I'm so excited to share this post with you guys because Disney World is one of our family's favorite places. We've been coming to Disney for 20 years now and I could have easily come up with 100 tips - there's just so much to cover - but in order not to overwhelm you, here are just 20 of our favorite ways to enjoy the magic of Disney.
1. Pick the right time to go.
I cannot stress enough how important this one is. It's the difference between sweltering heat, 3 hour wait times and struggling to stay hydrated vs. balmy weather, 40 minute wait times and comfortable crowd volume. So it could very well be the difference between seeing all that you want to see or not. And my philosophy is that if you are going to spend the money on a trip like this it should be the best version of that trip you can possibly get. Missing a week of school is not off the table for this opportunity, if you can work it out with schoolwork and teachers. We bring our homeschool with us!
Here is our first hand experience of the best times to go:
* mid to late September - weather can sometimes be iffy because of hurricane season, but the crowds are low because of the start of school and it's not as hot as the summer.
*from the 2nd week of January until President's Day: You may need sweatshirts in the morning and evening (or sometimes a coat) but our wait times have been the best during these weeks.
*Early to mid May: our all-time best trip was in May. The weather was perfect, we enjoyed the pool and the summer crowds didn't start rolling in until the week of labor day.
*Early November or early December: you really should see Disney dressed up for the holidays. It's a different kind of magic. Just avoid the peak weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas-New Years. If you go early these two months you should be okay on crowds.
2. Meal plans are sometimes free or steeply discounted and it's SO worth it.
The meal plan is usually quite expensive but during the fall keep an eye out for freebies and discounts. If you can snag a meal plan then this is another great reason to pick one of the fall dates mentioned in tip #1. We had a blast picking our restaurants and snacks and it allowed us to experience the parks in a different way than we had before. I can't wait to do it again! You can only do a meal plan if you are staying on site though, so this is another element to consider.
3. Plan all of your days BEFORE you go.
This lack of spontaneity may sound ho-hum, but honestly, you risk the chance of not getting to do some key things otherwise. Fast passes are available to reserve 60 days in advance if you are staying on site or 30 days in advance if you are not. Get online at 7am that day and see if you can snag the hottest fast passes firsts. They are:
*Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom
*Slinky Dog Dash at Hollywood Studios
*Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom
*Frozen Ever After at Epcot (if you have a little princess traveling with you, if not, grab one for Test Track or Soarin')
Don't feel bad if you don't get them. Snagging those coveted fast passes can feel like winning the lottery. The next most important ones to grab are:
*Toy Story Mania, Aerosmith Rockin' Roller Coaster, or Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios
*Everest, Na'vi River Journey or the Safari at Animal Kingdom
*Test Track or Soarin' at Epcot
*Big Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain, or Peter Pan's Flight at Magic Kingdom
Restaurant reservations can be made 180 days in advance and the character breakfasts seem to go first. We've often made reservations for dinner while we are staying, so there is definitely less panic about that. But if you are hoping to see a dinner show, the budget friendly seating options do go first. It doesn't hurt to reserve it before you travel.
Remember - it is impossible to see all of Disney in a week - absolutely impossible. We've been coming for 20 years and are still discovering things. So plan your time in a way that accomplishes some of the best of what Disney has to offer while also giving you the breathing room to actually enjoy those things. Another strategy might be to reserve all the things you can and then see what you feel like when you go, cancelling on the fly. Just remember that there is a fee for cancelling restaurant reservations if it's less than 24 hrs notice.
4. Download the My Disney Experience App.
The best way to manage your trip is to download the app. You can keep track of wait times throughout the day and manage your time as well as your fast passes and reservations. This is where you can keep watch of what becomes available and rearrange fast passes on the fly if necessary. You may arrive at one of your fast passes and find a 15 minute wait and want to switch it for something else. You can do that and so much more that will help you get the most out of your day. We look at it constantly while we are there. You simply cannot have a successful trip without this.
5. Use your fast passes wisely.
Save your fast passes for afternoon or early evening when crowds are at their peak. Don't waste it on the mornings when lines are at their lowest. And don't use them on attractions like Philharmagic, Bugs Life, or usually any of the shows. Typically you can walk right into a show if you are travelling during one of the suggested travel dates, at which point you are better off using your fast passes for the rides. But if you are travelling in the summer, over spring break or a holiday (Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years) you may need to fast pass everything, including the shows.
You are allotted 3 fast passes per day, all in one park, but did you know that as soon as you check into your third fast pass you are able to get another one? And this time at another park if you choose? You can keep doing this until you run out of hours in the day.
Another note: Make sure to link multiple people together if you are traveling as a larger party. You can do this online when you reserve your fast passes. This will ensure that you all get the same attractions together on your fast passes.
6. Get there at opening to get on the best attractions. Or sneak on right at closing.
If you didn't get that coveted Flight of Passage or Slinky Dog Dash fast pass, this is the time to try and get on with a little bit of a shorter wait. The line may appear to wrap outside of Toy Story Land or Avatar but chances are, once everyone moves into the queue, you will find you've got less of a waiting time than during the day. And if not, make a run for the next biggest attractions - you may get to ride Aerosmith twice and drop down the Terror of Terror before anyone else starts showing up.
