Visiting Disney has always been a rite of childhood. Taking your kids to meet Mickey Mouse, see the castle, and take part in all of the FUN is something that many families save and plan for a long time. A lot of them get the “Disney bug” and make those once in a lifetime trips a regular thing. And now a days, more and more adults are getting the appeal and choosing to vacation in the kingdom.
You know what that means? Going to Walt Disney World has become a BIG DEAL. Besides being expensive, Disney has a whole system that’s designed to make your trip easier (think…not waiting for hours in lines), but actually creates a lot of work and planning on the front end.
Although Mickey’s vacationland offers visitors from all over the world the time of their lives, it can be quite an overwhelming and confusing place to navigate. The very idea of planning a trip to Walt Disney World, picking the time, making the reservations, figuring out where to stay and what to do and how to get around can be a daunting task for anyone. Couple this with horror stories from families who have returned and can tell tales of nothing but scorching heat, mega crowds, sky high prices, and screaming kids and it is enough to make even the most eager Disney enthusiast rethink plans for a trip to see the mouse.
Sound like fun? Luckily, you’ve got me to help! I’ve been going to Disney for as long as I can remember and since I was about 12 I’ve been the go to travel guide for so many of my friends, family, and acquaintances. I can’t tell you how many Disney trips I’ve helped plan for other people.
So I’ve put together the most popular FAQs I get about planning a trip to Disney World into one HUGE guide. Once you read this, your trip will practically plan itself! ; )
So…onto the good stuff!
RELATED: Just going to Disney for the day? Read everything you need to know about Disney day trips here.
When is the best time to go?
Ideally, the perfect time to go to Walt Disney World is when the weather is cool and the crowds are low; however this winning combination knocks out the majority of the year. If you’re lucky enough to be able to plan your trip during one of the slowest and mildest times of the year, you’re sure to have a great time, but if not, don’t worry- there is no such thing as a BAD time to visit Disney! Also, I feel like there needs to be a disclaimer here…there’s really not anytime when you’re going to feel like you have the park to yourself. Disney has mastered promotions that draw people to WDW pretty much year round, BUT there are times that are definitely less crowded than others.
Generally speaking, crowd patterns at Walt Disney World follow national holidays and school schedules.
- January (after New Years’ Day) up until President’s Week in February.
- The week after Labor Day through the week before Thanksgiving.
- The week after Thanksgiving through the week before Christmas.
- After Presidents’ week in February through early March.
- Late April through early June (except Memorial Day weekend).
- Columbus Day Weekend (October).
- The first few days of Thanksgiving week.
- President’s Week (February).
- Mid March through Late April (“Spring Break”)
- Memorial Day weekend
- Mid June through Labor Day
- Thanksgiving Day and weekend
- Christmas week through New Year’s Day
Weather: Being located in the middle of the “Sunshine State,” Walt Disney World boasts warm temperatures almost year round. Summer (let’s say May through September) is HOT and there are usually afternoon thunderstorms that pass through fairly quickly. Temperatures start to cool down a bit in October and November (but hey it’s still Florida so be prepared to sweat!) and December through February can actually get pretty cool in the mornings and evenings. I think the winter months are the biggest swing months weather wise. I’ve visited during winter months where I’ve been bundled up in a coat, hat, and gloves (burrrr!) and other times where we took swim breaks in the middle of the day because it was so warm. Early March can still get slightly chilly first thing in the morning and after the sun goes down, but usually by April it’s well on its way to summer. So basically, be prepared for anything. I ALWAYS have a lightweight jacket with me (even in the dead of summer) because it can be crazy going from the scorching heat to the AC all day. Also, a rain jacket or poncho is a must during the spring and summer.
Holidays: Holidays are some of the most popular times of year to visit Walt Disney World. The resort goes all out for Halloween and Christmas with special events (Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party runs early August through October and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party runs November through Christmas) and decorations galore. Many people plan their annual Disney vacations during the holidays so they can experience the extra magic Walt Disney World offers during those times of the year.
Epcot Festivals: Besides the peak summer months, there’s pretty much a festival going on at Epcot all year. The Festival of the Arts, Flower and Garden Festival, Food and Wine Festival, and International Festival of the Holidays all make for unique times to visit Epcot and tend to draw a lot of locals.
Ride refurbishments and closings: In order to keep everything running smoothly and in tip top shape, Disney does routine maintenance and rehabs on their shows and attractions. These refurbishments are sometimes just routine maintenance, but sometimes they involve extensive changes to attractions that take longer to complete. This means that sometimes an attraction or show will be closed for a period of time ranging from a few days to several months. If it is important for you to see a specific attraction during your stay, it would be wise to check the schedule to make sure it will be open. Nothing is more disappointing than getting your kid excited and prepared to ride a specific attraction and then getting there and finding out that it is closed for repairs during your stay. Avoid this scenario and check before you book or at least before you leave home at: http://disneyworld.disney.go.com/calendars/
Bottom Line: While the pros of going during a slow time highly outweigh the cons, there are cons nonetheless and it is important to be aware of them before your trip. The parks have abbreviated hours in the slower season, opening later and closing earlier. During the slow times of September, October, and November and December, the Magic Kingdom hosts the Halloween and Christmas parties when the park closes at 7 PM. On these days, and many others in the off season, evening parades and fireworks will not be performed every day, making the days they are performed much more crowded. The weather can also be a factor in the off season. Be prepared for low temperatures in the 40’s and 50’s during the winter months. During many winter nights, you may want to bundle up in hats, scarves, and mittens so be sure to bring them along if you don’t want to pay Disney’s exorbitant prices for them.
How many days do we need to stay?
It’s nearly impossible to see and do everything Disney has to offer on one trip, but if you’re looking for a solid taste of it and opportunities to experience the best of what Disney has to offer you should allow at least 5-7 days. This will allow for one full day at each theme park with time left to experience the water parks, Disney Springs, your resort, other recreational possibilities and time for favorite repeats. If you only have time for a quick trip, 3-4 days can allow time to experience the highlights of each theme park if you take advantage of the park hopper option, which allows you to visit more than one park per day.
Park Tickets: Tickets get cheaper (per day) the more days that you stay. Going from a 1-day to a 2-day to a 3-day ticket is going to pretty much double or triple the price of the ticket, but after that it starts become quite a bit cheaper to add additional days. Last time I looked at numbers, I think it only cost about $20 to extend a 4-day ticket to a 5-day ticket. You can add on a “Park Hopper” option to your base ticket which allows you to visit multiple parks in one day and there’s also a waterpark add on. What you choose will largely depend on how many days you have to spend.
Park Hopping: To hop or not is the question! Some people prefer to have the flexibility of going to more than one park per day. The park hopper option allows you to spend the day at the Animal Kingdom and then pop over to the Magic Kingdom for the fireworks or to Epcot for dinner. Keep in mind that park hopping does take time out of your day as you have to factor in transportation time from one park to another. If you are staying at one of the Epcot or Magic Kingdom resorts it can be much more convenient to hop. Also if you are only going to be in the World for a limited number of days but want to visit all of the parks, hopping may be your best option.
Should we stay on Disney property or somewhere else?
There are sooooo many places to stay in Orlando, but the biggest way to narrow it down is to decide if you’re going to stay on or off Disney property.
On Property Advantages
- Extended theme park hours just for resort guests-“Extra Magic Hours”
- Complimentary airport transportation- “Disney’s Magical Express”
- Complimentary resort transportation- by monorail, Skyliner, boat, or bus throughout the Walt Disney World Resort area
- Access to Lyft’s “Minnie” Van service: These official Disney ride shares operated through Lyft can often take you places a regular Lyft or Uber can’t (or at least get you there faster).
- Option to purchase the Disney Dining Plan and save up to 30% on food
- Magic Bands- a wrist band that acts as your room key, park tickets, Fastpass+, and payment method.
- Package delivery- have packages delivered to the gift shop at your resort
- Guaranteed entry to the theme parks-especially important during peak days, such as Easter, Fourth of July, and Christmas, when the parks may fill to capacity
- Close proximity to the theme parks and Disney attractions- some resorts are close enough to walk to a park or two
- Immersive theming and well maintained properties
- Knowledgeable and courteous Disney staff available 24/7
On Property Disadvantages
- Price- accommodations are generally more expensive than comparable offsite options
- Availability- there are fewer Disney hotel rooms than people who visit the parks so options can be limited, especially at the last minute
- Dining on property is more expensive
- Farther from non-Disney attractions
Off Property Advantages
- Larger number of lower priced accommodations
- Lower rates at the last minute
- Closer proximity to non-Disney attractions
- Cheaper dining
- Some hotels offer free breakfast
- Some hotels offer discounts to non-Disney attractions
Off Property Disadvantages
- Farther away from theme parks and Disney attractions
- During peak season parking lots and certain theme parks may fill to capacity leaving off property guests without access
- Must pay for parking at the four theme parks
- Quality of rooms and service varies
- Hotel employees are less familiar with Disney property
Which resort should we pick?
If you decide to stay on Disney property, (the only way I go!) there are options to suit nearly every set of circumstances including budget, location, and “vibe” preference.
There’s a Disney resort to fit practically every budget. Disney categorizes their resorts as value, moderate, and deluxe. With each price tier increase comes increasing amenities. All resort tiers receive some of the same amenities such as Extra Magic Hours, use of Magical Express, package delivery, and room charging privileges.
Value: The value resorts are the most economical option on Disney property. Most rooms sleep four in two double beds. Each resort has outside room access (like a motel). The theming is pretty over the top (think giant icons that are bigger than the buildings themselves) which often makes them pretty popular with kids. Each value resort has a large food court, several themed pools, and bus transportation to the theme parks. The All Star Resorts (Movies, Music, and Sports) are three separate resorts but they’re clustered together so it’s more like a mega resort. If you’re a “Disney” fan, All Star Movies is a fun place to stay, especially for kids. Generally, the All Stars can be pretty noisy and there’s a lot going on. I prefer Pop Century. It’s newer, doesn’t share buses with another resort, plus it’s now on the Skyliner. Art of Animation (next to Pop Century) also has a value resort vibe, but most of its accommodations are family suites (sleep 6) so rooms there aren’t as cheap. It also has access to the Skyliner.
Moderate: The moderate resorts are one step up from the value resorts and offer a few more amenities. Some rooms can sleep up to 5 (with a daybed) and there are also some themed rooms (Pirate rooms at Caribbean Beach, Princess rooms at Port Orleans Riverside, etc.). Most still have outside room access (like a motel). The upgrades you get are full-service restaurants, (in addition to a food court), luggage service, swimming pools with a slide and hot tub, on-site recreation (like fishing or boat rentals), as well as some transportation upgrades besides just buses. My favorite moderate by far is Caribbean Beach Resort and while it’s a beautiful resort, I mostly love it because it serves as the hub of the Skyliner (a gondola system that connects several resorts with Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios). The Port Orleans Resorts (Riverside and French Quarter) are fan favorites with a lot of people who like the atmosphere. They also have boat transportation to Disney Springs. Coronado Springs also recently opened the new Gran Destino Tower which offers more upscale accommodations (popular with adults and convention goers) than at the rest of the resort.
