next post, so look for that in 2019! For today, I’m sure some of these favorite things will be tied up in memory, and then you the reader will go try to do these and they’ll be really lame, but take this as a reminder that sometimes it’s best to slow down and discover the quieter, more subtle moments in life. Life doesn’t always have to be a roller coaster. If you want roller coasters, go to Six Flags!
One more caveat: I haven’t been to Disney World in something like eight, ten years. We were supposed to go three years ago, but we decided to have a baby instead. Plenty has changed there, so I guess just know I’m remembering it as it once was, burnished by memory into a picture not completely reliable. Deal with it!
Epcot World Showcase
This is a really broad area to start with, but walking around the World Showcase is probably my favorite thing to do in all of Disney-dom. I’ve heard it’s in need of refurbishing or a facelift in places, and a de-Frozen-ing in others, according to Andrew. There’s also the complaint that it’s stereotyped versions of the countries, which seems obviously unavoidable. You can’t put a whole country with all its nuance in a theme park. Still, I think Epcot does a great job of giving a taste of each place. Having staff native to each country is maybe the key to this working. It gives authenticity that would be hard to produce otherwise. Having food and goods specific to each country is a great touch as well. There are a few places in particular I remember enjoying. The courtyards in Morocco are a nice place to get lost amidst some beautiful tile work. I love the shopping in Japan on the bottom level. A margarita is good anywhere, but beside a giant man-made lake in a theme park version of Mexico is fun. The whole concept just makes the World Showcase a perfect place to wander around for a day, while still playing some small part in bringing more understanding and connection to our world.
The River Areas
Here I’m talking about Disneyland in the Frontierland/New Orleans Square area, and Magic Kingdom in Liberty Square. The ambiance here just has a nice, slightly calmer feeling. I think this is mostly due to the river and the longer sight lines due to the river’s bend. Last year in Disneyland, we had a nice lunch at the River Belle Terrace, and it was surprisingly restorative to sit and watch the people and water from the terrace. Theme parks can be so busy and crowded, and I love anywhere that keeps me in the action but slows everything down a tick. I especially like the dusky quality these areas take as the sun goes down and the lights come up. Speaking of which…
Disney keeps most of their areas a lot darker at night than I would expect, and it creates more atmosphere than glaring lights would. There’s a touch of secrecy, and the shadows and duskiness create a feeling of privacy that’s kind of magical. It also makes the attractions and areas that are well-lit stand out. The aforementioned river areas are great for this, as is Cars Land, where the small desert town feel mixes perfectly with the low light.
Rancho del Zocalo Restaurante
Staying on the lighting theme, the covered patio area at night at this Frontierland Mexican restaurant has excellent atmosphere as well. Combined with pretty tasty food in big portions, this restaurant is one of my favorites for counter-service dining at night.
I haven’t eaten here in years and don’t really remember the food. It was good, but I’m not sure it was anything amazing. I just love the concept. You sit inside a classic Disney ride, but the illusion of sitting outside on a deck by a river or swamp is completely effective. Once again, lighting is key. I guess the moral of this post is, Go to the dark places! The Blue Bayou is well worth visiting at least once. Shout out to the little alley-like walkway outside the door, where Pirates exits, too. That’s a well-designed area that doesn’t feel like it would be out-of-place in New Orleans or some other pirate-y city.
Elaborate Ride Queues
Waiting in line is boring. Disney at least attempts to make it more enjoyable, and generally they succeed to some degree. Personal favorites include Indiana Jones, Space Mountain (once you’re inside; outside is the worst), and Radiator Springs Racers (if it’s not too hot or long).
Baby Care Centers
Most of you non-parents out there probably don’t even know these exist. I sure didn’t until we went to Disneyland with our son. Both California parks, and I assume those in Orlando as well, have these little hospitality centers. You walk in and an extremely nice lady who generally looks like the world’s sweetest grandma greets you and asks what you need. They have changing stations, little kid restrooms, nursing stations with rocking chairs, and nearly any baby supply you might need to buy. There are play areas for kids, and a kitchen with a microwave and sink and high chairs to be used by all. It’s a life-saver for parents who need help or just a quiet, cool place to take their kids for a bit. Seriously, I can’t speak highly enough of these areas. They literally might be the best thought-out thing in any Disney park. Along the same lines, ride swap, for parents with kids, is incredibly great. It’s easy to use and increases parental enjoyment exponentially. Ride operators are not at all stingy about rules or restrictions with the swap passes either, much to their and Disney’s credit. Taking young kids to the parks can be exhausting, and Disney does a lot to help offset that.
I’m not really much of a people person. I like people, but I’m a little shy and not terribly outgoing and like to be alone more than most. I do love being around large groups of people who are happy and excited to be somewhere though, and Disney parks easily qualify. It starts with staff, who are nearly always pleasant and happy without being over the top. Theme parks of any kind are great areas for people watching, of course. You see everything there. Some personal favorites that have lodged in my memory for no good reason:
- A kid in his late teens, macho in a Jersey Shore way, carrying his girlfriend’s massive stuffed animal, and wearing a new Bluetooth headset solely because he thought it looked cool. It didn’t, but I admire the vibe he had going on, and would never want to replicate it.
- Two pre-teen girls who stopped beside us to take pictures and immediately broke into these incredibly complicated and choreographed poses. I was both amazed and creeped out.
- Two college aged girls who sat down beside my son and I while we were waiting for my wife. They chatted and flirted with my one year old son for ten minutes and I’m pretty sure would’ve taken him for the day if we’d asked. Kids in general bring out a good side of people in the parks (usually).
- Bert from Mary Poppins. There is literally nowhere else you can run into Bert from Mary Poppins.
Main Street U.S.A.
If I were ranking these in order, this would be top two. I think Main Street might be the key to Disneyland’s magic. The idea of walking down an idealized small town main street that leads to a castle is brilliant. The magic exists even without the castle, though. Main Street is a touchstone for simpler, happier times, an image completed by horse-drawn trolleys, roving Dixieland jazz quartets, and block-long candy stores. Main Street is transportative, even if one spends no more time there than what it takes to walk to the next land.
This list could go on forever, of course. What makes Disney parks great, in my mind, are not the rides and shows. Everywhere has those, even if they’re not quite as good. It’s the planning and execution that makes the small places lovely and never pulls visitors out of the Disney magic. We’d love to hear some of your favorite Disney places or things in the comments!