Theme parks take over the sunshine state -- We rate Florida's two largest attractions, Disney World and the new Universal Studios

How else to put it? Going to Walt Disney World makes you proud to be an American. Conceived by the late Walt Disney as a more futuristic companion to California’s Disneyland, the 15-year-old Walt Disney World is more than a great amusement park; it’s a visionary universe.

Wise Walt made sure to cram all his patented, lovable characters into his vast Florida fever dream, but in a way the emphasis is less on ”Disney” than on ”World,” a world that exists largely independent of neighboring Orlando. ”You could really live here, all the time!” one of my children said, taking in the Disney World housing, restaurants, and shopping malls that coexist along with the rides and attractions.

And like lots of the estimated 23 million visitors to Disney World each year, we arrived yearning for the warmth and spectacle that distinguish Walt Disney’s creations. After a long flight, the usual car-rental hassle (”This is a luxury-size car?”), and a frustrating, got-lost-twice odyssey from the airport (someone ought to post bigger signs, and more of ’em), the happy TV-commercial visions of ”We’re going to Disney World!” weren’t exactly dancing in our heads.

But once we got there, the sheer beauty of it all — lovely combinations of the grand and the grandiose, the intimidating and the user-friendly, the overdone and the just right-was tremendously energizing.

The three sites of all Disney World action are the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center (it stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, a kind of utopian science fair), and the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. The most famous attractions — from Space Mountain to Pirates of the Caribbean — are in the Magic Kingdom, the centerpiece of Disney World. The Magic Kingdom is itself divided into smaller areas like Frontierland, Adventureland, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, and Mickey’s Starland. Disney World contains worlds within worlds, and it takes a day or so to get them straight.

EPCOT and Disney-MGM are separate, self-contained places — you must drive or take a bus or boat from the Magic Kingdom to reach them (or take the monorail to EPCOT).

A few words about these two places. If your children are more than about 10 years old and are intrigued by science, you can easily spend a full day at EPCOT pondering the sleek exhibits and noodling around with the interactive computers. Younger children, however, are likely to be bored quickly, and Body Wars is the only standout ride. Speaking of boredom, we were not all that impressed by the Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park. It features kids’ movies and stage shows starring everyone from Mickey Mouse to the Muppets, but we didn’t come to Disney World to sit around watching movies.

The brisk, well-done studio tours, particularly the erudite Great Movie Ride, are chiefly of interest to film buffs, and no preadolescent I know would be intrigued by a reproduction of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. As for the park’s flashiest ride, Star Tours, it’s fun, but it’s also a variation on Body Wars. If I had to do it over again, I’d skip Disney-MGM.

What follows is a personal guide to Disney World’s best-known attractions — the first time the Entertainment Weekly grading system has been applied to an amusement park. The list is by no means complete; you’d need a month to sample everything. It’s a Small World, we were disappointed to find, was closed for renovation; it is now open.

For comparison, you should know that judgments were formed by a typical American family: a dad, a mom, an 8-year-old, a 6-year-old, and, for statistical variety an extra pair of arms to hold a 5-month-old baby who slept most of the time, a grandmother. We spent five days at Disney World and ended up thinking it was the absolute minimum amount of time to spend there.