Deluxe: The deluxe resorts are the top tier of resorts on Disney property. Most rooms sleep 5 people with queen sized beds and a day bed. Each deluxe resort has multiple full-service restaurants as well as room service, luggage service, valet parking, swimming pools with slides, on-site recreation, on-site childcare, and monorail, boat or bus transportation. But mostly, they all have spectacular theming. Where the value resorts slap “Disney” up everywhere is a loud way, the deluxe resorts actually transport you to another time and place. They are also clustered in locations that give them more convenient transportation options to certain theme parks (sometimes you can even walk!).
Deluxe Villas: The Disney Vacation Club (like a timeshare) has resorts (and sections of certain deluxe resort) that feature studios, one-, two-, and three-bedroom accommodations. Studios have a kitchenette and one-, two-, and three-bedroom villas come with a full kitchen and in-room washer and dryer. If you need more space, or you’re traveling with a large party, choosing a villa could save you some money.
Disney property is HUGE so certain clusters of resorts that are in the vicinity of each other are often grouped together for certain amenities. If you plan to spend the majority of your time at a specific theme park, then you might consider staying at a resort in that area for convenient transportation to and from that park. There are four resort areas on Disney property:
Magic Kingdom Resort Area: The Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and Contemporary Resorts are all situated around the Seven Seas Lagoon and are connected to the Magic Kingdom by Monorail. There’s also the option to transfer to a monorail to Epcot at the Transportation and Ticket Center (the Magic Kingdom parking lot and transportation hub next to the Polynesian) from these resorts. So that’s two parks that you can get to without having to drive or take a bus. The Contemporary Resort has a walking path to the Magic Kingdom and they’re currently building one from the Grand Floridian to the Magic Kingdom (the Polynesian and Grand Floridian are within walking distance so once the pathway is built, you’ll be able to also walk from the Polynesian through the Grand Floridian to the Magic Kingdom). The Wilderness Lodge and Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground sit on Bay Lake and offer boat transportation to the nearby Magic Kingdom and bus transportation to the other three parks and Disney Springs.
Epcot Resort Area: The Epcot Resort area is situated at the back of Epcot (not the main entrance) and those resorts have their own entrance through the International Gateway, which enters the World Showcase in between France and the United Kingdom. The Beach Club, Yacht Club, and Boardwalk Resorts (as well as the Swan and Dolphin-owned and operated by Marriott) are spread out around Crescent Lake. While each of these resorts is within walking distance to Epcot (pretty close) and Disney’s Hollywood Studios (a much farther walk), there’s also a ferry that shuttles guests back and forth between the two parks. The recent opening of Disney’s Skyliner (a gondola system) has added a few resorts that are in close proximity to Epcot but previously had no transportation other than buses into the mix. There is a Skyliner station at Epcot and Hollywood Studios. The Skyliner makes stops at Pop Century/Art of Animation (value resorts), Caribbean Beach (moderate), and Riviera Resort (Disney Vacation Club/Deluxe). The main hub station is at Caribbean Beach which means that if you’re staying there you’ll never have to transfer to get to either Epcot or Hollywood Studios.
Animal Kingdom Resort Area: Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a bit isolated out in its own area of Disney property and while there’s no unique transportation setup to get to the park, there are a few resorts that are in the area. The Animal Kingdom Lodge, Coronado Springs, and All Star Resorts are going to be a shorter drive/bus ride to the Animal Kingdom than to the other parks.
Disney Springs Resort Area: Disney Springs is a shopping and dining complex that’s a nice place to hang out in the evenings or on days that you don’t have a park ticket. It attracts a lot of locals. Saratoga Springs Resort has a walking trail to Disney Springs as well as boat transportation (Old Key West and the Port Orleans Resorts also have boat transportation).
Once you’ve narrowed down your budget and location preference, your decision just might come down to the most appealing theme. Whether you want to experience the African savannah or a 1930s boardwalk, there is something for everyone.
- Pop Century Resort: Pop culture icons from the 1950’s to the 1990’s.
- All Star Sports: Sports including football, tennis, surfing, baseball, and basketball.
- All Star Music: Different types of music including calypso, jazz, rock, country, and Broadway.
- All Star Movies: Disney movies including Fantasia, Toy Story, 101 Dalmatians, the Mighty Ducks, and The Lovebug.
- Port Orleans Riverside: Mansions and bayou surroundings of the Deep South.
- Port Orleans French Quarter: Charm of 19th century New Orleans.
- Caribbean Beach Resort: Colorful Caribbean islands.
- Coronado Springs Resort: Northern Mexico and the American Southwest.
- Fort Wilderness Cabins and Campground: Rustic pioneer cabins and campground.
- Grand Floridian Resort and Spa: Turn-of-the-century luxury Floridian hotel.
- Polynesian Resort– South Pacific Islands.
- Contemporary Resort– Futuristic as seen in 1970.
- Wilderness Lodge Resort– National park lodge of the early 1900’s.
- Beach Club Resort– New England Beach Club of the 19th
- Yacht Club Resort– New England seashore hotel of the 19th
- Boardwalk Resort– East Coast Boardwalk of the early 1900ss.
- Animal Kingdom Lodge– African game preserve.
Deluxe Villas (DVC Resorts)
- Saratoga Springs Resort– Upstate New York horse racing lakeside retreat.
- Old Key West Resort– Key West atmosphere.
