I've collected my best hints, tips, and anecdotes to help you make the most of your Disney World vacation. Read straight through, or click ahead:
Unless you are a Ripley's Believe It or Not contender or a masochist, you are not going to do a Disney World vacation in one day. It is 47 square miles large, which, if I recall, is about the same size as San Francisco or Boston. "The World" is four theme parks - Magic Kingdom, EPCOT Center, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disney's Animal Adventure. And there are two water parks - Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. And there's Downtown Disney. And Disney's BoardWalk. If you want to get married at Disney World, there's the Disney's Wedding Pavilion. And don't forget the Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex and the Walt Disney World Speedway. And then there's the....no, I'm kidding.
"Don't try and do it all in one single day. Part of the fun of this place is getting lost and stumbling upon a pavilion or character you weren't expecting to see. For me, that was Aerosmith's Rocking Roller Coaster- the best ride ever I say!" - Kevin D, Toronto ON
At the very least, you want to give yourself four days for a decent Disney World vacation. Maybe...maybeeee....you can "squeeze it in" in less than that, but why would you want to? There's a lot to see and do. Ten days is really best. And you're on vacation. So just enjoy yourself!
Disney World is big and, frankly, overwhelming for the initiated. Get yourself a guidebook and study it like you used to study your biology book the night before your big test. The two most highly recommended Disney World vacation guidebooks are "Steve Birmbaum's Walt Disney World" and "Disneyworld with Kids."
Read about one family's Orlando vacation, including Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando.
Both come out with a new edition each year, which is great, because nothing's worse than having an old guidebook that tells you that it's $17 to get in. Both of these guidebooks are thick with information about which days of the week are best for your Disney World vacation, which rides have Fast Passes, which restaurants most deserve your patronage, and which ones need advance reservations. In other words, they teach you how to concoct a true strategic battle plan for wringing every last ounce of happiness from your Disney World vacation.
What happens if you don't prepare? Monsters will eat your brain. Seriously. And you'll run out of time. And not get to do half the stuff you wanted to do. And everyone will be sad.
"If you've ever been to Disneyland and thought it was too much to fit into one day... Get ready for this. Walt Disney WORLD is insane! Personally, I think it's too much to handle, period. It is just outrageous in size. It's a four park attraction with a million attractions within. Walt definitely chose the perfect name!" - Diana B, Vancouver BC
You know how when you have an error on a bill, you're actually mad about two things? You're mad about the error, but then you're twice as mad because you know you have to call some underpaid call center person who doesn't actually care about you in order to get the error corrected. What's nice about Disney World is that you can call them in advance and get all your questions and concerns sorted out, and they're actually nice and helpful. When you have questions about your upcoming Disney World vacation, sometimes it's just easier and faster to call them up then to try to figure out the answers to your questions on your own. Give them a call at 407-WDW-MAGIC.
Tickets for each of Disney Worlds four parks (six, if you count the water parks) are sold separately. The more days you buy, the cheaper the tickets. What's nice is that you don't have to use all the tickets on your Disney World vacation; you have up to one year to use them all.
"Expect crowds and high prices. I know, I know. I don't like these either." - Kiana H, San Carlos CA
If you don't think you're going to use all of your Disney World tickets, you can sell them on ebay or craigslist. Maybe you buy ten days, use five, and sell five. This gives you a per day ticket price of less than if you had originally just purchased five days.
What do you do when you really, really, really want to go take a Disney World vacation, but it just seems too expensive? Try this:
Florida has this weird stuff in the air called "humidity" that makes everything feel sticky and gross. If you're already used to this humidity stuff, you'll be fine. However, if you're new to humidity, consider yourself warned.
"Don't go in summer unless you're used to the kind of heat and humidity that melts ice in 5 seconds flat and will leave you gasping like a beached whale and sweating out nearly all of your bodily fluids." - Marina C, Seattle WA
Take pains to schedual your Disney World vacation during the less-humid times of the year. You do not want your first introduction to humidity to ruin your Disney World vacation.
Okay, so when are these magical, less-humid times of the year in which you should take your Disney World vacation? Try mid-September (after the kids are back in school) and before Thanksgiving. Or try between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Not only is the weather a little cooler during these times, but you miss the wave of let's-spend-Thanksgiving-at-Disney-World people and the let's-spend-Christmas-at-Disney-World people.
"Do not go during the middle of summer unless you want to die from the heat." - Clarence A, Daly City CA
Let's say you're more interested in taking your Disney World vacation when the crowds are low more than you're interested in avoiding humidity. This opens up more options for you.
