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The cult of the personality is a powerful tool. Imagine, if you will, an autocratic dictator of a small nation; he is virtually worshipped in his homeland, where the native population are bombarded with propaganda about his heroics. His image is omnipresent, it is unavoidable, day and night it can be seen onscreen, on the streets, in shops and in restaurants, on leaflets, and especially on the people themselves, who wear clothes and hats with his image. It is even in the food. It goes further. Every day, two or three times, a parade is held in his honour. Despite the weather being appallingly, inhumanely hot and humid, the streets are lined with people teetering on the edge of hysteria as his motley collection of friends and comrades march by, demanding praise. Children are the most fervent of all: they love them. The dictator himself - or someone purporting to him, you can never be sure - makes an appearance at these parades, waving benignly at the crowds, as though he is doing them a favour just by showing up. Naturally there is a dark side. The population is funding this maniacal ego trip: living costs have soared unsustainably, the population is grossly unhealthy, and currency is close to being outlawed, with the majority wearing electronic wristbands that monitor their movements. There can be no dissent - if you do not love this dictator, you have no place in his land. The population is utterly brainwashed however and don't seem to care, and will spend hours queueing just for the privilege of meeting somebody dressed as him. At least, on the upside, the land is very disabled friendly, and all transport is free.
Well, I have met such a leader.
Mickey Mouse is a curious one. He starred in a few films back in the 1930s and 1940s, with Fantasia being his most famous, but since then has barely done anything, except a few phoned-in straight-to-video efforts in the last decade. As a film star, he seems retired, or so preoccupied with autocracy that he doesn't have time to star in any more cartoons: that would be beneath him. Yet, he is everything to Walt Disney World. "I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing – that it was all started by a mouse." his creator, Walt Disney, famously said. The mega entertainment juggernaut that is The Walt Disney Company started with Walt Disney, age 26, sitting down and drawing a picture of a mouse. Oh hang on, it was actually his friend and employee, Ub Iwerks, who did it, after being tasked by Disney to create a new character. Hmm, doesn't have quite the same romantic ring to it, does it?
What is Walt Disney World then? It's a sequel, first of all, to Disneyland, the Californian Disney theme park which opened in 1955. It was a big success, but Walt wanted more. Much more. And so Walt Disney World today is more than just a single theme park. It is four theme parks. And two water parks, five golf courses, loads of hotels, shopping complexes, a downtown area, a complex transportation network, and more. It takes up the size of a city - around 43 square miles, or about two Manhattans. It has something like 62,000 employees - or "cast members" as it likes to call them. It's pretty big, and after a week of being there I can certainly say I've given it a good visit, doing plenty of exploring, sitting on roller-coasters, meeting cartoon characters, and buying expensive junk food. But still, I can hardly say I've comprehensively experienced all that Disney World has to offer. Like visiting Manhattan for a week, or any other city really, there's an awful lot going on, and every day brings something different. And before I even get going, I have to decide what my Wonder here really is. I don't think a Wonder can be four theme parks, two water parks, five golf courses, etc. It's too much. There needs to be some kind of coherency behind a Wonder, and although it's all under the Disney banner with Mickey Mouse's head and ears cropping up everywhere, it's hardly the single construction or ensemble that quantifies a Wonder. It's too diverse. Too much. After much consideration, I surely have to make the Magic Kingdom the focus. If indeed, that even qualifies itself...
The Magic Kingdom, no doubt about it, is quite the experience. Opened it 1971, it kickstarted Disney World, and has been the centrepiece ever since. Half theme park, half cartoon world, all Disney ramped up to 11, it is an astounding burst of happy happy technicolor, that an astonishing - and largely astonished - 17.5 million people visit each year. 17.5 million! It's one of the most visited places on earth. So let's do a little tour...
The Magic Kingdom usually opens just before 9am, and by 8.30am the above crowd is what you can typically expect. There's rather a lot of people. In August, by this time it's already crazily hot, but that doesn't quell the enthusiasm.
Hmm, quite. Danielle kept these ears on for the entire day, and they made cameos for the other days too. Disney does strange things to people.
