Wait on minimal lines, save a dime, discover hidden secrets. This guide to the most magical place on Earth shares the family secrets for a top-notch vacation.
In general, this guide is more geared to the big kids/travelling without kids group, though exceptionally flexible younger kids have done well with these strategies too!
All photos belong to me. Please do not use or reproduce.
Step 1: Scheduling Your Day
Planning your day right is an easy way to maximize fun. Everyone enjoys vacation differently, so you'll need to put a little bit of thought into it. Are you a morning person or a night person? One of my friends is a hardcore night owl, and he never shows up in the park before dinnertime. Park hours vary by time of year, so look for times when the parks are open late. This is when staying at a Disney Resort Hotel comes in very useful. On most nights, Disney hosts Extra Magic Hours at one of the theme parks, sometimes as late as 3am. After 11pm, most families with young children go home, which seriously cuts down on the crowds and wait times. It's sort of like having the parks to yourself.
If you're an early morning kind of person, there's also early morning Extra Magic Hours and a special rope drop show at each of the parks. You'll want to arrive at least half an hour early to get a good spot for the show. It's pretty magical and gives you a great spot to walk (not run) to your must-do attraction.
Now me personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. I don't mind mornings or nights, and my ideal schedule is to hit two parks. One of them I'll go to in the morning about an hour after the parks open when the crowds still aren't too bad. This is a great time to go on a few rides, get coffee at Starbucks on Main Street, maybe meet some characters (I'll get into the amazing perks of meeting characters as an adult later on, a lot of people skip out on it). Then, around lunch time, I'll head back to the hotel and go for a swim and to clean up before going to the parks at night for some real fun.
Step 2: Full Day Magic Kingdom Touring Plan Sample
Get fastpasses for: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Seven Dwarves Mine Train.
Expectations for this plan are that you'll be taking breaks and meeting characters as necessary.
Get a map and a time's guide when you enter the park, but sometimes characters just show up. Your fastpass times also might not fit this exactly. Try and rearrange the schedule so you're doing minimal crossing the park, which is a sure-fire way to lose time. You might not get through the whole schedule, especially if you're travelling at a very crowded time, so make sure you prioritize rides and shows that interest you. (I'm not including every ride on this list, so make sure you know what you want to see!)
In order to start your full day at the Magic Kingdom, take a jolly stroll down Main Street. Don't rush, the details here are terrific. Maybe stop in the Chapeaurie and get a pair of Mickey Ears hats (Magic Tip: pick up the phone mounted on the wall and you can listen in to the neighbors conversations). Stop and get a few photos on Main Street in front of the castle. Bear left and head into Adventureland. Ride Jungle Cruise before the line gets too long, then go see the Enchanted Tiki Birds (a Disney classic!), finally, go over to Pirates of the Carribean.
When you're done with Adventureland, head into Frontierland, where the smell of chicken legs will entice you. If the line isn't too long (under half an hour) and the day is warm enough, ride Splash Mountain. Otherwise, use your fastpass for Big Thunder Mountain. If the day is hot and you want to get into some shade, go over to Tom Sawyer Island for a little rest from the crowd. Otherwise, onwards to Liberty Square!
In Liberty Square, you might notice the streets are a different color with a brown swirl down the middle. This swirl represents the 1700s when waste was dumped into the streets. While you're here, ride Haunted Mansion. It's just a little bit of fun, not terribly spooky, but if you have anyone easily frightened with you, ask the Cast Members if you can skip the preshow. After the ride, go to Columbia Harbour House for lunch.
As you enter Fantasyland, you'll notice Rapunzel's area. This has a bathroom and several tables with outlets in them in case you need to charge your phone. There's also some hidden Pascal's (Pascal is the chameleon from Tangled) in the area for kids to find. Since you've just had lunch, hopefully you don't need another break, but this is a good place to keep in mind. Ride It's a Small World, pass on Peter Pan for now unless the line is short, but it's usually well over an hour. Watch Mickey's Philharmagic, and then either go meet characters at Princess Fairytale Hall or head into New Fantasyland to ride the Ariel's Undersea Adventure and/or Enchanted Storytime with Belle. Gaston's Tavern is also a great place to take a break. If you're fastpasses are ready, ride the Seven Dwarves Mine Train.
It should be starting to get late, so if it's time, head to Main Street for the parade, Celebrate the Magic, and fireworks. Some people like to get there very early, but I tend to be more of a last minute viewer.
