Top 9 Walt Disney World Park Icons

When Walt Disney was here to plan the theme parks, he wanted what he called a “weenie”. This is what he referred to as the thing that would catch your eye and draw you into the park to find out more. In Magic Kingdom the “weenie” is Cinderella Castle, in Epcot it is Spaceship Earth, in Animal Kingdom it is the Tree of Life, and in Hollywood Studios is the Chinese Theater. Your eyes lock onto them and they draw you in. Most of these are the first thing you see when approaching each park and they have dominance once you are inside.  They help you orient yourself once inside the park as well.  So let’s see which one is number one, and learn something about all 9.

9. Summit Plummet, Blizzard Beach

Even in the Florida heat, you may just feel a few degrees cooler with all the “snow and ice” around Blizzard Beach.  If you are feeling daring, board the ski-lift to the top of Mount Gushmore, the 90-foot mountain that you can see from most of the park. (If you are crazy and daring, walk up. Your feet will be so hot by the time you reach the top you will go down any slide in reach to get some water to cool them off). There are milder slides down the side of the mountain, about two dozen, but what you want to reach is the pinnacle of water slides at Walt Disney World: Summit Plummet. This is the world’s highest body slide that has a 120-foot drop. This is why Summit Plummet makes the top 10 list of park icons.  Only age 9 and up, and those taller than 48” can dare to slide down it. Be prepared as you are going to feel like you are dropping straight down. Don’t let the daredevil in you uncross your feet because that will make the wedgie that much worse. You must go feet first down this steep slide of fun.  If you want a super great ride down this, have only your heels and shoulder blades touching!

8. Miss Tilly Shrimp Boat atop Mt. Mayday, Typhoon Lagoon

This lush 56-acre water park is a tropical wonderland.  The story is that a typhoon blew through this little village and what we see today is the result, like the Miss Tilly Shrimp Boat that flew through the air riding high waves that impaled her on the Mountain. Below Mt. Mayday is a 2 ½-acre wave pool, the world’s largest inland pool of its type. You can ride the 6–foot waves, or wait 30 minutes when it calms down.  There is a lazy river that you can ride atop an inner tube and as it encircles Mt. Mayday you can churn up the courage to ride the big slide Humunga Kowabunga or the water coaster Crush ‘n’ Gusher.  There are many great slides and pools in this tropical paradise. Since you have a view of Mt. Mayday jutting through Miss Tilly nearly everywhere you go, it earns the place of icon for this Disney water park.

7. American Adventure, Epcot

the host country to World Showcase, is the first country pavilion that you see across the lagoon at the entrance to World Showcase. The red brick colonial-style mansion with its prominent clock and bell tower, stone-quoined corners, porticos portrays the strength of our founders.  This building hosts The American Adventure theatre, live music from Voices of Liberty in the rotunda area, quotes on the walls from famous Americans, famous paintings, and museum displays that change periodically, Spirit of America sculptures, and a large assortment of all the flags that have flown over the United States. The American Gardens Theater is built with similar features and is home to the live music festivals held in Epcot throughout the year. American Adventure, host to World Showcase, is an Epcot icon.

6. Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, Disney’s Animal Kingdom

This is a “weenie” seen from the parking lot, the tall slides at the water parks and you get a glimpse of it from several different vantage points inside Animal Kingdom. Disney Imagineers are very good at building mountains and this one is no exception. This was more challenging as it sought to make a massive face of the mountain, a fast thrill-ride through the mountain, and the giant Yeti. All of these combined made this the most difficult to design. In Disney history, if there was a challenge like this, Walt would come up with a tool, never seen before, that would make it all happen.  Walt Disney invented solutions that are still used today across industries.  Present day Imagineers came up with a new software that enabled them to design, in 3D, all the elements of the ride, before construction, providing all the connections they needed for the ride, the audio animatronics, mountain design, etc. from the ground up to all the connections they needed throughout the mountain, so that the processes were independent of each other.  This software has been used internally for every major work since Expedition Everest was created. The “show” includes the story of the Yeti and how he affects the lives of the villagers whose homes fall in the shadow of the great Himalayas.  This is a myth that has been passed down through generations in the countries of Tibet, Nepal, India, and parts of southwestern China. They say that the Yeti is a “protector of the forest” and say it is good luck to spot him, but at the same time he may sneak in at eat one of your Yaks.  In this attraction on the Forbidden Mountain, you have to look hard to find him on your tea train thrill ride through his territory. Imagineers knew the importance of you encountering a Yeti, and since this park is all about animals, this mythical one needed to look real.

5. The Twilight Zone Tower or Terror, Disney’s Hollywood Studios

This is one of the Hollywood Studios that dominates the sky, not only around the Studios but even can be spotted from Morocco in Epcot.  It joined the skyline in 1994. They are painted the same color so that it tricks the eye into thinking Tower of Terror blends in with the Morocco architecture.  From the street it is a daunting structure.  You can clearly see things are not as they should be. Then you catch a glimpse of people flying by the open doors, either moving up or down in a 130-foot elevator ride and you must make the choice; will you ride it? Yes! Say yes! This is one of my top three “must do” rides whenever I visit Walt Disney World so I always say “Yes!”  The smoothness of this ride is attributable to some massive motors that were placed with a crane, and then the rest of the attraction was built around them.  You can understand that when you see their massive size: 12’ high by 35’ long by 7’ wide. These motors allow for each ride plan to be a random number of lifts and drops so you never know what your ride will be. Isn’t that awesome! Pay attention to all the details while coming through the queue and in each area of the Hollywood Tower Hotel that you visit, perhaps for the last time.

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4. Tree of Life, Disney’s Animal Kingdom

You may not realize you are looking at the top of the Tree of Life above the other trees when you drive into the parking lot for the first time, but once you have seen it, you will notice it every time.  The 145-foot high Tree of Life is at the center of the park, again giving you a point of reference when traveling around Animal Kingdom. The story is that the animals were not carved into the tree, but rather that they emerged from within the tree. The extensive design, artistically one of the best at Walt Disney World, had to support the large canopy and since it was housing an attraction in its “roots” it had to meet all codes for a building including a 145 mph wind load. As you can imagine this was quite a challenge. It is said that a member of the design team had a breakthrough while watching a documentary on offshore drilling and the rig design opened his eyes to how they could support the weight of the tree top and house the 420 seat theater inside. The design progressed quickly from that point on. The design team built several smaller models prior to creating it full size so that they could maintain the same feeling in the artistry by keeping the perspective the same on the final tree. A Bonsai tree purchased at the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival served as inspiration for the Imagineers. The animals were carved into a thick layer of cement by 8 Imagineer sculptors at the rate of 1 a day.  Some of the more prominent animals were worked on by several sculptors.  In the two year time period it took to develop this amazing piece of art, most of the final year was spent on the surface treatments alone. Then there was the decision of what would go in this theater. It was important to have an eco friendly message delivered through a great show via music, comedy, etc. The design team struggled on this coming up with several ideas that fell flat. Then Michael Eisner suggested tying it in with the Bug’s Life film that was coming out the following year, since it is underground, in a tree, it fit.  The Pixar characters from the film brought everything they were looking for to deliver an entertaining show along with the message about bugs. They didn’t have a better area of the park to deliver this message about bugs in! It has become one of the favorite attractions at Animal Kingdom and has been recreated in the California park as well.

