There’s a balance of time, money and availability that goes into planning a proper Disney vacation.
There are things that we’d like to do, things we should do and things that are moral imperatives.
We visited Disney World with two other families in October of 2021. It was between the closing of Fast Passes and the arrival of Lightning Lanes. Therefore, it was just us and our wits and the mercy of the wait time gods.
We were discussing wait times for Rise of the Resistance in Hollywood Studios and discussing strategy. I found out later the other families expected me to say might have to “skip it.” But there’s no way we were missing that ride.
Rise of the Resistance is a must.
Editor’s Note: We’ve also created a printable version of this list here.
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What Disney World parks are a must?
I mean to me, all the Walt Disney World Resort parks are a must. I skip the water parks, but the theme parks? Not if I can help it.
Now, not everyone gets four park days on their Disney vacation. Certainly, there have been times when we’ve only had two or three days at Disney and so you must choose.
Typically, for us, the order is Magic Kingdom first, Hollywood Studios next, EPCOT and finally, Animal Kingdom.
But if have four days, do one park each day.
Which Disney World park do you need the most time for?
This is a different question, some of this answer is on the design of the various Disney parks.
Animal Kingdom: Even though it’s large, it’s easy to negotiate the park. If we rope drop, we can be done by 5 pm or so and go back to the hotel for a swim and rest. That said, there is some cool stuff happening in the evening.
Hollywood Studios: You need a full day for Hollywood Studios. But I rank Magic Kingdom higher because it just has that many more attractions.
Magic Kingdom: There is plenty to keep you busy in the Magic Kingdom for a day. In fact, we usually schedule this park for two days if we do a 5 or 6-day trip. It’s the original and also the most essential park.
EPCOT: The World Showcase is a long walk with lots of places to stop, rest, eat and drink and shop. But logistically, it takes time to get it all done. And there’s a whole other half of the park. Therefore, take your time. Enjoy the day. Eat, drink and meet Mickey.
What are the must-see attractions at the Walt Disney World Resort?
Well, reasonable fans will differ. It’s really a very personal question.
To me the right answer lies somewhere in the nexus of nostalgia and experience, right? I could list the 12 oldest attractions at the Magic Kingdom with the most history and the most cultural cachet or the amazing new modern experiences. It’s best to enjoy both.
Also for the purposes of this exercise, we’re taking the widest possible interpretation of attraction. So here are the top must do attractions at Disney:
30. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Magic Kingdom
Disney needs big adult thrill rides and Big Thunder Mountain fits the bill.
It’s a fun, workhorse sort of ride that connects to a very specific era of Disney parks’ history as well as Disney’s love of the old frontiers.
29. Soarin’ at EPCOT
No need for an explanation. This EPCOT classic simulator ride is just a good ride.
28. Pandora World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom
You don’t have to be a fan of James Cameron’s Avatar movies to enjoy the theming and immersion of this land.
Avatar’s two attractions are both great as well.
27. Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom
For a long time, this was Disney’s best roller coaster. It’s a thrill ride through the Himalayas with a Yeti sighting. It’s still a great ride.
26. Ride the Monorail through the Contemporary Resort
Disney is more than a theme park. It’s a very specific vision of what things could be and should be. It’s a testament to the possibilities when vision is met with boldness and opportunity.
The Monorail and Contemporary Resort – like Tomorrowland – represent what the future might be, what our present might have been. It’s nostalgia for something that never came to be.
But as my son JP said when he was 4, it’s just cool to ride on a train through a hotel.
25. Jungle Cruise at Magic Kingdom
This is just a classic Disney ride. It’s not my personal favorite. But if you’re making a list of can’t-miss attractions, it has to be done at least once.
24. Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin at Magic Kingdom
This is just a fun little Tomorrowland ride. But it’s definitely worth riding at least once.
23. Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Hollywood Studios
One of Disney’s three trackless rides, this technological marvel is just an exceptionally fun ride.
22. TRON Lightcycle at Magic Kingdom
TRON is a fun little coaster but earns its place here chiefly because it’s new.
Have you ever been to a park and missed out on the hot new thing? When you go home everybody asks, “Did you ride (insert new ride here)? How was it?”
Don’t miss out. Ride the new thing.
21. The Seas with Nemo and Friends at EPCOT
The Finding Nemo ride in EPCOT is fine. The air conditioning is excellent. But it’s the friends that really make this attraction.
The aquarium offers a fun and educational experience for kids and adult guests alike.
20. Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run at Hollywood Studios
On its own, Smugglers Run is a fantastic – if slightly over-complicated – ride. The theming is perfect. The experience is grand.
It’s one of the real achievements in modern theme park attraction building.
19. Festival of the Lion King at Animal Kingdom
Disney has a lot of shows that pay homage to its classics. The Festival of the Lion King is the best of these.
18. Visit Disney Springs
Disney Springs is a whole experience that you don’t have to pay to enter. Shopping, entertainment and dining are all available – for the right – price in Disney Springs.
No Disney World Florida vacation is complete without it.
17. Visit Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios
This Hollywood Studios land has two great rides, dining and fantastic theming. It’s just fun for all ages.
16. Drink and eat your way around EPCOT’s World Showcase
One of the great things about World Showcase is taking your time to explore all the lands and trying the local cuisine and beverages.
If you can time it during one of the festivals, all the better.
15. Ride the Skyliner to EPCOT
Take Disney’s newest mass transit, the Skyliner, to EPCOT’s back entrance near Disney’s Boardwalk.
You will get a unique view of the park and also access to the international entrance at EPCOT. It’s the best way to jump right into the best part of EPCOT.
14. See Fantasmic!
This Hollywood Studios extravaganza is the best theme park show I’ve ever seen. It’s epic and filled with characters, pyrotechnics and more.
13. Have a Dole Whip after visiting the Tiki Room at Magic Kingdom
I like the cheesy side of old Disney. I like the old rides and the old attractions.
The Tiki Room is a bunch of animatronic birds singing 50-year-old songs and telling dad jokes. It’s a great way to rest for 20 minutes and be entertained. And then you exit right next to Aloha Aisle which sells the world’s greatest frozen treat, Dole Whip.
12. The Haunted Mansion at Magic Kingdom
Use your best judgment if your kids are easily jolted, but the Haunted Mansion has been one of the Magic Kingdom’s signature attractions that opened with the park in 1971.
The ride is fun, but I always marvel at what the Imagineers were able to conjure up using technology from the era.
11. Pirates of the Caribbean at Magic Kingdom
As someone who went to the Tiki Room when it was refurbished with Iago and Zazu and billed as under new management, there’s part of me that wishes they’d remove Captain Jack Sparrow references and take this ride back to its – mostly – original form.
Still, it’s classic Disney and can’t be missed.
10. Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at EPCOT
The second of Disney’s trackless rides on the list, the fun France offering represents both the best of Disney’s new technology and the need to give more for kids to do in the World Showcase.
9. Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios
This is a classic drop ride with great old theming. It puts “Hollywood” in Hollywood Studios.
8. Avatar Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom
Get a Lightning Lane if at all possible for this amazing ride in Animal Kingdom.
Truly, it’s one of the best rides in the world. No Disney World vacation would be complete without it.
7. Festival of Fantasy Parade
On her first trip to Disney and celebrating her fifth birthday, my oldest was decked out in her best Princess Tiana dress on the way to the castle to dine with Cinderella.
On the way in, we met a parade and stopped to watch the character-filled floats. Sofia was trying desperately to get the attention of the various characters brought to life.
Suddenly she squealed in delight, spinning in giddiness right there on the Main Street sidewalk.
“Daddy, Goofy waved at me,” she shouted before going back and trying to get someone else to wave.
I think that was the moment she fell in love with Disney and fell in love with the parades. She’s almost 18 now, ready to graduate and she still loves them.
The Festival of Fantasy is her favorite – at least until they bring back the Electric Parade – but I think almost any of them would do.
6. Watch the fireworks show at the castle
Fireworks at the castle were always cool, but now with all the projection capability they have mixed in with the fireworks, these shows are amazing.
5. Enjoy character dining
Hanging out with Disney characters is always cool.
I think Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary Resort and princess dining at the castle are the two most popular, but there are a lot of great options all over Disney.
4. It’s a Small World at Magic Kingdom
I think if you’re looking for a symbol of nostalgic Disney, this is it. It’s just the icon of icons in Fantasyland.
3. Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind at EPCOT
The world needs great rides. And certainly, this is one of the greatest in Orlando, if not one of the greatest in the world. Do not skip it. Get the Lightning Lane and ride it.
2. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios
See above. There’s no way I’m taking a Disney vacation and skipping this ride. I would pay park admission simply to ride it.
1. Visit Cinderella’s Castle
That walk up Main Street to the castle is iconic.
Can you go to Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower? Can you go to New York and miss the Empire State Building? I rest my case.
What is your must-see item at Disney World? Let us know in the comments!