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Plan your day at Walt Disney World's Epcot

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Published: May 19, 2013 at 3:04 PM

Third in our series of trip-planning posts, for visits to the world's top theme parks

Walt Disney envisioned EPCOT as an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, where people would live, work and play in a new urban community, designed for modern efficiency. But he died before his "Florida project" could be completed. Walt's successors at the Walt Disney Company honored his vision with Epcot Center (now, just "Epcot"), a kind of permanent world's fair, with sections devoted to modern scientific and industrial accomplishments (Future World), as well as to the nations of the world (World Showcase).

Epcot
The iconic Spaceship Earth at Walt Disney World's Epcot

What to do before you go

Epcot was the second of the four Walt Disney World theme parks. Please see our guide to the Magic Kingdom for advice on booking hotels and buying tickets to the Walt Disney World Resort.

Epcot's most popular attraction might be its restaurants. Each of the nations in World Showcase features at least one restaurant, including many table service restaurants that rank among the better theme park restaurants in the world. Getting for Advance Dining Reservations well before your trip is a must when planning a visit to Epcot. Call +1-407-WDW-DINE or visit Disney World's website to book, up to six months in advance of your visit. The toughest table in Epcot is Canada's Le Cellier Steakhouse, but Theme Park Insider readers also give high marks to Teppan Edo and Tokyo Dining in Japan, the Garden Grill in the Land pavilion, and Monsieur Paul in France, a fine-dining restaurant open only for dinner, where the bill can run higher than at any other in-park Disney restaurant in the world. Visit our Epcot listings page for a complete list of restaurants in the park.

Herb-crusted rack of lamb at Monsieur Paul
Herb-crusted rack of lamb at Monsieur Paul

Visitors on the Disney Dining Plan (often sold as an ad-on with on-property Disney hotel vacation packages) flock to Epcot's restaurants to use their meal credits, due to the relative high quality of the park's restaurants, so call as early as you can to secure tables at the restaurants you want.

With dining bringing in lots of locals, too, Epcot remains open for the same hours pretty much every day of the year: 9am - 9pm. The park offers Extra Magic Hours to Disney hotel guests in the evenings on some days, but that shouldn't discourage you from visiting on those days. Epcot is huge. At 300 acres, it's Disney's largest theme park one of Disney's largest theme parks -- even on busy days, crowds almost never become overbearing.

What to do when you get to Epcot

You'll pay $14 to park in Epcot's immense parking lot. You can ride the monorail over from the Magic Kingdom's Transportation and Ticket Center, but plan to park at Epcot instead, to ensure that you're in place at the park's gate before its 9am opening.

Unique among the Disney World theme parks, Epcot has a second entrance -- called the International Gateway -- located between the United Kingdom and France pavilions in World Showcase, and connected by a walking path to the Yacht and Beach Club Resorts. A boat service also connects the International Gateway entrance to the Disney's Hollywood Studios theme park. We don't recommend using the International Gateway entrance first thing in the morning as Epcot doesn't open its World Showcase attractions until 11am, and it's a slow bus ride from that entrance to the Future World attractions at the front of the park.

Epcot has only three attractions that draw any significant wait times during the day -- all in Future World. But the wait times at these three attractions can be massive, so getting them out of the way early is essential.

One of the three, Soarin', is an exact duplicate of Soarin' Over California at Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort. If you've been to California Adventure, or are planning a trip, you're better off seeing Soarin' there, as the California original offers a much shorter wait than you'll find in Epcot. The second of the Big Three at Epcot -- Mission: Space -- is a love-it-or-hate-it high-speed centrifuge ride that simulates a space flight to Mars. You'll experience several moments of weightlessness in a tight-fitting, four-person space "capsule" on this ride. If that sounds exciting to you, don't miss this experience. If that sounds like the most dreadful thing you've ever heard, then, by all means, skip this ride. Mission: Space also offers a "Green" side, without the moving capsules (the "Orange" side is the one with the weightlessness), but what's the point of cramming yourself into a tight space for a fake mission to Mars if you're not going to experience the physical thrill? Maybe if you're really into claustrophobia.

Mission: Space
Mission: Space

That leaves Test Track, an interactive tour through an automobile design studio, where you help design elements on a car you'll ride through a high-speed test. Disney revamped this attraction in 2012 and it draws lines of several hours in the middle of the day. There is a single-rider line available which can cut your wait to under an hour, or if you hit the line at the right time, perhaps as little as just a few minutes.

If you want to go on just one of these rides, visit it first thing when the park opens at 9. If you want to ride two, grab a Fastpass ride reservation return time for one, then immediately do the other. (We'd suggest getting the Fastpass for Test Track before riding Soarin'.) If you want to ride all three, get a Fastpass for Soarin', then cross Future World to ride Test Track, breaking your party up to use the single rider line if you're visiting on Christmas week or some other very popular day when standby wait times already have exceeded an hour. (If the wait's still under an hour, just keep your group together and go ahead). After riding Test Track, look to see if your return-time window for Soarin' has opened yet. If it has (or is about to), go next door to get Fastpasses for Mission: Space before heading over to Soarin'. If not, and you can't get a Fastpass for Space yet, look to see if you have time to ride it before you have to be back at Soarin'. Worse comes to worst, return to Mission: Space to get a Fastpass for it after riding Soarin'.

Your other must-see attractions in the park are Spaceship Earth (the ride inside the iconic geosphere that looms over Future World), the American Adventure animatronic show in World Showcase, and Impressions de France, the best theme park movie ever made, which plays in the France pavilion. None of these rides attract much more than a 20-minute wait during the day, even during busy periods, so see them at your convenience. Just focus on bagging the Big Three in Future World (or getting Fastpasses to them) before lunch, then plan your way around the park to accommodate your dining reservations. Like we said, it's a big park. You don't want to spend all day criss-crossing it.

If you take advantage of Epcot's abundant shopping, which specialty stores stocking merchandise from each World Showcase country, take advantage of the park's package delivery service if you are staying at Disney hotel, or have Disney hold your packages for pick-up at the park's entrance at the end of the day. Just tell the clerk at the register you'd like to use the package pick-up service. If you want to avoid the hassle of schlepping your souvenirs home altogether, Disney will ship what you buy to your home via UPs or FedEx, for an additional fee.

Where to eat

We covered the table service restaurants above, but if you prefer counter-service meals, Theme Park Insider readers recommend Les Halles Boulangerie and Patisserie in France, Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe in Norway and the Yorkshire County Fish Shop in the United Kingdom. (Click through on those links for fuller descriptions, photos and readers' reviews.)

If you'll be visiting during the spring or fall months, consider skipping the park's restaurants and instead "eating around the world" at the many food stands the park sets up for its Flower & Garden (in the spring) and Food & Wine (in the fall) festivals. You'll find a wide variety of international specialities from the various countries in World Showcase during these weeks-long events. You'll also find many chef's demonstrations and special dinners available during the Food & Wine Festival, which helps make the previously sleepy weeks in the park between September and November alive with foodie Disney fans from around the world.

Foolhardy Epcot visitors might also try to "drink around the world" at World Showcase's abundant bars, pubs and drink stands, but at theme park prices, that's a struggle to see which will pass out first -- you, or your credit card's limit.

Nighttime entertainment

Epcot closes its day with IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, a light and fireworks show that plays on and around the World Showcase Lagoon. Even though you can see the show from just about anywhere in World Showcase, you'll want to stake out a place before showtime to secure the best views. Plop down and grab a space around the World Showcase lagoon where you can see as much of the lagoon and Spaceship Earth as possible. You might need to claim your space up to three hours before show time on busy days, or up to an hour early on "normal" days. Or you can plan to eat at one of the waterside restaurants that offer IllumiNations viewing, which are the Rose and Crown Pub in the United Kingdom and La Hacienda de San Angel in Mexico.

What's next at Epcot?

A new Moroccan restaurant, Spice Road Table, will open waterside later in 2013. That's it.

We will update this entry, based on reader feedback in the comments. If you have a suggestion for this page, please use the comment section below to let us know. Thank you!

Next week: Disney's Animal Kingdom

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Readers' Opinions

From Daniel Etcheberry on May 19, 2013 at 3:50 PM
Robert, Epcot has 300 acres, and Animal Kingdom has 500 acres. AK is Disney's largest theme park. Not Epcot.
From 85.150.173.168 on May 19, 2013 at 3:55 PM
Great tips.
For World Showcase I would like to add The Seas (unfortunately with Nemo). I hate the ride but the aquarium is huge and beautiful (especially when it's not to crowded). And Turtle Talk with crush will have you laugh out loud, it's that funny.

I would add the ride at Norway as a must do at World Showcase and would add you should be there at rope drop (11 am). When we went years ago friendly Norwegian castmembers waved at us and offering small pieces of yummy food from their bakery (not sure if they still do that).

Of the 3 big rides at World Showcase mentioned in the article I only would recommend Test Track. Mission Space could seriously ruin your day and make you sick. If not sure ride it very late in the day/evening so you can go back to your hotel/home if you get sick.
Soarin is more of a tech demo, the technique is very cool but because the film is a bunch of clips without transition so it'll take you our of the illusion. A cloud transition would have been better. Also it doesn't fit "story" wise at the Land pavilion.
For the future I would hope Disney makes this into a worthy attraction maybe with a unique character like a silly professor that made a super hang glider that could take you all over the world. We could start at Epcot flying out of the building and tour the resort to be flashed forward to the Everglades. From there we could flash to the rainforests in Mexico, the African plains and Asia and more to see the beauty of this planet is a 6 minute ride.

From Tracy Bates on May 19, 2013 at 5:18 PM
I will say that while it took forever to get reservations at Le Cellier, it was a wonderful, if expensive meal.

That being said, the Garden Grill in the land was a disappointment. The characters were great, but the food was on the level of a Golden Corral at best and the rotation was broken, so our entire meal was spent looking at the back of the check in desk. You'd think they would offer something in exchange for missing out on the entire premise of the restaurant, but nope...

I wasn't too impressed with Teppan Edo. I suppose because it's more authentic than the local japanese steakhouses, they serve white rice instead of fried rice. While it was an OK meal, If I wanted plain rice I can make it a lot cheaper at home. I won't be eating here again.

We did enjoy our meal at the Coral Reef restaurant inside of the living seas. It was a little disconcerting to be dining on fish while the ones in the aquarium were just staring at you through the glass, though. I wish portion sizes were bigger at this restaurant, but the food presentation and taste were really top notch.

From 206.29.182.175 on May 19, 2013 at 6:13 PM
Epcot needs new attractions ASAP! I think ratattouille would be perfect for France pavilion and a mystic manor type ride for one of the other countries would be great!
From Robert Niles on May 19, 2013 at 8:49 PM
Thanks, Daniel. Made that fix. If you've dined at some of Epcot's restaurants in the past year or two, please click over to our Epcot page and submit a rating for those restaurants. Those ratings are what we use to determine the recommendation on these tips pages. Thanks!
From Manny Barron on May 19, 2013 at 10:35 PM
Epcot is wonderful, nothing else like it in the world. It does feel way bigger than the other Disney parks. Yeah Animal Kingdom is bigger, but if I'm not mistaken thats because of the Kilimanjaro Safaris ride which takes up a huge portion of land.

For first time visitors to Epcot make sure to check out the Mexican pavilion. Its pretty neat inside that pyramid structure.

From 24.94.26.118 on May 21, 2013 at 8:36 AM
I would like to add a bit of advice on choosing where to watch Illuminations. Robert is right, in that there really are no bad places to watch but some places are better. That said, even the best places to watch, become horrible places IF there is consistant wind blowing toward you as you face the lagoon. Reason - fireworks create huge amounts of ash and "pyro dust". It will be carried by the wind and blown into your face and eyes. Try to always have the wind at your back for the most enjoyable experience.
From Anon Mouse on May 21, 2013 at 10:02 AM
I thought you're allowed 2 fastpasses before the reservation window opens of the first fastpass. This is true at DCA when I first got a fastpass for RSR (1:30pm) and then got the second for Soarin' (12:30pm). Certainly WDW could be different.

I enjoyed EPCOT many years ago, but I wonder why they don't add any children's rides. It would be nice for them to add tons of new C and D ticket rides because the park seems to focus mainly on E tickets, which would be a good thing if they are all superb, but they are not.

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