Epcot: Hitting the highlights

This is our recommended itinerary for seeing the highlights of Epcot. It makes a few assumptions: You're traveling with small children, you don't care whether you ride the big-ticket thrill rides, you've got one day and one day only to see the best of what's there, and you have no prior experience with Epcot.

Oh—and that you have the exact same tastes in entertainment as we do. But there won't be any problem there, will there?

Note that there's a lot of descriptions of stuff in amongst everything here, so if you want just the itinerary, we've summarized it at the end. But anyway, enough with the intro. On to…

Epcot in one day

Like all Disney parks, Epcot's hours change day to day—make sure to check ahead of time. One oddity of Epcot's schedule, though, is that (aside perhaps from some ultra-high-peak attendance periods, when all bets on park scheduling are off) the published hours are a bit misleading. In reality, Epcot has two halves, which have different schedules, neither of which necessarily match the schedule of the entire park.

Confused? We thought so. And just think, somewhere there's probably some Disney employee who got a promotion for the idea.

Anyway, the two halves of the park are called Future World (that's the front half, the part with the golf ball), which is open from the time the park opens to usually park closing but sometimes two hours before closing, and World Showcase (the back half, the part that, well, showcases parts of the world), which is open from two hours after opening to the park's closing. This is important to keep in mind—if you desperately want to ride Maelstrom, for example, rushing back to it when the park opens will just waste time, since it's in World Showcase.

Get to the park when it opens—in fact, a bit before it opens—if at all possible. (Fortunately, if you're parked in the Epcot parking lot, you're essentially at Epcot. It's not like the Magic Kingdom, where arriving at the parking lot is simply the first step in the extended saga of actually getting into the park.) Epcot's rides (except the major thrill rides, and the new ones) don't fill up as badly as the other parks' rides, but remember that if you're there during school holiday periods there'll be gobs and tons of kids around taking up space. Worse, if you're there during the Spring Break of any college in the entirety of North America, it's well-known that Epcot has the best beers and wines of all the Disney parks, so it gets even more crowds. Therefore, for planning purposes, you're probably best off if you get the rides (most of which are in Future World) out of the way as early as possible, so that you can start on World Showcase before it gets overly clogged.

If you have kids under eight (maybe even under ten) and you're not bringing a stroller, rent one. Rent a double stroller, in fact, even if you only have one child—it'll give you space to stash stuff you get tired of lugging about. Epcot is a lot of walking, and unlike Animal Kingdom, where you do a lot of walking but have stuff to look at at every turn, at Epcot you just do a lot of concrete pounding. It's well worth the $15.

Food is way expensive at Epcot—that's the case at all of Disney, of course, but particularly at Epcot. Parking, particularly if you get there early, is very close to the park entrance, so we have successfully brought lunch and picnicked under the trees beside the parking lot. Be sure to get your hand stamped and all as you exit the park so that you can get back in if you do this.

Speaking of food, we ought to mention water. Bring some. Epcot has precious little shade, and you'll be out in the sun a lot. (Sidebar: Bring—and use—sunscreen, as well.) Bring at least a bottle of water for each person; if you can manage it, bring bottles of frozen water—it'll melt over the course of the morning, and so you'll not only have water, you'll have cold water. There are water fountains that you can use scattered here and there throughout Epcot, but the taste of the water from them is, in our opinion, marginal (though not as bad as the Magic Kingdom's). You may end up eventually buying bottles of water at the usurious prices Disney charges anyway, but it's worth putting that off as long as possible.

Anyway, once you get into the park, you'll start off with Future World, since that's probably all that's open, assuming you got there early. So, on we go to…

Future World

The dominant visual feature of Future World is Spaceship Earth (the golf ball). Don't worry about trying to rush to get on the ride—you can get on at any point when it's open, usually without any sort of line. (In fact, if there is a long line for Spaceship Earth you'll know you're in trouble, 'cause that means you're going to have a lot of line-standing time ahead of you.) A lot of people think Spaceship Earth's a hokey ride, but we like it (and our daughter Hriana loves it). When you walk in you have to head toward it anyway to get anywhere else, so if there's no line and you want to, go ahead and get on it. It's probably best, though, to save it for some point later in the day when your feet need a rest from the concrete, or your skin from the sun. Go on it as you're leaving, or before you settle yourself in for the fireworks, if you stick around for them.

Incidentally—as you enter the park and start heading toward Spaceship Earth, a Disney employee may ask you if you want your picture taken. Simply say no, unless you relish the idea of paying more for a digital picture of your family than you would for a disposable camera—you won't hurt their feelings, you'll just save them time so they can move on to easier marks. Do take a moment to pick up a map or two in the language of your choice—it'll come in handy.

The rest of this assumes that you really don't care too much about the thrill rides (which connects with the "with kids" part of this guide). We'll talk more about the thrill rides later, somewhat in passing. However, since the thrill rides are all to your left as you enter the park heading toward Spaceship Earth, you can avoid some of the herd mentality of the opening-hour crowds by heading right instead.

Really, unless you're at Epcot on a day when the park has extended hours and the crowds are relatively light (a rare day indeed!), you'll have to be selective about what you see after you veer to the right—effectively, you'll have to choose between the Land and Living Seas Pavilions. We prefer the Land Pavilion, so we'll start with that one.

The Land Pavilion

The Land Pavilion is the agriculture/environmental pavilion, and it contains one of the newest rides at Epcot, Soarin'™. For some reason (no, not to save money, why would you ever think that?), when they imported the ride in from the California Adventure park, Disney's imagineers didn't bother to localize it—we would find it a bit more fitting if it were Soarin'™ over Florida, not Soarin'™ over California. In any event, it's worth a ride, but it's still new, and therefore draws sizable crowds. If you get there and there's no line yet, go ahead and get on it; if the line is long already, get a Fastpass for it and in the meantime move on to what's next on your list.

There's some other stuff in the Land Pavilion that's not top-tier, but worth considering. Living with the Land is worth hitting if you're at all into gardening, though you should be warned that it's a bit of a timesink. The Circle of Life is a cheesy—to put it mildly—movie that drives home its environmentalist message pretty ham-handedly (and that's coming from people who would describe themselves as environmentalists!), but the opening thirty seconds, a montage that closely parallels the opening scenes of the movie The Lion King, are pretty amazing. Unfortunately, we don't think there's a way to sit through the first half-minute without sitting through all the rest of it.

The Living Seas Pavilion

If you'd rather do the Living Seas Pavilion than the Land Pavilion, start out with it. Hey, if you're feeling (over)confident, go for both—see if we care.

The Living Seas Pavilion focuses on aquatic life (I'm sure you're glad we cleared that up for you). This used to be a monstrously outdated attraction; they've updated it (with a cool entryway, an amazingly hokey and not very updated pre-show, and cool exhibits) with a Finding Nemo theme. Overall judgment: A massive timesink, and not as massive but still decent fun. If your kids like looking at fish, you could seriously spend all day here. If your kids like Finding Nemo, they may try to force you to spend all day here.

Anyway, there are two big draws at the Living Seas Pavilion: A really big aquarium, and Turtle Talk with Crush. Turtle Talk with Crush has long lines and will take a chunk of time out of your day, but if you're not feeling pressed for time, we've heard it's a most excellent show. (Disclaimer: We never had the patience to wait in the line.) The really big aquarium is all around you, and it is, unlike most things at the Disney parks, an entirely self-paced attraction. If you need a break already, this is your chance to mellow out, whether your idea of mellowing out is watching clownfish, watching manatees, or watching sharks. If you're trying to get through the whole park in a day, though, you'll need to spend as little time looking around the aquarium as possible.

By the way—if you're scuba certified, there's a couple dive programs you can participate in (for a fee, of course) at the Living Seas. You have to register in advance for them. We won't say anything more about them, since we're assuming that your small children are not scuba certified.

The Imagination! Pavilion

Upon getting through the Land or Living Seas Pavilion, go directly to the Imagination! Pavilion (yes, the exclamation point is part of its name, and having said that we'll now stop using it, 'cause it looks silly), the one with the sorta-pyramids. In fact, if it were up to us, we might even skip both the Land and Living Seas Pavilions and just spend more time with the Imagination Pavilion—the Imagination Pavilion seems to have had more, well, imagination put into it.

Anyway, look at the waterfall in front of the Imagination Pavilion carefully as you go by—it's a cool effect. (There's further cool water effects behind the waterfall, incidentally.) This place has two major attractions: Honey I Shrunk the Audience (Epcot's 3–D movie) and Journey into Imagination with Figment. Honey I Shrunk the Audience isn't bad (except that it's further proof that Rick Moranis made some sort of unholy deal with some supernatural entity to ensure his 15 minutes of fame never fully run out), but we wouldn't rate it a must-see. (Note that it has a couple of scary moments for kids. In fact, the dad among us isn't afraid to say it: It has one moment that creeps me out every time I see it worse than most anything I've ever seen in a movie theatre. It may be a bit of a plot spoiler, but in all fairness we should warn that if anyone in your group has a fear of snakes, you should skip the movie.) Journey into Imagination with Figment, on the other hand, is a must-see, especially for the kids, and may even be worth a second ride later if you have time.

So, go to Journey into Imagination with Figment for sure, Honey I Shrunk the Audience if you want to. Honey I Shrunk the Audience has FastPasses—though we've never needed them—so you might could FastPass the movie, go to Journey into Imagination with Figment and maybe The Land or Living Seas Pavilion, depending on how much time you have to wait, and then see the movie.

After you get through Journey into Imagination with Figment, there's a pretty large Kodak-sponsored…place. We really don't know what to call it, exactly. (Okay, so its official name is ImageWorks: The Kodak "What-If" Labs. We still don't know what to say it actually is, though.) You and your kids can do cool stuff together there, like play notes using your hands and email doctored pictures of yourself to people, but what they're hoping you'll do is buy hyper-expensive copies of posed pictures. You have been warned. (For example, you can do the emailing without paying anything, but then it'll ask you if you want a print of what you've come up with for $xx.yy. Just say no. Repeatedly, if you have to. It's good practice for the Japan pavilion. Remember to chant this mantra as necessary: "Stuff that's free = good, stuff that's not = optional.") Don't spend too much time there, but definitely take a few minutes with the cameras to turn your children into a tiger or a flower or somesuch.

You have now completed half (yes, only half) of Future World.

Intermission…Erm, Innoventions

Head over to the other side of the golf ball. Along the way, you'll pass Innoventions (there are two Innoventionses, actually, one on each side of the golf ball, creatively enough named Innoventions East and Innoventions West). These contain changing exhibits, mostly essentially advertisements from various companies (Epcot is easily the most advertising-driven of the parks), and sometimes there are interesting ones. There are a number of (free!) video game sorts of things there, and your children will be attracted to them. This is not good, since your object should be to spend as little time in Innoventions as you can. The only reason we can come up with for walking through them is that they're air conditioned, and as you will learn, air conditioned moments are precious—but only use the opportunity if you have a much stronger will than your children.

A note on the thrill rides

Having passed the golf ball, you're now on the side of Future World with the thrill rides. If you want to hit these (assuming your children are tall enough to ride them) you should either go to them very first thing, before the pavilions to the right of Spaceship Earth, or FastPass them. However, if you ride the thrill rides you pretty certainly will have to cut other stuff from the itinerary, because you'll end up waiting in some long lines, even with Fastpasses.

The more intense ride is Mission: SPACE. It's a spinning motion simulation ride; if such rides disturb you, or if you're claustrophobic, avoid this ride at all costs. In addition, it's shown a disturbing tendency to make people with pre-existing health conditions rather sick or even dead. Otherwise, it's a pretty decent ride, and recommended if you like playing with g–forces. (Update: Disney has just developed a milder option for Mission: SPACE that involves the motion simulation, but not the spinning, and thus not the g–forces. Not that this has anything to do with the illnesses and deaths connected with this ride. No, no, no—of course not. Why would you have ever thought that?) Note that there is a place called the Mission: SPACE Advanced Training Lab at the exit to the Mission: SPACE ride, which has some arcade-type games and a play area for kids (basically like a McDonald's PlayPlace, but with lower lighting levels). If one of you wants to go on Mission: SPACE and the rest don't or can't, everyone else can hang out at the Mission: SPACE Advanced Training Lab thing (maybe after going on Ellen's Energy Adventure?) while the other one rides the ride—though the one who went on the ride should find some way to make it up to everyone else for making them wait that long.

