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Planning a Trip to Walt Disney World? Read This First…

Magic, adventure, and a lifetime of memories…that’s why people go to Disney, right? You might feel the magic once you’re there, but Disney trips certainly don’t magically plan themselves.

They’re more expensive than ever and they take more planning than ever. But if you are your family’s designated Disney planner (that’s me!)…I’ve got your back.

Here’s a rundown of everything you need to know before you book your Disney trip (based on FAQs that I get all the time): 

How many days do you need at Disney?

One day per park (there are four theme parks) is probably the minimum if you want to experience the best of Disney. That won’t be enough time to do every single thing, but I think it’s a pretty good trip for most people. 

I personally find that about four nights at Disney is my limit. I’ll usually do a four night stay with a 5 day hopper ticket and time my flights to arrive early in the day on my arrival day and leave later in the day on my departure day so I can take advantage of those partial days as well. 

Here is the 5 day Disney World itinerary that I always use

Is staying at a Disney resort worth it?

In a word, yes. Disney has the full range of budget options covered from “deluxe” to “moderate” to “value.” 

Generally speaking most Disney resorts offer pretty great theming and amenities like good transportation options to the park, but the #1 perk they offer now is early entry to the theme parks each day. 

EVERY DAY Disney resort guests can enter the parks 30 minutes before everyone else. And that’s long enough to take advantage of short (or non-existent) wait times before the park officially opens. 

Disney resort guests also get a head start on booking Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane times. They can make their first selections at 7AM while everyone else has to wait until the park officially opens. 

Do we need a car?

Disney used to offer the Magical Express service from Orlando International Airport (MCO) for FREE (which you had to book in advance), but they stopped it last year. Mears and other companies now offer a variety of services (for a fee) ranging from shuttle buses that drop off many people with many different hotel stops to private town cars that will take you straight to your resort. All of those options will need to be booked before you arrive.

If you don’t have kids that require car seats, I 100% recommend just hopping in an Uber or Lyft after you grab your bags. It is soooooo much quicker (and cheaper!) than taking one of these shuttle services and there are so many drivers in the area that you’ll only wait a couple of minutes for a pickup.

What’s My Disney Experience?

I’m glad you asked! Because your whole trip is going to revolve around it ; ) 

My Disney Experience is an online account you’re going to need to set up for every person in your travel party (parents can manage their children’s accounts). You’ll need to download the app on your phone and sync up with everyone else in your travel party. 

Your resort reservation will appear in your account along with your park tickets and that will allow you to book things like dining reservations, ride reservations, etc. 

The app is also where you’ll find your PhotoPass photos (from rides and photographers around the park) and be able to Mobile Order at counter service restaurants to bypass the lines. 

In the app you can also monitor attraction wait times, check character schedules, park hours, etc. 

It’s basically the hub of which your entire trip will revolve around. 

DO NOT DROP THE BALL AND WAIT UNTIL YOU SHOW UP TO GET IT SET UP. You 100% need every adult in your travel party to have an account, have their resort reservations and park tickets linked to their accounts, and all of you link your accounts before you arrive. 

Once everyone is linked up, you can designate one person to make ride reservations (Genie+) for everyone. 

What reservations do I need?

Theme Park Reservations: Since the Disney parks reopened after COVID, they’ve required advanced reservations for the theme parks each day. It’s been…wild. 

I did a trip in April 2022 where we couldn’t even get reservations to go to all of the parks three weeks in advance!!!

Thankfully, Disney has listened to the extremely negative feedback about this requirement and they’ve announced they’re dropping the need for park reservations on January 9, 2023. 

But if you’re visiting during the remainder of 2023, make sure there are theme park reservations available before you purchase your tickets. 

It hasn’t been explicitly announced yet, but it’s assumed that they’ll also drop the “no park hopping until after 2 PM rule.” Yep, currently if you have the park hopping add on to your ticket (you can go to more than one park per day) you can’t park hop until after 2 PM. 

Dining Reservations: You can currently make dining reservations 60 days in advance. If you’re a Disney resort guest, you can make them 60 days in advance plus the length of your trip. So at the 60 day mark for your arrival day, you can make your dining reservations for your whole trip. 

So what should you make reservations for? Pretty much any meal you’d like to eat where you sit at a table and are served by a waiter (including buffets and family style restaurants). If it’s a really slow time of year (and you have a small party), sometimes it’s easy enough to walk up to certain restaurants and join a waitlist, but not always. 

If you want to have a sit down dining experience every day at a specific restaurant (or just somewhere that’s going to be convenient for where you are in the parks), I strongly recommend making those reservations in advance. 

And if you’ve got your heart set on a certain restaurant (there are some really cool places at Disney) and you can’t get a reservation, I’ve had good success setting up a notification through a service like Touring Plans where they monitor the system for cancellations and send you notifications for open time slots. 