In addition to mid-September through mid-November and between Thanksgiving and Christmas as mentioned above, also consider January, early March (i.e. before Spring Break), and the first two weeks of May (i.e. before school lets out).
"FYI: the absolute BEST time to go is during the weekdays in October! I just came back, and we went on ALL the major rides (ie: Space Mountain and Splash Mountain in Magic kingdom, Expedition Everest in Animal Kingdom, Test Track and MISSION Space in Epcot, Rock n Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror, etc,) at least 4 times.. all walk ons! AWESOME :)" - SL, San Francisco CA
"If you've never been, go! It's not just for kids!" - Joe B, Allston MA
It's easy to think of Disney World as a place for families, but the truth is, a Disney World vacation is great with -- or without -- kids.
"It's not just for kids boys and girls. I can't see myself being disappointed with Disney even when I'm 90 years old but maybe thats only because I'm really stimulated by experiences like this and it just makes me happy, memories and all. " - Chris W, Chicago IL
When you start your Disney World vacation, one of the first things you might notice is, oh my goodness, look at all the babies!
These babies aren't going to remember one bit of the family Disney World vacation. My parents took me to Disneyland for my third birthday. I actually remember my mom birthday shopping for me at Toys R Us, but I do not remember one single moment of my first trip to Disneyland. (Tip: Do not take your three-year-old on Space Mountain, even if they are tall enough!)
Do yourself, your kids, and the other people at Disney World a favor and wait until your kids are old enough to remember all of the time, money, and energy that you are putting into your Disney World vacation.
Here's some advice from other parents:
"Parents: If you plan to go, PLAN your trip ahead... If you don't, it's not going to be the happiest place on earth..." - Diana B, Vancouver BC
"If you have children younger than 7 take a stroller as they will not be able to walk the distances required." - Michael G, Manhattan NY
"Bring healthy snacks for your kids as a banana at Disney costs $1.39 and most of the food is fast food." - Michael G, Manhattan NY
"They prey on your kids to buy things that they don't need and bombard them every step of the way. Be sure to explain this to your kids well in advance." - Michael G, Manhattan NY
"Don't let your Disney World vacation make or break your family. What I mean is don't put pressure on your family to have the perfect vacation and set unattainable goals for your time in the park. Just let it happen and don't scold the kids for being kids." - Kevin D, Toronto D
"If you are a stressed parent, get a drink. Relax, this is your vacation too." - Allie C, Orlando FL
It's every parent's worst nightmare, but once in a while it does happen: sometimes kids get separated from their families. If your kids have cell phones, you've got an easy way to contact them. But if they don't have cell phones, and you don't think it's a good idea to get your little ones hooked on cell phones this early, continue a fun alternative: walkie-talkines.
Whether you're using cell phones or walkie-talkies, practice "being lost" before you go to Disney World so that your kids know what to do in case the unthinkable happens. And, once you're at Disney World, make sure the batteries are charged and the volume is up!
You have SO many options for where to stay for your Disney World vacation, which, yes, can feel overwhelming. There are 32 Disney World resorts and hotels right on the property.
Staying at a Disney World resort is your most expensive option, but it comes with many perks that you might enjoy. For one, your entire Disney World vacation will be one big non-stop Disneyfied experience without any pesky interference from reality.
Also, if you stay at a Disney World resort, they'll whisk you away from the airport on the Magic Express! The rest of your transportation is a snap: each resort has busses to take you to and from each of the Disney World parks. In other words, as long as you never leave Walt Disney World property, you don't have to rent a car.
Staying at a Disney World resort means that when you buy your souvenirs, they will take them to your hotel for you so that you don't have to bother lugging it around. This sounds magical to me as I write this, as though there were a bunch of secret elves that make all this happen seamlessly behind the scenes. Perhaps in secret underground tunnels.
"We take advantage of the extended hours while staying as a Disney resort guest - you get special wrist bands past closing hours or before opening hours to get in early to the park to ride. We stayed one Sunday evening until 1:30 AM (park closed at 2 AM for hotel resort guests) and there were no lines, no waits longer than 5-10 mins. It was worth it." Rita Y, San Francisco CA
But I think that the BEST reason to stay at a Disney World resort is that you will be automatically privy to Magic Hours, meaning that you can begin your Disney World vacation earlier in the day than everyone else, and you can stay in the Disney World parks later than everyone else. Thinking about all the time you'll save not waiting in longer lines certainly does sound magical. Watch out though, each park has its own Magic Hours, and they change from day to day. Your Disney World resort can give you the latest up-to-date information when you check in.
