Daybreak is an underrated part of the theme-park day. Anticipation builds as a crowd gathers outside the gate, and once inside, visitors have a crack at hitting up their favorite rides before the throngs arrive. (Shhhhh, some vacationers are still sleeping).
Park operators know the value of early rising. Some parks literally make a production number out of the opening moments — aka rope drop. Special tours also frequently launch first thing in the morning. Universal Orlando gives folks staying in its hotels a head start at Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios, and if you're staying in a Disney hotel, there are pre-opening benefits in the form of Extra Magic Hours on some days. Disney World has just introduced Early Morning Magic, a special event that allows early entry to a small section of Magic Kingdom — plus breakfast — for $69.
Others merely say "Come on in" at the appointed hour. So today let's keep our mad money in our pockets and concentrate on early-bird benefits that come with regular admission at Central Florida theme parks.
Here's our guide to getting there early — and what to do first.
The morning greeting at Disney World's oldest park is so elaborate that it has a name: "Magic Kingdom Welcome Show." As park-goers linger in front of the floral Mickey Mouse head in the shadow of the train station, a cast member welcomes guests from the train platform. Couples up there sing and dance in that two-turns-of-the-century-ago way, which reflects the tone of Main Street U.S.A. There are big skirts and straw hats in motion.
Tunes include "Good Morning," "Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah" and "Casey Jr." from "Dumbo."
It's all build-up for the train arriving, toting a dozen or so characters. Mickey and company have arrived. When the train rounds the corner into sight, there's a collective oooh/aaah and instant mass photo opp.
The characters disembark for a bit of waving and merriment and a 10-9-8 countdown for the park opening.
Folks are so hyped that Disney has a friendly reminder to walk "safely and slowly" to your destination. I'd advise heading to long-wait favorites such as Space Mountain or Peter Pan's Flight. And yet, last week, by the time I walked back to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train the posted wait time was 50 minutes. ("Not bad," exclaimed a passer-by. You've been warned.)
There's no such song-and-dance routine when Epcot opens in the morning — but there's a trick. For years now, the park has opened in shifts. Future World, the side near the main gate opens at 9 a.m. World Showcase — maybe you call it "the countries" — opens at 11 a.m. … for the most part.
Visitors can hoof it back to World Showcase, but they'll be stopped at the border between Norway and China (a phrase that only makes sense around here). Try going the other direction and you'll make it through France, but the road to Morocco is guarded by deligent taut-rope-toting cast members. Honestly, there's nothing to do back there before 11 a.m. because it's all closed. An exception: France's Les Halles Boulangerie eatery, which is open for breakfast, baguettes and beyond
The only mad-dash attraction in Future World at this time, I'd say, is Test Track, since Soarin' is closed for expansion. If the line is short — say, 10 minutes or less — for Spaceship Earth, I'd do that on the way in.
I just had a flashback to rope drops of the Daddy Dash era of 2014, when "Frozen" fever forced fathers of young girls to race for a spot in line to meet Anna and Elsa. Maybe we'll have an updated version when the Frozen Ever After ride and other Arendelle hot spots open in World Showcase this summer.
Years ago, the opening minutes of Disney's Hollywood Studios were presided over by the Citizens of Hollywood, the park's on-the-street improv troupe. Now the gang assembles around 10 a.m. for some nice interactive moments, but many folks already have scattered to the crowd-pleasing Tower of Terror, Toy Story Mania or Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. Even if you have secured a FastPass+ reservation for Toy Story, I'd still go straight back to the attraction because (1) you're going to want to ride more than once and (2) the standby line is unlikely to shrink.
You can catch the Citizens later in the day. Likewise for the new intergalactic offerings, the "Star Wars: A Galaxy Far, Far Away" stage show and the stormtrooper procession, both of which are repeated multiple times daily.
Another early to-do is signing up the kids for the Jedi Training Academy. It's in such demand, there are cast members stationed with signs to direct folks to the sign-up.
Easing into the day
Disney's Animal Kingdom opens without ceremony, and in the coming months the park will have more emphasis on the other end of the day with new after-dark attractions, including a sunset safari and the "Rivers of Light" spectacular. The premiere dates for those currently are up in the air, but if you're looking for a first-thing attraction, I'd set out for the Kilimanjaro Safaris experience. Suburban legend has it that the animals are most active in the morning. Makes sense. Doesn't the heat get to you by afternoon? And you're (probably) not wearing a genuine fur coat.
SeaWorld Orlando is unique in our market in several ways. It's home to penguins. A fly-like-Superman coaster operates there. Guests can get thisclose to manatees. "The Star-Spangled Banner" is played there.
Wait, what? Yep, the national anthem rings through the park's P.A. system about 15 minutes before the people work their ways through the turnstiles. It's patriotic and refreshing, since "Banner" seems relegated to athletic events and inaugurations.
Once the park is opening, the soundtrack switches to "Beneath the Blue," a soaring non-national anthem written for SeaWorld's 50th anniversary. It does a good job of setting the musical tone for the park, and it's available on iTunes.
Waiting it out
Universal Orlando's parks don't make a big fuss over rope drop. It feels like buzz builds on the journey from the mega-garage to Universal CityWalk, which has smartly moved Starbucks and other breakfast options along the main pathway of the bulk of visitors.
One park opens early each day for guests staying in on-property hotels. It alternates between Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios. Although you can get past the turnstiles with a regular ticket, you will quickly come upon a barricade where your papers must be in order. On a recent visit to the Studios, we were stopped before Despicable Me Minion Mayhem in one spot and also back by Mel's Drive-In, which became a make-shift shelter from the rain.
Most Universal early birds take advantage of alone time at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Regular visitors might opt for Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit at the Studios or the Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man or Pteradon Flyers at IOA. That could all change again this summer when the Incredible Hulk coaster reopens and when Skull Island: Reign of Kong makes its debut.
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