Let me start by saying that I do not know everything about Disney by any means but I have been down to WDW just over 20 times and have learned over the years some tricks that help make it just a bit more enjoyable. Please comment below any tips or tricks that you have picked up on your travels to make this even better for others. If you see something helpful, then please think about voting for this in the Travel Contest.
I will try to cover:
- Pre-Trip Planning
- Onsite Strategies
- Other Stuff...
One thing to remember is that Disney is always working to deliver new experiences to guests and things change quite often. We go back almost every year and my son has been there each year since he was 15 months. It is fun to watch how things have changed for him now that he is 16. It is important to note that this is your vacation, it is not meant to be painful (other than to your pocket). Take it slow and judge your activity level on how your family reacts to the long days, hot and humid weather, and distance walked. It is much better to "miss" something and have everyone "happy" than it is to have "melt down" but make it on that ride...
I will update as more things come to mind - Thanks for reading...
Step 1: Pre-Trip Planning
Okay, I am a planner and prefer to know what will be happening at all times while on vacation. This does not mean that I stick to a very rigid schedule but that I make sure to make the most out of my vacation to WDW by having everything ready to go. I do not believe that WDW is a good place to "Wing It" when you consider the amount of money you spend on a trip there or the large crowds of people all trying to do the same thing you are. You can definitely have a good time without pre-planning everything but you will need to be very flexible on your meal times and locations and not mind waiting in very long lines to ride your favorite rides. So that was my "disclaimer"...
There are not too many items to consider on your pre-planning list but they are quite important:
- Travel to WDW
- Hotel Accommodations
- Dinning Plans
- Ride Plans/Must Do's
- Outside of Disney Activities
Travel - Depending on your location you will most likely fly or drive. We live about 1000 miles away and Drive down each year. Driving works for us because it saves money over the airfares, allows us to have a personal vehicle handy in Orlando to do other things outside of Disney, and greatly increases our souvenir carry capacity without making our suitcases too heavy. For others, it is much more desirable (or required) to fly and get to Disney much faster (it takes me 16 hours to drive and about 3 to fly). If you do decide to fly, book early for the best rates and try it first thing on Tuesday mornings (like 12:01 am - I heard this is when you can get the best rates).
Hotel Accommodations - We ALWAYS stay inside WDW at a resort hotel. They are more costly in general but you do get some perks and it just does not feel like Disney without being on the property. We are also Disney Vacation Club members and love to stay at the Grand Floridian, Animal Kingdom, or Beach Club resorts that we could not typically afford without the DVC membership. We have stayed at most of the resorts on property over the years and have not had a bad experience at any of them. Our favorite entry level resort is the Pop Century and it is more than fine to enjoy your vacation at.
What I would recommend is that if you have a favorite park you plan to visit more than once, look for a hotel that is convenient to it. As an example, the Monorail to the Magic Kingdom stops at the Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian Resorts. It can also take you to EPCOT with one transfer. The Yacht & Beach club and the Boardwalk Resorts have a walking entrance to EPCOT and you can boat to Hollywood Studios. These are nice perks when you consider the wait for buses can be a bit long and you may find yourself standing for most of the ride. I will drive to the Park before I ride the buses if I am in a rush or no I need to be somewhere else later in the day at a certain time.
Dining Plans - WDW offers several dining plans that you can add to your stay that may or may not meet your needs. When they first launched the plans, they were amazing values. Now they are still quite good but not what they once were. We always purchase the standard Dining Plan that includes 1 snack, 1 quick service, and 1 Sit Down Table meal per day per person. If you typically eat three meals a day in the parks, this is a much cheaper way to go. If you eat your own breakfast, bring in your own lunch (yes Disney still lets you bring in your own food!) and eat a less expensive meal, then this might not pan out for you. To give you an idea, Dinner alone at most of the better sit down locations like The Wave, Ragland Road, Sanaa, or anything similar will run you about $150-$180 for a family of three (adults). That is with an appetizer, 1 drink, and desert.
Ride/Must Do's - FASTPASS+ - FASTPASS+ - FASTPASS+ That is all I need to say! Please book your FastPass+ in advance of your trip. While you can always find a place to eat if you are flexible, you can not always ride the ride your child wants to go on and unless you enjoy standing for hours in lines, then you want to schedule your FastPass+ as soon as possible. Disney notifies you when you can book these but it typically is 30 days before your first day in WDW. These are not just for rides but also Character Meets, Fireworks, and Parades. I would like to suggest you sit down with your traveling party and let each pick what they want to do most and schedule those first and continue around until you run out (about tree per park per day)
Outside of Disney Activities - This is having your own car or rental car available is beneficial. There are far too many to mention then all but some of the more popular ones (at least to us) are:
- Universal Studios
- Fossil Hunting on the Peace River with Mark Renz
- Visit any one of Florida's many Beaches
Now, a little bit about each Park...
