The Walt Disney World Resort in Florida includes four amusement parks, two water parks, two pedestrian zones with shops and restaurants, and more than 15 hotel and resort facilities in different price ranges. A ticket for one of the amusement parks now costs upwards of $100, with a minimum of $150 if you want to visit several of the parks on the same day. Add to that the exorbitant parking fees of $25 and high prices for food and drink in the parks, where Starbucks cafés often offer the best value for money when it comes to dining. In short: The Most Magical Place on Earth offers visitors a lot, but it is not cheap.
The Walt Disney World Resort in Florida
In 1971, Walt Disney World opened in Florida – initially only with the Magic Kingdom theme park, an improved version of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. Through several shell companies, Walt Disney bought an area of about 15,000 hectares, primarily swampland. This means that World Disney World has roughly the same spatial extent as Bristol or Pittsburgh. On-site, you can now find:
4 amusement parks:
- Magic Kingdom
- Animal Kingdom
- Hollywood Studios
2 water parks:
- Blizzard Beach
- Typhoon Lagoon
2 entertainment districts:
- Disney Springs
- Disney’s Boardwalk
As well as over 20 hotel and resort facilities.
Still, there’s a way to stroll around the vast grounds without paying a single penny — and even peek into the theme parks. Because Disney not only offers its own, individually designed traffic signs on its premises. There is also a completely free public transport system that can be used without an entrance ticket or hotel reservation.
This includes countless bus connections, three monorail lines, three ship routes and three cable cars. In the following, I will explain how to combine them in a sensible way and provide useful information and tips. Here’s what a free afternoon at Disney might look like:
Start in Disney Springs
Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney) is the largest shopping area on Disney property. There are numerous shops, a Cirque de Soleil theatre, a cinema and even a tethered balloon (for a fee). Most importantly, there is free parking.
To curb the euphoria that might arise at this point: There is no option to save yourself the $25 parking fee, as there are two (time-consuming) obstacles. On the one hand, Disney Springs is only connected to the free bus network from noon onwards. If you want to go to a theme park early, you have no chance of getting there. On the other hand, there is a direct bus connection between every hotel, water and amusement park – but none from Disney Springs to the theme parks. At least one transfer is required. No one parked in Disney Springs will be on a ride before 2 pm.
However, our trip is not about being the first on the roller coasters of the parks, but about getting an impression of the Walt Disney World resort. Parking at Disney Springs in the early afternoon is the first step. From the parking lot, you stroll along the shops to the centre of the area, which lies on the shore of a lake. That’s where the big bus station is. It is true that (as described above) you cannot go directly to the parks. But you can get to one of the three hotels along the Seven Seas Lagoon, which is also home to the Magic Kingdom.
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The Seven Seas Lagoon
There are three hotels on the shores of the Seven Seas Lagoon: The Contemporary Resort, the Polynesian Village Resort and the Grand Floridian Resort. Also in this area are the Transportation and Ticket Center and Magic Kingdom, the most famous of the four theme parks. From Disney Springs, you can take the first bus that comes to any of the three hotels (there are no bus routes, only point-to-point connections). For our tour, the Polynesian Village Resort is best suited.
From there, you can use a walkway along the shore that connects the Polynesian Village Resort to the Grand Floridian Resort. On my last visit, there was unfortunately construction work taking place, and you were directed from the shore to the nearby road. However, the highlight of the walk is still accessible. Between the two complexes is Disney’s Wedding Pavilion on an offshore island.
The Seven Seas Lagoon quarry pond
Disneyland’s early years in Anaheim were a logistical disaster. One of the reasons for this was that employees and goods took a long time to get from one end of the park to the other. To simplify this, Disney built the Magic Kingdom Park on a heaped-up hill and installed a tunnel system under the park. This allowed employees to move quickly through (or better under) the park without being stopped or seen by visitors.
The excavation was filled with water from the neighbouring lakes and marshes and was named the Seven Seas Lagoon. Even if hotel rooms are offered in huts on the lake and artificial beaches were created: swimming is strictly forbidden in the quarry pond. One of the reasons is that it’s tragically difficult to keep alligator-free waters in Florida.
If preparations are in progress (please do not disturb any ceremonies!) you can cross the bridge to the chapel and take a look inside through the glass doors. Just above the altar is a large window facing the Magic Kingdom’s landmark: Cinderella Castle.
