By Rachel Hoeing
If you are traveling to Walt Disney World with your family, I’ve got 20 tips to share with you today! My sister, daughter, and I took a magical vacation to Disney at the beginning of December. I have always loved Disney World, but something about this trip was just amazing and I honestly haven’t been able to stop thinking about all of the fun we had while there. The main contributing factor is that we’ve now taken our family a few times, we know the ins and outs, and we have learned to plan ahead. I hope that today’s blog can help give you the same experience!
My tips change after each and every visit because Walt Disney World itself is always changing! If you haven’t read our Disney blogs on TMoM before, click here to find even more tips and resources. Keep in mind that the park is constantly evolving, so some older blogs might be a little outdated, but the bulk of the info is usually relevant.
Disney tips from our most recent visit:
1. Use a Disney Vacation Planner. This is a travel agent who specializes in Disney World trips. You pay nothing. The planner earns commission from Disney, so it’s honestly a no-brainer. Do you HAVE to get a Disney planner? No. Do they help make your vacation planning stress-free and so much easier? Absolutely! One of our TMoM website sponsors, Jocelyn Martins, Travel Counselor with The Magic For Less Travel, specializes in Disney planning, and I have personally used Disney planners from Aladdin Travel who are amazing. I also have friends who work for Be Our Guest Travel Company who are highly skilled at what they do!
2. Download My Disney Experience app. Everything is at your fingertips … wait times for rides, pictures from throughout your visit, meal plan balance, FastPass+ opportunities, you name it. Disney has made everything so convenient. Walt Disney World has four parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) If you have never been, you will want to familiarize yourself with them to decide if you want to spend one day at each park, use the park hopper to jump around, or skip one of the parks all together.) *Many people think Universal Studios is part of Disney. It is not. Universal is a completely different entity.
3. Get your Fast Passes early. Fast Passes allow you to make a “reservation” for a ride or attraction and visit at a designated time slot. Fast passes assure you little to no wait time. You can do this through the My Disney Experience App 30 days prior if staying off the grounds and 60 days prior if you are staying at a Disney resort. (Your Disney planner will do this for you if you have one.) You only get three fast passes a day (and there are certain restrictions on which rides you can book on the same day), so base it on the rides that have the longest waits, not necessarily the rides that you want to do most. If you plan it out, you’ll be able to do everything eventually, but you want to keep your wait times to a minimum, so go for the big dogs!
These are the attractions I suggest making one of your three Fast Passes if you are able:
Magic Kingdom – Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, Winnie the Pooh, Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion (As I will state in my next tip though, you can knock out the majority of these before the crowds begin, so if I had to prioritize, I’d try to get fast passes for the roller coasters.)
Epcot – Soarin, Test Track*more on this below, Frozen Ever After
Hollywood Studios – Tower of Terror, Toy Story Mania, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours
Animal Kingdom – Avatar Flight of Passage, Na’vi River Journey, Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris
Once you have used your three fast passes, you can get on your app and sign up for another one that same day! *Once you start registering for Fast Passes, you will see that there are a few stipulations, so don’t be surprised if you don’t get exactly what you want. Again, your Disney planner can help you with this!
4. Arrive when the park opens. (Also called “rope-dropping!) If you don’t listen to anything else I suggest, listen to this one! I know it is a vacation, which means you want to sleep in, but don’t do it! I am not exaggerating when I tell you that we rode 80% of the rides we wanted to experience within the first two hours of the day. The park is almost like a no-man’s land when it opens. Sure, you’ll see crowds at the gates and it will more than likely be a mad dash toward the most popular rides, but your wait time will be almost nothing during off-season, and minimal during peak season. Hit the most popular rides that you do not have Fast Passes for during this time.
5. Watch the Opening Performance at Magic Kingdom. This is a performance that takes place each morning before the park officially opens. It is so cute and a great way to get the kids (and you) excited about your day. I just love this as a start to my morning!
6. Everything takes longer than you think it will. Example – let’s you want to be at Magic Kingdom at 8am for the opening song. You are thinking that your resort is just ten minutes away from the park so you’ll leave at 7:45am and be fine. Wrong. You’ll have to factor in time to walk from your resort to the bus, wait for the bus, ride the bus, walk to the gate, bag check at the gate, scan armband at the gate (or show tickets), walk through Main Street, and arrive at the castle. Considering we would grab a bite to eat before we left our resort, we were usually heading to a quick-serve breakfast at 6:30am and would then head to the bus from there. Even if you are staying off-grounds, you still need to factor in time to park, take the tram to the gate, etc.