The other major thrill ride is Test Track. Cool line exhibits, amusing pre-show, interesting first (slow) part of the ride, and a fast part that's over way too quick to be what's billed as Disney's fastest, longest ride. (Long length divided by high speed equals, in this case, too short of a time.) They did a good job of making sure you can hear the cars—and the screams—over lots of the park, we must say.

The Wonders of Life Pavilion

The Wonders of Life Pavilion is probably closed. It's only open a week or two each year when crowds at Epcot are really huge, so as to take some of the people away from lines elsewhere—and it does a marginal job at that, at best, since most people don't know it's there, and so it remains pretty empty even when open—and so there's recurring rumors that it'll be closed permanently. As far as we can tell there are no plans to close it permanently, but it does seem a bit suspicious that it's so hard to find any mention of it on the official Epcot site.

All that said, if it's open, it might be worth a quick visit. The main ride in the pavilion is Body Wars, a fairly mild motion simulator ride based around the concept of Isaac Asimov's book Fantastic voyage. If you're into motion simulator rides and there's no line, take it, but skip it if you're pressed for time. The best attraction at this pavilion, especially if you remember the period when Saturday Night Live was (very briefly) good again in the mid- to late 80s, is Cranium Command. If the pavilion is open, go see it.

In addition, there's a relatively short (15 minutes or so) film screened in this pavilion named "The making of me", starring Martin Short. There was apparently some controversy about this film, since it actually alludes to the occurrence of, well, sex. We went to it with our daughters, quite prepared for the possibility of getting asked questions that might be uncomfortable coming from what were then three- and five-year-old children. What we discovered is that the allusions to sex are so brief and elusive as to be invisible, at least in our opinion. In any event, not worth the time, whether you're squeamish about public mentions of sexuality or not.

Universe of Energy

The last thing on this side of Future World is the Universe of Energy. It's made entirely up of something called Ellen's Energy Adventure. It's a fun show (though the pre-show's better than the actual show), but it would have to be, since it pairs Bill Nye and Ellen Degeneres. It's got a little bit of a Fossil Fuels Are Good! message (but, of course, it's sponsored by an oil company—remember that part about Epcot being ad-driven?), though from what we've heard it used to be much worse that way.

Congratulations, you have now completed Future World, and you only have three blisters. Time to start doing the real walking.

World Showcase

From the Universe of Energy, you pass Mission: SPACE and then Test Track to get to the World Showcase. As you do this, you start walking along concrete bridges—lots of concrete bridges. Before getting to any of the national pavilions, you'll pass the Odyssey Pavilion (you can only tell that's what it's called from certain angles—the name is semi-hidden and relatively small). We don't know what it used to be—and it obviously used to be something else—but now it's washrooms and (ta-da!) a baby-care center (sponsored by some formula company, but you take what you can get).

(David googles and discovers it was the Odyssey Restaurant from '82 to '94.)

Incidentally, speaking of washrooms, time for a gripe about Epcot: It really feels like they haven't updated the decor of most of the washrooms since the park opened—and why people in the early 80s thought that dark brown and orange tiles would look good in public toilets, we still can't figure out. And maybe it's just us, but if we're gonna spend in excess of $50 per person on a day of baking in the sun, we'd like to see some of that money spent on non-jarring color schemes. Just a thought.

Anyway, you'll be going clockwise around World Showcase, and this process will take the majority of your day. As you go through, you will discover that pretty much everything is for sale here. Do not be alarmed—this is normal. At least you won't have to deal with as much overt advertising as in Future World, 'cause the advertising here is mainly by various countries' tourism ministries.

The Mexico Pavilion

The first pavilion you come to is Mexico. Cool building, with an excellent jungle garden off to the side (a pathway runs through it from the main walkway to the side entrance of the pavilion—enter that way instead of through the front, it's more fun). Lots of cheesy Tijuana-style stuff for sale cheap, higher-end stuff for not so cheap. There's a ride, El Rio de Tiempo, which was obviously done when the park opened (early 80s, when fashions and color schemes were still pretty 70s) and has never been updated. It's a nice break from walking, though, so if the line is short, go on it. Otherwise, skip it with no regrets.

Kidcot

This is also a good chance to introduce you to Kidcot. In each nation's pavilion, there's a Kidcot stand. Kids can get a mask and decorate it, and then get it stamped and get a paper thing to hang on it at each country's pavilion. This is a timesink. Your kids may think it's cool, in which case you might as well do it at a few countries' pavilions, but you should be warned that it really does take much more time than you would think it would. The one time we decided we'd actually do the Kidcot thing at every country's pavilion, it took essentially the entire day (and ignoring most everything else at the park) to do it.

Comment from Jeanne: If you enjoy browsing the shops, Kidcot is a good way to keep the kids occupied so that only one adult need watch over them while the other adults browse around. Not every country's pavilion has really good shops, however, so there's no need to do this everywhere.

The Norway Pavilion

The next pavilion is Norway, home of easily the coolest ride in the whole park: Maelstrom. (It's the only World Showcase attraction that can be FastPassed.) Go on it. If there's a long line, get a FastPass and come back. It is that cool. (In fact, go on it twice. There's details you don't notice unless you know what's coming next.)

Comment from David: Jeanne never let me buy the cool candy that's for sale at the Norway pavilion. Not that I'm bitter or anything.

There's a wooden church in front of the Norway pavilion—it's a replica of a stave church. It's not obvious that you can go in, but you can—and it's a pretty cool thing, particularly if you're interested in how things like that get built. (Bonus: The stave church replica is air-conditioned. Jeanne points out that it's a very quiet place—a rarity for Epcot—so you can use it as a moment of escape from the hecticness that surrounds you the rest of the day.) Also, to one side of the Norway pavilion there's a Viking ship that kids can play on. It's a good thing to use to let your kids run around and blow off steam if they're getting restive, especially after the time you spent reading about stave church architectural details.

The China Pavilion

Next: China.

The China Pavilion's main attraction, unless you're really into shopping for stuff from China at some place other than Wal–Mart, is a movie titled "Reflections of China". It's worth pausing to see it. Unfortunately, there's no seats in the theatre—you have to stand while it's showing.

Comment from David: Several of the national pavilions have movies about their countries; this is my favorite. (The French and Canadian ones make me want to visit those countries—the Chinese one makes me want to live there.)

An acrobatic troupe (the Dragon Legends Acrobats) performs in front of the China pavilion at various times during the day. If you happen to luck into a performance, stop and watch—they're pretty amazing. Also, take note of the dragon in the pond in front of the pavilion before you leave.

Outpost

You then go through the Outpost section—the result of Disney's realization that they'd had absolutely nothing in their park recognizing that there's an Africa south of the Sahara (or, for that matter, pretty much anything south of the equator). Nothing interesting unless there's a performer or somesuch—then it may be worth stopping for a few minutes and watching/listening.

The Germany Pavilion

Germany comes next, and is probably the most disappointing of the national pavilions. Unless you're interested in buying Hummels, cuckoo clocks, or Gummi Bears, there's absolutely nothing to do here but walk through the outdoor Romantic Road train set after you pass the buildings.

The Italy Pavilion

Italy now also has nothing aside from some cool architecture to walk through, but it is some pretty cool architecture. It used to have the most excellent outdoor act of all the pavilions (Imaginum: A Statue Act), but Disney opted not to renew their contract. Oh, well—ars longa, vita brevis. Breathe a sigh in memory as you pass Italy by, and consider it time saved.

The United States of America Pavilion

Next is the USA. The American Adventure is a decent show, and it has seats, and thus is worth your time on two counts. Aside from that, if you're from the USA, you're pretty much familiar with anything you might see—though there is, so as to impress all the foreign tourists, a cafeteria serving greasy food attached.

The Japan Pavilion

The Japan pavilion is next. It's made up mostly of a branch of the world's oldest department store. Yes, seriously. (Note: It has a really, really excellent candy section). If you walk straight back into the pavilion, you end up entering the store through an entrance made to look like a feudal Japanese castle—pretty cool. There's also a Taiko drum show (called Matsuriza) at various points through the day—it's a decent show, so if you happen to be walking by, take it in. (Don't just keep walking, though—it's visual as well as aural.)

The Morocco Pavilion

Next is Morocco. This one's fun to walk around, 'cause they manage to make it the maze of alleys you'd imagine Moroccan cities to be like, and in a very small space. Some of the stuff for sale in the shops is interesting, as well. Nothing much to see otherwise, though.

Like most of the national pavilions, Morocco has two restaurants: a really expensive one (Restaurant Marrakesh), and an inexpensive—relatively, we are talking Disney here—one (Tangierine Cafe, and no, that's not a typo). For reasons we can't fathom, the Tangierine Cafe gets bad-mouthed a lot in online discussions of Epcot dining. We like it (of course, we really like Moroccan food—that may have something to do with it). The Tangierine Cafe has a vegetarian platter (basically, one of each of the things they sell that don't have meat) that's reasonably priced and is large enough to serve as a lunch for two. If you want to eat your lunch at one of the restaurants in the park, this is a pretty good place to do it.

The France Pavilion

France has an excellent movie—do see it—called "Impressions de France". Beyond being a good film, you even get to sit down for it. Lots of overpriced (even for a Disney park) foodstuffs, as well.

All of the national pavilions are staffed by natives of the countries represented (or at least countries where the same language is spoken). The France pavilion is staffed by people who are very proud of their culture and language, which makes it a fun experience in a different way than some of the other pavilions.

The United Kingdom Pavilion

The UK has the most sprawling pavilion (by a hair over Norway), and an eclectic mix of outdoor shows. None of the shows are hugely captivating, but they're all worth watching if you happen to catch one. Out of all the World Showcase pavilions, the UK has probably the coolest shops (not necessarily the coolest merchandise—that'd be Japan or China—but the coolest shops), and the most reasonable prices, to the extent that you can say anything at Epcot has reasonable prices. Definitely worth browsing, just for the fun of it.

One further note about the UK—many people swear by the fish and chips available at this pavilion as both the best-tasting and the best-priced food in the entire park.

The Canada Pavilion

And finally, Canada. Cool layout for the pavilion—you walk up to a scaled-down Chateau Frontenac via some rural British Columbia storefronts, and then down into the wilds of the Yukon to get to the movie. The movie (titled "O Canada!", of course) is good, but the best part is taking some time to look at the recreation of the Victoria Gardens after seeing the film—it's a pretty good recreation of a Canadian garden, but in a tropical climate. It's pretty cool how they did it. (For example, that big fir tree? It's a cypress.)

You have now worn out your shoes.

At this point, if you have time and energy, you can feel free to fill in the gaps with anything you've missed or skipped earlier in the day (including hitting Spaceship Earth), or you can go back to wherever you're staying and soak your feet. Your call.

Fireworks

If your kids haven't gotten completely worn out from the walking and all, you may find yourself still around during the fireworks display (IllumiNations). It's usually done at the park's closing time, but on very high-peak days the schedule may differ. We'd say that the best place to see it (with kids) is directly between the USA pavilion and the golf ball (okay, okay, Spaceship Earth), on the Spaceship Earth side of the lake. You'll be a bit further from the action than if you were in the midst of the national pavilions, but you'll be closer to the exit—always an important consideration. It's a decent show, though a bit slow in the middle. If you can see it and still be awake for the next day, go for it.

And, well, that's it—once the fireworks are over, they make you leave. Remember that if you stay through the fireworks, there will be thousands of people trying to leave at once. Hold your kids' hands, and don't expect to get out of the parking lot terribly quickly.

Epcot in one day: The summary

Here's the summary of the itinerary we've just outlined for you, then. First you arrive as the park opens, and then…

This page last updated 21 May 2006.
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