Even if you’re not planning to do the whole big Disney vacation (stay on or close to Disney property and spend 4-6 days in the parks), you can still “do Disney.” Actually, the majority of visitors to the Disney theme parks are “day guests” (i.e. single day visitors who are visiting central Florida).
But visiting Disney for the day does work a little bit differently than if you’re staying at one of their resorts. So, here’s what you need to know about visiting Disney for the day:
Buy your park tickets BEFORE you get there. You can walk up to a ticket booth at the entrance of the park and purchase tickets, but you’ll have to wait in line and you’ll end up behind a good part of the morning rush. Plus you’ll miss out on booking your Fastpasses in advance and have to take whatever is left over day of.
Download the My Disney Experience app. This is command center for everything you’ll do at Disney. You can purchase your park tickets through the app in advance (or link them to your account after you purchase), book dining reservations, book Fastpasses, check park hours and daily schedules, look up wait times, find characters, etc.
Check park hours in the app to decide which day to go or which day to go to which park (if you’re going more than one day). During certain parts of the year (fall and winter), the Magic Kingdom closes early for an after hours Halloween or Christmas party so you don’t want to pick a day where the park closes at 7PM and no fireworks are shown. Also, if Extra Magic Hours (a perk for Disney resort guests) are scheduled (especially in the morning) at a certain park, don’t go that day because all of the resort guests will be in front of you even if you get there hours early.
Book Fastpasses 30 days in advance. You’ll have to have your park tickets purchased and linked in you’re My Disney Experience account (as well as everyone in your party linked together). Once you’ve don’t that, you can book Fastpasses starting at 7AM EASTERN TIME exactly 30 days in advance of when you’ll be at the park. Fastpasses are completely free and will save you a LOT of time waiting in line. You can book three per day in advance and then once you’ve used those three, you can book one at a time. Read more about booking Fastpasses here.
Make a dining reservation. If you want to have a sit down meal, you’ll need to book a dining reservation (this includes character dining). If you’re visiting when it’s going to be hot (like all the time), it’s nice to have a dining reservation scheduled for late afternoon/early evening. If you’re coming to Disney from off property, I would highly recommend grabbing breakfast before you arrive because breakfast offerings in the parks are pretty slim and you don’t want to waste time first thing once you get there finding food. You can look up restaurants by park in the My Disney Experience app ahead of time and make reservations there.
Parking costs $25/day if you’re not a Disney resort guest or annual passholder. If you’re staying close by, you may consider taking a Lyft as you’ll get dropped off right up close (except at Magic Kingdom where you’ll still have to take the ferry or monorail) and it may be about the same cost.
Get there before it opens for “rope drop.” The first hour or so that the park is open is generally when lines will be the shortest. Whatever the published opening time of the park is (you can check in the My Disney Experience app), the park usually starts letting people through security and into the gates 30-60 minutes before to avoid bottlenecks. Once you’re inside the park, Starbucks and a few shops are usually open and people start lining up for popular attractions at different roped off entrances. If you’re visiting for the day and wanting to get the most out of the day, plan to arrive at LEAST an hour before the park is scheduled to open. And allot time for parking, taking the tram, going through security, and waiting in line to get through the turnstiles.
Space out your days if you’re going multiple days. If you’re planning on going to a park more than two days while you’re in town but you’re in town for longer, plan a rest day in between. Everyone will be much happier and have more energy if you’re not doing back to back long days.
How to pick which park(s) to visit: If you’re only going to Disney for a day or two, you’re going to have to decide which park(s) to visit and which ones to skip. Here’s a quick run down:
Magic Kingdom: The “classic” Disney park and the one that’s usually most popular with kids. Magic Kingdom has everything you’re expecting to see and do at a Disney park (i.e. castle, characters, rides, fireworks, etc.). It also has the highest density of attractions (rides) meaning there is a LOT to do and a bigger variety of wait times (super popular rides with long waits, rides with shorter waits, shows, etc.)
Epcot: Epcot is currently a park in transition, meaning there is a LOT of construction going on. Epcot’s main attraction is World Showcase (11 countries situated around a lagoon). It’s popular with adults wanting to “eat and drink around the world.” There’s not a ton of entertainment (i.e. rides), and it’s more of a wandering park. Its festivals (International Festival of the Art, Flower and Garden Festival, Food and Wine Festival, and International Festival of the Holidays) attract a lot of locals. Epcot is also Frozen central (centered at the Norway pavilion in World Showcase) so if the kids have Frozen Fever, this is the only place in Walt Disney World to meet Anna and Elsa plus it’s where the Frozen ride is. If you’re not a Frozen mega fan or into eating and drinking around the world, I would probably skip Epcot for now.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Hollywood Studios is making moves to become Disney’s best park, in my opinion. It has that old Hollywood atmosphere and classic attractions (like Tower of Terror and Rock n’ Roller Coaster), but it’s expanded in recent years to include the new Toy Story Land and Galaxy’s Edge (Star Wars land) making it THE place to be. Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway also recently opened and it’s one of Disney’s best attractions to date (and perfect for the whole family). This is quickly becoming my favorite park, but if you’re not into Star Wars OR Toy Story, it might be one to skip.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Animal Kingdom is an incredible park that probably offers the best overall experience for those who haven’t been bitten by the Disney “bug.” It’s a showcase of what Disney’s best and brightest can create without being in your face Disney. Pandora: World of Avatar is one of the best theme park lands ever created and your jaw will be on the ground even if you don’t care anything about the movie. Avatar: Flight of Passage is arguably one of the greatest Disney attractions yet created. Kilimanjaro Safari is the crown jewel of the park and the Asia and Africa lands are magnificent. This park has also really amped up their nighttime entertainment offerings.
Things to do without a park ticket: If you’re going to be in the Orlando area for several days and want to experience a little bit of Disney magic without paying for a park ticket, there is still a lot you can do on Disney property. Disney Springs is a huge shopping, dining and entertainment complex. Parking is free and they really have some terrific shops and restaurants. It would be easy to spend half a day or more there. All of the Disney resorts are also open to explore. You can dine, shop, or just look around any of them even if you’re not staying there. If you’re interested in character dining, I would actually suggest booking a meal at a resort on a day that you’re not in the park. Most of the deluxe resorts have a restaurant that offers character dining. Some of my favorites are Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary, 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian, Ohana at the Polynesian, Artist Point at the Wilderness Lodge, and Cape May Café at the Beach Club. The Hoop Dee Doo Musical Revue at Fort Wilderness is an all time favorite dinner show, plus I really love dinner at Ohana at the Polynesian and Boma at Animal Kingdom Lodge. Also, did you know that you can watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks (with the music piped in and everything!) at the marina at the Grand Floridian and the beach at the Polynesian?