20 Movies you should see before going to Disney World


Below you will find the introduction for an article I first wrote in May of 2016 detailing my estimation of the Disney movies you should have seen before a Walt Disney World vacation in order to understand and appreciate best what you’re most likely to see there. It is now July of 2017 and there have been enough changes to the parks and resorts that I have decided to update this article. With the exciting new announcements at this year’s D23 convention it should be obvious that these ratings will not hold up for much longer than they did this time. My intention right now is to update these rankings whenever necessary. You will notice that some movies, like Lilo & Stitch and Pinocchio have dropped out of the top 20 while others have jumped up into this list. This is truly a moving target, but those movies are still great and ones I would recommend whether you’re going to Walt Disney World or not.

Recently, a co-worker of mine told me he and his wife are taking their kids on their very first trip to Walt Disney World in Florida this summer. Apparently he’d heard I’m something of an enthusiast on the topic. After a quick rundown of where they’re staying and eating, he expressed some concerns over the quickly approaching date for reserving the family’s Fastpasses and worried that his young kids might be scared of some of the rides (he has a 4-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son). I told him they probably would be a little tentative and suggested that he sit down with them on YouTube to get a preview of some of the attractions he thought they were targeting. I’ve heard from some parents that this has helped to demystify some of the gentle dark rides and can act as a stepping stone for the overall experience. He seemed pretty pleased with this suggestion and I came out of the conversation feeling rather happy with myself. It was a win-win.

Unfortunately, he came back a couple of days later with a completely different problem. He had watched several ride videos with his kids like I’d said, and he hadn’t gotten much feeling that they were frightened by what they saw. But maybe that was because they had spent the entire time asking him who all of the characters were! This came as quite a shock to both him and his wife. After all, they were pretty sure all kinds of cartoons were on in the house on a rather regular basis. But there he was, trying to explain the seven dwarfs, Peter Pan, and even the Little Mermaid to his kids. A cursory investigation of the family’s available Disney movies revealed part of the problem: they weren’t the ones with rides based on them. Frozen had been played past one family member’s tolerance, but that ride isn’t open yet. His son had practically worn out a copy of Pixar’s Cars, but there is next to nothing at Disney World featuring those characters. There was a lot of Disney Jr stuff like Doc McStuffins and Jake and the Neverland Pirates available, which really just covers one stage show and maybe a character meal. He snatched out a copy of Beauty and the Beast and insisted to his kids that they had all watched it together a couple of times. Maybe they had, but at that moment all he was getting were blank stares. “For crying out loud,” he said to me (or something less printable here), “What the heck do they need to see before we leave in nine weeks?!” Clearly, the stress of trip planning was getting to him.

I smiled and told him I’d have a list for him in a day or two, but that a refresher on Beauty and the Beast couldn’t hurt in the meantime. Join me as we look at a big part of that promised list.

Never one to do something like this haphazardly, I set out to create a list of the Disney films with characters and situations referenced the most often in the Florida parks. This would be accomplished by assigning ratings for every applicable movie by adding up those references in the form of full-on attractions, character meet and greets, appearances in shows and parades, themed restaurants, easter eggs, and the like to reflect the overall profile of each movie in the Walt Disney World complex. Listed here are the top 20 Disney movies or shows you should have seen before going to Walt Disney World. Obviously, not everyone will be concerned with knowing the movies and characters ahead of time, but my co-worker sure seemed to be.

20. Sleeping Beauty (1959)

The 1959 animated version of Sleeping Beauty was pretty costly to the studio, but boy can you see the money that was spent up there on the screen. It is one of the most visually arresting movies in the Disney canon. While some people accuse it of being a little cold and slow in spots, I personally find the artwork and music thrilling in and of themselves…and that dragon! This is a case where there is no big attraction based on the movie at Disney World (the Sleeping Beauty castle is over in California at Disneyland), but where there are a few other high profile appearances of imagery from the film. Princess Aurora is consistently available for meet and greets with little ones, sometimes in the Magic Kingdom and sometimes in the France pavilion in Epcot. What is more memorable for me are the times when that Maleficent dragon makes an appearance, and that happens pretty impressively both in the Festival of Fantasy parade in the Magic Kingdom and in the nighttime spectacular Fantasmic! in Hollywood Studios. Anytime villains show up in the parks, Maleficent is one of them.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

Where to Find it: Sleeping Beauty has fallen off of iTunes for some reason. Check your local outlets, but if you have to buy it, I’d recommend the fantastic Blu-ray transfer that has been available.

19. Tangled (2010)

Tangled was not initially a big money-maker for Disney when it was released in theaters, in part because it was a very expensive movie to make. New animation software and techniques had to be invented in order to produce what the artists involved wanted from it. Over the following several years, however, it became clear that Disney’s core fans liked the movie quite a lot, and consequently the parks have gradually increased its profile bit by bit. Rapunzel has been a popular meet and greet character for a while now and can be found not just in Princess Fairytale Hall, but also in a new character meal opportunity over at the Boardwalk resort area. The Magic Kingdom added fancy new restrooms themed after the movie a few years ago, lovingly referred to in the fan community as the “Tangled Toilets.” Since then Rapunzel and Flynn Ryder have joined the afternoon parade with their own float, a popular photo opportunity with one of the floating lanterns from the film’s emotional highlight has been available, and the song “I See the Light” has been made a part of the new nighttime fireworks spectacular “Happily Ever After.” While Tangled wasn’t the cultural phenomenon Frozen was, it might have had a hand in making the market ready for that enormous hit and it sure shows up around the parks.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%

Where to Find it: Tangled is available both for rental and purchase through several streaming services, including iTunes, Google, and Amazon.

18. Fantasia (1940)

Okay, so you don’t really need to sit everybody down and watch the entirety of Fantasia before going to the parks, but some familiarity with a couple of its segments and their iconography would be good. Fantasia is a pretty long film that rests on entire animated sequences assigned to some of the most famous works of classical music the world has ever seen. This will appeal to some audiences, but not all of them by a long shot. Since the movie is available for streaming on Netflix, if you’ve got an account you can feel free to just search out two of the more famous sections of the movie and ignore the rest for our purposes here. Be sure to cue up Mickey Mouse’s appearance in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” which gets referenced over and over throughout the Disney World complex, with Mickey in his wizard’s hat and red robes and the slightly creepy walking brooms showing up in places like the Fantasmic! nighttime spectacular and as topiary in Hollywood Studios. If you also skip forward to see “Night on Bald Mountain” you will get a thrillingly dark animation starring the demon Chernabog, who also appears in stuff like Fantasmic! Be warned, though, that section of Fantasia can be scary for some young kids and it includes a very brief shot of naked cartoon breasts. If that sort of thing bothers you, it might be best to let “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” be all that you see of Fantasia before moving on.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 96% Maybe a little high, considering some of the rather dull live action intros.

Where to Find it: Fantasia is streaming on Netflix.

17. Alice in Wonderland (1951)

No, I’m not recommending that you see the plot-heavy Tim Burton production from 2010. Believe it or not, Disney actually adapted the source material at a far higher level back in 1951 than Burton did. One of the big reasons was that they apparently understood that Alice’s story doesn’t really have a plot. It’s a chaotic satire of manners. This allowed the folks at Disney to just let loose with charmingly bizarre characters and situations, pack the film with more songs than any other Disney production, and do it all as a lark with very few real consequences. And it worked really well. Burton felt the need to “update” and retcon the source material, appropriating some of the characters along the way, but getting the tone all wrong while he was doing it. Obviously, audiences didn’t really notice, because Burton’s Alice was big at the box office. But that doesn’t mean it’s good. This is a property that is more heavily represented at Disneyland than in Florida, but Alice in Wonderland still grabs a spot here because of that iconic spinning tea cup ride that never fails to be fun with the right attitude and pretty consistent appearances by Alice and other characters from the movie in the parks. You can meet her either in the Magic Kingdom near the tea cups or in the UK pavilion in Epcot. The White Rabbit appears in the “Once Upon a Time” projection show many nights at the Magic Kingdom, and there’s a small quick service restaurant across from the tea cups named for the Cheshire Cat. The theme is pretty light there, but hey, it counts.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79% Too low in my book.

Where to Find it: Alice in Wonderland is widely available, including on iTunes, Google, and Amazon.

16. The Muppets (your choice)

This is one you can cover any number of ways. The Muppets have been the stars of several different movies and a few television shows over the years. Most of these will do the job, but I would recommend either 1979’s The Muppet Movie, the 2011 reboot with Amy Adams and Jason Segel, or a few episodes from the ’70s TV show’s third season when they really found their legs. With their most recent television offering cancelled last year, there were rumors of both closures for the Muppets in the Florida parks. As it turns out, expansion was in the works instead. A lightly-themed counter service restaurant was added to the pre-existing Muppets area in the Hollywood Studios park (or whatever it eventually is called) and named “PizzeRizzo” after the smart-alecky muppet rat. This new spot is most located nearby the “Muppetvision 3D” attraction, which is a show that not only incorporates 3D movie technology, but also audio animatronics and other special effects throughout the theater. Also added in 2016 was a new Muppets-hosted show held several ties daily in the Liberty Square area of the Magic Kingdom called “Great Moments in History.” It’s a satirical look at American history and is pretty darn funny. Check it out.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: The Muppet Movie (1977) 87%, The Muppets (2011) 96% I think they’ve got this one backwards.

Where to Find it: Both the original 1979 The Muppet Movie and the 2011 The Muppets film starring Jason Segel and Amy Adams are widely available right now on a variety of streaming services including iTunes and Amazon. Amazon also has episodes of the original television show.

15. The Lion King (1994)

One of the most beloved movies Disney has ever made is the basis for perhaps the best reviewed stage show in the parks today. The Festival of the Lion King was so popular, in fact, that when the patch of land it was on was needed for an Avatar-themed area at Animal Kingdom, Disney built it a brand new theater in a new location. The show acts as a jukebox of the film’s songs as written by lyricist Tim Rice with pop music legend Elton John, who he selected personally. John’s recording of “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” hit #4 on the Billboard hot 100 and won the Oscar for Best Original Song, while the film opener “Circle of Life” also rose in the charts, landing at #18. Another big draw for the show is its impressive use of theatrical acrobatics. “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” shows up in a segment of another well-liked show, this one in the Magic Kingdom, the enormously fun Mickey’s Philharmagic. Much less beloved is the twelve minute long Circle of Life: An Environmental Fable show in the Land pavilion over in Epcot. It’s actually the kind of pandering preachy edutainment that some people think Epcot specializes in (don’t believe these people. They are philistines).

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

Where to Find it: The Lion King does not appear to be on any streaming services for rental right now, but iTunes will sell it to you through their streaming service. Plenty of people would be glad to own this movie outright, so that may work for you.

14. Dumbo (1941)

For years, the Dumbo spinner ride was located in the center of Fantasyland not far behind Cinderella’s castle, where you could get a great look at the back section of the park as you spun around in your hollowed-out elephant. It was (and is) one of the iconic rides in the Magic Kingdom and was one of the primary targets for many guests as they rushed through Main Street at opening time. Despite the seemingly modest pleasures of the simple spinner ride, these people were not nuts. Like with other rides such as Splash Mountain or Peter Pan’s Flight, if you put off flying with Dumbo for too long, you’d find very long lines in the exposed sun later that day. So when Fantaasyland was expanded in the earlier part of this decade, the decision was made to not only move the attraction into its own circus-themed area, but to double the number of riders it could take in a day and seriously improve its queue by moving most of it indoors and providing a play area instead of a standard line of switchbacks. All of this has made Dumbo a much more convenient overall experience for the park’s guests. The movie itself was a bit of a convenience to the studio as well, produced and released as a less ambitious (read cheaper) and more obviously family friendly follow up to the very sophisticated and costly Pinocchio and Fantasia. The ploy worked, and Dumbo delivered pretty well for the studio, eventually making a tidy profit.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

Where to Find it: Dumbo is available for rental streaming through iTunes and is also available from Amazon and Google.

13. Finding Nemo (2003)

I’m actually surprised that this didn’t end up a little higher on this list. Finding Nemo is one of very few properties which are featured as the focus of more than one entire attraction. In Epcot, Nemo and friends took up residence in the Seas pavilion about ten years ago and the formerly edutainment-heavy Seabase Alpha was transformed into a dark ride with portions set alongside Epcot’s enormous aquarium. Some fun theme park special effects are used to make it look like Nemo is swimming in the tank with the real sea life during parts of the attraction. It’s an inoffensive little ride as long as your kids aren’t really scared of some of the more aggressive characters from the movie. Make sure to stop after this ride to meet a big cartoon turtle in Turtle Talk with Crush. It’s a lot of fun, but very easy to walk past without realizing it. Over in Animal Kingdom, Disney teamed with the songwriting team that is responsible for Frozen to create a half hour musical version of the film and came out with a real home run. While some people argue that the show takes up too much of their theme park day, I personally think it’s worth it. These are the same people who claim Animal Kingdom is a half day park, anyway (which it’s not). The colorful visuals, charming characters, and catchy songs included in Finding Nemo: The Musical make it a highlight of the park, and one of the better theme park shows I’ve ever seen. In 2003 the Pixar movie was a huge box office smash, and excellent performances by comedians Albert Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres have a lot to do with that.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 99%

Where to Find it: You can rent Finding Nemo on iTunes, Google, and Amazon.

12. Pirates of the Caribbean (2003)

You’ll have to consider for yourself whether this movie is a little too intense for your kids, but both the theme park attraction and this first installment in the immediately tiresome series that followed it are absolute classics. When the Magic Kingdom opened to guests in October of 1971, the imagineers were a little surprised to hear that visitors to the Florida park were very disappointed not to find the famous boat ride through pirate country among its attractions. They had thought Florida was too close to the actual Caribbean for that locale to be considered exotic, but they heard guest complaints loud and clear and an East coast version of the ride joined the park in 1973. While not quite on the level of the Disneyland original, Pirates of the Caribbean is still a must-do for most visitors, and as the Johnny Depp-led film proved very popular in its own right, the pirate theme expanded, including a large gift shop, the Tortuga Tavern quick service dining spot, and the “Pirates League,” an experience for boys and girls in which they can (for a fee) be outfitted or made up as a pirate or mermaid for the day. There are pirate-themed rooms at the Caribbean Beach resort (again for a mild up charge), but a couple of other attractions have been closed, including a Captain Jack Sparrow show over in Hollywood Studios and a cannon firing game that is going out as Disney Quest closed. The Hans Zimmer score and images from the series have recently been added to both the “Happily Ever After” fireworks show and the “Disney Movie Magic” projection show at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 79%. A little low if you ask me.

Where to Find it: You can find Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl on Netflix if you have an account. Otherwise it can be rented through iTunes, Google, and Amazon.

11. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977)
Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 16.48.02

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is the name of both the dark ride themed to the lovable bear and his cadre of forest friends in the Magic Kingdom and the 1977 film featuring those same characters. I was initially a little confused several years ago when I saw that year listed next to the movie’s name, because I clearly remembered seeing portions of it on the Wonderful World of Disney television show at least two years prior to that. As it turned out, there was a simple explanation that did not negate my memories. Disney had released multiple animated shorts starring writer A. A. Milne’s charming creations, with one of them, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Short. It was this short that I remembered seeing featured on Disney’s weekly anthology series. The previously produced shorts were joined together with some newly created animation to make a full-length feature for release in movie theaters. In addition to the Magic Kingdom dark ride, Winnie the Pooh and friends host a meet and greet in the UK pavilion in Epcot and a popular character dining opportunity in the beautiful Crystal Palace restaurant just off of Main Street in the Magic Kingdom. You’ll also see the greedy little bear if you catch the “Once Upon a Time” projection show at the Magic Kingdom.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

Where to Find it: iTunes has The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh available for streaming along with a wide range of other 100 acre wood offerings, but if you can get the 1977 film, that’s the one to see.

10. Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs (1937)

Here is the very first full length animated film released by the Disney studio, and one of the most important and influential movies in any language. It’s been almost eighty years since its release, and the beauty of its hand drawn and painted animation and backgrounds has rarely been equaled. Plus, you know, it sort of invented an art form. No big whup. Back in 2012 the old school dark ride themed after Snow White’s Scary Adventures was closed to make way for a princess meet and greet location, but not without a plan to keep such important characters an active part of the park. So just two years later a new, heavily themed family coaster called the 7 Dwarfs Mine Train debuted just across the way from where the original ride had been. Although some fans complain that the new ride is too short in duration, the quality of the work done on it has been pretty much universally praised and it is currently the sort of attraction you absolutely have to get a Fastpass for. In addition to this brand new ride, Snow White makes constant appearances for character meet and greets in a variety of locations, including two princess character meals and in the Germany pavilion in Epcot. She and the dwarfs show up in the current version of the afternoon parade and are very popular every Halloween when they are all available for a meet and greet.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 98%

Where to Find it: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is available for purchase through iTunes, Google, and Amazon. I’m seriously hoping lots of other people still have good video rental shops nearby.

9. Aladdin (1992)

Despite the fact that Aladdin‘s only attraction at Disney World is a simple little spinner ride in Adventureland, the movie’s strong popularity has also managed to support a meet and greet with Aladdin and Jasmine in the Morocco pavilion in Epcot and a set of open air shops. The iconic love duet “A Whole New World” recurs as often as just about any other song in the parks, including in a sequence of the 3D show Mickey’s Philharmagic and “Friend Like Me” is now a major part of the new nighttime fireworks show “Happily Ever After.” Aladdin as a movie is one of the “big four” of the incredibly important Disney animation renaissance of the late ’80s and early ’90s, and an almost seamless cascade of humor, adventure, and romance. It features one of the iconic voice-over performances in the history of animation in the late Robin Williams’ quick-hitting take on the Genie of the lamp. The performance was so indelible, in fact, that he was given an award for “special achievement” at the 1993 Golden Globes ceremony.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 94%

Where to Find it: Aladdin was released on Blu-ray last year, but you can also purchase it through iTunes, Amazon, and Google.

8. Avatar (2009)

And just like that, this movie that isn’t even a Disney property has become one of the highest-rated flicks on this list. That’s what happens when the mouse and company open an entire land dedicated to your movie in one of their theme parks. I won’t personally experience the world of Avatar section of Animal Kingdom until early September, but so far most of what I’ve heard has been pretty positive. The new land includes two high-tech rides, the more thrilling flight simulator Flights of Passage, and the aesthetic boat ride Na’vi River Journey. In addition, there are specially themed foods at the Satu’li Canteen and dedicated shops where they can’t seem to keep those little shoulder-mounted interactive banshee figures in stock. The land is one that begs to be seen both during the day and night due to the many bioluminescent decorations throughout. Avatar is a PG-13 movie that might be too intense for smaller children, but broke box office records when it was released theatrically back in 2009. It also helped to usher in the current trend of 3D versions of pretty much every action-oriented film being available in movie theaters.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 83%

Where to Find it: iTunes has Avatar available for purchase to stream, but I’d take a look at amazon or Google to see if they might be renting it instead.

7. Toy Story (1995)

Here is a pretty good indication of how quickly Walt Disney World is growing. When I last did this list, Toy Story was ranked at number four. Don’t worry, though, because it will be leaping back up the list after getting its own land in Hollywood Studios next year. I can certainly see why. Toy Story is about toys. Kids love toys. Families with kids are the target demographic of the Disney parks. They already have two full-fledged and very popular rides in two different parks and the characters show up for meet and greets with fans pretty consistently. Appropriately enough, both of the attractions themed to Toy Story are set up as actual games, with riders completing the experience with a score based on either how many space ships or aliens they’ve blasted with a ray gun (Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin), or how many toys they’ve knocked down with a variety of computer generated projectiles (Toy Story Midway Mania). The latter is one of those attractions that has to be rushed to in the morning if you want to experience it without an extended wait in the queue. Construction has now begun on a new Toy Story “land” in Hollywood Studios (yeah, half of that park is boarded up at the moment), with two new family intensity rides. If you haven’t seen the Toy Story films yet, you should be prepared for the fact that the computer animation of 1995 does not stand up to the quality of current work, and it may be why I’m not as emotionally invested in the characters as many other people are. But the characters and stories are in fact genuinely warm and funny. Check them out if you haven’t yet.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 100% Nobody has the guts to say they don’t like Toy Story.

Where to Find it: You can buy or rent all three of the Toy Story movies from iTunes. They are also available through Amazon and Google services.

