Notes to a Newbie
If your children have never been inside the kingdom -- or you haven't gone in years -- follow our expert guide for first-time families.
Stay Book a room in one of 25 hotels owned and operated by Disney. They offer a free shuttle from the Orlando airport, bus transportation from your hotel to the theme parks, and special early openings or late closings. Among the budget resorts, the Disney's All-Star Sports or All-Star Music (starting at $84 per night) are the best picks if you have young kids. There are baby pools, playgrounds, and open outdoor spaces for kids to run around, says Len Testa, author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2013. Want to sprawl out? The family suites at the All-Star Music Resort, with a pull-out couch in the living room, two bathrooms, and a mini kitchen, start at $198 per night. If you can afford to spend more, opt for Disney's Grand Floridian, Contemporary, Wilderness Lodge, or Polynesian. They're an easy boat or monorail ride to the Magic Kingdom.
Play Make meeting characters a top priority. If your child wants to get an autograph from a particular character, ask a Disney cast member where and when that character will appear, suggests Debra Martin Koma, founder of allears.net, which maintains a list of many of the characters and their location in each park. Deciding which park to go to on what day can be tricky. About a month before your trip, look at touringplans.com, which offers park hours and daily crowd estimates. Download the free app My Disney Experience Walt Disney World to check on wait times for rides and make dining reservations. Coming soon: You'll be able to use the app to select FastPasses before leaving home and get the new MagicBand, which will serve as a resort room key, theme-park ticket, FastPass entry, Photopass card, and payment account (optional) in one.
Eat You can book your dining reservations 180 days before your trip, but except for dinners in the castles and a few fancy restaurants, you can wait until one to two months prior to decide, says Waring. "Since Disney gets last-minute cancellations, you can sometimes book same-day reservations," she says. What's the quintessential family restaurant all first-timers must try? "Go to Garden Grill, in Epcot," suggests AJ Wolfe, founder of disneyfoodblog.com. "It features Mickey, Pluto, and Chip and Dale in farmer garb and serves food family-style. The restaurant rotates, giving different views of the Living With the Land attraction below."
Save BYOS -- bring your own stroller! Disney rentals cost $15 to $31 per day. Also take along your own snacks and drinks; Disney is one of the few theme parks that allows outside food. Order water and food from gardengrocer.com, have it delivered to your hotel room, and pack it for the park.