If you can’t get the reservations you want (or you’re overwhelmed with having to book things in advance)…Disney has really stepped up their quick service options lately so don’t worry that you’ll be stuck with hot dogs and chicken fingers if you can’t get reservations somewhere.

I LOVE Satu’li Canteen and Flametree BBQ in Animal Kingdom and Regal Eagle BBQ in Epcot.

How do we skip the lines?

The million dollar question!! If it’s been a while since you’ve been to Disney (i.e. you remember the days of “FastPass”), well…it’s completely different. 

It’s basically a pay to play game now and it’s called Genie+. 

Genie+ is a ride reservation system that allows you to book time slots to show up for the park’s most popular rides and either walk right on or wait in a much shorter line.

The cost for Genie+ varies based on demand but it’s usually between $15-25/person per day. You’ll find out the price when you open the app that morning. 

That’s on top of your park ticket. And just to be clear…purchasing Genie+ doesn’t just allow you to walk on all of the rides…it allows you to make reservations for the park’s most popular rides. It’s a whole process. 

Here’s the nitty gritty:

In each park there’s a list of attractions that are available to book with Genie+ (included in your flat fee) and then there’s an EXTRA “special” attraction that can be booked a la carte for an additional price.

You are not guaranteed to use the Lightning Lane (that’s what Disney calls the Genie+ entrance) for every attraction included in Genie+. Paying for Genie+ just means that you can use the system to book reservations that day. But there’s still a “system” you have to work.

***And remember, EVERYTHING regarding Genie+ is done on the My Disney Experience app on your phone. It’s essential that everyone you’re traveling with has a park ticket that’s linked to their account and that all of your accounts are linked together.

Genie+ can be purchased starting at midnight the day of your park day and technically they put a cap on how many can be sold each day, but I’ve never seen it not available. Set an alarm on your phone and log in to your account and purchase Genie+ BEFORE 7AM every morning so it’s all squared away and you can jump on the reservations right when they open. 

Starting at 7AM, guests staying at a Disney resort with a park reservation for that day (soon not to be needed) can book their first Genie+ attraction.

Non-Disney resort guests (those staying off property) have to wait until the park opens (usually 9 AM) to book their first reservation. 

Your next Genie+ attraction can be selected EITHER 1) immediately after you use your first Genie+ reservation (when you scan in for the ride), or 2) TWO HOURS after you make your previous selection (two hours after park opening if it’s your first selection).

I’ll give a couple of examples to show the difference.

Let’s say you’re going to Hollywood Studios and at 7AM you book Slinky Dog Dash for your first attraction with a return time of 2-3PM. Good news: you don’t have to wait until you ride Slinky at 2PM to make another Genie+ selection. If the park opens at 8AM, you can make your next Genie+ selection at 10AM.

But let’s say you’re going to the Animal Kingdom and you book Kilimanjaro Safari with a return time of 9-10AM. You can book your next Genie+ selection AS SOON as you scan into Kilimanjaro Safari. You don’t have to wait for two hours after the park opens.

And you’ll go the rest of the day like that. Booking your next Genie+ selections either every two hours or after you’ve scanned in at your previous ride (whichever comes first).

Now…you do not get to choose your return times. Return times (your reservation slot to show up and ride) are evenly distributed throughout the day and how quickly they fill up depends on the attractions popularity.

So I don’t know the actual numbers, but it’s all based on ride capacity. Let’s say that they’ve decided that they’ll give out 100 Genie+ reservations per hour at a certain attraction. They’ll start right at park opening, let’s say 8-9AM and move incrementally until they get booked up. So when 8-9AM gets booked up, the time slot moves to 8:05-9:05AM and then 8:10-9:10AM and on and on until park closing.

So if it’s a SUPER popular ride, the return times are going to move later into the day at a faster rate because so many people are choosing that attraction and its availability is filling up. If it’s not a super popular ride (or it has a really high capacity), it won’t book as quickly and return times will tend to be earlier.

So you don’t get to schedule your exact time slot for these rides, you just get the next available time slot.

But you can check back during the day and if you see there’s an option for a return time that works better, then you can modify your reservation to the new time slot. 

EXCEPT with the fancy pants “a la carte” individual attractions in every park (one in each of the four parks-but sometimes they’ll add an extra one if there’s a brand new attraction). They let you pick your time for those (within bounds of what’s available). 

For Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and TRON Lightcycle Run in the Magic Kingdom, Rise of the Resistance in Hollywood Studios, AVATAR Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind in Epcot, you can book a specific return time that is not tied to your Genie+ rules (every two hours or after you’ve scanned into your last attraction).

If you’re a Disney resort guest, you can book those individual special lightning lanes (max 2 per day) at 7AM. And you get to select that time you ride, BUT these are the most popular rides in Disney World so the lightning lanes tend to get booked pretty fast. So I would plan for the general time of day you want to ride, but take whatever you can get and book quickly.

The Lightning Lanes for these “a la carte” rides generally cost $13-20 per person per ride.

Now…if you’re NOT a Disney resort guest (you’re staying at a property off site), you have to wait until the park opens to book those individual “special” attractions. And honestly, sometimes they can already be sold out for the day at that point. Sorry to say, sometimes it’s often hard to get a Lightning Lane for Rise of the Resistance or Guardians of the Galaxy if you’re not staying on Disney property.

And even though the rule is you can buy TWO Individual Lightning Lanes per day, there’s only one attraction available in each park so you’d have to park hop if you want to do the second (except for the Magic Kingdom which currently has both Seven Dwarfs Mine Train AND Tron Lightcycle Run available as Individual Lightning Lanes). Also, you can’t pay for the same attraction twice. 

I’ve got specific information on how to make Genie+ and Lightning Lane selections for each park in these posts:

Magic Kingdom

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Is Genie+ Worth It?

Part of the reason this question is getting asked so much is because Disney’s Fastpass system used to be FREE. And when you’re used to getting something for free, people aren’t super thrilled about having to start paying.

So is Genie+ worth it? Well, if I have to give a short answer, I would say yes. The long answer is…it’s more complicated and there are probably certain scenarios where it’s MORE worth it than others.

But in general, if you really despise spending time waiting in lines, you’re going to want Genie+.

So onto the complicated part. The biggest thing is going in with the right expectations. Genie+ is not an easy breezy way to walk to the front of the line at every attraction in the park. You don’t just walk up, flash a badge, and hop on. You’ve got to have reservations.  And because Disney parks are crowded, and a lot of people are using Genie+, it self limits availability.

Disney officially says that the average guest should expect 2-3 rides with little to no waits when using Genie+. Yikes. In my experience…if you have a strategy and you can work the system, you can stretch it to 4-5 (depending on the park).

The other thing is…Genie+ is….complicated. You cannot just show up and start using this thing. You’ve got to do your research to know the best strategy to lay out your day. You pretty much need an education to know how to work it to your advantage and make it worthwhile.

I’ll be super honest about my personal opinion…if you’re going to Disney on a once in a lifetime trip (even if you go somewhat often but like to “do everything” on your trips), I strongly recommend putting Genie+ and one individual Lightning Lane attraction in the budget every day. It will make your trip soooooo much easier and you’ll really minimize time in line.

A trip to Disney World is EXPENSIVE these days. And I just can’t imagine spending all of that money and having to wait in lines for EVERY single ride. For $30-45/day, you can be in GREAT shape line wise ($15-25 for Genie+ and $15-20 for the extra special ride).

Can You Do the Parks without Genie+?

Of course. I don’t want you to think that you can’t do the park without Genie+, but it’s definitely tougher.

Plan on a very early arrival, staying until close, and you’ll need a super star strategy. I would recommend looking at Touring Plans as they’ll generate a customized itinerary for you based on what you’re interested in and whether or not you’re using Genie+. They have so many years of data and research that drives their recommendations.

What about virtual queues?

If all of this doesn’t sound complicated enough, let’s throw ONE MORE THING into the mix. Virtual queues. 

In the past when Disney has opened a new attraction, it’s not uncommon for 4-5 hour waits to pile up and nobody likes that. So in recent years they’ve introduced a virtual queue to brand new rides for the first year or so until all the wildness calms down. 

Currently there are two attractions at Walt Disney World that use a virtual queue: Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind (at Epcot) and TRON Lightcycle Run (at Magic Kingdom). 

Since these rides use a virtual queue, you CANNOT WAIT IN A PHYSICAL LINE. Both of these rides have the option to PURCHASE an Individual Lightning Lane to ride, but if you want to ride for free, you’ve got to get a spot in the virtual queue. 

Here’s how that works: You’ll find the virtual queue in the My Disney Experience app under the “Tip Board.” 

There’s a 7AM drop and a 1PM drop. At 7AM, everyone who has a park reservation (soon to go away) can request to join the virtual queue and you do this on your phone from wherever you are. 

I have about a 50/50 success rate at getting the virtual queue at 7AM. If you miss the 7AM drop (spots are gone in less than a second), there’s a second drop at 1PM but only for people who are physically in the park (your ticket has to be scanned in at the gate). 

If you miss the 7AM drop, your odds for getting the 1PM drop are pretty good. 

If you get a spot in the virtual queue, you’re given a boarding group number. They start calling boarding groups when the park opens and you have one hour from the time they call your group to show up to ride the attraction. 

They say they’re pretty strict about not letting you in if your time has passed, but I’ve never been turned away : )

Since Guardians of the Galaxy and Tron both have a virtual queue AND the option to purchase an Individual Lightning Lane, it’s possible to ride both of these TWICE in one day if you’re willing to pay. 

Want more Walt Disney World posts? Check these out…

The Best (i.e. My Favorite) Time to Go to Walt Disney World

Tips for a Day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Disney’s Hollywood Studios Park Strategy

How to Spend the Day at the Magic Kingdom

Epcot Tips

5 Day Walt Disney World Itinerary

Swan Reserve Review



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