Last week, we set out for Magic Kingdom shortly before 6 a.m. for morning Extra Magic Hours. After breezing through bag check and the turnstiles, a small group of dedicated Walt Disney World guests waited in front of the floral Mickey to enter and beat the hordes of spring breakers that would later descend upon the park.
Rope drop occurred shortly before 7 a.m., allowing for the rare experience of seeing the Magic Kingdom all lit up in the morning. This pre-sunrise experience in Magic Kingdom happens a few times a year, primarily around Christmas, New Year’s Eve, Easter, and spring break.
It’s one of my absolute favorite times in Walt Disney World, not because you can do a ton of attractions as walk-ons (although you could do exactly that), but because it’s an uncommon opportunity to enjoy the best time of day at Magic Kingdom–as the park transitions from night to day–in a totally serene environment. In this post, I’ll share that experience with you via some photos I captured that morning…
I first fell in love with this pre-dawn Magic Kingdom experience several years ago while staying at Bay Lake Tower the week between Christmas and New Year’s. That year, the park offered 7 a.m. Extra Magic Hours every single morning of our trip, and had unannounced openings even earlier, at about 6:30 a.m.
Every morning, I was outside the train station by 6 a.m., I’d walk over from the Contemporary in the dark and wait for the day to begin. I’d run around, going wild doing attractions as walk-ons, grabbing a few photos here and there. In retrospect, I don’t remember a single ride I did, but the experience of taking certain photos is etched in my memory.
After a few hours, the holiday crowds would show up in full force, and we’d leave, heading back to Bay Lake Tower to crash for the afternoon before getting up just before sunset and repeating the whole process in reverse, staying out as late as possible for evening Extra Magic Hours. It was an odd sleep schedule, to say the least.
My recollections of those mornings are quite fond, but I’ve frequently wished I could do it all over again, focusing solely on the photos. Last week, I had exactly that opportunity, and took full advantage. While Sarah was riding around the Main Street vehicles and the PeopleMover, I was racing around like a madman photographing everything in sight.
If I were to offer a recap of my morning, it would effectively read like the play-by-play from a game of pinball. I started at the Train Station, went halfway up Main Street, back to the Train Station, all the way into the Central Plaza, and back down Main Street.
Then I headed over to Tomorrowland–but not to do attractions, to take photos of fake palm trees. Then it was back to the Central Plaza, through Cinderella Castle to Fantasyland and New Fantasyland, back to Tomorrowland…you get the idea.
Originally, I was going to title this post Kingdom Keepers: Magic Kingdom Before Sunrise.
However, I haven’t actually read any of those books, so I went to Wikipedia to make sure my assumptions about the books’ premises were correct…and it sounds like they’re actually about kids who are holographic hosts, doing battle with villains after hours?
Maybe it would’ve been a good reference, but I nevertheless dropped it. Instead, I went with the Before Sunrise reference, which is part of my favorite film trilogy of all time. The first film is a romantic drama dealing with human connections, everyday life, travel, and seizing opportunities.
Not that you cared.
With a totally clear sky, this sunrise wasn’t ideal from a photography perspective, but I did make sure to be near Cinderella Castle as it was “kissed” by the red glow of the first sunlight piercing the horizon.
This red hue doesn’t last long, so as soon as I captured shots to the side of and between Cinderella Castle, I raced back to New Fantasyland.
My options there were limited, as the sunlight hadn’t yet hit anything near ground level. I’m not sure spotlighting Beast’s Castle is the best idea, but I like this photo.
I probably should’ve headed to Frontierland instead, but I’m not sure I could’ve made it there in time.
Heading back towards the Central Plaza, I stopped for some photos of Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
It was still dark enough to accomplish this photo simply by bumping up my aperture and slowing my shutter speed just a bit, creating the motion blur to give the photo a sense of kinetic energy.
Once the sun was sufficiently over the horizon, it was time for one of my favorite things in photography: sunbursts.
There’s a lot of dead space in the above photo, but I still like it. Not only is the light on the ground pretty, but it underscores just how empty Magic Kingdom was at this hour.
More of the same back on my favorite walkway along the Rivers of America in Frontierland.
This path can get congested during the middle of the day, especially when it’s a parade bypass, but early in the morning or late at night, it’s a serene and charming way to enjoy the scenery along the Rivers of America.
A different approach here as I positioned the sun just out of the frame, blowing out the sky with a soft, ethereal glow.
It’s not my normal style, but I think it works. There are also three ducks in the frame, and that alone makes it a keeper.
Speaking of wildlife, there were two times this particular morning when I heard other guests audibly react to animals (once a squirrel, once a duck) scurrying down pathways in Magic Kingdom.
We regularly see guests taking photos of ducks, rabbits, squirrels, and even cats in the parks. We see this because we’re often doing the same. This just goes to show that no matter how much high-tech wizardry Walt Disney World introduces, sometimes life’s simple pleasures and moments of joy are what makes the place special.
More sunburst fun back at the Little Mermaid dark ride as the sun rises a bit higher.
I still vividly remember racing around back here when the area was still relatively new during the last 24-hour party. As chaotic as those were, I’d love to see them return. Maybe we’ll get a 50 hour kick-off for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary?! Somehow I doubt it, but I can dream…
I love the pink, red, and yellow flowers planted around the Central Plaza at Magic Kingdom right now. The multi-color snapdragons I really like are already gone, but the park is still looking vibrant for spring.
I’ve plugged it once already recently, but anyone who wants to see Magic Kingdom at its horticultural peak should check out the Gardens of Walt Disney World. (You can read my full review of this book here.) That book showcases how resplendent Magic Kingdom used to look back in the late 1980s.
We end with a look at Sharing the Magic as early morning light starts to give the Main Street facades a warm glow. By this time, more guests were starting to trickle into the park, and were likewise stopping in their tracks to take photos of the beautiful morning.
By about 9 a.m., I had already logged around 15,000 steps, and should’ve been exhausted. Yet I felt rejuvenated. There is a certain feeling Magic Kingdom has as it wakes up for the day and comes alive, and experiencing that in relative serenity is truly…(I won’t use the obvious but cliched term here)…majestical.
We are very fortunate to visit Walt Disney World often, and while that might sound really great, the byproduct is that it can make the exceptional feel everyday. You start to take the parks for granted, which definitely should not be the case. Mornings like this are reinvigorating, restoring that magic (okay, I had to use it), and helping keep that passion going strong.
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Have you ever spent an early morning in Magic Kingdom just wandering around, savoring the atmosphere? Ever had the chance to do super early Extra Magic Hours during peak season? Thoughts on any of these photos, or the sometimes-random, rambling text? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!