6. Frozen (2013)
Frozen banner

When the Frozen Ever After ride opened in Epcot’s Norway pavilion last summer, Epcot did itself the favor of adding another very popular attraction to supplement Soarin’ and Test Track and this is one that you’ll have to either get a FastPass for, or rush to very first thing in the morning. Be wary though, because this ride is an update of a Norway-themed attraction that was built in the eighties and it still seems to break down more often than it should. If that happens, make sure you talk to a cast member because they will usually offer you some sort of additional FastPass or something to make up for it. In the meantime you can meet Anna and Elsa right next door in a well-themed indoor environment. Chances are that if you’re planning a trip to Walt Disney World then you’re probably one of the millions of people who have already seen what became the highest-grossing animated film of all time. Yes, there was a backlash, but hopefully that’s mostly over now. Anna and Elsa are a significant part of the Disney universe and their presence front and center in parades and with a sing-along show in the Hollywood Studios park is perfectly appropriate. The songs from Frozen are also well represented in the nighttime spectaculars at the Magic Kingdom and the sisters can be seen in their afternoon parade.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 89%.

Where to Find it: Do you know any young girls? Borrow their copy. If you’re a shut-in you can rent or buy it through iTunes.

5. Peter Pan (1953)

Peter Pan as produced by the Disney studio back in 1953 is a completely indispensable piece of the company’s history and is an absolute bottomless pit of both that thing they call Disney “magic” and completely perplexing characterizations and stunningly antiquated gender and racial politics. If you’ve got an ounce of irony inside of you and have friends of a similar disposition, this movie could keep you talking through at least two separate book club type bull sessions. At the very least, the portion of the film which focuses on Neverland’s “native” population will raise some eyebrows. I still believe everybody should see this movie as an adult because you will absolutely be made to think. At the same time, the movie perhaps features the most magical sequence in the entire history of the studio, in which Peter, Tinkerbell, and the Darling children work out how to get them to lift off and then soar out the nursery window, above London, and then to Neverland. It’s this same section that is beautifully rendered in both the opening day attraction Peter Pan’s Flight and a sequence of Mickey’s Philharmagic. It used to be that you had to get to Peter Pan’s Flight first thing, or you’d end up in a very long and boring line, but Disney has installed a beautiful interactive queue that appears to be entertaining people pretty well while they wait nowadays. Aside from that, this film ranks highly on this list because of the presence of Peter’s diminutive fairy sidekick Tinkerbell, who has become one of the company’s very top mascots, along with the likes of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Jiminy Cricket. She is often available for meet and greets, flies off the castle every evening as a part of the “Happily Ever After” fireworks show, and consistently appears along with Peter and Hook every chance Disney gets when they’re creating parades and projection shows.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 76%. Is this rating accurate? Probably. But if the question is “should every human person see this movie?” I would say 100% Yes.

Where to Find it: Peter Pan is not currently available through any streaming service, but if you’re willing to wait on shipping there are a few different editions of the Blu-ray for sale on Amazon.

4. The Little Mermaid (1989)

As we’ve discussed in other articles on this blog, The Little Mermaid was a huge moment in the history of Disney animation. You can practically see the studio realizing they were on to something as the approach to many of the animated sequences fluctuates at times. Along with Snow White and Cinderella, Ariel is an absolute icon for the company’s gargantuan Princess merchandise machine and they have gradually expanded her role in the Disney parks. For a good long time it was sort of a curiosity that they hadn’t taken advantage of her massive popularity. She’s been appearing for meet and greet opportunities and at character meals both at Akershus in the Norway pavilion in Epcot and at Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom for a while now, and her live stage show in the Hollywood Studios park was popular, but it wasn’t until the plans for an attraction they’d never built got slapped onto a home DVD release that fan reaction helped to create momentum that resulted in it being actually put into the parks. That took the form of the dark ride which is called Under the Sea∼Journey of the Little Mermaid and part of the large “New Fantasyland” expansion that was gradually rolled out between late 2012 and the spring of 2014. You’ll see Ariel in the big new daytime parade in the Magic Kingdom called Festival of Fantasy and in Mickey’s Philharmagic. Long red hair and a big voice go a long way.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 92%

Where to Find it: My house. If you don’t know me, you’ll probably have to find a hard copy to be shipped to you because at the moment it’s not widely available for rental.

3. Star Wars (1977-)

Surely, everyone knows about Star Wars, right? Now I’m someone who saw the first released film as a 7-year-old when it was in movie theaters, so maybe I have an unrealistic expectation that Star Wars has become something that is actually now in the collective unconscious of our species. Surely that’s a bit of an over-estimation, but if you haven’t seen enough of any of the Star Wars movies to generally understand what’s going on with the property in the Disney World complex you probably need to: 1) Finish reading this article, 2) Comment on this article, 3) Share this article on social media, 4) find Star Wars episodes IV through VI, and 5) Watch them. Disney’s plans for a huge Star Wars themed land in what is currently called Disney’s Hollywood Studios are still pretty far from an opening date, but once that all comes to fruition, this intellectual property will move up even further on this list. For now, the focus is primarily on that park’s newer version of the longstanding simulator attraction Star Tours: The Adventures Continue, along with a series of morsels meant to whet the appetite for when that huge project actually arrives in the park. These include things like Star Wars Launch Bay, which offers chances to “Check out movie props, play games, snap photos, screen videos, and greet Star Wars heroes and villains.” There’s also a new nightly fireworks and projection show called “Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular” which has gotten a generally strong reception from the fan community, a stage show featuring several Star Wars characters, and of course a pretty substantial gift shop full of nothing but Star Wars product. Stormtroopers are often striding around the park nowadays and there are chances to meet characters like Kylo Ren and Chewbacca. Make sure to bring along some relatively worthless, but shiny object, because if you run into some Jawas they will make a trade with you for something else. It’s fun.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: Star Wars (1977) 94%, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) 94%, The Force Awakens (2015) 92% Don’t watch episodes I-III. Just don’t.