Once the shows are done, head back into Tomorrowland to ride Buzz Lightyears Space Ranger Spin and use your fastpass for Space Mountain. If you've still got juice left in you, hit Tomorrowland Indy Speedway and Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Mickey's Circus.
To end the night, go back into Fantasyland to do the walk through queue for Peter Pan's Flight, and if it's warm and you're feeling daring, go to Adventureland to ride Splash Mountain, or anything else that you want to do again (my sister will tell you that Jungle Cruise at night is an experience to itself).
Again, take your time back down Main Street as you're leaving (don't let Cast Members corral you down a fake exit, you want to walk down the real avenue for your final taste of the magic).
Pictures from New Fantasyland and Storybook Circus area.
Step 3: Hollywood Studios Touring Plan
Hollywood Studios has a few big hitters in the park, so you'll want to be there for rope drop. Prepare to head in the direction of whichever Group A fastpass ride you didn't get to reserve (more on fastpasses later). As for the rest of the day, it's hard to advise like this. You'll want to get a Time's Guide and plan out what shows you're going to see. I highly recommend Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, Indiana Jones Extreme Stunt Spectacular, and Fantasmic!, which takes place at night (and usually times well that you can make it to the evening Star Wars themed fireworks afterwards). If you have a spare fastpass or can claim an additional one at the end of the day, I suggest using it for Fantasmic! You should also be sure to experience Star Tours: the Adventure Continues, which uses different simulations every ride (though currently they all contain the same segment from the Force Awakens). Even people who aren't fans of Star Wars can't get enough of this ride!
There's a lot of renovations going on right now, so it will be exciting to see what new changes come to the park in the next few years!
Step 4: EPCOT Touring Guide
Epcot is Disney's Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It marries futuristic, high tech rides and attractions with small vignettes from countries around the world.
When you arrive at Epcot first thing at park opening, go straight to Soarin' and get on line. These days, the initial crowd will be divided between Soarin and Frozen Ever After. Unless you have a little prince or princess with you, my money is on Soarin' every time. After Soarin' ride through Livin' with the Lands, which is a boat tour in the same pavilion. Since you're right next door, head on over to the Seas with Nemo and Friends for some exploring.Then, go through the rest of Future World, depending on your fastpasses and the wait times. Thankfully, everything is pretty close together. My must-dos are Spaceship Earth, Mission: Space and Test Track, but there's plenty of other things to explore, including great character greetings at the Character Spot (classic characters, plus Baymax from Big Hero 6 and Joy and Sadness from Inside Out). There's also free refreshments from around the world at Club Cool.
Once you've seen all you want to see in Future World, head over to World Showcase and pick a direction. Travel through each country, exploring the unique exhibits and interacting with young people from around the world. Some of the areas are very intricate. Any time you travel, be sure to try lots of food! There's extra special options in the fall during Food and Wine festival (If you're 21+, I recommend making this circuit at night), and lots of decorations for Christmas and in the Spring for the Flower and Garden show. There are also characters to greet in every country!
In the evening, stay around for Fantasmic or if fireworks aren't your thing, head back to Future World for slightly shorter lines on popular attractions!
Step 5: Animal Kingdom Touring Guide
Okay so Animal Kingdom is a huge park, but it's pretty sparsely populated. Everything here is absolutely magnificent. When you first get to the park, go right to Africa to experience Kilimanjaro Safari, and then the Festival of the Lion King (my favorite show in all of Disney World). If you have time, walk through one of the several trails that take you to see the animals! Don't rush it over to the rides, take your time to enjoy the beauty of the park. Then, head into Asia. I like having lunch at the Yak and Yeti restaurant. If the weather is appropriate, ride Kali River Rapids (you may get wet enough to merit buying dry pants and a t-shirt, otherwise, head straight on over to Expedition Everest. If you have a fastpass, go right for it! If not, I recommend using the single rider line to split up your party and move ahead (or use this method to ride twice!) Once you're done with the ride, over to Dinoland USA. You can see the Finding Nemo musical which is quite nice and air conditioned (though for those who went to Disney pre-2006, it doesn't hold all the charm and great music you might recall from Tarzan Rocks). Finish off the day with Dinosaur and Primeval Whirl before heading out.
You can probably do this park in a half day, but for the first time ever, Animal Kingdom is having evening hours with special performances! I haven't seen them, but I expect it will be worth sticking around for.
Step 6: FastPass+ System Overview
In the last few years, Disney rolled out their FastPass+ system. Fastpasses are a way to book time on rides or at shows in advance and previously, you picked them up in the park day-of. Now, you can schedule 3 fastpasses on the My Disney Experience app 60 days in advance. I recommend booking them exactly 60 days in advance because they will run out of spots for some of the most popular attractions! If you're an early morning person, get your fastpasses for early morning and then you can get more later in the day (but you can only get fastpasses in advanced for one park each day, so you'll need to decide what you're geting when). Once you've claimed your three fastpasses, you can always go to a different park to get same-day passes. I'll break down the FastPass system by parks for you.
In the photo above, you can see the line in Space Mountain, while there's no one waiting on the Fastpass side! If we had reserved that in advance, we would have saved a lot of time!
Step 7: Magic Kingdom Fastpasses
There are around 28 options for Fastpasses in the Magic Kingdom. Not every ride requires a fastpass, so I'll list some with historically long lines.
- Jungle Cruise (depends on the time of day)
- Princess Fairytale Hall (especially for Anna and Elsa from Frozen)
- Peter Pan's Flight (though the newly redone queue makes me recommend doing this late at night so you can enjoy the beautiful interactive exhibit. It's truly stunning--perhaps moreso than the ride itself)
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
- Splash Mountain
- Space Mountain
- Tomorrowland Indy Speedway
- Seven Dwarves Mine Train (a new ride that still has very long lines. It's a gentle roller coaster and dark ride).
During very crowded times of the year, you might also want to get fastpasses for Wishes, the fireworks, or any of the parades. This will make the experience much more pleasant.
Step 8: Epcot Fastpasses
Epcot has some of the most thrilling rides in Walt Disney World, and they're so popular that you can only pick special ones. Rides here are broken into Group A, which is the superheadliner rides (in Disney lingo, "E ticket" attractions) and Group B, which are smaller and less popular.
My top Group A
- Mission Space (if you can, go Orange Team. It's an incredible experience, but lines are ususally shorter so you don't necessarily need a fastpass)
- Soarin' (was just redone as Soarin' around the world. It looks amazing!)
- Test Track (recently renovated, it's the fastest ride in Disney World and the lines can get lengthy, though on hot days it's guaranteed air conditioning...)
- Frozen Ever After (the redone Maelstrom in Norway of the World Showcase, featuring songs and characters from the movie Frozen). If you have little kids, this is probably a must-do.
- Spaceship Earth ("The Giant Golfball")
The Other Group B rides tend to have shorter lines, but pick what looks good to you and hey, now you don't have to wait at all.
Step 9: Hollywood Studios Fastpasses
Hollywood studios is undergoing major renovations, but there's still tons to do. Like Epcot, it also uses a tiered system where you get 1 attraction from group A, and two from group B. My recommendations are below:
- Rock n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith
- Toy Story Midway Mania
I almost put Beauty and the Beast - Live on Stage on this list because it's really one of the best shows there, but I passed because unless you're travelling during the busiest of seasons (Christmas, New Years, etc), the theaters hold many guests at a time. Don't knock this park because it's mostly shows, they're really top notch!
- Star Tours, the Adventure Continues
- Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
Again, the others are mostly shows that you're most likely able to see without fastpasses, but will reserve better seats if you take them.
Step 10: Animal Kingdom Fastpasses
Animal Kingdom has a few huge rides, so fastpasses need to be selected wisely. The three best choices are:
- Expedition Everest
- Kali River Rapids
- Kilimanjaro Safari
The big ride that I'm excluding from this list is DINOSAUR. It's an intense, dark, bouncy thrill ride, yet I have never needed a fastpass for it. Even on very busy days, the line rarely exceeds half an hour and usually you can just walk on. Animal Kingdom also has shows with reserved seating for Fastpass holders. If it's a very crowded season, I would pass on the Kali River Rapids fastpass, and take ones for Festival of the Lion King.
Step 11: Magic Tips
There's a few small things around the world that will make your stay more magical:
- Ask photographers for "magic photos" they can't always do them, but some add little animations and characters into your videos. Sometimes they'll pose you and do it without even asking, which makes it even cooler!
- Meet characters! As a "big kid," meeting characters is so much better than as a little kid who didn't know how to talk or look good for a photo. We took videos of us doing a dance with every character and then compiled it into a video at the end of the summer.
- Get celebration pins. These are available when you first enter the park at the information center. THey have everything from first time to birthday to anniversary. People will be congratulating you all day!
- Look for Hidden Mickey's. Some are very large, some are very, very small. Keep your eyes and mind open to the possibilities!
Feel free to reach out to me with any questions. If there's something you think needs more explaination, I can make another instructable!
Have a magical trip!