- Bay Lake Towers– Futuristic as seen in 1970.
- Wilderness Lodge Villas– National park lodge of the early 1900’s.
- Beach Club Villas– New England Beach Club of the 19th
- Boardwalk Villas– East Coast Boardwalk of the early 1900’s.
- Animal Kingdom Lodge Villas– African game preserve.
- Riviera Resort: 1930’s French and Italian Riviera
Do we need to rent a car?
Magical Express: Disney offers the Magical Express to all resort guests. The Magical Express will shuttle you (and your bags) between the airport and your resort FOR FREE. Before you leave home, you’ll receive luggage tags in the mail to mark their bags. Once you check your bags in at your home airport, you won’t see them again until they arrive in your room!
To rent or not? When flying into Orlando, a lot of people decide to rent a car and not rely on Disney transportation even though it’s pretty darn efficient. Some people like having the freedom to come and go without waiting for a bus, boat, monorail or gondola. (Keep in mind that if you are driving to the Magic Kingdom, you still have to park and then take a boat or monorail to the main entrance). If you plan to leave property during your stay, having your own car is a necessity. If you plan to travel from your resort to another resort for dining reservations or just site seeing, having a car is usually the quickest way but with the popularity of ride share like Lyft and Uber you can still get the benefits of having a car without having to rent one (Disney even has their own ride share- the Minnie Vans- through Lyft). If you’re staying at a Disney resort, it’s free to park your car in the theme park lots (although the resorts are now charging a nightly fee).
How do we get around?
Disney has a truly impressive transportation system. Their fleet of buses rivals most cities and that doesn’t even include the monorails, boats, or SKYLINER.
Here’s a breakdown of what kind of transportation will get you where:
Walking: Some resorts are connected to each other and to theme parks via walkways. The Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, Swan, and Dolphin are all accessible to one another via a walkway around Crescent Lake which is connected to the back of Epcot and also to Hollywood Studios.
The Contemporary Resort has a walking path to the Magic Kingdom and they’re building one from the Grand Floridian to the Magic Kingdom. The Polynesian and Grand Floridian are connected via walkway so once the Grand is connected to the Magic Kingdom, those three resorts will be connected as well.
Saratoga Springs is within walking distance of Disney Springs (although depending on where your building is within the resort, it could be quite a walk.
Monorails: There are three monorail tracks in Walt Disney World, all of which intersect at the Transportation and Ticket Center, the Gateway to the Magic Kingdom.
- Express Monorail: Runs between the TTC and the Magic Kingdom.
- Resort Monorail: Runs between the TTC and Magic Kingdom with stops at the Polynesian, Contemporary, and Grand Floridian.
- Epcot Monorail: Runs between the TTC and Epcot.
Boats: Disney has made good use of waterways around their resorts, so there are quite a few boat transportation routes.
- To the Magic Kingdom: The Grand Floridan, Polynesian, Transportation and Ticket Center, Wilderness Lodge, and Fort Wilderness all have boat transportation to the Magic Kingdom. In the area, there’s also a boat route that does a triangle between the Contemporary, Wilderness Lodge, and Fort Wilderness.
- To Epcot: The Beach Club, Yacht Club, Boardwalk, Swan and Dolphin all have a ferry to Epcot.
- To Hollywood Studios: The Beach Club, Yacht Club, Boardwalk, and Swan and Dolphin also have ferries to Hollywood Studios.
- Disney Springs: Saratoga Springs (including the Treehouse Villas), Old Key West, and the Port Orleans resorts all have boats to Disney Springs.
Skyliner: The Skyliner is seriously the greatest thing ever. After riding it on my last trip, I’ll probably be choosing resorts that are stops on the Skyliner in the future just because it’s such convenient and nice transportation. Caribbean Beach, Riviera, Pop Century, and Art of Animation all have stations. Also, the Epcot resorts (Beach Club, Yacht Club, Boardwalk, Swan and Dolphin) could walk to the Epcot station and ride over to Hollywood Studios (although you have to transfer at Caribbean Beach). Caribbean Beach is the most convenient resort on the Skyliner because it’s station is the main hub so you can get on a direct line to either park. Other resorts will have to switch.
Buses: If it’s not a route that I mentioned above, it’s a bus route. Disney resorts are very clean and run pretty frequently. It’s unusual to wait more than 15-20 minutes for a bus and at peak times, they usually run much more frequently.
Lyft: There are times when having your own car is the best and quickest way to get around. Mostly going from resort to resort or if you need to arrive at a park before Disney transportation starts running. Lyft and Uber operate pretty much everywhere and Disney even has their own “Minnie Vans” that are available in the Lyft app. If you request a Minnie Van, you’ll be driven by a Disney cast member in one of the cute little red polka dot cars. They have some special access such as dropping you right at the entrance of the Magic Kingdom (other ride share has to drop you at the TCC and then you have to take a monorail or boat) or at Pioneer Hall at Fort Wilderness (really convenient if you’re going to the popular Hoop Dee Doo dinner show). Insider tip: a popular strategy after park close is to walk to the nearest resort (Contemporary Resort at Magic Kingdom, Beach Club at Epcot) and call a Lyft to take you back to your resort. I think the $10-15 is really worth not having to wait for a bus, boat, or monorail with a big crowd (after fireworks EVERYONE leaves at once).
My biggest tip would be to not underestimate how long it takes to get around the Walt Disney World Resort. It’s a big place (just driving from one end to the other in the car is not super close) so when you factor in wait time for transportation, always leave yourself some cushion.
How do we skip all of the lines?…OR “is that Fastpass thing free?”
Now that we’ve gotten all of the big picture planning out of the way…it’s onto the details. The important details. You’re going to Disney to be entertained right? To have a fabulous time riding the best rides, meeting your favorite characters, and enjoying Disney’s top notch live entertainment! Well if you want to do all of that without spending hours waiting in line, you’re going to need a plan. And the biggest not-so-secret weapon for cutting your time in line is FASTPASS+!
Figuring out how Fastpasses work is by far the thing I get the most questions about. How much does it cost? Is it worth it? How does it work?
Here’s what you need to know:
- Fastpass+ is FREE for EVERYONE.
- It’s a reservation system of sorts that allows you to experience the most popular attractions with minimal waiting in line.
- Not every ride/attraction has Fastpass, but a LOT do.
- Many live shows (including nightly fireworks) have Fastpasses which means you either get early entry to the theater to pick your seat, or a spot saved in a certain section.
- Fastpass+ reservations can be made 30 days in advance by the general public and annual passholders, but Disney resort guests can make their reservations 60 days in advance. That’s a HUGE incentive to stay on property as some of the most popular attractions run out of Fastpasses before the 30 day window even opens up.
- Fastpasses can be booked on the My Disney Experience app or the Walt Disney World website.
- You must have your park tickets purchased and linked to your my Disney Experience app (and everyone in your travel party connected) before you can reserve Fastpasses.
- You can reserve THREE Fastpasses per day in ONE theme park in advance. Once you use your three original Fastpasses, you can start to reserve and use them one at a time in any park that you’re visiting.
- There are kiosks in each park where you can scan your park tickets and book Fastpasses day of (what’s left over), but availability can be very fluid as people can cancel Fastpasses they’re not going to use and new times can pop up randomly so it’s best to download the app to your phone so you can check often and not backtrack through the park.
- Your Fastpass reservation time is good for an hour. So if your Fastpass for Space Mountain is for 3:20, that means you can scan you Magic Band or park ticket and get in line anytime between 3:20 and 4:20.
- The reservation availability opens up at 7AM EASTERN TIME 30 days before your arrival day (60 days for resort guests). At that time, you’ll be able to book Fastpasses for your whole trip so you don’t have to log back in every day to book the next day’s Fastpasses. For example, if your vacation starts (your first park day) on June 23rd, you can login to the app at 7AM Eastern time on April 24th and make reservations for the entirety of your trip.
Okay, okay…I get it. Reservations and strategic planning 30-60 days in advance aren’t necessarily “fun,” but neither is waiting in line for FOUR hours (yep, some lines really do get that long) for the biggest and newest attraction when you could only wait 10-15 minutes with a Fastpass. So if you’re planning your trip far enough in advance (with last minute trips you just have to take what you can get), make sure you set an alarm on your booking date and GET IT DONE. You’ll thank me later.
Read absolutely positively EVERYTHING you need to know about Fastpass (including what to book) here.
How does dining work?
Dining, just like everything else at Disney, is a “thing.” Oh you think you can just show up and eat where and when you want? How cute.
Here’s a rundown of how the food situation works at Disney. There are basically two types of restaurants:
1.Places you can just show up. Called “counter service” or “quick service,” these restaurants are fast food/food court style. You stand in line, order at a counter, and take your food to a table to eat. Yes, a lot of these places are typical theme park food, but in recent years Disney has really stepped these types of offerings up. The My Disney Experience has full menus for ALL dining options (snack stands, quick service, sit down restaurants) that you can filter by park or resort so you can find exactly the type of cuisine you’re looking for.
Overall, here are some of my favorite quick service options at the parks (each resort has a quick service spot as well):
Magic Kingdom: Columbia Harbor House
Epcot: Tangerine Café, Rose and Crown, Sunshine Seasons
Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Woody’s Lunchbox, Docking Bay 7
Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Flametree BBQ, Satulii Canteen
Disney Springs: The Polite Pig, D-Lux Burger
2.Places you need a reservation. If you want to have any kind of sit down meal (even casual), you pretty much need to make a reservation before you arrive. I know it’s hard deciding where you’re going to eat so far in advance (reservations open up 180 DAYS IN ADVANCE umm crazy), but even if you’re not trying to get crazy hard to get reservations, it’s still a good idea to have a few things booked. I like to book one sit down meal a day just to have as a break. I’ve been going to Disney for a looooong time, and come 5 or 6 PM, I’m always glad to have a place to sit down and eat.
There are a LOT of places that fall into this category. All of the character dining (yes, you can have meals with characters!) can be reserved, as can dinner shows, buffets, “signature” (aka fancy) restaurants and just regular sit down restaurants. Now, is a reservation REQUIRED? No. But 90% of the time (even in the slow season!), if you walk up to a restaurant, they won’t have any availability for the day or even if it’s a less popular restaurant, it might be a couple of hours before they can get you in.
Reservations can be made in the My Disney Experience App and you can filter what’s available by time and location so if you’re winging it and you’re standing in the middle of Epcot at 4 PM looking for a place for dinner, you can pull up exactly what’s available without having to wander around and ask at the podiums. BUT what’s left is usually pretty picked over (maybe not the best restaurants) or it could be something you don’t want (a $$$ buffet when you want to order a la carte) or maybe just at a weird time.
So I recommend having at least a few things booked before you go. If you want to do character dining, definitely book ahead. Trying to get in somewhere popular like the Cinderella’s Royal Table (the castle), Be Our Guest, Ohana, or Chef Mickey’s? Book ahead. Shows like Hoop Dee Doo should also be booked ahead of time for sure. Unless dining is a major focus of your vacation, I wouldn’t recommend having more than one dining reservation per day. That’s a lot of time spent sitting in restaurants, which limits your time in the parks.
