When Disney invited Nerdist to Walt Disney World for its Level Up! event the team behind the curated experience was coy about specifics. The only thing we knew for sure were which video games inspired the outing: Disney Dreamlight Valley, Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora, Disney Speedstorm, and Star Wars Outlaws. Until I showed up I could only guess at what we’d actually be doing there and why. Would we play games with Mickey and Minnie in Cinderella’s Castle? Was there news so big the announcement demanded Spaceship Earth as a setting? Were they launching a new video game attraction at Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom?

What Going to Disney Taught Me About Disney Video Games Part 1 - Magic Kingdom and DISNEY DREAMLIGHT VALLEY_1

Whatever the reason for hosting me, I couldn’t wait to learn exactly how bringing media members and influencers to every park would promote games you play alone at home. Only, when I arrived, I still couldn’t figure out what I was doing there. There didn’t seem to be an obvious, direct connection between being at Disney World and playing Disney video games Or at least that’s what I thought at first. Big surprise, the people who work at Disney know the most important thing about the place. Because it was only by actually experiencing the parks personally that I understood why they’re the most natural and powerful way to promote Disney video games. Those games make something that is hard to get easily accessible to Disney fans everywhere.

The Disney experience isn’t defined by the rides, attractions, or the food you find there. They’re all important, obviously. But amusement parks everywhere have all of that. So do some malls. What makes Disney “Disney” is the specific feeling you can only have when you’re there. It’s a timeless feeling of escapism built on a century of characters, stories, and memories that bind generations. It’s a place that combines nostalgia, wonder, and joy into something wholly unique to Disney. But unless you live nearby a park, that feeling is not one you can easily get.

Nerdist (I have roughly 8,000 selfies from this trip where I look exactly like this.)

Few of us can jump on a plane and take off for a Disney trip whenever we like. And almost certainly not when we would most like to. What we can do, though, is pop in a video game that reminds us of the feeling we get at Disney. That’s why my hosts brought me to Florida for Level Up!. This experience was all about showing how Disney video games let you recapture something you can otherwise only get at Disney.

How exactly does each of those games do that? What elements of the real parks can be found in Disney’s digital entries? And how are both constantly in conversation with the other? To answer those questions we started our own Disney Dreamlight Valley journey down Main Street, U.S.A. at the Magic Kingdom.

Magic Kingdom and Disney Dreamlight Valley

Disney Dreamlight Valley is part life-sim, part adventure game. It’s set in a magical land consisting of iconic Disney locales where everyone is under a curse that makes them forget their pasts. In that realm players can go on fun quests or serenely explore and build a home of their own design. And they do so while living alongside Disney and Pixar characters. Those famous faces are the people you meet, befriend (or not), and share activities with. It’s basically digital Walt Disney World.

Before we flew in our hosts asked us to blindly pick either a fantasy or adventure “track” for our day at the Magic Kingdom. The two options captured the dual aspects of Disney Dreamlight Valley. I picked “fantasy,” but, fittingly, still ended up doing a whole lot of adventuring.

After learning Daisy Duck had joined the game that very day, along with a new “parks package” that allows players to add famous Disney rides to their valley, I headed out with some fellow “fantasy” cohorts. We’d been given a checklist that embraced that immersive, whimsical aspect of the game. Our itinerary included Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Mad Tea Party, Mickey’s PhilharMagic, and lunch at the Beauty and the Beast-themed Be Our Guest Restaurant. (Adventure people headed to the Jungle Cruise, Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor, and Magic Carpets of Aladdin before their own lunch at Jungle Navigation Co. LTD Skipper Canteen. Believe me, both tracks had FOMOS about the other.)

Nerdist (Yes, the Grey Stuff is genuinely delicious…and also more of a Green Stuff.)

For someone who did not have Dumbo and the Tea Cups on his list of must-rides, I couldn’t have been happier revisiting both. It had been so long since I’d ridden either (almost exactly 30 years to the day). Yet, getting back on each was like living in a wonderful memory. Disney parks might never be finished, but they don’t totally change for a reason either. And Mickey’s PhilharMagic felt like a quintessential Disney show. I’m a sentimental dork and loved how it reframes classic songs from some of Disney’s best animated movies.

I had that same reaction of wonderful, easy familiarity on “it’s a small world.” (Or at least I did for the first half of the way-too-long ride.) That was also true on Pirates of the Caribbean. That joyous feeling was there even on rides I’d never done before, like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. New attractions celebrate stories I’ve known and loved all my life. And the more I did and explored at the Magic Kingdom, the better I felt. Even after decades away there were moments during my day where I felt like I’d never left. Combined with the excitement of making new memories with new friends, I had the same enthusiasm I did as a kid.


I was confused when my day started, but by the end, as I watched fireworks go off around Cinderella’s Castle as I had so often as a kid, I understood completely why I was there. Dreamlight Valley is Disney’s digital way of reliving a day at the Magic Kingdom. And being in the park is like living in a real-life Dreamlight Valley. Just like in the game, I was able to control my real-life “playthrough.” I never knew who I’d run into at any point while on a Disney property, yet always had the option to visit characters and attractions I wanted to see.

I love The Little Mermaid, so I went and saw Ariel and Ursula on the Under the Sea ride. Same with my favorite silly old bear and personal childhood favorite at The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Meanwhile, Aladdin was right over there in Adventureland, which I visited over and over again.

When I wanted something more exciting and fast-paced, just like in Disney Dreamlight Valley, I jumped on a thrill ride instead. I made two trips each on mountains of thunder and space, which combined match the whopping four times I went on Tron Lightcycle Run. (Forget just Walt Disney World, that might be my favorite coaster ever.) When I needed a break I relaxed at the Carousel of Progress or sat with a Dole Whip taking everything in.

Nerdist (Seeing this guy was like visiting an old friend I never realized is kind of rude.)

It was only fitting our Level Up! event kicked off with Disney Dreamlight Valley, too, because while the Magic Kingdom most felt like being inside the game, everywhere I visited at Walt Disney World captured elements of it. I definitely got that same kind of surge of delight at Hollywood Studios’ Toy Story Land. It even happened at my hotel, where Goofy, Donald, and Pluto showed up unannounced in the lobby of Boardwalk Inn moments after I checked in.

No, I didn’t run up and take a picture with them, but I loved seeing all the kids and families who did. I remember doing that with my sisters and how excited we were at their age. If you’re a Disney fan that’s the simplest, purest joy you get at a Disney park, where reality and fiction blend into something magical.

I wish I could feel it everyday, but since obviously none of us can go to the Magic Kingdom everyday, I now understand why so many people I know love playing Disney Dreamlight Valley. (One member of our group said she plays it every night.) It’s the closest digital experience you can get to being at Disney. It mixes fantasy and adventure while placing you in the middle of places, stories, and characters you know and care about. It’s based on the best ideals of what a Disney Parks experience should be. And I wouldn’t understand any of that the way I do now had I not been at Walt Disney World.

It’s not the only Disney video game that does that. Only, the next park and game on our agenda wasn’t about an overall feeling you get at every Disney location. It was all about making a fictional alien world feel as real as our own planet.

Continue with us on our Level Up! journey through Walt Disney World and Disney video games with Part 2: Animal Kingdom’s Pandora – The World of Avatar and the Avatar: Frontiers of Pandora video game.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist who regrets not riding Tron Lightcycle Run five times. You can follow him on  Twitter and   Bluesky at @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.