OR you can stay off Disney World's property. This means that you'll miss the 24/7 Disney immersion experience, and whether or not you want that is a matter of personal preference. Staying off Disney World property usually means that you'll pay half the price of a Disney World resort. Most off-property resorts and hotels have free shuttles to Disney World. If your hotel doesn't have a free shuttle, then I have a free tip for you. Park at Downtown Disney. It's free. Then take the free shuttle to the other Disney World parks.
If you're interested in apartment-style accommodations, consider renting my Orlando timeshare for your Disney World vacation (opens in a new window).
Wherever you go, it's probably a good idea to get a place that has a couple of rooms. I mean, honestly, how long can your family play Perfect Family? People are going to need alone time behind closed doors at some point.
One final word of advice: make sure that wherever you decide to stay gives you your own kitchen and a pool!
Two words: WALKING SHOES. Anything else will quickly turn the Happiest Place on Earth into Foot Hell. Normally I think that heat and humidity means flip flops, but this is the big exception. Make sure the shoes are nice and worn in. Don't make the mistake of wearing new shoes!
"The Hall of Presidents is great to get a nap on a hot Florida day!!" - Charles O, San Antonio TX
Also, Florida is infamous for its random rain showers. You can buy a poncho at Disney World, along with all the other people who didn't bring your own, but do you really need another line to stand in? (Also I hear that Disney World ponchos are cheap-o and will probably break before you want them to.) Get a poncho for each member of the family before you arrive so that you'll be ready for action when the rain hits. DOn't bother with umbrellas. Imagine ten million people with umbrellas. No thank you!
It will be hot, so protect yourself from the sun. Bring a hat, plus sun screen with a high SPF.
And don't forget water! Bring bottled water, or, if you forget, buy yourself a beverage with a refillable cup as soon as you can.
To keep cool, some people recommend bringing those little handheld battery-operated fans. Or bring a wet washcloth in a ziploc bag so that you can "freshen up" throughout the day.
"Make a plan. Make a priority list. And don't make absolutes. You dont know what weather, or capacity will be like when you visit. Take your time. You'll never see everything. If it does rain, just play it out. It will usually pass, and the park will empty out of people afraid of weather." - Kat S, Washington DC
A Disney World vacation is no time for sleeping in. You need to be at the park early, as in, before they open.
"You can easily do 6 rides in 2 hours if you get there early. Not to mention, they run out of fastpasses for the popular rides sometimes by 10am." - Mel B, San Diego CA
"GET THERE WHEN THE PARK OPENS, RUN TO YOUR FAVORITE RIDE, that way you get it out the way first and can explore everything else." - Alessa M, New York NY
What if it's Day One of your Disney World vacation and you were so tired and jet-lagged that when you look at your clock you realize that you just missed the best time to arrive at Disney World?
Relax, that's what you should do, because hey, you're on vacation!. If you can't make it to Disney World early, go late. The Magic Kingdom is often open until midnight, and later during spring Break. And, if you're staying in a Disney World resort, you'll be privy to Magic Hours, which means you and the other Disney World resort guests get the park all to yourself after hours.
If you're staying at a Disney World resort, skip to the next section; this does not apply to you. If you're staying off Disney property but your hotel has a shuttle to Disney World, you also get to skip this section. Whoo hoo! For everyone else, here are the parking rates at Disney World:
Whether you;re parking at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, or Disney's Hollywood Studios, the parking rates are the same.
What's nice is that once you've paid for parking at one park, you don't need to keep paying for parking at any other park you go to that day. Just take the shuttle!
What's even nicer is the fact that you can just park at Downtown Disney for FREE and then take the shuttle to the other parks! (Caution: You're not the only person who knows about this.)
Each of the four Disney World theme parks are spaced a few miles apart. It's not like Disneyland and California Adventure, which face each other across a small plaza.
"Just go to one park per day, don't try more. You'll die of exhaustion." - Hannah C, Newton MA
If you bought a Park Hopper ticket that allows you to, um, hop between the different Disney World parks, it won't be as easy as simply walking across a plaza, but you don't have to worry about driving either! The Disney World inter-park transportation system is a dream for all frustrated urban planners everywhere. It's free and takes you where you want to go (as long as you want to go to one of the four Disney World theme parks, that is). Occaisionally you might have to take two shuttles to get where you want to go.
I should mention that in some instances, instead of a shuttle, you'll use the ferry or one of the two Monorails. You can pick up the Monorail at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, The Transportation Center, The Grand Floridian, the Contemporary Resorts, and The Polynesian.
"When I was 24, I had plantar fasciitis (its an extremely painful foot problem) the first time that I went to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I rented a wheelchair because of the lines. If you only knew how painful my feet were. Little did I know that this wheelchair rental is like the best loop hole to avoiding long lines and hopper passes! You can see the whole park in half the time with a wheelchair in your party! It was great! And they really take care of handicapped people at the parks. No, not to say you should take advantage of Disney World, but... oh wait, they take advantage of plenty of people! Rent a wheel chair!" - Nicole K, Riverview FL
I hope this doesn't surprise you, but food at Disney World isn't the most affordable food you'll ever see in your life. Luckily, word on the street is that you can bring in your own food!
For the same reason that you should never go to the grocery store hungry, be sure to eat a good breakfast before heading over to Disney World.
What should you bring to keep costs low? How about a jar each of peanut butter and jelly, plus a loaf of bread! Be sure to bring along utensils to spread the jelly and peanut butter.
Also consider bringing energy bars (I like Lara bars best, but you have dozens of options), apples, crackers, and dried fruit. Bananas might seem like a good idea until you pull nasty mashed bananas out of your bag.
If you have access to a freezer at your resort, freeze your water. You'll be happy to have nice cold water to drink at Disney World.
There are almost 150 different eateries (that's a lot!) to choose from while on your Disney World vacation. And the best require reservations. Call 407-WDW-DINE to make reservations, and make your reservations far in advance. Keep in mind that once you're at the park, it will take time for you to travel to your restaurant of choice.
There are about 27 eateries all over the Magic Kingdom, everything from Dole Whip to dining with Cinderella in her Castle (which requires reservations, of course). Take a look at my list of Disney World Restaurants inside the Magic Kigdom. There are a number of restaurants just outside the Magic Kingdom that you might want to try as well.
"If you stay in the park, which you should, you should sign up for a character breakfast if you brought kids. Get a Mickey Mouse shaped pancake. They claim these are just for kids, but they'll give 'em to adults if you act like a kid about it. Breakfast at Boma near the Animal Kingdom is fantastic, including various African grain cereals. I ate like an 18 year old football player there with no guilt." - Hannah C, Newton MA
If you are staying at a DisneyWorld resort and are booking a "Magic Your Way" vacation package, consider signing up for the Disney Dining Plan. Disney World has five different Dining Plan options. You'll recieve one "Key to the World" card for your party. This card allows your restaurant servers to deduct meals from your prepaid meal balance. Your server will always provide you with a receipt so that you always know how many meals you have left on your card.
"I used the Disney Dining plan again and all reservations were in place with no problems. This is an advantage in seeing the park as their are no hunts for restaurants or delays in waiting for tables." - Tim C, New York NY
"Disney Dining Plans are available to make the most out of your budget. This turned out to be a wise decision for us as we saved money on the plan." - Gary E, Fairfield CA
Heading over to Downtown Disney? They've got a lot of great restaurants for you too!
There are three main ways to avoid waiting in long lines during your Disney World vacation: The FastPass Method, the iPhone App Method, and the Weather Method.
"Disney World has so many parks and so much to do, you could stay here for a week and not see and do everything! Every park has something great to offer. I wish I could visit once a year! It really is some place everybody in the US should visit in their lifetime." - Jennifer O, Alhambra CA
The FastPass Method
The bigger rides have these machines that dispense FastPasses. The FastPass tells you when you can return to the ride. The FastPass might show a specific time range, for example, it might tell you to return between 3pm and 5pm. In actuality, you can return anytime after 3pm that day. So, when you return, you get into the FastPass line, which is much shorter, and moves much more quickly, than the regular line. You win!
There is some strategy to using FastPasses well. When you perfect your technique, you'll never wait more than 30 minutes for a ride again. One strategy is to get a FastPass for one ride, and then use your waiting time waiting in line for a less popular ride. When you're done with that ride, guess what? It's FastPass time!
To learn more FastPass strategies, take a look at the recommended "Steve Birmbaum's Walt Disney World" guide book.
The iPhone App Method
There's an app for your smart phone that tells you the wait times of rides. Yes, the future is here.
There are actually a few different iPhone Apps that tell you the wait times for Disney World lines. The official Disney World add, Mobile Magic, is only available on the Verizon network and is about ten bucks for six months. Eh. Probably the best wait times app is the one from Undercover Tourist, which has both a free and a paid version (as of this writing, $3.99) of their wait time app. What's kind of...magical...about this app is that it does a lot more than just tell you the wait times of rides. It will help you to find the other people in your party (assuming they have the app as well), and it will help you to find your car (assuming you brought a car along on your Disney World vacation). Just type "Undercover Tourist" into your iTunes Store search box. Both the free and paid versions will pop up.
Looking for a lower-frills, cheaper wait times app? I like itunes.apple.com because it's simpler, and it's only 99 cents. Like the Undercover Tourist app, data on wait times comes from the app users themselves, which is the equivalent of having your own personal reconnaissance team!
The Weather Method
When it rains, some people will seek shelter. Not you! Put on your poncho (you did remeber to bring a poncho, right?) and go enjoy yourself some shorter lines!
The driving rainstorm sent droves of stroller-pushing families and garbage-bag wearing couples outta the park." - Thomas S, Phoenix AZ
"I met my fiancé here. Three years later I proposed to her at the Magic Kingdom and this November we are getting married at the Grand Floridian wedding pavilion!" - Jon S, Rochester MI
The Magic Kingdom is an awful lot like Disneyland in Anaheim. There are some who say Magic Kingdom is better, and some who say Disneyland is better. I've been to both. I don't think that one is better than the other. In a nutshell, Pirates of the Carribean is shorter at Disney World, and Cinderella's Castle at Disney World is larger than Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland.
The wait for my daughters favorite rides Small World and Tea Cups was short compared to Disneyland. The castle was much larger than the Disneyland castle but thats about it. Toon Town (which my daughter loves) is tiny! I believe there were 2 or 3 attractions and that's it. I think my daughter had more fun trading pins with all the cast members and eating her lollipop than riding the rides." - Fritz P, Long Beach CA
"The Magic Kingdom is what Disney is all about. Probably the most popular park of WDW, as evidenced by the number of visitors. Smaller in scale to Disneyland in Anaheim, but the layout of the park is very similar." - Steve L, San Mateo CA
If you've already been to Disneyland (especially if you live in southern California and could visit Disneyland anytime), and you don't have much time to spend on your Disney World vacation, consider just (dare I say it?) skipping the Magic Kingdom and spending your Disney World vacation at the other Disney theme parks.
"We started off on Splash Mountain and they announced, "You may get wet on this ride." Ha! YOU WILL GET SOAKED ON THIS RIDE!!!" - Thomas S, Phoenix AZ
HOWEVER, if the main reason why you're taking a Disney World vacation is for the rides, then of course you have to spend at least a day at the Magic Kingdom - it has more rides than any of the other Disney World theme parks!
"I absolutely love the three mountain rides. Space, Big Thunder, and Splash! Space Mountain is just so cool! It's all dark, with colorful lights and it's in the solar system, how awesome is that? The ride is fast, makes your heart race, and super! Big Thunder Mountain is outdoors, and the cart is like a train on a train track. It's kinda rocky, but fun! Doesn't go the fastest, but it will give you an adrenaline rush. Splash Mountain will get you WET! The last way down is the most fun, and the best part! This is where I love to get pictures with my beloved Disney characters. Be sure to watch the fireworks, it's beautiful and the music rules!" - Amanda K, Mercer Island WA
How much do I love fireworks? I had my wedding on the 4th of July, situated right where we could watch five simultaneous firework shows. That's how much I love fireworks.
"The fireworks show is RIDICULOUSLY awesome!!! Get good seats!!!" - Tricia S, Dallas TX
Come firework time, you have a big decision to make: Do you A) stick around and watch the biggest, most awesomest fireworks show ever, or do you B) take advantage of this rare opportunity to quickly get on the now almost-vacant popular rides?
Sometimes, if you're super lucky, you can do both:
"I even caught the show while riding Big thunder mountain, which literally ignites right above this point, and was like a mind orgasm. COULD NOT HAVE TIMED IT BETTER!" - Allie C, Orlando FL
The music for the fireworks is broadcast from Cindarella's Castle. If you've opted to catch the fireworks show, try to be not too far from the castle so that you can hear everything.
Go to Disney World restaurants inside the Magic Kingdom
Go to Restaurants just outside the Magic Kingdom
Go to Restaurants in Downtown Disney
Go to Orlando Vacation
Go to WorldMark Orlando
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