Just before the gates open, a train appears, and from it a whole bunch of famous Disney characters appear. These include the autocrat, Mickey, and his girlfriend of 86 years, Minerva. Just look at them, soaking up the adulation of the masses.
There's the Theater, in which you can do meet-and-greets with Disney celebrities. Danielle and I visited Tinkerbell.
To Danielle's delight, after two whole days without, Main Street had a Starbucks. To her even greater delight, in this magical Disney Starbucks realm, she is a princess.
Naturally, she is always the princess of my heart.
Funnily enough, the highlight, for me, of Main Street was none of the above. It took place later in the day, when we were strolling in, probably for Danielle to have another Starbucks. Three people - two women and a man and I'm guessing from somewhere in South America - were talking. The two women seemed angry. One was about 40 years old, the other, maybe her mother, at about 60. Suddenly, the anger peaked, and the younger woman lashed out at her mother, thudding a kick into her side! At Disney! It all seemed about to - literally - kick off, but the man, also about 40, intervened. Danielle and I followed them down Main Street, as the two women threw furious words at each other, all the time looking ready to start fighting again. Eventually, the couple went into the Theater, perhaps to meet Tinkerbell, while the older woman stood forlornly by a lamp post. Great stuff! Some Disney magic just for me!
Everybody has to walk down Main Street upon entering, but nobody minds. Because it's a charming pastiche of a street, but also because it's got the most famous view of all of Disney World: Cinderella's Castle.
In terms of visual highlights, standing out among the vivid colours and bold lines of the Magic Kingdom, Cinderella Castle is the main attraction. It's the centrepiece of the whole theme park. It's 58 metres high but seems taller due to a trick called forced perspective, whereby the proportions gets smaller as it gets taller. It can be seen anywhere in the park, meaning that despite the bewildering array of sensations, you never really get lost.
Cinderella Castle was finished in July 1971, after about 18 months of work. The Magic Kingdom opened just three months later. The construction of the castle roughly mirrors the time it took to build the entire above ground area of the Magic Kingdom, consisting of its numerous buildings, rides, and landscaped areas, all of which were built simultaneously. In fact, the Magic Kingdom visitors see is actually the third level of a greater, hidden construction. Below the ground are two storeys of vast rooms, hallways, offices and corridors. These were built because Walt Disney wanted a way for the staff, or cast members, in character to be transported about the theme park without being seen. It means that Snow White can just appear at a spot, by appearing from an unassuming doorway, rather than having to cross half the park in full public view.
Being the centrepiece of the park, Cinderella Castle is the scene of shows throughout the day, giving our old friend Mickey the chance to show off. Again.
Cinderella Castle is right at the middle of Magic Kingdom, with the various themed lands circling it. This map gives the idea.
47 North end of Main Street - plaza. The hub of Magic Kingdom.
15 Magic Kingdom - the heart. In 7 "lands" - six around the central hub (hub and spoke): Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland
Working clockwise from Main Street, the next land is Adventureland, a kind of jungle land for explorers, as run through the lens of a cartoon. It's got a large golden camel.
Lovely. It's also got various rides. There's a Pirates of the Caribbean one, where you sit on a boat and sail through various pirate-related scenes.
It was harmless fun. Likewise the Jungle Cruise, which takes you outside on... well, a kind of cartoon jungle cruise. The trees are real enough, but all the animals are (obviously) pretend - though there's a real version of this at another Disney World theme park, Animal Kingdom. The boat has a real tour guide, who was actually pretty funny, although I wonder if his dreams are haunted by the 20-minute comedy spiel which he must do around 15 times a day.
We also enjoyed the Swiss Family Treehouse, a walkable attraction in which you walk behind a long queue of people up a huge fake tree.
Onto Frontierland then, themed after America's Wild West. It had my favourite ride of Magic Kingdom, Splash Mountain. In essence, it's a mostly gentle water ride, with a couple of small drops, and one steep plunge, but oh, it's so much more.
It explores the adventures of Brer Rabbit, who is being hunted by a fox and a bear, and the whole thing has an outrageously catchy soundtrack. It's so outrageously catchy that I invite you to listen to it while you read the rest of my review.