What about the Disney Dining Plan?
Yep, they’ve even got a plan for it. Some people like their vacations more “all inclusive” so Disney has come up with a way for you to prepay for your meals. There are a variety of different plans that give you different types of “credits” to use for each night of your stay (snack credits, table service credits, quick service credits) in different combinations. I personally don’t think a dining plan saves you all that much money unless you’re ordering the most expensive things on the menu (plus getting desserts at every meal), but if you’re the type that likes to pay for everything in advance it is available. If you’re going to do a dining plan though, you’ve really got to be on top of your reservations as it mostly makes sense if you’re doing a buffet or character meal everyday.
When should I start booking everything?
It’s one thing to read all about planning a Disney vacation, but when it comes down to actually making reservations, it can get a little daunting. When do you book what? Is there an order things need to be done in? Well, yes. Here’s a timeline for when to book what.
Book your room or vacation package: This will be the biggest expense of your trip so it’s probably going to be your biggest decision. Once you’ve decided how long you’ll stay and when you’re going to go, you can start looking for deals or promotions. If you’re staying on Disney property, you’re probably going to book a vacation package that includes your room and tickets (and maybe a dining plan), but if you find a great deal on the room, you can add your tickets later. Start on this as early as possibly.
Download the My Disney Experience: Pretty much everything you do from this point forward will require having the My Disney Experience app. Set up an account for yourself. If you’ll be the one making plans for everyone in your party, you can add them to your profile. If you’re traveling with other adults who will want to be able to make plans (book Fastpasses, check dining reservations, etc.) then each person should have their own account and they can be linked together. Children’s profiles can be “managed” by a parent. You can use your room or package confirmation number to connect your profile to your reservation.
Lay out a general schedule: Once you know your dates, lay it out on a calendar and decide which park you’ll go to on each day or if you’re going to do non-Disney things on certain days, or just have some rest days. I’ll tell you more about how to go about this below, but you need to nail down a general plan before you make your dining and Fastpass reservations (although sometimes what reservations you can get may dictate which days you go where).
Dining reservations: You can make dining reservations starting at 180 days in advance (yes, some places really do book up that far in advance). Even if you’re not planning that far in advance, once you have your dates, log on to the My Disney Experience App and start making your reservations. Try to pick restaurants that are in the theme park you’ll be at that day or at nearby resorts (or where you’re staying). If you’re REALLY on top of this vacation and you’re planning more than six months out, you should be able to get everything you want, but you’ll need to be logged on and ready to go when the window opens. Places like Cinderella’s Royal Table (inside the castle) are hard to get even that far in advance.
Purchase tickets: If you didn’t book a vacation package that came with tickets, you need to have your tickets purchased and linked to your my Disney Experience App (for everyone in your party) BEFORE your Fastpass booking window opens (60 days for resort guests, 30 days for everyone else).
Fastpass: Disney resort guests can book Fastpasses 60 days in advance, and everyone else can book 30 days in advance. If you’re planning your trip in advance, DON’T DROP THE BALL ON THIS. Having good Fastpass reservations is probably the single biggest thing that makes for a great trip.
Personalize Magic Bands: If you’re staying at a Disney resort, each person in your party will be sent a Magic Band. In the My Disney Experience App, you can customize each one by selecting a color and adding your name. These bands usually ship about 30 days before your trip.
Make Magical Express reservations: If you’re flying to Florida and you’ll be using Disney’s Magical Express (their complimentary shuttle from MCO to your Disney resort), you can make your reservations anytime after you know your flight details. The best way to do this is over the phone. You’ll need the airline, flight numbers and arrival and departure dates for everyone in your party. Once you make your reservations, they will mail you special luggage tags to use (so that your bags are picked up at the MCO airport and delivered to your room at Disney) so be sure to do this at least two weeks before you leave, otherwise you’ll have to handle your own bags.
How do you plan your time in the parks?
With four theme parks packed full of entertainment and endless extras scattered across Disney property, you’ve got to have some sort of plan of attack no matter how basic or simple. It’s next to impossible to do and see everything Walt Disney World has to offer, however with some planning and understanding it will be possible to maximize your time, enjoyment in the parks, AND not go completely crazy.
So you’ve got to do two things:
1) Decide which park you’re going to visit each day (or which days you’re going to spend relaxing at the pool or doing something off Disney property), and 2) put together a rough plan for each day. If you manage to do this, you’ll be ahead of 90% of the people who just show up for the day with no plan.
Decide which park to visit on each day: Does it really matter which day you pick to visit each park? Well, sometimes yes. There are a few things you’ll want to check out before you decide: park hours, firework schedules, Extra Magic Hours, etc. In the My Disney Experience app, you can look up the park hours by day. Certain times of the year, the Magic Kingdom closes early for the Halloween and Christmas parties so if you’re not attending the party (and you’re only going to the Magic Kingdom for one day), you don’t want to pick a day when it closes at 7PM and doesn’t have fireworks scheduled. Also, if you’re staying at a Disney resort, you may want to pick days that have Extra Magic Hours. Pretty much every day, at least one park is either open one hour early or three hours late JUST for resort guests. If you’re not a resort guest, you may want to avoid a park with Extra Magic Hours because it can make the park more crowded. For example, if the park doesn’t open until 9AM, but Extra Magic Hours started at 8, it means that by the time you’re allowed inside, there will already be lines formed for everything.
