July 20, 2010

Disney Park Countdown- #4 The Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World

Tough, tough choices as I approach the Top Four on the list! As I said earlier, these top choices are as far removed from the ones below it, as far as could be. So, on with the countdown. At Number 4- Walt Disney World's original and beautiful Florida park- The Magic Kingdom.

There is a magic that is Walt Disney World, a magic that existed at its opening almost 40 years ago, a magic that still exists today. It's not a kingdom without its deserved criticisms, but Florida's first Disney park shines above it all.

As a Californian where the smaller, more charming, and original Disneyland was my "home" park, it would be easy to think that I have little attachment to the Magic Kingdom. You'd be wrong! From my trips there as a young teen, to visits with my children, to my last visit in 2009, I still get a rush journeying by ferry over the Seven Seas Lagoon and walking under Main Street's elaborate train station. That first view of the castle still wows me.

The grand scale and scope of the place sets the Magic Kingdom apart from the one graced by Walt's steps as do its many unique attractions. Just going down that list is pretty impressive for a park often dismissed as a lesser clone of Disneyland: The Hall of Presidents, Country Bear Jamboree, Swiss Family Treehouse, Tomorrowland Transit Authority, Carousel of Progress, and my favorite 3D film, Mickey's Philharmagic.

In my earlier visits, If You Had Wings ("...had wings, had wings, had wings...") was a must see, the Plaza Swan Boats circled the plaza, the Mickey Mouse Revue played to packed houses, Mr. Toad's Wild Ride ran double courses around London and the countryside, and the stunning Nautilus submarines cruised the Fantasyland waters on its 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea journey with Captain Nemo. In later years, the truly edgy Alien Encounter and the entertaining Timekeeper were the centerpiece of a stunning Tomorrowland remodel. Granted today's line up also includes missteps with attractions from the awful Stitch's Great Escape to the out of place Monsters Inc: Laugh Floor!
Liberty Square remains one of the most beautiful and delicately imagined Disney lands in any park. This tribute to Americana and those who gained our initial freedom is at once patriotic, inspiring, and unique. Walking through the area and taking in its sights brings me a thousand miles away from Central Florida. The entire experience of Liberty Square is much more effective than the singular building and attraction of the American Adventure at Epcot.

Regarding the remaining lands, only Tomorrowland and Main Street U.S.A. are very effective, but even those suffer from the character infusion in the land of the future and the shopping experience the "turn of the century" has turned into. Frontierland feels remote but pressed back into a corner. It needs something new. Adventureland was once beautiful. The overall atmosphere and mystique has been destroyed, with Caribbean Plaza needing to see the return of its unique blend of entertainment, shopping, and eateries. For now, Fantasyland pales compared to its other cousins. (Hong Kong Disneyland's version is its equal from what I can see.) Honestly, each Disney park has its imperfections. The Magic Kingdom is no exception, although its size and scale makes them more obvious.

Dining in the Magic Kingdom offers much variety. The handsome Liberty Tree Tavern, the nautical Columbia Harbour House, and the beautiful Crystal Palace leap to mind as primary examples here. Certainly, dining inside Cinderella Castle is still great fun for little ones. Who can resist Main Street's Confectionary or a Mickey Mouse Ice Cream bar? That said, it is time to get the Diamond Horseshoe back to its high-kicking dancehall routines.

Shopping used to be pretty good here, especially when the Magic Kingdom was the sole park. In this aspect, Liberty Square was once the New Orleans Square of Florida- there was a perfumerie, antiques store, a shop that focused on American history, and a bigger emphasis on authentic goods and reproductions fitting the theme. These days, it is the same old story: the requisite Christmas shop, etc.

However, it is still the attractions that most define a park. When it comes to the Disney staples- adventures that almost require them being built for the opening of each additional Kingdom- it is a mixed bag of results. The newly improved Haunted Mansion has now moved past its California cousin, this Splash Mountain remains the best when in full working order, and Space Mountain's rockets offer an experience as different from that in California as it is from the one in Paris. Tomorrowland may have a couple of "dog" attractions at its entrance, but its architecture glows day or night! The energy of the Tomorrowland Transit Authority only adds to the excitement.

On the other side of the comparison equation, although I love the ending of Florida's It's A Small World, the exterior diminishes the wow factor to some degree. Pirates of the Caribbean, with the gorgeous fortress marking the queue still gives guests an abbreviated ride. Adventureland needs another makeover after the Aladdin themed addition, and the whole of Fantasyland is a disappointment when it comes to vast expanses of concrete replacing the lush gardens and green spaces of other parks. As I said, its a mixed bag. Yet even these inferior versions of Disney Imagineering staples outweigh the attractions found at California Adventure, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.

What comes next to draw guests in? The Fantasyland Forest addition has its promising elements. The Little Mermaid: Ariel's Undersea Adventure is at the top, but character meet and greets do not a Wizarding World of Harry Potter make. Ramblings of new experiences for Frontierland are starting to make the rounds, but rest assured, Disney suits will make sure the park remains stagnant for a few more decades before making another large investment into the park.

Five down, three to go. There's one park remaining from California, Florida and France. Which will be at the top? Stay posted.
(Photos copyright Mark Taft.)

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