The ride itself is a surreal, increasingly dark, journey through Brer Rabbit's world, with larger-than-life and sometimes pretty freaky cartoon characters appearing. It's very psychedelic and would be horrifying for anybody high on drugs (to be honest, if you're high on drugs, I really wouldn't recommend Disney at all). It peaks at the capture and seeming certain murder of Brer Rabbit, before the sudden, dramatic plunge, helpfully captured by Disney cameras.
Terrifying stuff. Similarly terrifying is Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. It's more of a roller-coaster and isn't as entertaining as Splash Mountain, but was still an enjoyable diversion through some fibreglass mountains.
Continuing our clockwise journey, next is Liberty Square, kind of wedged in between Adventureland and Frontierland, close to Cinderella Castle. Its main attraction is the Haunted Mansion, a clever cartoon ghost ride, which both Danielle and I enjoyed.
Also in Liberty Square is the riverboat, a gentle steam-driven ride around Tom Sawyer's Island. And it was while eating some over-priced beef sandwich in a Liberty Square restaurant that we became aware of a commotion outside. It was Mickey again, doing yet another parade in his honour! Honestly, what a narcissicist.
Yes, we get it Mickey, you're great. There was also a load of other crazy stuff going on. If you aren't familiar with Disney's stuff, a lot of the Magic Kingdom must seem pretty damn strange.
Oh, hey Tinkerbell. Nice to see you again.
Moving on then, we have Fantasyland, the most Disney part of Disney World. It's like an alpine village below the towering Cinderella Castle, and is very cartoony, overall aiming for younger children. It's great fun. Danielle and I particularly enjoyed the spinning teacups. ON THE EDGE OF OUR NERVES.
Likewise, the Dumbo ride, in which you sit inside Dumbo and go round and round, fairly slowly, moving up and down, slowly, if you fancy it.
There's a pretty gentle Little Mermaid ride too, in which you sit in a giant shell and float through scenes of Ariel's life. Which includes this scary moment.
Bringing back all kinds of memories I'd rather forget. There's all kinds of other stuff too, which I failed to photograph, like the Barnstormer, a very brief but faster-than-expected roller-coaster, and various places to meet your favourite Disney characters. Danielle got these two princesses (I can't quite remember who they are).
The only ride we failed to go on, on pretty much the entirely of Disney World, was the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a new roller-coaster. The queues were over an hour long on both days we visited.
Finally, there is Tomorrowland, a kind of retro-futuristic cartoon sci-fi depiction of the world of tomorrow.
It's got one of the Magic Kingdom's big attractions: Space Mountain. It's a proper adult roller-coaster, in darkness, with lots of fast swoops and jerks. Danielle likes to regale the story of when she almost tricked her father into going. It's very cruel. She first went to Disney World when she was about 12 or 13, as part of a big family holiday. Her father - who had booked, planned, and orchestrated this trip-of-a-lifetime at no small expense or effort - cannot stand roller-coasters though, as it makes him queasy, and so carefully avoided going on any. He was quite clear on this - he did not enjoy roller-coasters, at all. However, Danielle and her brother, who is a few years younger, assured him that Space Mountain wasn't a roller-coaster, it was just a nice, gentle ride. The queues were enormous, and they waited for over an hour, constantly assuring him that it was fine, just a slow ride. Only at the very last moment, when seeing people strapped into their seats, did her father realise it had all been a trick, and it was roller-coaster after all. The poor guy had to bail out, doing the walk of shame past the long, long queue of people, all the way out of Space Mountain. Danielle seems to love telling me this story. This is the person I married?
Anyway, Space Mountain has a towering presence throughout the Magic Kingdom. It kind of looks like a volcanic crater crossed with an upside-down cupcake liner.
It's fun, although I think I prefer my roller-coasters in the daylight. I'm not averse to fast and sudden motion but I quite like when I can see when it's coming. Still, I played it cool.
We tried out a few other of the attractions too. I enjoyed the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, which is a gentle elevated train ride through Tomorrowland, from where I took some of the above photos. We're not sure if we enjoyed a very peculiar ride (?) featuring an alien called Stitch, which essentially was just being strapped into a harness and listening to some recordings. And there's the slightly unnverving Walt Disney's Carousel of Progress, which is basically a series of shows performed by animatronic puppets about advances over the years, with a song that remains stuck in my head today. It goes something like "na na na na na na na na TOMORROW! na na na na na (today?)" where the "nas" are words I never quite made out. Trust me, it's catchy.
But best of all was Tomorrowland Speedy. Vroooooom!
I think we won.
We arrived at Magic Kingdom at just after 8am, and left around 11pm. It's a pretty full-on day, and can only be even moreso for the families with children. The heat and crowds at Magic Kingdom are quite incredible: thousands and thousands of people in 35+ degree heat. Why stay on so late? Because although it's exhausting, there's always more to see. And in the evening, the parades begin. This time, it's dark, and the characters and elaborate floats are all lit up. People choose a seat over an hour earlier, lining up along Main Street to watch this.
Yeah, it's pretty cool, although the entire hour of waiting in the darkness and humidity wasn't much fun. The finale, however, is even better. Using very sophisticated projection lighting, Cinderella Castle is lit up in a series of colours and animations, featuring numerous Disney characters, and very clever moments that make it seem as though the entire castle is moving. It's genuinely spectacular, and for me was the most magical part of the entire Magic Kingdom experience. I'll throw in a token photo, but it doesn't do it justice.
Though it's certainly tiring, a whole day at the Magic Kingdom is a pretty special thing. I mean, I'm not exactly someone who enjoys intense heat, crowds, or people dressed up as Disney characters, but I had a great time. It's more than just a theme park with fun rides because Disney focuses more on the experience of the rides rather than the shock value of plunging roller-coasters. Therefore, everything becomes a story, filled with music and very creative storylines and characters. It's world class entertainment. And this is coming from me, someone not particularly inclined towards Disney, and going without children and their associated excitement.
At the same time, Danielle and I returned to the Magic Kingdom for our final morning... and I could not be bothered at all. The novelty value had worn off, and the heat and crowds were more intense than before. I'd already seen almost everything I'd wanted to and didn't fancy queuing for over an hour just to sit in a moving carriage for three minutes. We left by noon.
This review might seem a little different from most of my other reviews. That's because Disney World, or the Magic Kingdom to hone in a little, is a little different from all my other Wonders. It's celebrated, but it's celebrated as an experience rather than a structure. As an experience, it is phenomenal, a truly premier grade attraction. The attention to detail is astonishing, and there are many days of things to do here, although preferably on days with lower crowds and temperatures. It's an exhausting but exhilarating bombardment of colours and characters and sights and sensations, and perhaps the closest you'll ever feel to being inside a cartoon. It's fun. Great fun.
My Wonder mission is not about experiences. It is about structures that impress. It's easy to blur the boundaries. Consider two venues: the Maracana and the Royal Albert Hall. Both terrific structures, but not quite the level of a World Wonder. Yet, watch the World Cup Final in the Maracana, or the best gig of all time in the Royal Albert Hall, and they become more. We are seeing them operating at their highest level and both venues become incredible. Just as the Magic Kingdom, day after day, is incredible, operating at its highest level. But experiences are fleeting, a Wonder has to have a more permanent glory. The best structures out there remain great whatever the experience: the Colosseum is still impressive whether or not bloody battles are being fought inside, St Peter's is still incredible even without 100,000 people turning up to hear the pope speak.
The Magic Kingdom, as a series of constructions, is no doubt expertly put together, being bright and bold to look at, but I don't think anybody would ever claim they were timeless pieces of architecture. The best of them is definitely Cinderella Castle, but as a well-crafted pastiche of real European castles, it could hardly be described as one of the world's finest ever creations. It's just a very pretty fairytale castle, as unrealistic as an actual fairytale. Otherwise, to break down the Magic Kingdom into its structural parts, we simply have a whole bunch of buildings and quite a lot of rides, dressed up but ultimately functional. It's superficially attractive, but hardly a deep, fundamental beauty. Remove the experience - the parades, the people, the party atmosphere, the fireworks - from the Magic Kingdom and it's pretty, but that's all.