Besides park hours, if you’re traveling with kids, you may want to take them to the Magic Kingdom first. If they’re expecting to see the castle, they may not feel like they’re in Disney until they go there.
Make a plan for the day: Your plan for the day can be as complicated or as simple as you want. But here are some general guidelines for having the smoothest day possible (i.e. one not spent waiting in 100 lines):
Get there early: This is probably the most valuable tip on how to avoid lines. The first hour that a park is open is the best time to ride. But in order to fully take advantage of this time, you’ve got to get there even earlier. At most parks, the castmembers begin letting guests through the turnstiles up to an hour before the park actually opens. They do this to avoid bottlenecks. Once people are inside the park, they gravitate towards their first attraction and start lining up as far as they’re allowed into the park. So let’s say Hollywood Studios opens at 9AM and you show up at 8:45…you’re doing good right? Well, actually you’ve got to go through security and wait to go through the turnstiles and once you’re inside ALL the people that started arriving early are already in front of you racing to Slinky Dog Dash. Yikes. So if you’re at the back of that pack, your wait time for Slinky is going to balloon. So if you’re going to try the “rope drop” strategy, I recommend arriving at least an hour before the park opens and knowing EXACTLY what you’re going to move towards first (often that will determine where you’re supposed to line up. It’s a good idea to have a plan for what the first 2-3 things you’re going to ride are. And please…PLEASE…the first thing you do should not be stopping to have your picture taken or look around for breakfast. Do that later once you’ve lost the advantage of arriving early.
Use Fastpasses: If you get there early for rope drop, you’re still only going to get a shot at one (maaaaybe two) attractions with no or a low wait, so how do you fit in the rest? With Fastpasses! I recommend making your Fastpass reservations to start after 10PM (or an hour after the park opens). That will give you plenty of time to get inside and ride a ride or two with low lines before you start using your Fastpasses. Try to schedule them back to back (let’s say 10AM, 11AM, 12PM) so that you’ll use them up and be able to start reserving more during the afternoon. You can’t make new Fastpass reservations until you use your original three.
Stay Late: Often when a park is open super late, the later it gets the shorter the lines get. During the summer or holidays, the Magic Kingdom is sometimes open as late as 1 or 2AM with Extra Magic Hours! During fireworks, lines are often shorter as well.
Single Rider Line: My favorite trick for bypassing a long line is to ride as a single. There are a few rides that use single riders to fill in odd number parties. So if you’re willing to ride by yourself (well with strangers), you enter a separate line of people that they use to fill in. The line isn’t guaranteed to move at a certain pace because they’re just loading people as needed, but it’s usually much shorter than the standby line. You can do this if you’re traveling with other people (your whole group just gets in the single rider line) and even with older kids who are okay riding by themselves. These are the attractions that currently have a single rider line:
- Expedition Everest- Animal Kingdom
- Test Track- Epcot
- Rock n’ Roller Coaster- Hollywood Studios
- Millenium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run- Hollywood Studios
Have a plan for rainy or HOT afternoons: If you’re visiting during spring and summer, afternoon showers are a way of life, not to mention the heat (almost all year) so it’s good to have a plan for the afternoons. Each park has a handful of theater style shows that are a good place to duck into to avoid a rain shower or especially hot day. Some of them have set show times and some run continuously. You may also want to schedule a sit down dining reservation early to mid afternoon to have a little respite from the heat. My favorite thing to do is head back to the resort for a swim during the hottest part of the day.
What all is there to do?
Hey you made it through all of the planning and logistics so now it’s time to talk about the FUN you’re going to have at Walt Disney World.
Here’s a quick overview of all of the theme parks, waterparks, and other entertainment:
Magic Kingdom: This is the classic Disney park and what a lot of people refer to when they say “Disney World.” This is where you’ll find Cinderella’s Castle, Mainstreet USA, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland and Liberty Square. Nostalgic Walt Disney classics like Pirates of the Caribbean, It’s a Small World, and the Jungle Cruise sit alongside attractions featuring your favorite Disney characters. This is by far the most “Disney” of all the parks. The most popular attractions are Seven Dwarves Mine Train, Space Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Splash Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Any of those make good Fastpass picks. There’s an afternoon parade featuring favorite Disney characters and Happily Ever After, the nighttime firework and castle projection show is not to be missed.
Epcot: Epcot is currently a park in transition (a lot of construction!). It’s the largest theme park and home to the World Showcase- 11 countries situated around a lagoon where you can stroll, shop, and eat. The other side of the park is more science/future oriented. Don’t miss attractions include Soarin’, Test Track, The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Spaceship Earth, Living with the Land, Frozen Ever After, and the American Adventure. Epcot is famous for it’s festivals (Festival of the Arts, Flower and Garden, Food and Wine, and International Festival of the Holidays) and while there are some great attractions, it’s more of a meandering park.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios: The glitz and glamour of Tinsletown come to life at Disney’s Hollywood Studios where you are invited to be part of the show. But really, the show is mostly now Star Wars and Toy Story…which is pretty great! This park felt neglected for a long time, but I think Hollywood Studios has made a play for Disney’s “best park” in a big way recently. Galaxy’s Edge (Star War’s land) is currently the biggest draw in Disney World and the nostalgia is so thick in Toy Story Land that you’ll feel like you’re a kid again. Don’t miss attractions include Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Rise of the Resistance, Millenium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, Slinky Dog Dash, Toy Story Mania, Tower of Terror, and Rock n’ Roller Coaster.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a walk on the wild side. It’s not a zoo, but more of a hybrid experience combining the classic Disney theme park experience with animals. This is by far the best park if you’re taking along a “non-Disney fan.” It’s seriously impressive. The lands here are more immersive than anywhere else in Disney World (besides Galaxy’s Edge). Pandora, World of Avatar is one of the most amazing theme park settings you’ll ever experience (and you don’t need to be a fan of the movie), but Africa and Asia will leave you wanderlusty too. Don’t miss attractions include Avatar Flight of Passage, Kilimanjaro Safari, Expedition Everest, Festival of the Lion King, Navi River Journry, Dinosaur, and Kali River Rapids. Also don’t miss Animal Kingdom (especially Pandora) at night!