Step 2: Pre-Trip Planning: the Magic Kingdom
The Magic Kingdom is where it all started for Walt in Florida after seeing what he wanted to improve upon at Disney Land in CA. Walt passed away before Disney World was opened but his brother Roy came out of retirement to make sure it was built to Walt's expectations. This is the most visited Park at WDW. I avoid this park at all costs on Sundays (this is when most people arrive for their vacation and head right over).
Best days to visit in Order:
This park has more rides than any of the other parks and the amount of people in this park can be quite high. Tour groups love it as does everyone else. We always make sure we have our FastPasses ready to go for Mine Train, Space Mountain, and then Splash or Big Thunder Mountain. We do not have a daughter so skip all of the Princess stuff.
Below are the top FastPass+ priorities for Magic Kingdom® Park:
- Meet Anna and Elsa at Princess Fairytale Hall
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
- Peter Pan’s Flight® Attraction
- Space Mountain® Attraction
- Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade
- Wishes fireworks show
- Splash Mountain® Attraction
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad® Attraction
- Main Street Electrical Parade (first parade only)
- Meet Rapunzel & Cinderella at Princess Fairytale Hall
- Enchanted Tales with Belle
- Ariel’s Grotto
- Tomorrowland Speedway
- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin® Attraction
- Astro Orbiter
- Jungle Cruise® Attraction
- Backstage Magic with Mickey Mouse
- Pirates of the Caribbean® Attraction (Currently closed till Sep 15)
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
- Have a Dole Whip in Adventure Land
- Take breaks with younger ones
- Ride The Tomorrow Land People Mover (Nice way to relax)
- Ride the Carousel of Progress (another nice way to relax)
- Many plan to use 2 days to visit the MK because of all there is to do here.
- Keys to the Kingdom Tour (when everyone in party is 16 or older)
- Watch the fireworks from the Fireworks Cruise at the Grand Floridian or on the Roof of the Contemporary and Bay Lake Towers
The Magic Kingdom is our least favorite pare to eat in. We typically have breakfast before we enter, snacks or quick service meals in the park and then Dinner outside somewhere nice. If we do eat inside MK:
- Be Our Guest - New and very good
- Liberty Tree Tavern
- Tomorrow Land Terrace (Noodle Bowl is one of our favorites but rarely open (seasonal)
Step 3: Pre-Trip Planning: EPCOT
EPCOT is our favorite park by far. It is the most relaxing to tour but is also a very large Park that will require quite a bit of walking. Try not to do this and Animal Kingdom back to back. This park has much less shade than AK does so to me it feels hotter.
I love to visit EPCOT for both the Wine & Food Festival (in the fall) and the Flower and Garden Festival (in the Spring)
Best days to visit in Order:
Below are the top FastPass+ priorities for EPCOT:
- Soarin'™ Attraction
- Test Track® Presented by Chevrolet (also has a single rider line)
- IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
- Mission: SPACE® Attraction
- Epcot Character Spot
- The Seas with Nemo & Friends
- Spaceship Earth
- Living with the Land
- Tour ALL of the Countries - they are pretty awesome to see and none should be missed
- Take the Behind the Seeds Tour in the Land Pavillion ($16 per person but really worth all the information you will get)
- For youngsters, EPCOT KidCot Fun Stops - they get to decorate masks in each country
- The Lumber Jack competition in Canada
- The decorative wood carvers and painters in both Mexico and Zimbabwe
This is the best Park to eat in and there are many options - some of our favorites are:
- Le Cellier in Canada
- Spice Road Table in Morocco
- Teppen Edo in Japan
- Chef's Table in France
Step 4: Pre-Trip Planning: the Animal Kingdom
Really enjoy our time here but this is a great BIG park. I think I have heard that all the other parks can fit inside this park. Plan to do quite a bit of walking here. It is hot but there is quite a bit of shade to be found all around the park. This is also the site of the planned Avatar Expansion that is currently underway. This will add in a night time aspect as up till now, AK closes at about 6:00 pm. This new expansion is planned to be very interactive and will highlight night time activities. I think there are two new rides planned. The shows here are great as well and not to be missed.
This Park is the farthest away from everything so if driving, plan accordingly.
Best days to visit in Order:
Below are the top FastPass+ priorities for The Animal Kingdom Park:
- Meet Mickey and Minnie at Adventurers Outpost
- Kilimanjaro Safaris®
- Expedition Kali River Rapids®
- Expedition Everest® (Also has a single rider line)
- DINOSAUR Ride
- Primeval Whirl®
- Watch Finding Nemo - The Musical
- Watch It's Tough to be a Bug! Attraction
- Watch Festival of the Lion King
- Take Wildlife Express Train - Harambe Station to Rafiki’s Planet Watch
- Visit Conservation Station
- Visit Maharajah Jungle Trek Attraction (When we were just here they had baby gorillas playing outside)
- Watch Flights of Wonder
- Really like the souvenir shop in Africa
- Yak & Yeti Quick Service
- Tuskar House
- Rainforest Cafe for Breakfast (They have their own entrance to the Park)
Step 5: Pre-Trip Planning: Hollywood Studios
I would say this is My least favorite park but is still a blast. In the future with some rumored renovations coming, Star Wars will play an even bigger role here. This park seems to be smaller also or maybe just less walking from place to place. Really big fans here of Rock N Roller Coaster by Aerosmith, Toy Story Mania and Mama Melrose. T
Best days to visit in Order:
Below are the top FastPass+ priorities for Disney's Hollywood Studios:
- Toy Story Mania!® Attraction
- Rock 'n Roller Coaster® Starring Aerosmith
- Fantasmic! Show
- The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™
- Star Tours - The Adventures Continue Attraction
- For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration
- The Great Movie Ride® Attraction
- Voyage of The Little Mermaid
- If you have little ones who loves Star Wars, then the Jedi Training is pretty fun
- We also enjoyed the Indiana Jones Show but I think that is being closed to make way for the Star Wars Expansion
- The Stunt Show is very cool for car fanatics
- The Backstage Lot Tour
- Mama Melrose
- Pizza Planet
Step 6: Pre-Trip Planning: Downtown Disney (Disney Springs)
Plan to attend earlier in the day for a more peaceful shopping experience. Most stores open between 10:00 and 11:00 am and are less crowded. This is a good start or break on your "Pool Day".
This place is becoming as big a draw as the parks themselves with the World of Disney store grossing more revenue than the Animal Kingdom and it has the crowds to prove it. I must call out that Downtown Disney is undergoing a major renovation and traffic is as bad as you can imagine right now (July 2015). We tried riding the bus and we drove our own vehicle and if you go there after 4:00 pm you will be delayed! This place has some great places to eat and an amazing night life but plan to spend an hour going to and returning from DD.
Now with that unpleasantness out of the way, our favorites here are:
- The new Boat House Restaurant
- Wolfgang Puck Express Cafe (near the Christmas Store)
- Raglan Road
- The Earl of Sandwich
- World of Disney Store
- Lego Store
- The Cooking Store
It is fun to just stroll around and people watch. Go early if you can as the renovations will last through 2017 I have heard.
Step 7: Packing & Helpful Tips
I am not going to cover what you need to typically pack for a trip to Florida, I am only going to suggest additional items that you might not think of normally...
- Extension Cords/Extra Outlets - you know how many devices you have that need to be charged and you know how many people in your party have then. I purchased one of these PRIME Outlets covers for each of us. Between phones, tablets, e-readers, cameras, computers, etc... They make life so much easier. We each had one near us and had plenty of places to plug in. This is also very valuable for the Disney Cruise as outlets are a premium.
- Waterproof Backpack - This is Florida and it rains!. You will be wet at some point (or multiple points) on your trip and this made it very easy to protect everything that you charged the night before. This one cost me $19.95 at Dick's sporting goods (they have then in Florida) and was great even on Kali River Rapids.
- Cooling Towel - I thought these were a gimmick but they work! They do two things in my observations, they do cool you when they are first wet and it lasts for about 10 minutes (not too bad) but they also keep the sun off your neck and that seems to help me even more. I also found that putting it on my ears cooled me down too. You will need to refresh it every so often but there are plenty of water fountains to do that with.
- Brita Water Filter Bottles - These are great for removing the "odd" taste of the water fountains. In Disney, every quick service location will give you a cup of ice to dump into your bottle and then you can just fill them at the water fountains. Saves you money over buying water bottles in the park and helps the environment - Win Win!
- Neutrogena Sunscreen - I do not typically but brand names and I am not trying to promote this specific company but I have to say that theirs feels the best. I do not like things on my face but their lotion goes on without any greasy feeling. Whatever kind of sunscreen you buy, use it, there is not much worse than sitting in a very expensive hotel room missing your vacation because you toasted yourself on the first day.
- BioFreeze - I am getting older and have found that my muscles tend to hate me the day after I walk 20000 steps! Yes, that is correct, you can and will be walking great distances in the summer heat/humidity. This stuff really makes you feel better over night.
- Rest Day - Okay so this is not something you pack but please plan a pool day into your week. You will thank me later and you might not kill you traveling companions. A week straight walking 20K steps in the heat, with sometimes complaining travels mates takes it's toll on everyone. Do two days in the parks, one at the pool or some other relaxing activity and then finish out the last two parks.
- Gift Cards - We buy Visa Gift Cards during the year to bring with us when we vacation. Buying them over the coarse of the year in smaller increments makes it easier and you can easily use them other places if needed or when you return home. Disney Gift Cards are great but only good in Disney.
- Dining Reservations - Book up to 180 days before you arrive. Make sure to at least book the places you know you want to eat at. You can usually adjust the time that same day if you need to but it is better to have something than nothing set up unless you enjoy eating at 10:00PM.
Helpful Phone Numbers:
- Disney Resort Hotel Reservations (407) 939-1936 0800 16 90 730 (UK) 1800 812 676
- Existing Tickets (407) 939-7523 0800 16 90 730 (UK) 1800 812 676
- Group Reservations (10 Rooms or More) (407) 939-1942
- Website Support (407) 939-4357 0800 16 90 749 (UK) 1800 812 677
- Dining Reservations (407) 939-1947 0800 16 90 748 (UK) 1800 812 675
- My Disney Experience, MagicBands and FastPass+ (407) 939-4357 0800 16 90 749 (UK) 1800 812 677
- New Tickets and Special Events (407) 939-7679 0800 16 90 730 (UK) 1800 812 676
- Tours, Recreation and Cirque du Soleil La Nouba (407) 939-1929
- Annual Passholders (407) 560-7277
- Resort Hotel and Theme Park Information Non-Reservation Questions (407) 939-2273 0800 16 90 743 (UK) 1800 812 679
- My Past Walt Disney World Visit (407) 939-6104 0800 16 90 743 (UK) 1800 812 679
- Disability Services (407) 560-2547
- Disney Vacation Club (800) 800-9800
- Rain - As I said before, if you go to Florida in the summer, you will get wet. Look on this as a benefit more than an issue. Most people will run from the parks or hole up in a store and leave the rides alone. We try to use this time for two things...
- Plan your meals around the rain. This can be difficult but if you go in July or August as we tend to do, you can pretty much count on the rain to fall in the late afternoon to evening. Use this time to eat if you can.
- Option two, is to head towards your next ride and get in line. Most lines are covered so it will not be too bad. If it is an indoor tide, it will not be shut down. For an outdoor ride, they watch the weather very closely and these rides do close down from time to time. We have waited in line at "closed" rides only to have them open when the storm passes. This will not always work if the storm is a long one but worth a shot.
- Christmas was amazing and we alternated the day between our hotel pool (we almost had it to ourselves) and went to our cousin's house to open gifts.
- Halloween from what we hear is an awesome time to be in the park - we have not gone at this time yet but plan to. Plan to wear a costume (something comfortable) and get in on the spirit of things.
- New Year's Eve can be very crowded on the Eve but pretty empty first thing in the morning. Fireworks are pretty awesome this time of year and can easily be observed from outside the parks so keep that in mind at the end of the day if you want to beat some of the crowds outside the park.
- Easter has the Flower & Garden Show and spring is one of my favorite times to be in Disney.
- Thanksgiving might be fun if you can get your entire family there as well. Would like to try this at some point but would really miss the Thanksgiving leftovers...
Step 8: Outside the Parks But Still on the Disney Properties
There is so much to do outside the parks, that you can easily fill your time. Here are some of our favorites:
- Golf (both miniature and full size) - Disney has 2 Miniature golf courses that are a blast to play. I am not a real golfer so I cannot attest to the larger courses but I hear they are top of the line.
- Bass Fishing with a Pro Guide - We have done this a few times and love the experience. You are on a guided trip on one of the Disney lakes and are provided an opportunity to catch many large bass. All is catch and release and the guides are very good. One price per boat so bring your friends.
- Fireworks Cruises - this is the best way to see the fireworks. This is a private boat that can hold maybe 6 or 8 people and you have unobstructed views of the fireworks and NO mad rush to the exit when it's over.
- SPA Activities - Many of the Deluxe resorts offer SPA facilities and while the prices are very high, it is great for the "pool days". I typically book a massage after I return home and save some money.
- Archery - Can be had at Fort Wilderness and they have many other cool activities like Horse back riding and such.
- Sports - Tennis, Basketball, Fitness Locations. Pools, etc...
I have no way to do this justice, the last time I looked, there were over 328 restaurants on property. I will just list out some of our favorites that I have not covered on other pages...
- Jiko's in the Animal Kingdom Lodge
- Sanaa in the Animal Kingdom Villas
- The Boat House
- California Grill in the Contemporary
- Kona Cafe in the Polynesian
- Artist Point at The Wilderness Lodge
- Whispering Canyon at The Wilderness Lodge
- MoriMoto's (Coming soon)