Walt Disney World (FL)

What To Know: A First-Timer’s Guide to EPCOT

Share This!

Planning and going on a Walt Disney World vacation can be stressful – especially if it’s your first visit. You want to make the best use of your vacation money, and make sure that everyone has a good time. EPCOT, the second park built at Walt Disney World, can be especially tricky. It’s a park that is still trying to figure out what it wants to be – a place where learning is fun, a year-round World’s Fair, a non-stop festival ground, or a playground for Disney characters.

So what is important to know when you visit EPCOT for the first time? There are lots of resources to help you with that (The Unofficial Guide is one of our favorites). But here we’ll share some special tips and tricks that I wish I knew on my very first trip to EPCOT. You might also give it a skim if you’ve visited before, but haven’t been back in 5 or 10 years.

EPCOT Geography 101

EPCOT is divided into four “lands” (themed areas) in two halves of the park. Unlike Magic Kingdom, the big park icon – Spaceship Earth – is actually at one end of the park and not at a central hub. Nestled behind it on the northern end are the first three lands – from east to west you’ll find World Discovery, World Celebration, and World Nature. Before 2022, these were all collectively known as “Future World”.

The entire back/southern half of the park is the fourth land – World Showcase. It is made up of 11 pavilions representing countries from around the globe. Just one full lap around the World Showcase Lagoon without any detours into any of the pavilions clocks in at 1.2 miles.

Map of the EPCOT lands as of late 2023

EPCOT is full of rides (mostly in the Spaceship Earth half of the park), shows, entertainment, and dining (mostly in the World Showcase half of the park). A complete tour of the entire park takes a full day, but you could spend much more time exploring everything EPCOT has to offer.

There Are Two Entrances to Choose From

Interesting tidbit – EPCOT is the only Walt Disney World park that has two entrances on opposite sides of the park! The Main Entrance is on the northern end with Spaceship Earth, and is where Disney buses and the monorail drop you off. It’s also where you’ll enter if you drive and park yourself. The International Gateway is on the other side of the park, between Britain and France in the World Showcase. This is where boats from nearby resorts and the Skyliner drop you off. It’s also where you’ll enter if you walk from Crescent Lake resorts like the Beach Club, Yacht Club, BoardWalk Inn, Swan, and Dolphin.

For those of you keeping track at home, that’s SIX different methods of transportation (including feet) that can deposit you at EPCOT’s two entrances. Both entrances open at the same time each day. Typically, the International Gateway will have shorter lines to get into the park.

Boats and Skyliner Gondolas near the International Gateway

What You Ride First Matters

Just like at the other Walt Disney World parks, the lowest lines of the day will be right as the park opens. This is especially true at EPCOT because many locals and vacationers like to end their days at EPCOT for a good meal. That means not as much tailing off of wait times at the end of the day! This doesn’t matter too much at less popular attractions that keep relatively low waits throughout the day. But it makes a world of difference at headliners. Here are some of our recommended “first ride” options:

  • Test Track – the line for this full-speed race doesn’t usually get too unbearable (if it does, you can use the single rider line). But it’s incredibly unreliable, especially in wet weather, so it’s best to start your day here if you’re arriving at the Main Entrance.
  • Frozen Ever After – this kid-friendly boat ride competes for the longest waits in the park thanks to the enduring popularity of the Arendelle royalty. It’s equidistant from both entrances, and it’s a good second stop in the morning from either direction.
  • Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure – this trackless dark ride is a technological wonder, all set in the world of rats. It’s a cute ride, but not worth an hour-long wait. Since it’s relatively new, it attracts large crowds all day, and is the best choice as a first ride if you’re entering from the International Gateway.

For a more detailed look at what to ride first, see: Ahead of the Pack: Making the Most of Disney World Rope Drop.

There Is No Standby Line for Cosmic Rewind

Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is my personal favorite attraction right now, and is the fourth-highest-rated attraction in Walt Disney World for 2023. I’d be willing to bet it would be even higher if it didn’t cause so much motion-induced low scoring. (Worried? See A Ride Chicken Review of Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.) But I digress.

Lots and lots of people want to experience Cosmic Rewind, and despite its decent reliability, it doesn’t have enough hourly capacity to handle all of them. More importantly, it doesn’t have enough indoor queue space to hold more than about an hour of people waiting. Any more than that, and people would be baking in the EPCOT sun. So Disney uses a virtual queue to manage how many people will be in line at any one time. That way the physical lines stay nice and manageable.

This is an attraction you’ll absolutely want to experience during your EPCOT day, so plan ahead for how you’ll ride – you can find all of the details here: Step-by-Step How To Ride Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind

Cosmic Rewind. (photo by @bioreconstruct)

You Can Spend All Day in World Showcase

Most of the flashy and iconic EPCOT attractions are located in the front half of the park – Cosmic Rewind, Test Track, Spaceship Earth, Soarin’, Living with the Land, The Seas, and the new Journey with Water walkthrough. But you could easily spend a full day without ever setting foot in this half of the park.

