If you're choosing a U.S. tourist destination, the question is not whether to visit Walt Disney World, but how to see its best offerings with some economy of time, effort, and finances.
Walt Disney World comprises 43 square miles, an area twice as large as Manhattan or roughly the size of Boston. Situated strategically in this vast expanse are the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom theme parks; two swimming theme parks; two nighttime-entertainment areas; a sports complex; five golf courses, 34 hotels, and a campground; more than 100 restaurants; four interconnected lakes; a shopping complex; eight convention venues; a nature preserve; and a transportation system consisting of four-lane highways, elevated monorails, and a network of canals.
When people think of Walt Disney World, most think of the Magic Kingdom, opened in 1971. It consists of the adventures, rides, and shows featuring the Disney cartoon characters, and Cinderella Castle. It’s only one element of Disney World, but it remains the heart.
The Magic Kingdom is subdivided into six "lands" that are arranged around a central hub. First encountered is Main Street, U.S.A., which connects the Magic Kingdom entrance with the hub. Clockwise around the hub are Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland. Four hotels (Bay Lake Tower and the Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian Resorts) are near Magic Kingdom and directly connected to it by monorail and boat. Two other hotels (Shades of Green and Disney's Wilderness Lodge Resort and Villas) plus Disney's Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground are nearby but aren’t served by the monorail.
Opened in October 1982, Epcot is twice as big as the Magic Kingdom and comparable in scope. It has two major areas: Future World consists of pavilions concerning human creativity and technological advancement; World Showcase, arranged around a 40-acre lagoon, presents the architectural, social, and cultural heritages of almost a dozen nations, each country represented by replicas of famous landmarks and settings familiar to world travelers. Epcot is more educational than the Magic Kingdom and has been characterized as a permanent World’s Fair. The Epcot resort hotels—Disney's Beach Club Resort and Villas, Disney's Yacht Club, Disney's BoardWalk Inn and Villas, and Swan and Dolphin at Walt Disney World—are within a 5- to 15-minute walk of the International Gateway (back-door) entrance to the theme park. The hotels are also linked to Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios by canal. Epcot is connected to the Magic Kingdom and its hotels by monorail.
Opened in 1989 and about the size of the Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios has two areas. The first is a theme park focused on the past, present, and future of the motion-picture and television industries. This section contains movie-theme rides and shows and covers about half of the complex. Park highlights include a re-creation of Hollywood and Sunset boulevards from Hollywood’s Golden Age, stunt demonstrations, a children’s play area, shows on sound effects, and four high-tech rides.
The second area, formerly a working motion-picture and television production facility, encompasses soundstages, a back lot of streets and sets, and support services. Public access is limited to tours that take visitors behind the scenes for crash courses on Disney animation and moviemaking, including (on occasion) the opportunity to witness the shooting of a film, television show, or commercial. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is connected to other Walt Disney World areas by highway and canal but not by monorail. Guests can park in the Studios’ pay parking lot or commute by bus. Guests at Epcot resort hotels can reach the Studios by boat or on foot.
About five times the size of the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom combines zoological exhibits with rides, shows, and live entertainment. The park is arranged somewhat like the Magic Kingdom, in a hub-and-spoke configuration. A lush tropical rain forest serves as Main Street, funneling visitors to Discovery Island, the park’s hub. Dominated by the park’s central icon, the 14-story-tall, hand-carved Tree of Life, Discovery Island offers services, shopping, and dining. From there, guests can access the themed areas: Africa, Asia, and DinoLand U.S.A.. Discovery Island, Africa, and DinoLand U.S.A. opened in 1998, followed by Asia in 1999. An Avatar-themed land is under construction and expected to open in 2017 or later. Africa, the largest themed area, at 100 acres, features free-roaming herds in a re-creation of the Serengeti Plain. Guests tour in open-air safari vehicles. Animal Kingdom has its own pay parking lot and is connected to other Disney World destinations by the Disney bus system. Although there are no hotels within Animal Kingdom proper, the All-Star Resorts (Sports, Music, and Movies), Animal Kingdom Lodge and Villas, and Coronado Springs are all nearby.
Disney World has two major water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Opened in 1989, Typhoon Lagoon is distinguished by a wave pool capable of making six-foot waves. Blizzard Beach is newer, having opened in 1995, and it features more slides. Both parks are beautifully landscaped, and great attention is paid to atmosphere and aesthetics. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach have their own adjacent parking lots and can be reached via Disney bus.
A useful page that lists all the attractions that are currently closed and scheduled to be closed.