7. It’s not that big of a deal to drive yourself. For some reason everyone makes a big to-do about staying on the grounds so you don’t have to worry about transportation. We have stayed both on and off the Disney grounds and the transportation was never a factor in our decision. Reason being, that yes, it’s convenient to have the buses right there (or the monorail if that is available at your resort) but, public transportation does take time. So, although convenient, it can be a time sucker. On the last day of our trip we decided to drive ourselves just because we were a little tired of waiting for buses and risking the possibility of having to wait for a second bus if it was crowded. Driving ourselves was NO BIG DEAL. (It does cost to park though, so you will want to factor this into your budget.)
8. Bring your own drinks. I say this regardless of whether or not you are taking part in the Disney Dining Plan. We brought a case of bottled water and a case of soda to our resort to keep in the fridge. If you are on the dining plan you get a refillable mug to use at your resort, but keep in mind that not all resorts are set up the same way as far as room placement. If you are in a hotel type resort, you can just take the elevator down and grab a drink. But, we stayed at Port Orleans Riverside (which we loved!) and our room was in a section of the resort that was quite a hike to the main lobby. It was nice to have those drinks at our fingertips in the room instead of walking across the resort to refill our mugs. In addition, we brought drinks into the park in backpacks. Again, even if you are on the dining plan, I am never a fan of using meal points for a bottled water when you can have a Dole Whip!
9. Dining Plan or No Dining Plan? We’ve done both and it’s a toss-up. If you are visiting when the dining plan is offered for free, of course do it! It was wonderful to enjoy our vacation without second-guessing how much something would cost. The meal plan is plenty of food, too. We usually end up with leftover points because you will never be hungry at Disney when using the dining plan! If you eat a lot, or eat three large meals a day, I would say do it. BUT if you usually just grab a granola bar for breakfast and aren’t a big snacker, I would opt out of the meal plan. This past trip, my daughter was 12 which means she qualifies as an adult. The child barely eats more than a toddler, so although we did the meal plan, in retrospect it probably would have been better to opt-out this time. Take a look at the menus and restaurants online to gauge what might be the best fit for your family.
10. Limit Souvenirs – I absolutely love shopping at Disney World. I feel like I could decorate my entire home in mouse ears and buy more character apparel than any person needs! It’s tough to keep things in perspective when all of the “Mouse Gear” is so cute and high quality! I try to remind myself that although I’m wearing Mickey on my shirt like a badge of honor at the parks, I would probably tone it down once I got home. If you are like me, limit yourself to items that you will actually use again once you get home. This year I bought an amazing fluffy blanket, super cute socks, and a Christmas ornament. Now my daughter, on the other hand, is exactly the type to keep wearing Mickey like a badge of honor once she gets home! She loves Stitch and bought adorable items that she has used and worn at home. I gave her the choice of one souvenir per day. This helps keep the begging to a minimum and if she wants more, she can use her own money. She loved buying trading pins as well, which are all around $10.
11. Make meal reservations. Going back to my #6 point, finding a place to eat can be daunting. You go from hungry to HANGRY in minutes when you are trying to figure out what a group of people all want to eat and then find a restaurant that doesn’t have a long line because everyone is eating at the same time as you! Plan ahead. If you are using a travel agent, they are fabulous at recommending restaurants and will make reservations for you. If you are doing this on your own, decide if you want sit-down meals, character meals, quick service, etc, and make reservations for as many meals as possible. It will save you time and stress. In addition, consider eating at “off times.” The majority of the crowds eat at noon and six, so if you can plan to eat a little earlier or later, the crowds will be less.
12. Avoid Saturdays and Holidays. Our past three vacations have been in mid-October and early-December during off-peaks times. There have been minimal waits, minimal crowds, and perfect temperatures. The only time we ever experienced craziness was on a Saturday. The park seems to get packed this day, regardless of what time of year you visit. Locals are more prone to pop in for the day as well. So, if you are looking for an off-day to use the resort pool, or just chill, Saturday would be my recommendation.
