At the opening of Toy Story Land, the latest addition to Florida's Disney World, we should be admiring the shiny new oversized things. The 4.5-hectare land – with footpaths featuring shoe prints bigger than a car, a toilet block topped with "cooties" and benches built from what look like giant half-stained Popsicle sticks – is designed to make you feel like you're a toy that's tumbled headfirst into Andy's backyard. The zone within Hollywood Studios is skewed towards younger kids and includes two new rides – Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers – and an updated version of Toy Story Mania, a 4D shooting ride that's so addictive it's the only thing I'll do twice throughout Disney World's four theme parks.
Yes, we should be paying attention as Tim Allen – who voiced the character of Buzz Lightyear – takes to the stage under the fierce Florida sun to officially open the land. Instead, our eyes keep drifting past a towering Buzz figurine to see exactly what's going on next door. Buzz, posed with hands on hips, looks like he's also trying to catch a glimpse.
For just over the hoardings, beneath a skeleton of scaffolding, the much-anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is taking shape. This new land, slated to open next year during late spring in Australia, includes attractions where you "fly" a Millennium Falcon spaceship and a hotel that "transports you to a galaxy far, far away". The guest experience is set to be immersive and interactive – and judging by the technology on display elsewhere at Disney World, it will be out of this world.
It's a while since I've visited a theme park so I haven't kept pace with developments in ride technology. My two most mind-blowing rides (given that I opt out of stomach-lurching rollercoasters) are found in Disney's Animal Kingdom and Epcot (an acronym from Walt Disney himself that stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow).
Animal Kingdom is home to Avatar Flight of Passage – a 3D flying simulator ride. Guests are locked onto an individual chair resembling a futuristic exercise bike. Then you're off, riding on the back of a banshee, and it's the closest you might ever come to feeling like a bird, swooping around the sky, through undergrowth and over the sea (there's a close encounter with a whale and other beasts) on the planet of Pandora. Wind and water effects add to the realism. You exit wishing you could immediately do it all over again, if only it weren't for the excruciating queues.
A close second is Epcot's Soarin' Around the World, a ride simulator that takes you on a similar "flying" adventure – although for this one you sit on a long bench with fellow guests wearing your 3D glasses (and if you're feeling homesick, the simulation features a glimpse of Sydney Harbour's icons).
Disney World's sheer size – 112 square kilometres – boggles the mind. The crowds are also something else. Magic Kingdom is the world's most-visited theme park, clocking nearly 20.5 million visitors in 2017 (California's Disneyland attracted 18.3 million for the year). You need a plan of attack to make the most of precious days, especially if you've travelled all the way from Australia. Many visitors devote five days to exploring the parks – and even that means you're pushing it to see everything. A popular breakdown is to spend two days at Magic Kingdom and a day at each of the remaining three theme parks. Factor in that many hours can be spent waiting in queues for rides – although there are ways to reduce the wait. .
People come to rediscover the magic of childhood. The most touching moment I witness unfolds at Magic Kingdom's Enchanted Tales with Belle, a simple storytelling experience that will remind you of the wonder of fairytales. At the end, a little girl approaches the cast member (as all Disney employees are called) who plays Belle, the princess from Beauty and the Beast, and tries to hug her but can barely reach around the puffy ball gown.
Those who bring a child who wants to become a princess or knight for the day can book her or him into the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique – a beauty salon for kids aged three to 12 that's tucked into the bowels of Cinderella's Castle, the park's centrepiece, and the star of the Happily Ever After fireworks finale. Being a princess isn't cheap – packages start from US$64.95 and soar all the way to US$450 – but knight transformations are easier on the hip pocket, starting from US$19.95.
Big kids also catch Disney fever. Entire families walk around the parks in matching T-shirts announcing they're on a family vacation. Disney merchandise is also popular. This year's must-have appears to be the rose-gold Minnie headband (US$24.99) complete with bow and sequin-covered mouse ears. After most rides, you're decanted straight into a gift shop where you can buy, among other things, a life-sized First Order Stormtrooper for US$9000.
Wherever you go in Disney World, cast members greet you with the Disney wave (a friendlier version of the royal wave). You get it while climbing on and off rides, such as Animal Kingdom's Kali River Rapids (where you hope to get splashed so you can cool down) and the excellent Kilimanjaro Safaris, where a real-life ambling rhino blocks our way as we drive around the 44-hectare safari site. We must stay put until it's gently encouraged off the trail. In a place where cast members dressed as Disney characters use underground tunnels so guests never catch them out of place or character, it's a joy to find ourselves in the middle of an unscripted moment.
Cast members are also wise to the ways in which visitors might try to get around ride height restrictions. When one asks a girl, who looks about four years old, to line up next to the ruler, she immediately makes like a ballerina, popping up en pointe on her sandals to try to make the height. Nice try, little one.
Tears and tantrums never last, though – not when there's more and then more fun around every corner. At Hollywood Studios, Star Wars-obsessed fans aged between four and 12 can sign up for Jedi training sessions. As for adults, they can find fun easily enough. At Tamu Tamu Refreshments within Animal Kingdom, for instance, you can hand the kids a cup of Dole Whip – pineapple-flavoured soft-serve – and never let on that yours is a boozy version splashed with dark rum. That's the magic of Disney World.
FIVE WAYS TO CONQUER DISNEY WORLD
FAST PASS+ SERVICE
Disney World issues guests with a MagicBand bracelet that does everything from unlocking your Disney hotel door to accessing rides. It also incorporates FastPass+ choices, which allow you to access an express entry line for some rides. Disney hotel guests can book FastPass+ choices up to 60 days in advance; other park guests can make choices up to 30 days in advance.
THE ART OF QUEUEING
Many rides include clever elements along the queue that tell the ride's "story", easing the drudgery of waiting. Also, if you want to hang in the queue with family and friends but don't want to tackle the ride, there's usually a "chicken door" so you can bail out near the ride, minimising the amount of time spent waiting alone.
EXTRA MAGIC HOURS
Each day, Disney hotel guests can enjoy select attractions in at least one of the four theme parks before or after regular operating hours (opening at 8am or extending until 11pm).
VISIT IN COOLER MONTHS
Orlando is steamy, especially during rainy season (June to September) and hurricane season (August to October). Afternoon thunderstorms are torrential but brief. Visit Orlando in the cooler months, skipping busy periods such as Thanksgiving and spring break.
ADD A SUGAR RUSH
If you and the kids can handle the sugar rush, book in to one of the dessert parties on offer around the parks. At Epcot, track down Club Cool where you can taste free soft drinks from around the world such as Peru's famous Inca Kola, Italy's Beverly and South Africa's Bibo.
Katrina Lobley travelled as a guest of Disney, Delta and Virgin Australia.
Fly Delta or code-share partner Virgin Australia to Los Angeles and connect onwards to Orlando. At the airport, follow signs to Disney's free Magical Express coach to reach your Disney hotel. See delta.com, virginaustralia.com
Check in to Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge to feel as though you're staying within a zoo. Wake up, draw back the net curtains that depict African wildlife, and gaze upon the grazing giraffes, zebras and impala – just some of the 200-plus hoofed animals and birds that call the lodge home. Keep watch for the grey crowned crane stalking the grounds – Uganda's national bird is a real beauty. See disneyholidays.com