On the flip side, sometimes the minutes right before closing can be the very best - even better than rope drop - for getting a low wait time. Everest is typically 15-20 minutes right before closing. I've rarely seen it more than that. And sometimes you can sneak onto Space Mountain or Big Thunder Mountain before the fireworks are ending.
7. Disability pass
For years we stood in lines with my husband suffering from terrible sciatic pain. For some reason, it never occurred to us to ask for a disability pass because we never used a wheel chair, but if you have an inability to stand for long periods of time then this is something you should definitely take advantage of. You can get one put on your magic band at guest services and it allows you to check in with a ride, then go and do something else, sit down, get a snack, and come back at your allotted time, and your entire party can accompany you. It is basically like a fast pass, except it doesn't interfere with your current fast passes. You can have both in progress at once. My husband is now able to last longer on his feet and accomplish much more during our trips.
8. Avoid the park that has extended hours or magic hours during peak seasons.
This may seem counter-intuitive, but trust me, everyone else is thinking it's a great idea to go to that park to get the most of their hours. You may have better luck at another park during those days because of the draw away from them. Check the app for wait times to see. There was one trip we took that was a few days before Memorial Day where we could not even get into the parking lot of the park that had extended hours. The line of cars was all the way out onto the interstate and it didn't move. So we decided against going anywhere at all and went back to the pool.
If you are going in a lower season, this may not affect you. Still watch the app for wait times.
9. A rating of the evening attractions - what not to miss.
If you are only at Disney for a few evenings and are wondering what's the best way to end your days, here is a ranking of the fireworks and evening shows at the parks. If you are there for five evenings then you can see them all, but if you are only there for three then I recommend the first three.
1. Once Upon A Time and Happily Ever After at Magic Kingdom. Watch the castle come to life then stick around for the fireworks.
2. Fantasmic! at Hollywood Studios for the Mickey lovers
3. Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular at Hollywood Studios for Rebel and Empire lovers. Sit farther back and in the middle to see everything.
4. Illuminations: Reflections of Earth at Epcot. The fireworks are pretty but there are long stretches of music and pixelated images on an earth that is sitting in the center of the lagoon. It can often times be hard to get a good view. ****UPDATE: The Epcot show has recently changed (as of 2019) and it is worth a visit to see it. If you are not a huge Star Wars fan, Epcot might be a better 3rd choice of show.****
5. Tree of Life Awakenings and Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom. They are just as enjoyable being seen while walking to your next attraction. If you are short on time, don't take the time to sit through the whole thing. The glowing lotus flowers and boats of the river show can be seen up close on the bridge between Asia and Dinoland.
10. Don't lose hours of your day saving a seat for the fireworks at Magic Kingdom.
If you have little ones you will definitely want to see the show but don't be fooled by the guests who start marking their territory hours in advance. In the last few years Disney has opened up this town square portion of the park significantly so that there aren't really any bad views from in front of the castle. You don't need to waste 20% of your day staking a claim. Ride the rides and do your thing then find a place to stand 20 minutes before they start. You're not going to be able to sit when the fireworks start anyway.
The show that you actually need to be early for is Fantasmic! because the seating is limited.
11. Don't do the Magic Kingdom closing time mass-exit.
If you've never been to Magic Kingdom fireworks and experienced the mass of humanity exiting the park all at once when the clock strikes and we are all about to turn into pumpkins, consider this your heads up. For the introvert and non crowd-lovers who are staying off site this can be quite a stressful experience. But it doesn't have to be. My family doesn't pack in like sardines and move like a horde any more. Instead, we will do one of 3 options at closing - either sit for an extra 45 minutes with an ice cream cookie sandwich from the parlor on the corner, OR if the parking lot monorail line is roped off and curving for what feels like a mile we'll jump into the line for the resort monorail instead (the second stop is the parking lot), OR take a bus. Everyone seems to forget that there are buses and they just follow the crowd. Buses are a great travel resource - don't forget about them just because they are slightly out of view!
12. An alternative way to enjoy the Magic Kingdom fireworks
We have seen the fireworks so many times that it's not on our list anymore, unless some special event is going on. We are also not crowd lovers as you can tell by the previous tips. Our favorite way to enjoy the Magic Kingdom fireworks is to line up our Big Thunder Mountain fast pass during the hour of the fireworks, then step in line just as they are starting. There is nothing quite like riding an outdoor roller coaster in view of the castle, underneath sparkling fireworks. It's like being in a commercial - you know the ones where it looks like you have the magic of Disney all to yourself? Yeah, it's like that.
13. Pack light, and utilize the refillable popcorn bucket.
We used to bring all kinds of stuff into the parks - a diaper bag, snacks, drinks, lunch, a nice camera, and all other sorts of insanity that slowed us down. But we have discovered how absolutely wonderful it is to not travel with a bag and there is no going back now. You can skip the baggage check at the entrance and not have to worry about who's carrying it or where it is being stowed throughout the day and on the rides. We move so much quicker and are less tired at the end of the day. (This is one reason I'd recommend waiting until kids are old enough to not need a diaper bag.)