Where to Find it: You can purchase all three of these through iTunes, Amazon or Google, but again, are you kidding me?

2. Cinderella (1950)

She is the queen of Disney’s Princess set, not because she was the first of them (that would be Snow White), or because her movie made the most money (that’s Frozen now). It’s not even because her movie is really all that good (it’s okay). Her preeminence has to do with a few things. Firstly, her movie was, in fact, very successful, practically saving the studio and kicking off its silver age. Secondly, she absolutely embodies the simplest of everyone’s personal fantasies as a parson who is hard-working, kind, and put upon is miraculously transformed and given a life which is much closer to what it seems she might actually deserve. And also there’s the castle. The visual icon of the entire Walt Disney World complex stands 183 feet tall (it looks taller, thanks to an imagineering trick of forced perspective). The height is important, because if the castle had gone just 17 feet higher it would have required aircraft warning lights to be placed at the top. Inside the castle is Cinderella’s Royal Table, a popular character dining experience that typically requires very early reservations to be made. Just behind the castle is Prince Charming’s Regal Carousel, the oldest ride in the park, having been built for a different location back in 1917 and renamed in 2010. Cinderella continues to be one of the most requested meet and greet characters, appearing at Akershus in Epcot, at 1900 Park Faire in the Grand Floridian resort hotel, at her own Royal Table restaurant, and at Princess Fairytale Hall. Hers is one of the stories featured in the projection show “Once Upon a Time” in the Magic Kingdom many evenings.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 97%

Where to Find it: Cinderella is currently in the modern version of the Disney “vault” and appears to be unavailable for rental or purchase through streaming services. This might be because Disney is trying to encourage people to see the live action version they released back in 2015. Nothing against that movie, but if you want your kids to recognize Cinderella when they meet her, you’ll find a way to see the animated version from 1950.

1. Beauty and the Beast (1991)
After languishing for many years with just a stage show at Hollywood Studios and a storytelling meet and greet with Belle in the Magic Kingdom, Beauty and the Beast catapulted to the top of this list back in 2012 (if the list had existed then) when Disney added an entire new pocket to “New Fantasyland” which included two restaurants, a gift shop, and greatly plussed the Belle meet and greet with fantastic new themeing and special effects. The Be Our Guest restaurant, which doubles as a table service joint in the evening and a counter service place for lunch, proved popular enough that it added breakfast too. Reservations for supper can be difficult to come by, but I can’t imagine a first-time Disney World visitor walking past it and never going inside. You can meet Beast there, and the pair also headlines the Festival of Fantasy parade. The “Be Our Guest” production number is one of the featured scenes in the Philharmagic 3D show, complete with the smell of freshly cooked food. It only makes sense that Beauty and the Beast would come in at number one on this list. It is one of the most beloved and critically acclaimed movies in the Disney filmography.  In fact, the film was the very first animated feature to be nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Picture category. And this was back when there were only five such nominees in a year. The live action version of Beauty and the Beast did big box office business earlier this year, and if that’s the version you like, you can see clips from it as a part of the “Disney Movie Magic” projection show in Hollywood Studios.

Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%

Where to Find it: You can find the animated version of Beauty and the Beast (the one that’s really really good) for purchase on iTunes and other sources.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 2.42.29 PM

A Few Other Suggestions…

If you have a Netflix account, go ahead and check out the Disney Animation Collection: Vol. 1: Mickey and the Beanstalk which is available there. It is a set of five of the more famous Mickey Mouse cartoon shorts and includes appearances by Donald Duck, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and Pluto. The Sir Mickey’s gift shop in Fantasyland of the Magic Kingdom includes excellently fun theming that references Mickey and the Beanstalk.

The entirety of the Magic Kingdom’s Liberty Square area, positioned between Frontierland and Fantasyland, is themed after the 1957 live action Disney film Johnny Tremain. The story focuses on a young man living at the time shortly prior to the American Revolution. The Liberty Tree is a living feature of the theme park’s land and the table service restaurant there is named for it. You can find the movie for rental or purchase from iTunes.

This one is a little more obscure, but if you want to get a little of the flavor of Main Street U.S.A. before walking onto it for the first time, you can check out the 1963 musical comedy Summer Magic, starring Hayley Mills and Burl Ives. If you look closely at Main Street you can actually find references to the film, including to Digby’s Messenger Service, which is noted on one of the buildings’ windows (above). The movie is available for rental on iTunes, Google, and Amazon.


I’m guessing that most readers have seen many of the movies recommended here, so you can easily substitute well-represented movies like Monsters IncMary Poppins, Pinocchio, or Brave to fill some of the lower spots. If you’re using this list on a time-sensitive schedule before your trip, I’d recommend starting at #1 (Beauty and the Beast) and moving up the list, because the higher the numbers get, the less representation each film has in the parks. If you’ve got the luxury of plenty of time, then maybe working in the opposite direction makes sense for you. The important thing, of course, is to have fun and to enhance the countdown to your Disney vacation!


