Welcoming a staggering 52 million visitors each year, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida is best known for its spectacular theme parks, but there is more than meets the eye. The area is a vast 40-square-mile municipality unto itself, with its own company towns overseen by a mayor. In addition to the numerous hotels and dining options, the property even has its own fire station, decorated in true Disney style with an outer façade painted in gigantic, cartoonish bricks. We think the true genius of Walt Disney World is apparent in its operational efficiency, the many aspects that guests benefit from without ever actually seeing. Security, for example, is invisible beyond the theme park entrance checkpoints; but it is there, in the form of personnel dressed as tourists roaming indistinctly among us. Another interesting consideration – as you travel between attractions by car or bus on the public-access roads, you will never see a supply truck; yet somehow all the Disney hotels have an infinite stock of everything from bathroom supplies in your room to eggs on the breakfast buffet. How do they do it? Disney Magic, of course, in the form of hidden thoroughfares accessible only to Cast Members (employees) and suppliers. Equally genius is the waste disposal system which harvests waste into power that is then used to power generators that supply energy back to Walt Disney World. Much of the food on your plate comes from Disney-owned local farms. Overall, the entire operation is a well-oiled machine that provides a flawless, seamless, magical experience to children big and small.

“I hope we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.”
– Walter Elias Disney

Magic Kingdom is the most iconic of Walt Disney World’s four theme parks. We don’t need to describe its many wonders; their own website provides plenty of detail about the rides and attractions. If, like us, you’re curious about how it all works, you can book a special “Keys to the Kingdom” tour that will take you behind the scenes into Cast Members Only areas such as a nine-acre network of tunnels running beneath the park itself.

Epcot, the largest park, is a dual-themed extravaganza featuring a futuristic city that is especially magnificent at night with even its pavers lit by twinkling lights, and World Showcase, offering a Disneyfied snapshot of several countries encircling a large central lake that represents planet Earth. The nightly fireworks display, replete with laser show and synchronized music, is nothing short of spectacular.

Animal Kingdom combines education with fun. Several years ago, it was termed “Nahtazu” (not a zoo) in a clever advertising campaign, and it’s true; although it features real live animal habitats, this park really does transcend a typical zoo. Children can be engaged all day with the Wilderness Explorers scavenger hunt program, in which they collect stickers from 30+ stations throughout the park, each with its own educational component.

Hollywood Studios takes visitors back to the golden age of Hollywood, with plenty of modern rides and attractions. In addition to rides on both of these blockbuster movie series, Star Wars fans can engage in Jedi training, and Indiana Jones fans will love the stunt show. This park features some incredible live stage performances, and a glimpse behind the scenes to see what real movie sets look like.

The different tiers of Disney hotels are Value Resorts (with affordable pricing), the Moderate Resorts (with pricing that is, well—moderate!), the Deluxe Resorts and the Deluxe Villas. We have tried all of these tiers and found that they all enhance the Disney experience with their own themed pools, dining, activities and entertainment. Best of all, they provide transportation with buses every 15 minutes to the various theme parks and attractions. Some Deluxe Resorts have monorail transportation to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. There is also a campground, complete with log cabins for those who like to be close–but not that close–to nature. There are activities offered all day at the Disney resorts to entertain guests who feel like taking a day off from the bustling theme parks. For example, the campground has horseback riding, archery, wagon rides and a nightly campfire sing-along with characters Chip & Dale, and the Polynesian Village Resort has fishing, character dining, boat rentals, movies under the stars and a Polynesian dinner show complete with fire-dancers. As with everything Disney, the attention to detail sets these resorts apart. From the guest room décor to the common areas, you will keep noticing lots of special little touches that remind you where you are.

There are plenty of dining options available all over Walt Disney World – in the theme parks, resorts and other attractions – ranging from fast food to fine dining. To help keep costs in check, Disney offers dining plans in which a flat rate entitles you to redeem a pre-determined daily allotment of meals and snacks at more than 150 participating restaurants and refreshment stands throughout Walt Disney World. This is particularly beneficial if you’re planning to stay for more than a couple of days.

If you want to take a break from the theme parks while still enjoying a Disney experience, there are many alternative options on the sprawling Disney property. Since all Disney resorts are themed, each is a mini-adventure unto itself. We have made many enjoyable side trips to explore, dine and play at different resorts. The Grand Floridian resort has a beautiful full-service spa, and you do not have to be staying there to book an appointment. For golf enthusiasts, Walt Disney World features not one, but four golf courses on property. They also have miniature golf so that non-players can feel like they’re in on the action. There are also two marvelous water parks, Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon. Disney Springs is the downtown area, ideal for a stroll by day or night. It has shopping, dining, bars, a movie cinema complex, an indoor virtual reality theme park called DisneyQuest, live music and entertainment, including a real Cirque du Soleil show. Disney’s Boardwalk is a delightful promenade that takes you down memory lane with live street performers, an arcade, a traditional ice-cream parlor, dueling pianos and a dance hall.

Perhaps one of the cutest touches of all, these little gems appear in the most unexpected places. What exactly are they? If you notice a random appearance of the classic tri-circle shape of Mickey’s head, you have discovered one. Hidden Mickeys actually began in the 1970’s as an inside joke between the Imagineers (this is the formal job title given to Disney’s design engineers). They were designing Epcot theme park and thought it would be cute to incorporate some secret Mickey silhouettes, hidden in plain view. The idea caught on, and Imagineers continued to subtly include them in all manner of construction designs. Hidden Mickeys weren’t become public knowledge until 1989, when a cast member wrote an article about it in Disney’s weekly internal publication for staff. The novelty is so popular that there are now entire websites devoted to the search. In some of the Walt Disney World gift stores you can purchase a little handbook that will tell you where to look for ones that have already been discovered. Whether you’re walking through your hotel, standing in line for a theme park ride, actually on the ride, enjoying a meal nearby or simply stopping to rest on a bench, you may just spot one where you least expect it – and who knows? – maybe you’ll even be the first person to report it!