How do we do it? Refillable popcorn buckets. It sounds silly - but it's true. All four parks sell them. It's about $12 to buy your first serving with the souvenir bucket and then you can refill it for your entire trip - $2 per refill. We've been using the same buckets for a year and half now. When we arrive we have a small stick of extra sunscreen, my chapstick and my phone in one bucket. My husband has a couple of small items in his. During the summer and fall you could squeeze a couple of thin plastic ponchos in there if you needed to. And they hook right onto your belt loop. Then we also have a way to buy cheap snacks all day. We just transfer the small items to pockets for a bit while we munch. You cannot beat $4 for a snack (2 bucket refills) for a family of 7 at Disney.
14. You don't need to lug water bottles around either.
You can ask for a cup of water at any food service stand. Only the bottled water has a fee. So save the money and the effort of packing that and carrying it around.
15. Work around the parks from left to right.
I've often noticed, most distinctively in Animal kingdom where the park opens to two diverging pathways, that crowds tend to subconsciously go right. You may get more out of your day if you hang left. It's worth a try!
16. There's time to rest each day if you take the other tips into consideration.
If you've planned your trip well there should be time to take a several hour break in the afternoon. We tend to plan our breaks around that busiest part of the day. When everything is at it's peak - after lunch until dinner time - we skip out and relax at the pool or take a nap, then come back for our early evening fast passes and fireworks.
17. Plan full rest days too.
With an annual pass there is less stress to squeeze everything in to one trip (just plan your second trip 11 months later), but if you don't plan on doing the annual pass I still recommend staying longer than the number of Disney days you have. If you are going for 5 days, get a 4 day pass. If you are going for 10, get an 8 day. Trust me, the down day(s) will only amplify the fun for everyone because it's very easy to overdo it in a place like this. Give yourself a little margin. Pace yourself and make sure you go home feeling like you had a vacation, not needing a vacation from your vacation.
18. Consider eating meals outside the park if you are not on the meal plan.
We eat breakfast before we go, snack while we are there (most especially with our cheap popcorn buckets) then after our several hours of rest in the afternoon we will either eat dinner at the house or go to a restaurant on our way back to the parks. Places that have call ahead seating, like Outback, are helpful with this routine and it will save a ton of money. For comparison, I can typically feed our family of 7 at McDonalds or Wendy's off of the Disney campus for about $30. Eating in the parks at a walk up counter can cost us upwards of $75 and a sit down place is up into the hundreds. This is another reason I say to snag that meal plan when it's offered. SO worth it!
19. Shoes are of utmost importance.
You will be walking on average about 5 miles a day. (We've kept track - sometimes it's more). Wear the most comfortable shoes you have, which probably aren't your flip flops or princess shoes, and bring a spare, just in case those turn out to be uncomfortable after 2 days and 10 miles. You don't want anything to put a damper on your fun.
20. Some of our favorite spots to eat:
*Animal Kingdom: Boma
It's an all you can eat buffet bar with all sorts of offerings that kids will like and adults, while venturing outside of the typical cheeseburger, chicken nugget or pizza offering. It's also a great opportunity to see what the Animal Kingdom Lodge is like if you've never stayed on site.
*Magic Kingdom: Liberty Tree Tavern
It's a menu reminiscent of Thanksgiving served family style, which means it's all you can eat and everything that they offer comes right to your table. The dessert here was an ooey gooey toffee cake that left us wishing we'd saved more room and planning our next visit to the restaurant before we'd even left.
*Epcot: Food and Wine Festival
If you are a foodie or if you are looking for something that is more adult speed after time spent doing kid-geered activities, this is a must! Bring $100 and a date. It was one of our most favorite memories at the parks - just the two of us and an array of small plate delectables. Google "Epcot food and wine menu" to see last years offerings and get an idea of the what you can expect.
*Hollywood Studios: The Brown Derby
Our first experience here was to die for. We couldn't remember eating a better steak and the mashed potatoes were dreamy. We split a dessert but wished we had room to try more. It was a great evening. The second time we took our oldest daughter back for her 16th and it was nice but not as far out of this world as the first time. I don't know if this was a change in chefs or if we just hit an off night. It was still very good.
BONUS TIP: Tricks for getting some high scores on Toy Story Mania
Last but not least, I thought it might be fun to include some tricks for improving your score on Toy Story Mania. It's a fast paced shooting game with different types of targets on a whirling car. It's easy to get carried away with the rapid fire fun of it all but we've found two ways that increased our scores:
-Work together with your partner if they are willing. Firing haphazardly across the screen leaves some missed opportunities for big points. If you stick to your side of the screen you can cover more ground.
-Watch the corners for the highest point opportunities (1000-5000 instead 100-500) and only take the points at the center of the screen when those high value options are out of view.
Happy travels, friends! I hope you enjoy Disney as much as we do!