Posted on May 28, 2016, in Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, Movies, theme parks, travel, Walt Disney World and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Great topic. I have frequently had the opposite conversation. Which intellectual properties are over-represented at Walt Disney World. For the record, Toy Story, Lion King and Nemo top the list for me in that department. I have lots of thoughts on this topic, so you may want to go grab a cup of coffee and settle in before digging in.

    The first thing I would tell your friend is not to worry too much about familiarity with the source material. Splash Mountain, one of the most popular rides at Disney World, is based on Song of the South – a movie that has been banned by Disney for decades. Dinosaur is based on a movie most people have forgotten if they were ever aware it existed. My point being that most attractions don’t require you to know anything about the movies they are based on.

    You can ride and enjoy a spinner like Dumbo without having seen the movie. All you need to know about Dumbo is right there in the attraction. He’s a flying elephant in a circus. You don’t need to know that he was separated from his momma, had pal who was a mouse, was tormented by alcoholic clowns or was encouraged by minstrel crows. You just ride the ride. The appeal of Dumbo beyond being a spinner (a ride type that appeals to most young kids) is that it is an iconic symbol of Disney parks. Most people ride it so they can take a picture of their kids in the ride vehicle. That is so true that Disney has set aside one elephant for picture taking.

    Some attractions require a bit more background than others. Rides that retell the story of the movie they are based on are sometimes called “book reports”. The dark ride book reports tend to skip over some important info. So if you haven’t seen The Little Mermaid or Peter Pan, you may lose something in translation. Having said that, the general concept of a flight over London and Neverland works whether you have seen Peter Pan or not. This is a little less true of The Little Mermaid.

    Star Tours works as a ride through space. But fans of the film series are going to get an extra jolt of recognition. If you’re not already a fan, the theme park attractions can work as a conduit into the series. Fireworks are fireworks whether you know what a wookie is or not. Odds are if you like science fantasy, you’ve already experienced Star Wars in some form. I understand they sold a lot of tickets to The Force Awakens last year.

    Honestly, the single area where familiarity with the source material will yield the greatest benefit is in character meet and greets. Especially with face characters. The first time we had breakfast at the castle, Snow White asked Josie who her favorite of her “little friends” was and Josie was stumped. She hadn’t actually watched the movie yet. She knew the princesses from merchandise. She wasn’t familiar with their supporting casts. Eventually, she came up with “Grumpy”, but later changed her answer to Dopey. These were the only two dwarfs she could name.

    The face characters are expected to carry on some chit chat with guests during the meet and greets. They have some rehearsed patter which generally references the movies they are in. If your kids don’t know enough to answer questions they are asked (or they get star struck and tongue tied like my kids always do) that’s fine. The character will guide the conversation. They know how to handle pretty much any interaction. But if your kids know all the ins and outs of the character’s backstory, they can get a lot more out of the experience. Then your kids can ask the questions that matter to them. For instance, when meeting Belle, a greeting of “Bon jour” is appropriate. And she likes to be asked what book she is currently reading. Or ask Mary Poppins to say Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious backwards. It’s impressive.

    I would say to see the movies that feature the characters your kids want to meet, but odds are your kids will want to meet the characters they are already most familiar with. So, it probably won’t be much of an issue.

    Your top pick of Beauty and the Beast is a solid one for anyone who plans to visit the new Fantasyland. Especially if you scored reservations to the Be Our Guest Restaurant. Even if you have never seen the movie, the immersion is enjoyable. You’ll feel like you are visiting a little village in France and an enchanted castle. But if you can recognize Gaston’s Tavern, the ballroom and the west wing, you’ll get more from the experience.

    Something else to consider is where you are staying. Guests staying at Art of Animation may want to prioritize the movie that fits the theme of the room they are staying in. The large Finding Nemo pool is a common area everyone will likely enjoy, but with Finding Dory in theaters this summer, I’m guessing kids will recognize those characters whether they see the movie or not. If you’re staying in a Cars or Lion King suite, you should probably know a bit about those movies.

    While Cinderella is prominently featured in the parks, I wouldn’t say you need to watch Cinderella to appreciate the castle. It’s a park icon that goes beyond the movie it’s based on. It works as a home for all the princesses and isn’t really all that specific to Cinderella. With the recent live action movie, most kids probably know the fairy tale well enough to get the gist. Going back to meet and greets, characters like Lady Tremaine and the stepsisters have been common. The movie is helpful if you meet with them (I read somewhere that some of these meet and greets have been cut so this may not be less important than it once was).

    For most of these movies, I’d say it’s more important to be familiar with the music than the movie itself. Festival of the Lion King is a singalong. If you know Circle of Life and Hakuna Matata, you’re good. If all you know from The Little Mermaid is Under the Sea and Part of Your World, you’re all set.

    Pirates worked for decades before the movies even existed. If you have never seen them, you may wonder why everyone is looking for this Jack Sparrow guy. Then again, you may ask that question even if you have seen the movies. A familiarity with Jack Sparrow doesn’t really add that much to the attraction. It’s really only relevant if you are seeing the live show that features Jack and I’m not 100% sure that is still going on.