13. Use the Single Rider Line for Test Track. Test Track in Epcot is one of my all-time favorite rides. Every member of my family loves it! The bad news is that so does the rest of the world, so wait times can be long! You might choose to use this for your fast pass (my #3 tip), but I would suggest using the fast pass for Frozen or Soarin’ instead (you can only choose one of those three) and then enter in the single-rider line for Test Track. Now, if you have little ones, this may not be your best bet, but if you have independent kids who don’t mind riding without you, this is the way to go! My daughter and I rode Test Track six times with zero wait by using the single-rider line. You stay together until you are actually placed in a car. Most rides we were in the same car (one behind the other) but a few times she was a couple cars ahead of me. We still exited at about the same time so it worked out perfectly.
14. Look for Hidden Mickeys. This is something we love to do! You can read more about it here, but basically the classic ears can be found all over the parks and resorts. It’s a great way to entertain little ones, and honestly my son and husband were all into this on their first trip. It was like a mission to find as many as possible. Cast members will help you out as well!
15. Naps are good. I am not a napper at all, but when in Disney, a nap is something I look forward to! As I mentioned in #4, we arrive at park opening, which means some days we are up as early as 5:45am to begin our day. Then we walk mile upon mile at the park and wear ourselves out by 1pm. The good news is that is the exact time when crowds arrive. So, this past visit, we decided to head back to the resort, climb in our beds and take an hour nap. Then we’d chill for a bit and head back to the park later in the afternoon to enjoy an entire evening full of more fun! As I stated, my daughter is 12 and with how hard we go at Disney, she had no problem with that down time, so I know for toddlers this tip can be extremely useful!
16. Use the “Rider Switch.” We did not need to use this since my daughter is older and wanted to ride everything, but this is just another one of Disney’s ways that they help cater to families. If you have kids with different interests, it can be difficult when mom, dad, and child #1 want all want to ride Space Mountain, but child #2 doesn’t want to go (or doesn’t meet the height requirement). Luckily, you’ve got Rider Switch which allows child #1 to ride Space Mountain with Dad while Mom stays with child #2. Then, Mom can get in the Fastpass line with child #1 and ride it again, while Dad hangs with the second child. Pretty cool. You can read more here.
17. Use the park maps. Don’t worry – you’re not a freshman in high school trying to look cool by not pulling out your daily schedule. This is Disney and it is huge! If your travel planner has made a schedule for you, or even if you are just “winging it,” you will want to use the park maps to lay out some sort of plan for where you will go and when. You will walk A LOT at Disney, so there is no need to add extra work for yourself or your little ones. Make some sort of plan on the way to the park, or even while waiting in lines. It will save you quite a bit of time! (You can get maps prior to your trip, at the resorts, or throughout the parks at kiosks.)
18. Take a backpack. Granted, it stinks to have to wait in the bag check line, but they are usually very efficient, and it is so nice to have things on hand that you might need throughout the day. And if you have a child in a stroller – bonus – you don’t even need to carry it because you can keep it in there! A few items that are great to pack: drinks, cell phone & charger, sunscreen, rain poncho (for bad weather and/or the River Rapids and Splash Mountain rides), sunglasses, hats, jackets, wipes/hand sanitizer, snacks.
19. Don’t read every tip and guide book. I know this seems hypocritical since I just wrote an essay of tips for you, but the truth is that there is SO MUCH info out there that you can honestly overwhelm yourself. This is supposed to be a vacation, so relax and enjoy it! Plan ahead by using the tips above, visit the Disney website here, and talk to a friend or two who has visited previously. You will be fine without downloading a library of resources.
20. It’s not just an amusement park. This is for anyone who has never visited Walt Disney World before. Don’t expect the county fair, or an amusement park with rows and rows of thrill rides. Disney World is completely different. It’s not just about the rides. It’s the entire experience. The Imagineers and cast members take into account all five senses. You will smell the beach as you pass over water on Soarin’, you will hear the Seven Dwarfs singing as you enter into the Mine Train, you will see fireworks and lights and theme-related décor everywhere you turn, you will hug characters who you’ve only seen on a screen, and you will taste food from around the world in Epcot. Take it all in and enjoy the down time just as much as you enjoy the excitement on an attraction.
I’ll be honest, I could go on all day when it comes to chatting about Disney! But I need to stop somewhere. These tips may seem daunting and may have you thinking, “Do I really want to do this? She keeps talking about lines and crowds and money!” Yes, you want to do it! The only time I hear of not-so-great experiences at Disney is when people fail to plan ahead. Use these tips and your family will have a magical experience! If you have questions please leave them below and I’ll do my best to answer. For those of you who are veteran Disney visitors … leave your comments and tips below as well.
Related Disney articles (where to stay, when to visit, specifics on rides, etc) can be found here.