After visiting the chapel, walk through the awe-inspiring lobby of the Grand Floridian Resort to the hotel’s monorail station. Resort line monorails stop there – and the next stop is Magic Kingdom. From the monorail, you have a fantastic view over the artificial lake, and you can clearly see the show buildings of Space Mountain and TRON: Lightcycle Run.
After exiting the monorail station, the park entrance is on the left and a dock for boats is on the right. If you go over there, you have the option to be taken across the Seven Seas Lagoon to the Transportation and Ticket Center. It can also be reached by simply staying seated in the monorail. The monorail stops at the Contemporary Resort in between, the station being inside the massive hotel building.
The Transportation and Ticket Center
The Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC for short) is nothing more than a logistics hub. Originally, it served to connect the Magic Kingdom to its parking lot (by monorail or boat). Since the park opened in the 1980s, there has also been a connection to Epcot. The TTC is the only station where all monorail lines stop on the Disney property.
- The Resort Line travels clockwise around the Seven Seas Lagoon, stopping at each resort hotel: TTC – Polynesian Village – Grand Floridian – Magic Kingdom – Contemporary.
- The Express Line circles the lake counter-clockwise and only runs between TTC and Magic Kingdom.
- The Epcot Line runs from the TTC to Epcot, the second oldest of the four amusement parks and our next destination.
The monorail ride from the Transportation and Ticket Center to Epcot is the longest on the entire property. Before the train pulls into the park’s station, it takes a long tour of the park grounds. This is the only way to get a long look at one of the theme parks without paying admission. In order not to have to stretch to get a good view, it is best to sit on the left in the direction of travel.
Bus Ride to the Hollywood Studios
Epcot Theme Park has two entrances: the main entrance, topped by Spaceship Earth (the large golf ball); and where the car parks and monorail station are located. In addition, at the far end of the park is the International Gateway, which can only be reached through the park, by boat, gondola or on foot. Without a ticket, there is no way to get from one exit to the other.
That’s why we have to rely on the bus a second time. When exiting the monorail station, the park entrance is on the left and the bus terminal is on the right. The destination is the third park on our list: Disney’s Hollywood Studios. From there, you have several options for moving on.
Hollywood Studios is connected to Epcot by a waterway, which has several hotels and the so-called Boardwalk Area on its banks. This is the second shopping and dining area, but it is significantly smaller than our starting point, Disney Springs. Boats run regularly to the International Gateway, Epcot’s rear entrance, from a docking location opposite the park entrance. In between, the boat stops at the piers of the hotels.
You can also walk to the Boardwalk Resort by following one of the boardwalks along the waterfront. However, in the sweltering heat of Florida this is only recommended to a limited extent, because you are probably out and about in the sun for half an hour without shade or protection.
End with the Gondola Lift
Since 2021 there is also a gondola lift that leads from the Hollywood Studios to the Caribbean Beach Resort. Once there, you can change to two other lines. One leads to the Art of Animation and Pop Century Resorts, the other stops at the Riviera Resort and then continues to the aforementioned Epcot International Gateway. Nearing the end of the Epcot cable car ride, there is a good view of the France section of the park and the World’s Showcase Lagoon, which hosts the Harmonious light & fireworks show each night.
From the International Gateway, you can board one of the boats and be taken to one of the hotels near the boardwalk – or walk the distance. This provides no more shade than the walkway from Hollywood Studios, but it is shorter. After a visit to the Boardwalk, head to one of the nearby hotels and take the third and last bus of the day back to Disney Springs. The Dolphin Hotel is recommended because of its magnificent lobby.
Bottom Line: A Free Afternoon at Disney World
The suggested tour takes about four hours and gives you a good insight into what makes Disney World special. Since there aren’t many opportunities to buy something to drink along the way, it’s a good idea to take a bottle of water with you. Since the buses used are mercilessly air-conditioned, you should also have something warm to wear with you. It’s freezing in there.
You can of course shorten or lengthen this tour as you wish. You could also include the fourth theme park, Animal Kingdom, or the water parks. However, apart from parking lots and entrance gates, there is not much to see there. The areas described, on the other hand, offer a variety of transport options and the opportunity to walk from time to time. The important thing to keep in mind is that you can only get back to Disney Springs from the hotels and resorts.
You will search in vain for official timetables or maps during the tour. The next bus/train/boat comes when it comes. However, you’ll rarely wait longer than 15 minutes. If you get lost and can’t find your way back to Disney Springs, don’t hesitate to ask the park or hotel staff for help. Everything described in this text is free and allowed. And Disney employees are best known for their friendliness and helpfulness.
Thanks a lot, dear Felix!