3.  Spaceship Earth, Epcot

From early concept art there was a large sphere, which makes sense since Walt wanted Future World to be based on structures from the World’s Fair and there had been two different spherical structures there. Spaceship Earth is a 180-foot tall geodesic dome. It is a mathematical, engineering and architectural wonder as a complete sphere which had not been done before.  The structure of this is nothing short of amazing. There are gutters that take the rain water off the sphere and channels it into World Showcase lagoon. There are actually two spheres, the inner one is a thick rubber blanket forming the membrane of the building. The outer layer is made up of 11,324 aluminum triangular panels, each individually fitted to the next, forming a tetrahedron because they resist external pressure the most out of all geometric shapes. See, a mathematical, engineering, and architectural wonder! The ride snakes through this spherical shape using the space well, and creating a complicated arrangement of backstage paths for those who maintain the ride. The focus of the ride is on human communication, how it began and how our history is connected to ways that communication grew and how it points us to the future. In 2007 the trip back down to unload gave us a new experience.  It is a whimsical look at our future, in which we have a say, and it ends after getting off the ride and entering the show area where we see our postcards with us as stars in our future that guests can email to themselves or other people.  There are other futuristic games inside this area too. There is a lot to see in this attraction so don’t miss the inside, because I know you cannot miss the outside!

2. Walt Disney World Railroad, Magic Kingdom

After entering through the touch points the first place guests overwhelmingly choose to snap a photo of the family is right there in front of the Main Street Train Station. The location of the station is purposely to block your view of the park inside. This is part of the entry that Walt Disney himself designed. You walk in through tunnels underneath the railroad station, getting darker, then you walk into the “theater” that is Magic Kingdom, just as you would enter any other theater. Pick up your “program” as you pass through the tunnel (Guide Map and Times Guide). Walt loved trains. He even built one in the back yard of his California home.  All four steam engines were built in the early 1900’s and were salvaged by Imagineers in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. They shipped these engines to Tampa to be restored. The rest of the cars were built from scratch. The names on the trains are: Lilly Belle (named after Walt’s wife), Walter E. Disney, Roy O. Disney and Roger E. Broggie(famous Imagineer and close friend of Walt’s. The train makes a loop around Magic Kingdom with additional stops in Fronteirland and Fantasyland which makes it a great form of transportation as well as part of the “show”.

1. Cinderella Castle, Magic Kingdom

What is the most photographed place in the whole world? Yep, Cinderella Castle! It is so beautiful and serves its purpose of being the “weenie” for the Magic Kingdom perfectly.  When approaching Magic Kingdom on the Ferry Boat from the Transportation & Ticket Center it is the first thing that comes into focus. You can hear people everyday that are making their first voyage to Magic Kingdom gleefully pointing it out to their children, no matter what language they speak. When you enter Town Square you don’t get a view of the Castle until you absorb the scene before you and begin to move toward Main Street when it steals your attention. Throughout Fantasyland you will see castle walls, turrets, and flags that mimic the Castle design. Cinderella Castle, at 189 feet tall, is larger than Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland due to the larger size of the overall park. It is the culmination of several Imagineers working together over a long period of time. The Castles are the centerpieces of each of the Disney parks around the world so it is important to get it right. This castle is very unique in that there are underground tunnels below it in this Florida sandy soil. These tunnels are called “utiladors” and are used by all Cast Members, maintenance, etc. personnel it takes to keep Magic Kingdom works and for them to bring magic to the guests. Take note of the coat of arms over the entrance to the castle, both front and back, to see the coat of arms for the Disney family. Inside you will see a detailed mosaic telling of the story of Cinderella. The Castle has been the centerpiece of countless shows, parades, fireworks shows, and now have scenes projected onto it every evening. The paint, the lighting, etc. may change often, but that just shows how versatile the design is. Look for Tinker Bell to fly from the top of the castle on evenings when the weather is agreeable.

About Cassie

Cassie L. I am a lifelong Disney fan. I attended Walt Disney World in 1971, and was there during the opening week of EPCOT, and have visited the Disney Parks for than 30 times. I have had the privilege of visiting Disneyland as a child, and then again with my children. My family recently moved from the northeastern United States to the Walt Disney World area. I now have cast members in my family and enjoy hearing the magical stories at the end of a shift. I love visiting all of the parks and getting to try more Disney food and being able to share it with you to help you plan your own magical day at Disney.