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5 Unexpected Things You Can Do at Disney World

Avoid the crowds with these insider hacks.

U.S. News & World Report

5 Unexpected Things You Can Do at Disney World

Pandora World of Avatar

Cut down on wait times at Disney World's Pandora – World of Avatar.(Kent Philips/Courtesy of Disney Parks)

While summer is always busy at Walt Disney World, the May 27 debut of a new land tied to the theme of the movie “Avatar” gives millions of fans – as well as animal rights activists – a new reason to love the refreshed Animal Kingdom. Walt Disney World may be the same size as San Francisco – both have 40 square miles of attractions, hotels and dining – but visitors tend to gather in a few places. That’s why these insider tips on five alternative activities should help you stay one step ahead of the crowds.

1. Sample authentic Moroccan food at EPCOT. Travelers do not go to theme parks expecting a good meal. However, in recent years, the 11 cultural World Showcase pavilions have become Disney World’s culinary capital, with each hosting several ethnic restaurants. The exotic Morocco pavilion, built in 1984 by King Hassan II whose craftsmen did the lavish Moorish woodwork and Islamic tiles, is a favorite. Whether it’s the vegetarian lunch plate with Moroccan dips and breads at the counter-service Tangierine Café or a spellbinding chicken tagine or grilled lamb dinner – with belly dancing – at Restaurant Marrakesh, you are immediately transported to a Moroccan village complete with a minaret and replicas of some of the country’s most important structures. Be sure to book ahead online, through the My Disney app or with a hotel concierge.

2. Tour the Earth’s natural wonders in Animal Kingdom. It’s so otherworldy that visitors don’t realize the captivating Mo’ara Valley in “Pandora – The World of Avatar” is an encyclopedia of natural wonders. It’s true they are brought to four-dimensional life with “a soundscape of vocalization patterns like mating calls and hunting moments,” says Matt Beiler, Walt Disney Imagineering producer, “that makes it feel real.” Much of it is real, however, and travelers who want to see elements of Pandora for themselves can follow in the footsteps of visionary Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde. His team brought in rock workers from China, using Zhangjiajie National Forest Park as inspiration for Pandora’s 130-foot-high floating mountains, which, say the costumed cast members, are levitated by the repelling magnetic forces from the planet’s “unobtainium” core. The many waterfalls in this seductive paradise were designed after those in Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia. The lush space's flowers (some hand-crafted and many real) and greenery come from both Disney labs and Hawaii’s rainforests. The park tells the story of the Na’vi people's fight to preserve their environment with a lush landscape of 500 living trees, 10,000 shrubs and epiphytes representing 250 varieties, plus the extraterrestrial flora that glows with bioluminescence at night.

3. Go backstage at Magic Kingdom. As park-goers know, Disney maintains that aura of magic by never revealing how things work. Yet during a recent interview with Jackie Psarianos of Disney Parks Moms Panel, we learned that “when Magic Kingdom was built, in order to camouflage the real-life work that was going, Disney built a color-coded land under each section of the park called the Utilidor.” Connecting tunnels enable cast members to travel between Frontierland and New Fantasyland, for example, and remove waste. Now, a “Keys to the Kingdom” tour is available to curious fans age 16 and older, with photo ID, reservations, $99 and five hours to spend. Consider it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to go behind the veil.

4. Skip the lines at Pandora – World of Avatar. Smart travelers have been programming their Disney MagicBand wearables with timed entry reservations for the Pandora rides for months. No wonder; Disney expects the millions of fans who made “Avatar” the top-grossing film of all time will use the free Fastpass+ app to experience the two immersive rides repeatedly. That’s no reason to miss the multigenerational-friendly Na’vi River ride – the alien version of the classic “It’s a Small World” – and the groundbreaking 4D Avatar Flight of Passage, a thrilling ride aboard a pulsating mountain banshee soaring past oceans and through dense forests. You can cut down the wait time considerably by using Animal Kingdom’s extra extended hours from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily through July 4. Alternatively, wait until the nightly projection and fireworks shows “Tree of Life Awakenings” and "Rivers of Light" begin at 9 p.m., drawing other Animal Kingdom visitors away from the Pandora rides. You’ll want to catch the shows another night because the firefly effect produced by an ensemble of choreographed drones is spectacular.

5. Enjoy a free symphony concert at Disney's Hollywood Studios. And who would expect to introduce the kids to the symphony at Disney World? At Hollywood Studios, all summer long, all ages will enjoy the full classical orchestra that performs hit songs from several Pixar films in “Pixar Live.” There are three free concerts nightly, so get there early. A live conductor leads the musicians through timeless film scores that include classical, jazz and pop interludes as favorite film clips from “Toy Story," “Monsters, Inc.” and other hits are projected on a screen behind the orchestra. Depending on their ages, the whole audience delights in several nostalgic moments until the exciting climax, when several of the film’s characters come out to greet the audience.

Now that’s an unexpected showstopper!

About En Route

Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.

Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.

Edited by Liz Weiss.

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