That’s because World Showcase is large and full of immersive experiences and exceptional dining. These are just some of the things it has to offer:

  • In the Mexico pavilion, ride Gran Fiesta Tour, drink at La Cava del Tequila, enjoy margaritas, listen to Mariache Cobre, meet Sombrero Donald, and shop in the “night market” inside the pyramid!
  • In the Norway pavilion, meet Anna and Elsa, ride Frozen Ever After, high-five a giant troll, eat school bread, or dine with princesses.
  • In the China pavilion, watch a 360-degree film, explore the gardens and shop, meet Mulan, or enjoy some tea.
  • In the Italy pavilion, watch Sergio do some entertaining juggling, find a gelato, sample flights of wine, or watch your own pizza being made in ovens named after Italian volcanoes.
  • In the Germany pavilion, spectate in the miniature train village, eat your weight in caramel, eat unlimited Biergarten food while enjoying traditional music, or meet Snow White.
  • In the American Adventure pavilion, you can watch a stunning patriotic animatronic show, listen to some of the best acapella music in the country, catch a concert at the outdoor theater, or chow on BBQ.
  • In the Japan pavilion, listen to traditional drumming, shop until you drop at a Japanese department store, drink a violet sake, watch your food being grilled in front of you, or admire bonsai trees that are the result of decades of work.
  • In the Morocco pavilion, dine by the water with Moroccan small plates, relax in a lounge, or meet Jasmine.
  • In the France pavilion, ride Remy’s Ratatouille adventure, watch a Beauty and the Beast sing-along, eat pastries or sandwiches or French onion soup or ice cream or brioche or baguettes or .. all of the other things, and meet Belle and Aurora.
  • In the United Kingdom pavilion, get your fix of fish and chips, listen to live music, drink or purchase tea to bring home, or meet Winnie the Pooh and Mary Poppins.
  • In the Canada pavilion, you can catch more live music, see a 360-degree film about the country, explore the gardens, or eat some fancy steak.

All of this is in addition to more characters greeting, interactive stations for kids in each pavilion, musical acts and more!

“We’re not learning, Mom. We’re just watching a movie.”
And that is exactly why, as a parent, World Showcase is so awesome.

There Is (Almost) Always a Festival

EPCOT plays host to multiple festivals throughout the year, each bringing unique entertainment, decorations, and dining booths around the park:

  1. Festival of the Arts from mid-January to mid-February
  2. Flower and Garden Festival from late February to mid-summer
  3. International Food and Wine Festival from late July to mid-November
  4. Festival of the Holidays from late November through late December

Each festival has a different focus, but the core offerings (food, performances, a festival scavenger hunt) remain very similar. Differentiators include:

  • Interactive art exhibits and artists in the park during Festival of the Arts
  • Decorative topiaries during Flower and Garden Festival
  • Food demonstrations and activities during Food and Wine
  • Holiday Storytellers and Candlelight Processional during Festival of the Holidays

An Abundance of Great Dining Options

EPCOT has a larger quantity of high-satisfaction dining locations than any other park. You have many many above-average options to choose from! Here are the reliable top 3 or 4 dining locations from year-to-year:

Table Service

Quick Service

Wrapping Up Your Night

Luminous is the big, new, beautiful nighttime spectacular that happens once a night on the World Showcase Lagoon. People will start claiming spots everywhere around the World Showcase up to an hour before the show. And it’s absolutely something you should try to watch during your EPCOT day.

But there’s a somewhat-sneaky bonus nighttime show (or, shows, really) on the other side of the park that are just as magical. Starting at sunset, Spaceship Earth lights up with its “Beacons of Magic” that were installed as part of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Every 15 minutes, music plays in the front of the park and the lights put on a show. I try to catch this show as frequently as possible, and a night at EPCOT just doesn’t feel complete without seeing it at least once.

One of the many lighting packages that makes Spaceship Earth even more beautiful at night

At the end of Luminous, almost everyone in the park heads for the exits. All the transportation is flooded with thousands of people wanting to get back to their rooms as quickly as possible. The busses are slammed, and the Skyliner gets wait times up to an hour. Disney knows this, but there is simply no way to scale up transportation every night to meet this surge.

If you need to get out quickly, your best bet may be walking to one of the resorts outside of the International Gateway and hailing an Uber or Lyft. But that could be expensive. You can also avoid these issues by either:

  • watching Luminous from France or the UK and leaving through the International Gateway as quickly as humanly possible
  • waiting in the park until 30-60 minutes after park closing

A walk through an empty, lit World Showcase is hands-down my favorite Walt Disney World experience. Sure, a full loop will add another mile or so to your already long day. But there is something special about feeling like you have this unique part of the park just to yourself. And no one will kick you out quickly – many restaurants around the World Showcase offer reservations that start up until park closing, which means there will be diners busy eating for up to 90 minutes after the park closes.

Check out the Mexico pavilion (and all of the others) lit up at night, with no one else around! (photo by Brandon Glover)

Having a Plan is Key

The majority of first-time visitors to EPCOT will head into the park without any plan. They’ll end up spending their entire day in 5 or 6 really long lines, and eating at the first place they come to without a long line to order.

A little research and a plan can take those 5 or 6 rides and turn them into more than 10 attractions in an EPPCOT day. Plus a good meal or two, some great snacks, and plenty of enjoyable exploration time in the World Showcase! If you’re a TouringPlans subscriber, you can check out some of our pre-made EPCOT Touring Plans. Or you can create a personalized plan of your own and see what the optimizer recommends. Either method will give you an idea of the best way to approach your day.

If you’re a EPCOT veteran, what tip would you share with a rookie? And if you’re planning your first visit, what questions do you have?

You May Also Like...

Becky Gandillon

Becky Gandillon was trained in biomedical engineering, but is now a full-time data and analytics nerd. She loves problem solving and travelling. She and her husband, Jeff, live in St. Louis with their two daughters and they have Disney family movie night every Saturday. You can follow her on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/becky-gandillon/ or instagram @raisingminniemes

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *