Over the years, we have been fortunate enough to make a few trips to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida. During our trips, and in conversations with other WDW friends, we’ve compiled a small list of dos and don’ts as well as some basic how to survive tips. Below are our thoughts and conversations captured in text.
On Resort or Off?
Firstly, there is one big question to get out of the way first and that is whether or not you were planning on staying on resort or if you are grabbing a hotel nearby. There are advantages to both as well as other considerations to make.
If staying on resort
You have a few options with your park tickets. One being extended hours for different parks during each day. This means that only you and other resort guests can either show up an hour early or stay up to 4 hours after the park closes, depending on the day and the park. This, obviously cuts down tremendously on people at the park – especially at night. The other big benefit comes with lightening your load (more on this later).
Another advantage to staying on resort means your room key also is your park ticket, is also your meal ticket, and is your charge card (the adult tickets only on this part). This means that you can leave all your cash or wallets/purses, etc at the hotel (you would want to carry your ID though); this leaves one less thing to worry about.
Staying on resort, you also get free transportation to and from each resort, downtown Disney and each water park. Each resort has a bunch of buses that run constantly so you wouldn’t really have to wait too long for one to the park you want to go to. The buses also drop you off nice and close to each park entrance, which is especially nice for the Magic Kingdom as there is normally a throng of people waiting to get across the lake on either a ferry or the monorail. Should you decide to drive to each park, staying on resort lets you park for free.
If you do stay on resort and have the buses pick you up, I would recommend driving to Magic Kingdom at least once. Riding the ferry or the monorail (especially the monorail) was always a favorite for our kiddos, plus riding the monorail is part of Disney, everyone has to do it at least once!
Staying on resort means you can get a meal plan. This allows you to pre-buy all your food for each day you’re at the parks. The food is expensive if you don’t have a meal plan. With a plan, it saves about 30%. We typically get the quick service plan which includes two snacks and two meals per ticket holder per day, and trust me, that is pleeeeenty of food.
The resorts are all themed, which vary depending on which one you stay at, and are extensions of the Disney experience. That said, especially for first timers, you’ll probably be too tired to enjoy much of them. Your meal plan will allow you to buy food at the resorts, should you want to. All have restaurants and feature pools (big fancy ones), and many have smaller quite pools as well. One of my favorites so far is Riverside, it had good food and lots of pools and it was close enough that we could go to the French Quarter pool and restaurants if we wanted to mix it up a bit. Additionally, it was nice and spread out so you could get a little quiet time away from the buzz of humanity, simliar to my other favorite Coronado.
Lastly, if you are flying down and staying on resort, transportation to and from the airport and hotel are part of the trip. This includes your bags. When you check in at the airport and drop off your bags, the next time you see them will be at your hotel room – Disney will get them at Orlando International, put them on your buss and take them to your room for you.
If staying at another hotel
The single biggest plus to staying at another hotel, or a vacation home is the cost per night to stay is much, much less in most cases. That said, it does add a layer of difficulty to your stay.
One being, you would need to add park parking to the cost of your nightly stay, unless the hotel offers free transportation to the parks. Even then, the hotel shuttles do not have regular trips, so you have to call in advance to have them pick you up/drop you off. This isn’t a big deal at all, but it does require some forethought.
You will not be able to get a meal plan if you don’t stay on resort. This too isn’t a big deal, but I wouldn’t suggest paying for food at Disney, a single meal could easily run near $50 for a family of four (plus baby). If you wanted to buy onsite, plan on dropping somewhere around $100 each day on food. Disney does allow you to bring your own food onsite though, and I would recommend taking advantage of that.
If you were flying though, you’d need at least a taxi, hotel shuttle, or rental car to get you around town. We have flown once but driven the rest of the time. It’s a fairly quick drive from southeast Iowa to get there and allows you the flexibility of taking however much you want, coming and going when you want, and allows you to make the trip to Target to get all the stuff you forgot (you will forget something, it is a vacation fact). We used to drive overnight until I got too old/wise to stay up all night. Overnighting, we’d leave around 7pm and be at Disney around 3pm the next day. Now we start off early in the morning, drive until we/the kids can’t stand being in the car anymore and grab a hotel for the night. For our family size of four (and a baby), it’s roughly $1,000 cheaper to drive than to fly, that’s even figuring gas at $5 per gallon.
Our first time at Disney, we did a vacation home and drove to the parks. We planned on cooking our own meals for supper and buying lunch onsite. What happened is we ended up buying all food onsite or at fast food offsite. This was after we went grocery shopping for the week, of course. We were just too wore out to fix anything for supper and were usually getting home too late anyway. If we were to stay off resort again, we’d probably get sack lunch like things and carry onsite.
It’s not to say that you shouldn’t stay off resort, it’s up to you for sure, we choose to go the easy route and pay a little more but I know of many who love the thrill of “beating the system” and with diligent work they do save a good chunk of change.
When should we go and how long should we stay?
This is a tricky question. Despite most people’s thoughts, there really isn’t a “best time to go” it is busy all the time. I can offer advice on the worst times though – holiday season, spring break season, and summer. Summer because it’s absurdly hot in Florida in the summer as well as crowded with all the Florida natives on summer vacation. Holiday season and spring break seasons are the same reasons, people on break from school pile the kids in the car and head to Disney.
Price wise, Disney heavily discounts their resorts or piles on other offers, like free dinning plans, in September, January, and February. For a week’s stay or longer, that can add up to a huge savings!
This leads to how long to stay. We’ve stayed had short stays and long ones too. I can say that the longer you stay, the better. It doesn’t matter how long you stay though, your going to miss stuff. Five days is way, way too short. Each park really needs at least two days each and the Magic Kingdom could vary easily take four days all by its self. I would say seven to eight days would be a minimum duration to stay. Ten days seems to be the best, if you can get that much time off of work at once, and can afford to do it, I’d suggest going for it.
The big thing for first timers, if you are staying long enough for at least two days for each park, visit each park’s website and plan out how you think you’d want the day to go. Once you get there, see if your plans were realistic and if not (don’t be surprised if they weren’t) spend a few moments at the park picking out what you’re willing to cut, what you’re really wanting to see instead, and what you want to see again. When you come back to that park for your second day you can go by your updated plan.
The biggest thing to remind yourself is you’re going to miss stuff, and to first timers the first day of the vacation is going to feel like you did a whole lot of nothing but running around in circles. This is completely normall, Walt Disney World is sensory overload, even for veterans sometimes. The key is to not let it dampen the rest of the trip.
So you’re at the park, now what
Well, you made it this far right? Don’t worry, this is the easy part, all the hard work of booking and getting to the park are done. Now all that is left to do is to enjoy it!
For the first trip to Disney World, you have to go to the Magic Kingdom first, it’s a rule. Not a written rule, but one you must follow nonetheless. Magic Kingdom is the park that the kids know from TV commercials and going there first lets them know that your actually at Disney World.
Now, if you go back to Disney again in the future, you’ll know that the Magic Kingdom is the worst first day park to go to! It’s sensory overload to the max, all the people, all the things to see, all the people, all the things to eat, did I mention all the people yet? You and every other first timer will be there, and you all will be wondering around in awestruck wonder of the sheer size of the place, and getting in the Veteran’s way (but it’s ok, sometimes the awestruck families are a good reminder of our first time).
That being said, you can still make a good first day of it, as well as the rest of your vacation, once you know how to use the system Disney has given us.
Photopass is your friend. Don’t take a camera except for the one on your phone, you’re not going to need it. Whether or not you stay on resort you can use the Photopass service.
Photopass is a free service that has professional photographers stationed around the park ready to take your pictures for you. Their locations are marked on the park maps but rest assured, they are most everywhere you’ll want to take a family picture.
You get a Photopass card at the first Photopass place you happen by. The photographer will take your pictures, pull out a card, scan it, then hand you that card. Keep that card, on it, there is a number you’ll need for later, and you can use it at other Photopass places. The other Photopass photographers will scan the card and all the new pictures they took stay with that card.
What you do with the card is, either during the trip or shortly after, go to the Photopass website and register the number on your card. This will show you all the photos that the photographers have taken. If you resister the card during your vacation, you can check back at the site and see the new pictures as they get added too.
You can then choose which ones you want to pint/save/have made into t-shirts and such. This is where the money comes in, how much is dependent upon what all you buy. We normally buy the CD, it’s ~$150 but it covers all the pictures they take and grants you the right to reprint as you please. If you are staying on resort, they will normally send a photopass card and a coupon for ~$50 off if you buy the CD before your vacation starts. This is a good thing to do. If you loose that card, or any photopass card, you can just get another. You can register multiple cards to one CD. The one thing you don’t want to loose is the number on the card, it’s how you retrieve the pictures.
Fastpass, Riderswap and the Disney Android App
This little slice of heaven will save your life and possibly your marriage (not really, but close)! Again, whether or not you stay on resort you can use any of these services too.
Fastpass lets you walk up to a ride, or some character meet and greets, and reserve a place in line. All you have to do next is come back at that time and you’re riding or greeting with little to no wait! The fastpass places are marked on the park maps as well. To get your Fastpass, all you do is go to the ride/character and look for the Fastpass kiosks nearby. Go to one and put your park ticket in, it will give you back your park ticket and a Fastpass card with a time to return printed on it. Come back during the time on your Fastpass card and go to the Fastpass lane. From there, you pretty much walk right in!
If your group contains children, your day just got better! Instead of using all the tickets to get Fastpasses for one ride, just use half and then use Riderswap. Riderswap lets you and your little one go on the ride while momma stays back with the stuff, but when you hand the ticket taker your Fastpass ticket, ask for a Riderswap ticket. They will hand you a Riderswap ticket and motion you onto the ride. You and kiddo ride the ride and head happily back to momma. Hand the riderswap ticket to momma; now she and the little one can go through the fastpass lane and ride the ride while you hang with the stuff! Now you, momma and the kiddo(s) have ridden the ride and only needed one Fastpass ticket. This allows you to use your other park tickets to get more Fastpass passes. For best results with momma, however, it is recommended that you alternate who goes first – gentlemen, heed this warning.
If you have a Verizon Android or Apple phone, you can use the Disney Mobile Magic application. It’s a digital, GPS aware, version of the park maps. This allows you to see where you’re at in the park, but more important, it gives you up to date Fastpass wait times for all the Fastpass rides at the park you’re in. Because some rides are very popular, there is a possibility that you could get a Fastpass in the morning with a time to return sometime in the afternoon. With the app, you can see which ones these are and really start pilling on the Fastpasses.
Traditionally, you can only carry one Fastpass for each park ticket at one time. This means if you had three tickets and used Riderswap, you could have one Rastpass for three different rides. There is a big loophole though. If the Fastpass return time is longer than two hours from the time you got it, the ticket will tell you when you can get another fastpass which is usually around an hour later. Why that’s important is if you have a Fastpass return two hours from now, you can get another Fastpass for a different ride about an hour later. This lets you have two Fastpasses tickets per park ticket at one time. Couple that with Riderswap, now you have six!
It gets better still, with the Disney Mobile Magic app mentioned earlier, you can quickly pick out the rides with the really long wait times. Start with the longest wait time and work your way backwards. As an example of how awesome this is, lets say you get a Fastpass return time that’s five hours away, you can get another in an hour, if that one’s return time is another 3 hours away, you can get another Fastpass ticket in another hour, etc, etc. Using the app, you can grab the longest, next longest, and so on, stacking up your Fastpasses with Riderswap you could have Fastpasses to 12+ rides/characters!
Why stack them up? I’m glad you asked. Stacking them up allows you to spend the time you would have been waiting in line doing other things like catching side shows (they happen all the time, you can check a map or the app for locations and times), shopping, eating, greeting, and generally taking in the atmosphere (read: resting). When the day is done, you can ride a slew of rides with little to no wait and head home for the night. This saves you loads of stress from the feeling that you’re wasting a giant portion of your day waiting in line to ride a 20 second ride.
What to take/wear
You can take anything you can fit on your back, but don’t. Take only what you need, that five pound bag will feel like one hundred pounds by the end of the day. Disney does allow wheeled things in the park, but only ones you push (like strollers) not the ones you pull (like wagons, coolers, etc). The ideal item to take with you would be a single stroller with room for storage underneath. If you have multiple children, take multiple such strollers. If you have a bunch of children and do need a double stroller, use the ones that have one seat in front of the other, not the ones that are side by side. You want your stroller to be narrow enough to fit between things and people but not so large you can’t easily fold it up for buses, trains and shuttles. Let it carry your stuff/kiddo(s) for you. Your back will appreciate that by the end of the day.
Wear loose fitting, comfortable clothes and shoes, this is the Iowa State Fair of walking times about one hundred thousand. Expect blisters and have band-aids with you in your stroller. Guys, expect “chaffing”, and have a little bottle of Gold Bond with the stroller as well…trust me…you’re never too cool to not be hurting there.
Otherwise, sunscreen, a little umbrella (if it’s supposed to rain), anything special to the kiddo’s needs, and food if your staying off resort. Whether or not you’re staying on resort, I recommend getting a lanyard with a pouch to hold your room keys (on resort), credit cards (off resort), ID, Photopass, and Fastpasses. This way the only other thing you have to worry about is your phone. This is really nice on the wet rides as the pouches are waterproof, leave the cell phone with the momma (and vise versa) and you’re set.
Just a couple miscellaneous things to think about in closing. One being, if you have enough time, go to Disney’s website and order a free DVD vacation guide. They will send you a DVD and reading material to show you all the resorts and parks. This will especially help first timers to plan their trip, but it will also help returning veterans as they typically highlight some of the changes they’ve made to the parks. You can also order free custom maps with places you think you want to see highlighted, and those maps are also good for scrap-booking, if you’re into that sorta thing.
Check out Disney’s website, it’s the single biggest resource for finding places to stay and go, especially if you plan on staying on resort. This is also where you can price out or pay for your trip. If you are early enough, (I think the magic number is up to 45 days from the start of your vacation) you can make payments via the website. This allows you some financial flexibility and is really useful for those (like us) who have a daily spending limit on your debit card. Once you cross that magic number, though, payments are due in full.
It’s a load to take in, and this little guide doesn’t do the whole Disney experience justice. If you have any questions or have any additional tips to add, please use the email link to get ahold of me.
Above all though, don’t forget to enjoy yourself, you’re on vacation at Walt Disney World!