Walt Disney World in Florida is called 'the happiest place on earth' for a reason - but it's only true if you don't queue. Here's how to do the Magic Kingdom without tears and tantrums
I'm a child of Disney. I'll admit it. I first went there when I was five, and I still like to drop by Orlando when I possibly can - and yes, that does include making the obligatory trip to Walt Disney World's theme parks in Lake Buena Vista. It's one of those places that will get you hooked and simply never let you go, from childhood (when you're actually a kid) to adulthood (when you just feel like one).
However, one of the things you'll want to avoid is the sight of crying children and exasperated parents trudging around a baking hot theme park at 2pm. For all the magic that Walt Disney created by carving an adventureland out of the swampy Florida marshland, one bad day stuck in an endless convoy of unhappy families, making the same tour around the Magic Kingdom to find three-hour waiting periods at every turn, can ruin the illusion. So here's a simple guide to help you avoid bursting the helium-filled, metallic Mickey bubble, and keep the parents - as well as the children - happy in the happiest place on Earth.
It's a brilliant place, Magic Kingdom. The crown jewel of Walt Disney World is rightly the most popular of the four theme parks there, seeing thousands through its turnstiles daily, especially in the peak summer season.
When the park is opened by a special ceremony at 9am sharp each day, nine out of every 10 tourists making their way through the splendid entrance will saunter up Main Street, drawn unwittingly towards the great big Cinderella's Castle that is the centrepiece of the park. There's no shame in that - it's what Walt Disney and his Imagineers wanted you to do. It's the wrong way to keep ahead of the crowds, though. The most popular - and busiest - rides are at the top of the park, and walking there won't beat the queues.
Instead, as soon as you get into the Magic Kingdom, come back on yourself. You have to pass under a great overground train station, which is perched up on its own platform above the main square that welcomes you into the park. Climb the stairs to the mini-train station and hop aboard the first train leaving on the Walt Disney World Railroad Express. Get off at Frontierland (don't worry: there's a cod-Southern gentleman narrating your ride as you pass through the savannah, from a 19th-century bustling town to a Wild West outpost) and head straight for Splash Mountain to start your day. The log-flume waterfall, which commands queues of several hours by midday, will have no waiting time first thing in the morning.
Once you're thoroughly drenched, come out and walk across Disney's fake desert to the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, a more laidback but still slightly thrilling rollercoaster, which pretends you're riding a loose cart in a gold mine. The open-air ride will allow you to dry off slightly in the humid Florida morning before you move on.
Your next big stop will be Space Mountain, the biggest-name ride in the Magic Kingdom; but you'll get there via a stop-off at one of the most intriguing attractions, which is inexplicably always overlooked. The Haunted Mansion spawned a not-so-good movie, and isn't much in the way of thrills or technology, but is one of the finest examples of Walt Disney immersing you in a world you can't escape. A haggard old house juts out onto an artificial lake, and as you breeze through the queueing system you'll notice nice touches such as gravestones with jokey epitaphs on them and a mewling cat in the bushes.
The Haunted Mansion may well be my favourite ride in the Magic Kingdom, purely because of the aura it creates. As soon as you're welcomed in by a lurching, cadaverous cast member, you're in a hokey make-believe world where the macabre is delivered with deathly black humour. The monologues delivered by both the real-life cast members and the disembodied voice that paints the picture of the history of this house are acutely memorable - so much so that I know each line off by heart.
Once you've taken the ride in the self-styled 'doom buggies' the sunshine might seem a bit bright, but don't be dazzled by it - rather, head towards Tomorrowland and take a ride on Space Mountain (though be aware that the blacked-out ride is one of the more rocky rollercoasters on offer).
Also in this futuristic vision of a utopian space world is Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, a family-friendly shooting game-cum-ride where you're taken around on a track and have to work as a team to defeat the evil Zurg. One person takes the controls while the other mans the gun, aiming to hit as many targets are possible before you return to your home base.
Even by this point in your tour of the park, none of these rides should have a queue of more than five or 10 minutes, but there is still one more big-name ride to go, which can fill up quickly. Thanks to the spin-off series of movies, the sedate and antiquated Pirates of the Caribbean has become a real crowd-pleaser, so you'll want to head back through Frontierland and to your left to get to Adventureland, where you'll find this dank, underground, seafaring ride. The reality is that most of the animatronic figures here are 30 years old (and show it), but when you're not queueing for hours it can be a hugely fun, relaxing journey around a cool place, well worth several goes on.
On your way here, if any of the other big rides that you go on take your fancy, you can use Disney's Fastpass scheme, which allows you to get a time slot to go back and skip the queue for another go.
Food on the go
Each of the Magic Kingdom's themed lands has a variety of places to eat, from fast food to haute cuisine - perfect for lunch, which, once you've hit the major attractions and some of the smaller rides and diversions, will be much needed. The fast-food areas in Main Street USA, Tomorrowland and Adventureland can often be busy and crowded, but there's an often-overlooked eatery just opposite the Haunted Mansion, tucked away in a corner. Look for an inconspicuous door that looks as if it belongs on a terraced house.
If you have the luxury of a long break in Orlando, it can often be a good idea to try to get out of the parks by mid-afternoon: the sun and the crowds can become overbearing, and though you'll have had a good time, other people's bad experiences can dampen your spirits. Head back to your hotel and relax, before coming back to the parks in the late evening for a different kind of Disney magic.
Where to stay
Disney's official themed hotels can be expensive but are a wonderful experience, especially for small children. The Polynesian Resort is probably the pick of the best hotels around the Magic Kingdom area, with an indoor fountain, vast longhouses and brilliant white beaches around the artifically-designed lake that separates Disney's transport hub from the Magic Kingdom. Truth be told, all Disney hotels will offer much the same friendly experience, with the only difference being the theme you choose when picking your hotel. Fort Wilderness takes on a camping theme, with a great hunting lodge acting as the reception area for the hotel. The Contemporary Resort looks like a throwback to the 1970s but is unique in that the monorail system goes through the hotel itself - an interesting sight for young and old alike.
For something altogether cheaper and more independent, you cannot do better than the Courtyard by Marriott Lake Buena Vista, with free cookies and popcorn as well as tea and coffee available at reception every evening, and a free shuttle bus running regularly to and from all the Disney parks. This hotel has none of the glitz that an official Disney hotel would have but the same dependability, as well as a wide range of nearby supermarkets and restaurants outside the Disney brand. If your budget can stretch to it, book the non-smoking suite opposite the reception building on the third floor: complete with mini-fridge, microwave and its own sitting room, it's a home away from home.