In case it seems like I'm trying to suck the magic out of Disney, then my apologies. Don't show your children this review. Disney and Disney World are absolutely magic, but it's the experience which is magic. The buildings just facilitate this. And to be honest, just as I feel all of Disney World is too diverse to qualify as a Wonder, so is the Magic Kingdom. It's may have a unifying cartoon theme, but it's still a diverse series of very different rides, shops, restaurants, a railway, etc... it still resembles a (very surreal) small town. It's not a single entity. And I think we need to take a quick look at an old entry of mine: The Bagan Question. In that, I pondered the nature of what constitutes a Wonder, and I came up with these two rules:
1. It must be man-made.
2. There must be a single focus, either:
a. visually; that is, a single structure or set of associated structures
or b. experientially; that is, a unity of purpose within the varied structures that comprise the Wonder, that constitute a non-diverse experience for visitors.
Sure, the Magic Kingdom is man-made, but is there a single focus? No. Not visually, and not experientially, unless you count the very broad banner of "entertainment". For these reasons, and for the above reason that Disney World is more experience than structure, I'm afraid I think I've got to strike Disney World off my list. It's simply not eligible as a Wonder. Sorry kids.
I'll still give it some criteria though (for the Magic Kingdom). I've come this far, after all.
Size: The entire park's area is 133 acres, making it about three-quarters the size of the Forbidden City, or a little larger than the Vatican City. Cinderella's Castle is the biggest part, at 58 metres high.
Engineering: Skilled and inventive - this was a complex and large-scale project.
Artistry: It might depend on how much you like Disney cartoons. If you love them, then the Magic Kingdom could be the prettiest place on earth. The Magic Kingdom is done to a style, very successfully so. It's clearly pretty superficial though.
Age: A little over 40 years old. But the Magic Kingdom will only be around as long as people visit. Even its various components only as long as they remain popular - then they are unceremoniously dismantled. I think Disney has got many (many!) years ahead as a concept and likewise its theme parks, but they will be constantly renewed and rebuilt. If civilisation fell, they would quickly crumble.
Fame/Iconicity: The most famous theme park in the world. The name Disney is synonymous with childhood fantasy.
Context: It's hard to say that the Magic Kingdom has much of a context, it might have surroundings but they are never seen. Perhaps you could regard the context as the rest of Disney World.
Back Story: Walt Disney wanted a world class theme park. He got it.
Originality/Distinctiveness: Plenty. The Cinderella Castle is very distinctive, and the various attractions are very inventive (many are based on those in Disneyland, but I don't think this detracts from them).
Wow Factor: The first time you walk down Main Street and see Cinderella Castle... yup, there's a bit of wow, even from me. For a child, it's pure magic.
I would definitely recommend Disney World as holiday, although I might try and time it away from peak season. It's a fantastic experience - and Danielle is already planning a return visit someday. But nobody visits to admire the buildings, they're there to bow down to Emperor Mickey and to go on the rides. A world class slice of entertainment, but that doesn't quite equal a World Wonder, so unfortunately I'm creating a new category for Disney World - Does Not Qualify (where I'm also shifting the Thiepval Memorial too, on the wholly different grounds that its foremost a commemoration to the dead rather than a fantastic, impressive monument to be celebrated).
The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Colosseum
7. The Eiffel Tower
7. The Eiffel Tower
The Millau Viaduct
Sydney Opera House
Leaning Tower of Pisa
The Gateway Arch
Empire State Building
St Peter's Basilica
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
St Paul's Cathedral
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
Statue of Liberty
Statue of Liberty
The Palace of Versailles
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Pont du Gard
Bodhi Tataung Standing BuddhaVerona Arena
Avignon Papal PalaceTower Bridge
Banaue Rice Terraces
Leshan Giant Buddha
Temple of the Emerald Buddha
Marina Bay Sands
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Three Gorges Dam
Does Not Qualify
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom
Walt Disney World/Magic Kingdom