Waterparks: Disney’s two water parks Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon are the best places to play when the hot Florida sun is at its peak. In addition to the traditional water park staples, Disney’s water parks pack some extra punches. Blizzard Beach is a ski resort experiencing a meltdown. It’s complete with a ski lift up to the top of the slope where there are many slides to choose from as the way down. Typhoon Lagoon, a storm wrecked tropical paradise, has the world’s biggest wave pool and a salt water coral reef where guests can don snorkel gear and swim with the fish. The waterparks are really fun if you have an extra day or just want to slow down the pace a bit.
Disney Springs: Downtown Disney is a dining, shopping, and entertainment district that is particularly popular at night. Parking and admission is free to the outdoor complex. Downtown Disney is home to the World of Disney, the world’s largest Disney store, and an array of other shops featuring both Disney and non Disney merchandise. Dining options include big names like Rainforest Café, T Rex Café, Wolfgang Puck’s, Earl of Sandwich, and Ghirardelli’s. Downtown Disney also hosts Cirque de Soleil La Nouba and Disney Quest, an indoor virtual amusement park. Nightlife is big at Downtown Disney, especially if you’re looking for some place to go after the parks close.
Resorts: Disney’s resorts are like attractions in themselves. They’re so well themed that it’s fun to spend an afternoon or even a whole day exploring a few. Riding the monorail between the Grand Floridian, Polynesian, and Contemporary is a fun way to spend the day. Have lunch at one or do a food and drink crawl. You can do the same around the Epcot Resorts. Disney’s Boardwalk Resort is a fun place to be at night when it’s all lit up and Disney’s Fort Wilderness has a lot of special activities like horseback riding and archery lessons. You can rent boats for cruising or fishing at most of the deluxe resorts as well.
Tips for taking pictures?
Disney’s PhotoPass is a photography system that allows park guests to pose for pictures with the entire family. A network of Disney photographers is spread throughout the parks ready and willing to take photos of your magical vacation. Photographers are set up to take pictures in the most popular photo spots and with characters too. Have them take your photo then scan your Magic Band. You’ll be able to view all of your photos (including your ride photos) in the My Disney Experience app. You can pay a one time price to be able to download all of your photos (it’s called Memory Maker and it’s $169 if you purchase more than 3 days in advance of your trip, $199 once you arrive) or you can purchase them individually. Even if you are not interested in purchasing the PhotoPass package, the photographers are always more than willing to take pictures of your family using your own camera or phone.
What should I pack?
Aside from the normal vacation packing essentials, a trip to Walt Disney World may require some extras. Here are a few things I always like to bring with me: chargers and battery packs (you will burn through your battery so fast in the park), aloe, sunscreen, bandaids, hand sanitizer, backpack, water bottle, comfy shoes, gum (they don’t sell it on Disney property) (I get cold in the AC after being out in the heat all day), sunnies, ponchos (they’ll be way cheaper at home), autograph books and pens (they sell a couple styles at the park, but you may prefer an unlined notebook).
Any other tips?
Yes! Hands down, my best advice for you to have a great Disney trip is to set your expectations before you go. Disney is a one of a kind vacation…in order for it to go most smoothly, you have to do a lot of planning in advance…BUT once you arrive, you’ll have the best time if you’re able to go with the flow as much as possible. Things won’t go according to plan. And you don’t want to be that family having a meltdown in the middle of the park. Take breaks when needed and prioritize what’s important for the day so if something goes awry at some point, you’ll still be able to hit everyone’s highlights.
Top 7 Rookie Mistakes
- Not arriving at “rope drop:” The first two hours the park is open are usually the least crowded it will be all day and most attractions have relatively low waits.
- Not using Fastpass: Using the Fastpass system, there is no reason to ever wait more than 20 minutes in line for the most popular rides. Understand how it works before you arrive and use it!
- Having unreasonable expectations: Many people that go to Disney for the first time have unreasonable expectations about how much they will be able to see and do each day. Don’t wear yourselves out staying from open to close every day. Plan for midday breaks back at the resort or at least some unstructured downtime in the park.
- Not making Advanced Dining Reservations: Don’t expect to be able to walk up and get seated at the more popular restaurants, many of them book up months in advance. If your kid has their heart set on eating with Cinderella in the Castle, then you best secure a reservation before you arrive.
- Underestimating the heat: Avoid sunburns and dehydration by diligently applying sunscreen and drinking plenty of water. Take plenty of breaks in the air conditioning.
- Underestimating transportation times: Allow plenty of time when using Disney transportation. Disney buses run approximately every 20 minutes, but sometimes they come more or less frequently. If you have a reservation or need to be somewhere at a specific time, don’t run yourself short on time.
- Not having a rain plan: It rains frequently in Florida, especially in the afternoon. Rain showers rarely last very long so don’t let a few rain drops spoil your fun. Don ponchos (sold in the parks or bring your own) and keep on with the fun Afternoon showers usually clear out the parks leaving shorter lines.
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