    I’ll agree with your recommendation to skip Stitch’s Great Escape. Despite attempts to make the ride more child-friendly, the darkness and restraints still scare a lot of kids to death. If that happens, you won’t be able to comfort them because you’re locked in to. Stitch makes appearances near the ride’s entrance and he can be a fun meet and greet. But if your kids aren’t already fans, they probably won’t want to line up to meet him.

    I have done more than my fair share of character meals. We have had breakfast at O’Hana twice. As character meals go, it’s okay. The food is served family style which means it comes to your table instead of having to go to a buffet line. That’s good because when you leave your table you risk missing characters if they come by while you are away. It also means the food options are less varied. It’s eggs, breakfast meats, potatoes and Mickey waffles. Also, O’Hana is huge, so it can take a very long time to see all four characters there.

    Generally speaking, I would recommend Crystal Palace over O’Hana for a character breakfast. Crystal Palace is in the Magic Kingdom which is an advantage if you are in that park and a disadvantage if you aren’t. It features a buffet with a wide range of offerings and the characters from Winnie the Pooh. Obviously, if you prefer Lilo and Stitch, that’s a poor substitution. But you will get a better meal and cycle through the characters more quickly at Crystal Palace than you will at O’Hana. Just make sure you’re not away from your table when they come.

    Since we’re talking character meals, Chef Mickey’s is where you can see the Fab 5. Most kids will know these characters from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. There’s also a Disney Jr. meal at Hollywood Studios which features characters from the shows on that network. The problem with that is that it is in a park that has very little for the Disney Jr. crowd to do. Ooops. The princess breakfasts are a good if expensive way to knock out several princesses at once if that’s on your must-do list. If you’re on the dining plan and eating at the castle, pay out of pocket instead of burning two dining credits on french toast.

    Getting back to the subject at hand, the way in which kids today experience Disney has changed. When we were kids, Disney was the only game in town for feature animation. The classics cycled through movie theaters and most of us saw them. We also watched Disney on TV, read Disney books or listened to records which told the stories of the movies. Growing up, I wasn’t sure which movies I had actually watched and which ones I was familiar with through clips, books and movies.

    Today, there are too many other animated offerings. Kids can watch cartoons 24/7. Once a movie leaves theaters, there’s something else replacing it. Classics are available in DVD form. But they are no longer essential parts of growing up. We all saw Dumbo because it was one of the few animated movies to air on TV at a time when there were three channels. Today, with all the options, there are no shared experiences. Kids can pick and choose what appeals to them. Often, that will be Minions or something on YouTube.

    Point being, this is a helpful list of recommendations. But if you don’t have the time or inclination, don’t worry. You will enjoy your vacation even if you have never seen a single Disney feature.

    Liked by 1 person

    • daffystardust

      You are absolutely right that the importance of any particular movie or group of characters depends very much on how you’ve planned your vacation. As you note, if you’re staying at the Art of Animation resort and spending a lot of time at Epcot and Animal Kingdom then Finding Nemo becomes central to your experience. On the other hand, if you’re staying at the Wilderness Lodge and spending almost all of your time in the Magic Kingdom, it becomes almost superfluous.

      This is a complicated topic that would really be ideally focused on each individual’s vacation plans and preferences. I did try to factor in which of the experiences are most high profile and most unavoidable. While you’re right that Cinderella’s castle sort of speaks for itself, it’s also practically impossible to go on a trip to Disney World without seeing and remembering it. I did, obviously, consider the number of meet and greets that characters do, and if that’s a focus of your trip that’s a real necessity.That ignores my own overall experience, however, of spending a lot of time in the parks with very little character interaction.

      I did try to reassure the guy that his family was going to have a great time either way, but obviously this is the kind of assignment that I couldn’t resist. 🙂

      The wide proliferation of different children’s entertainment options is likely a big reason he was faced with the questions he was. When we were growing up, there was Disney, there was Looney Tunes, and there were some random characters like Scooby Doo or Woody Woodpecker. It’s also fair to note that when we were kids The Wonderful World of Disney was on TV practically every week in prime time and I got a lot of my Disney information from there as well.

      In trying to tally up points for different types of appearances I went and reviewed a couple of parades via YouTube. The Main Street Electrical parade is a stunning reflection of what Disney was when we were kids. The ‘evergreen’ characters had mostly been around since the 1950s, and there was very little representation from newer movies like 101 Dalmatians or Robin Hood. The memorable float from Pete’s Dragon was the one big exception.

      I would have been very interested as a kid in Johnny Tremain’s connection to Liberty Square, but I left it as an additional note because I’m pretty sure lots of kids would be turned off by its antiquated look and tone.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. daffystardust

    So, interestingly enough, on pretty much the same day that I posted this article that includes details on how to access a large number of Disney films, it was revealed that the information would only be accurate for another few months. Disney and Netflix have come to an agreement to allow the giant streaming service to carry ALL of the family entertainment company’s films starting in September.

    Content joins and leaves Netflix on a monthly basis, so it will be interesting to see how they parse out what could be some very popular product. Here’s hoping it’s not on the 7-year cycle that Disney used to apply to its theatrical re-releases. I have a hard time believing that they won’t withhold most of the really appealing stuff most of the time. After all, if the entire Disney filmography is constantly available on Netflix why would anyone purchase Blu-rays or digital downloads ever again?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: