A trip to Disney World is like taking the SAT’s – it can be tricky, and you’ll do significantly better if you prepare for it and know what to expect ahead of time. I’m writing this to de-mystify the Disney experience for friends who are interested, but don’t know where to start.
My wife interned at Disney two semesters in college, and after a couple of trips I’ve drunk the kool- aid. We have two girls, ages 4 and 2 who love their princesses! I don’t claim to know everything, but there’s definitely some tips I can pass along!
A note for skeptics
It’s probably going to be a little expensive. Maybe a lot expensive. You may not ‘get’ it. However, you’ll enjoy yourself a lot more if you just go with it. Suspend disbelief. Emerge yourself in being in “the most magical place on earth”, and you’ll have a great time.
…Also for business operations nerds, the level of coordination, logistics, and customer service that Disney executes with is incredibly impressive.
How old do the kids need to be? Any age!
Kids under 3 are free, so there’s that… but as long as they are familiar with and enjoy Disney characters, they’ll be great. Don’t worry about the kids being “too young to remember it”. They may not remember the trip, but you will! Seeing your child experience the magic of Disney is one of the coolest things. I will recommend that the younger the kids, the shorter the trip should be. Don’t expect a toddler to manage a full week. We’ve found that three days in the parks with travel days on each side work best for us. Obviously you know your own kids, so plan your trip accordingly.
Book your trip in Spring or Fall
You may not have a choice due to school schedules, so any time can be fun, but let’s start with when NOT to go if you can help it. Don’t go in the Summer, the week of Thanksgiving, the week between Christmas and New Years, or any weekend with a 5K/10K/Marathon race.
Spring (May) and Fall (Sept) are our favorites because the crowds are smaller, you don’t have daily afternoon rain, it’s generally not 90 degrees, but it’s still warm enough to use the resort pools. I’ve also heard mid-late January and February are great for smaller crowds, but I wouldn’t expect to swim.
Check out Disney crowd calendars if you want to get a sense of exactly how crowded a park is predicted to be on any given day. Disney will staff the parks based on expected crowds too, so don’t worry if your schedule only allows a traditionally busier time. That said, if you can go when the crowds are expected to be smaller – do it!
Book at least 30-60 days in advance – or more!
If staying on property, book at least 60 days in advance of your trip, if staying off property, book no less than 30 days in advance to ensure you can maximize your fast pass options. But more on all that later!
Definitely use a travel agent
They are free to use, and they will greatly help you navigate all the intricacy associated with Disney. They will also help you out while you’re at Disney if something goes wrong. Admittedly, even I use them for booking hotels and tickets, and planning trips is one of my favorite things to do in life.
Most Disney travel agents specialize in Disney vacations and will book/plan out almost everything for you (flights, transportation, lodging, meal plans, dining reservations, park tickets, fast passes, some even have individual park itineraries to maximize your day in each park). They get paid off commissions, and will be able to find the best Disney package for your situation. I’ve listed two travel agents that while I haven’t used, have been highly recommended to me by other friends who love Disney and have used both multiple times.
I’ve used Darren Wittko at Magical Vacations Travel (MVT) and would highly recommend. MVT is different because they buy blocks of Disney rooms at discounted rates, and pass on the savings to you. You can typically book rooms cheaper, and in some cases book resorts that are otherwise sold out on the Disney website. From a service perspective, they’ll generally book rooms, park tickets, flights/transfers, and dining plans, but the rest (dining reservations, fast passes) may be up to you. If you do go this route, there are other websites that can help you plan the rest.
Disclosure: I have NO financial interest in any Disney travel agent.
Tickets aren’t typically discounted
Disney doesn’t really discount regular park tickets, so use your travel agent for buying tickets – they’ll bundle tickets with your on-property resort reservation.
If you’re planning your own trip or staying off property, you can save a couple of bucks per ticket per day buying tickets through Undercover Tourist.
Get the Park Hopper option if you want to visit more than one park a day, but it’s probably not worth it for kids under 5 as they won’t be able to handle that much in one day.
Driving is cheaper, but flying and staying on property is like pressing the Disney World “easy button”
If you fly into Orlando (MCO) and stay on property, you don’t need to rent a car. You can ride the Disney Magical Express shuttle to/from the airport and your hotel for free (car seats not required). They also pickup and deliver all your checked luggage straight to your room. If you can budget flights, especially with smaller kids, I’d highly recommend it.
If you drive, it’s about 7 hours from Atlanta. There is a daily parking fee of $25/day for on-property resorts (but you won’t have to drive to the parks). If you stay off property, parking at the parks is also $25/day.
Stay on property if it’s your first trip
This is a personal/budget preference, but your experiences are pretty different. That said, if it’s your first time, stay on property. Here’s why:
- You get more of the true Disney experience because you’re always inside the “Disney bubble”.
- The resort hotels really are resorts. They all have fantastic pools, themes, and you just feel like you never leave the park.
- Transportation to/from parks is much easier and faster. If you’re off property, once you leave, it’s not likely you’ll come back that day.
- You get to take advantage of “extra magic hours”. These are extra hours that the parks are open only to guests staying on property.
All that said…. Staying off property IS cheaper. You don’t have to eat on property every meal, you have more control over what your options are, but managing getting in and out of the parks is not nearly as fun and you generally need your own car. If you drive to the Magic kingdom, after you park your car, you get on a tram to the ticket center and go through security, then you get on the monorail to get in the park. It’s a bit of a “planes trains and automobiles” experience to be honest, and just takes longer.
How to pick a Disney Resort (Hotel)
Disney has tons of resorts on property to choose from. Resorts fall into three categories based on cost: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe.
There are three strategies for picking a resort hotel:
Option A: Stay where it’s easiest to get in/out of the parks you want to spend the most time at. Save time, but not necessarily money!
For example, if you predominantly want to go to Magic Kingdom with a Toddler, and want to very easily/quickly get in/out of your hotel room for nap time, stay at a hotel connected by Monorail (Grand Floridian, Polynesian, Contemporary, or Bay Lake Tower). Convenience ain’t cheap though – these Deluxe resorts are some of the most expensive properties at Disney World.
Option B: If you’re on a budget and still want to stay on property, go for a Value resort (e.g., Pop Century). You’ll still get between your room and the parks faster than if you stayed off property, and some of these resorts are still directly connected to Parks by Skyliner (think enclosed arial tram like you’d find at a ski resort).
Option C: Balance Option A and B based on your budget.
Pro Tip: Want to check out / compare resorts before booking? Search YouTube for the resort(s) you’re interested in. Then choose the shortest video… some videos will spend 10 mins showing you a closet sized bathroom. LOL.
How to get from the Resort to the Parks
Transportation between resorts and parks:
Magic Kingdom is connected to resort hotels by Monorail, Boat, and Bus.
Epcot is connected by Monorail, Skyliner, Bus, and by walking path.
Hollywood Studios is connected by Skyliner, Bus, and walking path.
Animal Kingdom is only connected by Bus.
Transportation Between parks:
Magic Kingdom <> Epcot – Monorail
Epcot <> Hollywood Studios – Skyliner
Everything else is by Bus.
Tip: Car seats are not used on Disney transportation, but they will make you fold up your stroller on the buses and some boats.
Magic Bands make life easier
Disney uses magic bands (bracelets) with RFID to create an all-inclusive feel. You use them for park tickets, fast passes, or you can link a credit card and use your magic band (with a PIN number) to charge things at the parks. If you are staying on property, they are included with your reservation and also serve as your room key. If staying off property, you can buy them for ~$12. You don’t have to have magic bands, but they make life easier.
Plan your restaurants ahead of time
Disney has two types of restaurants across both parks and resorts: quick serve, and sit down dining.
Quick serve restaurants are great for a quick meal when you need it, and they are all different. Don’t expect anything too fancy, but some are definitely better than others.
Everything else is sit down dining and requires a reservation. Don’t expect to walk in without one. Advance Dining Reservations are available 180 days beforehand.
Pro Tip: If booking yourself, use Mouse Dining to score a hard to get reservation (especially for Cinderella’s Royal Table). General reservation availability starts to loosen up about two weeks before when people finalize their plans and cancel what they don’t need – that’s when you swoop in.
Disney Dining Plan is great for staying on budget, but may not save you money
When staying on property, you can either pay for all your food a la carte, or you can buy the Disney Dining Plan. The dining plan is a great way to manage your budget since you pay for everything up front, but you won’t necessarily save money unless you go all out at every meal and have kids with bottomless pits for stomachs. Check out the Disney Dining Calculator to see if you’ll save money.
Disney does offer free dining plans from time to time, then it’s a big money saver.
Character Meals are great experiences
Want to meet Mickey, Minnie, Disney Princesses, etc, but not stand in a line for each one? Book a reservation for a character meal and the characters come to your table. They are more expensive, but can be SO worth it.
Disney World is comprised of four main theme parks. You can easily spend an entire day at each of them.
Magic Kingdom – Classic Disney World. Cinderella’s Castle, Adventureland, Fantasyland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Main Street USA, Tomorrowland.
Epcot – Future World, World Showcase
Hollywood Studios – Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Toy Story Land, Sunset Boulevard
Animal Kingdom – Pandora: The World of Avatar, Africa, Asia, Dinoland USA, Discovery Island, Oasis
FastPass+ helps everyone wait in line less
FastPass+ is free with all tickets and lets you ride three rides with a minimal line. Pick the ride and the available time on the My Disney Experience app on your phone. At that time, you get to go through the FastPass+ line, which is significantly shorter.
If staying on property, you can book fast passes 60 days in advance. If staying off property, you can only book fast passes 30 days in advance.
Pro Tip: when you’re at the park, you can book additional fast passes only after you’ve used your original three for that day, so book your fast passes as early in the day as possible.
My Disney Experience – the Disney app to manage everything
Your one stop shop for managing everything about your Disney trip. Check in to your hotel, book fast passes, dining reservations, see park maps and live wait times. It’s great!
Parties & Festivals to increase the fun
Spring – Epcot Flower and Garden Festival
Fall – Epcot Food and Wine Festival
Fall – Magic Kingdom: Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party
Christmas – Magic Kingdom: Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party
Parties are ticketed events at night that are separate from your regular park admission. On party days, party-goers can enter the park at 4p, and the park closes for non party-goers at 6p.
Resort Booking Alternative
If you’ve made it this far, here’s one last resort booking option. If you are looking to save money on a higher end on-property resort – try renting Disney Vacation Club (DVC) Points.
DVC is Disney’s timeshare club. Renting points turns points into cash for DVC members who won’t use them, and allows you to book more expensive resorts cheaper than otherwise available. David’s Vacation Club Rentals is your go to site there.
Disclaimer: You’ll be paired with a DVC club member to arrange your booking, so there’s added risk that the person you’re paired with delivers. However, I know people who have done it successfully and gotten a great deal for a resort they wouldn’t have otherwise afforded.
When pricing DVC points out, there isn’t a huge difference from pricing you’d get from MVT, but resort availability will differ.
Disney World Culture: T-Shirts
This was a lot longer than I expected, and in no way pretends to cover everything. Here are some additional resources: