I know what you’re thinking: How could Walt Disney World possibly get any better than it already is? But I assure you, it has. It really, really has. I was recently invited to the park for a first-look at five new and long-awaited attractions myself, and let me tell you, I could barely pack my bags fast enough. Two kid-less days in the Happiest Place on Earth? Sign me up!
Before I knew it, I was in my car and headed to Orlando to see what was new for the Summer of 2016.
Once I was all checked in at the Disney Beach Club Resort (a deluxe resort near Epcot), I received my very own MagicBand — a digital wristband that acts as your room-key, your credit card (no more fumbling to find that wallet!), and your entry into the parks. I then headed up to my room and proceeded to bask in the luxuriousness of a Disney vacation without kiddos — which included face-planting into a queen-sized bed I didn’t have to make in a room I didn’t have to clean, letting myself go nuts on the buffet, and swimming leisurely in a pool where I didn’t have to simultaneously have to keep a hawk-like eye on multiple kids at once. (Moms, is that not a dream come true, or what?)
The next morning, I was up and ready to take on the park, check out the new attractions, and see what all the fuss was about.
1. Royal Sommerhus (Epcot)
I started my day in the countryside of Epcot’s Norway Pavilion, where my first stop was the Royal Sommerhus, a traditional Norwegian-inspired cabin that features culturally authentic architecture, artifacts, and décor. It’s also the only place where Disney guests can have a character experience in the park with Anna and Elsa. (They can be seen in other parks, but you can only meet them in Epcot — which, I’m sure your kid would agree, is reason enough to hit up the Epcot attraction while in Disney.)
As the mom of a 3-year-old Frozen addict (I can sing “Let It Go” in my sleep), I admit even I was a little star struck to meet the Princess and the Queen in the flesh. They were just as beautiful and friendly as you’d imagine, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how much my daughter would think this whole thing was the absolute bee’s knees.
2. Frozen Ever After (Epcot)
Frozen Ever After — a gentle boat ride through Arendelle – is another must-see while visiting the Norway Pavilion. Once inside, you’ll see plenty of familiar vistas and faces as you cruise along the indoor waterway and listen to your favorite Frozen tunes. Disney has brought Olaf, Sven, Anna, Kristof, the trolls, Elsa, and Marshmallow to life with its most advanced audio-animatronic figures to date, and the result is an unbelievably realistic, enchanted voyage. (I even rode the attraction a second time and noticed a few things I didn’t see the first time around!) And here’s one more perk for anyone who runs hot, like me: Both the queue and the ride are blissfully air conditioned, providing some much-needed relief from the Florida heat.
Parent Hack: Use the My Disney Experience app to make FastPass+ selections before hitting up the attractions. Remember, everyone else’s kids love Anna and Elsa just as much as yours do, so the Norway Pavilion is a pretty happening place. However, if you make a FastPass+ selection ahead of time (up to 30 days in advance for all ticket-holders; up to 60 days in advance if you’re staying in a Disney Resort), you can bypass the lines and skip right into an unforgettable summer snow day without worrying about the wait times.
3. Soarin’ (Epcot)
The new Soarin’ ride in the Land Pavilion allows park-goers to take an epic virtual flight over six different continents. This aerial adventure is a multi-sensory experience that incorporates sight (thanks to stunning videography of the world’s most breathtaking landscapes and iconic landmarks), sound (a score performed by the London Studio Orchestra), and three subtle scents (I won’t spoil these for you!) to help fulfill every globetrotter’s wildest dream. The 80-foot projection screen dome makes the experience particularly immersive, and it was especially fun for me because I’ve been to some of the sites featured in the attraction, which include the Great Wall of China, the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge, and the Eiffel Tower.
While there, I was lucky enough to chat with Jason, the Art Director behind Soarin’ Around the World, who told me that from start to finish, the attraction took about three-and-a-half years to bring to fruition. If you ask me, all that time and effort has certainly paid off. To see the magic of Earth itself while inside the most magical place on earth is a pretty surreal gift.
Parent Hack: After checking out Soarin’, head over to the OWCA recruitment center at Odyssey Bridge, where you and the kids can play an interactive scavenger hunt either on your own smartphone or on a hand-held device you can request. The scavenger hunt — dubbed Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure — will have your exploring the Epcot World Showcase and increasing their cultural knowledge, all at once. Then, stop in Germany for a Hefeweiszen and a baked pretzel. (Hey, you’ve earned it!)
4. Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire (Magic Kingdom)
Mickey’s Royal Friendship Faire — a new musical stage show performed on the Cinderella Castle stage — is another must-see attraction if you have littles. Classic Disney characters Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy celebrate friendship by singing and dancing with contemporary favorites like Tiana and Naveen, Rapunzel and Flynn Rider, and Anna, Elsa, and Olaf.
The show begins with the entire cast performing together, followed by medleys that feature songs from The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, and Frozen. The Royal Friendship Faire ends with the entire cast performing together again. The Show Director, Tara Anderson, said that the one thing she wanted the audience to take away from the live performance is to value the friendships in our lives and to always look for new friends with whom we can connect and share life. The stage show does a wonderful job of focusing on the joy of spending time with family and friends, and the fun of singing along to a plethora of Disney’s latest, greatest hits had me feeling five again.
As a mom, I was impressed by the how virtually all my daughter’s favorite characters are in this show. If you can’t afford a character dining experience – or if the kids get sick or tired and you can’t make a meet and greet in the park – make sure you catch the Royal Friendship Faire. It’s an excellent way to see twelve characters that are near and dear to the hearts of your children without having to break the bank (it’s free with park admission) or schedule multiple stops throughout your day!
Parent Hack: Get to the stage early and stake out a good spot for the show. Complete your souvenir (and holiday) shopping via the Shop Disney Parks app while waiting on the show to begin and you won’t have to lug anything around the park; your souvenirs could be on your doorstep by the time you get home! After the show, treat yourself to a Dole Whip at Aloha Isle, because there are still some things in this world that can’t be downloaded.
5. Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular (Hollywood Studios)
Disney is already well known for its epic fireworks displays, but Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular takes things to a whole new level. With scenes from all seven Star Wars films projected onto the Chinese theater, surround sound audio effects, lasers, towers of flame, and fireworks, you feel like you’re fighting alongside the Rebel Alliance in some of the franchise’s most recognizable interstellar battle scenes. Purchase tickets to the super yummy Dessert Party and you’ll be able to munch on fabulous light-side and dark-side themed treats inside before moving to the reserved viewing area to watch the fireworks display. (If you’re going to the Dessert Party, I highly recommend the freeze-fried Nutella truffles, which provide additional OMG moment!)
Parent Hack: The best seat in the house for this high-tech show is an old fashioned one, so put your littlest tyke on your shoulders for a primetime view of the action and hold your big kid’s hand. Prepare to ooooh and ahhh together, for nothing unites young and old like an awe-inspiring fireworks show. And in case you’re wondering, no — there’s no such thing as “too old to own a light saber.”
Once the show was over, I left Hollywood Studios, took a boat back to the Beach Club Resort, and pretty much crashed face-first into my bed. After spending 18 hours in Disney (and walking 10 miles), I was ready for a good night’s sleep. I awoke the next morning refreshed — and totally ready to start planning our family’s next vacation in Orlando.
I know it sounds like an old cliché to say that there’s something for everyone at Walt Disney World, but with four parks (including two water parks), 29 resorts, a shopping district, dozens of beloved characters, and hundreds of engaging attractions to check out, I do think it’s safe to say that there’s more than enough magic for the entire family – just as Walt intended!