An Insider's Guide to Walt Disney World
It may be a place filled with magic, but pulling off a great trip to Walt Disney World is anything but child's play. Here’s our best time-saving tips, money-saving strategies, and sanity-saving advice.
Thinking about visiting Walt Disney World? Rest assured, you're not alone: some 50 million people a year visit the world's most popular theme park, with 18.5 million of them making a beeline for the Magic Kingdom. Don't let the numbers scare you away from the land that Walt built; with a little planning and our insider tips from those in the know, you can navigate Disney World without feeling like Goofy.
Wait Less, Enjoy More
Popular rides can have an average wait time of 90 minutes or more in peak season: summer. And long lines for lunch can make everyone cranky. Check out these ways to reduce the wait.
You can use the recently expanded Mobile Order feature on the My Disney Experience app to pick out your meal from most counter-service restaurants at any Walt Disney Resort theme park, says Anna Otero-Knox, manager at the Tiffins Restaurant in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. You then pay and select a time you’d like your order to be ready. When you arrive at the restaurant, split up: One or two people can snag a table while the rest can pick up the order from a special window. On busy days, it can easily save you a half hour!
Bring Your Own Food
Disney is one of the few theme parks that allow you to bring outside food, although coolers are restricted. “We pack juice boxes, water, chips, fruit, and sandwiches,” says Paulina Restrepo, mother of two in Orlando and a former Disney cast member. “Sometimes we go to the McDonald’s on Disney property, buy burgers, and take them in.”
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Keep a Breakfast Stash
“You can use Amazon Prime Now or Instacart to have cereal, milk, and other groceries delivered directly to your room,” says Olga Rodriguez, mom of two and a travel agent in Berea, Ohio. “You can skip the line for breakfast, feed your kids the foods they like, and get to the park faster.”
Snag Additional Ride Reservations
Many Disney rides have two lines: standby and FastPass+. Each person in your party can book three FastPass+ reservations in advance. The FastPass+ line moves quickly, often getting you on the ride within five to ten minutes. “Schedule your FastPass+ for the morning or early afternoon,” suggests Tania Lamb, a Disney Parks Moms Panelist and mom of five in Northern Virginia. “Once you use your three FastPasses, you can book more using the My Disney Experience app from your phone.”
The kids are chomping at the bit anyway, so be at the gate at least half an hour before the park is scheduled to open. “On many days, staff members open the gates early,” Lamb says. “You can be on a ride before most people are even in the park.”
Ride During a Parade
If you can’t snag a FastPass+ for a ride your family really wants to go on, you’ll probably find that the standby line is much shorter during a parade, says Rodriguez. Parades usually happen twice a day, so you won’t have to miss them!
Split up Your Group
Thrill rides such as Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster starring Aerosmith in Disney’s Hollywood Studios are likely to have long waits. If the adults in your group don’t mind being separated, jump in a “single-rider line” to cut your wait time by half, says Laura Gonzalez, a former Disney cast member.
Avoid the Parks on Day One
Spend your arrival day outside the parks, enjoying the hotel pool or a special meal, such as a character dinner at Chef Mickey's, suggests Shawna Huffman Owen, a family travel advisor at Huffman Travel in Chicago. It's just not worth paying admission, as kids will be tired from traveling and you already will have lost half a day en route.
Where To Stay at Disney World
Economy: The Art of Animation Resort is the newest and most popular with insiders. Colorful themed public spaces, compact family suites that can really sleep five, and the largest pool in Disney World make it the favorite of Kyle McCarthy, editor at FamiyTravelForum.com.
Moderate: It's Port Orleans Riverside for Gina Vercesi, a Disney travel planner with MickeyTravels and creator of the travel blog In the Mouse House: "It has an awesome pool and rooms that accommodate five, and you can take the boat right to Downtown Disney."
Deluxe: The top choice of Kim Orlando, founder of TravelingMom.com, is the Contemporary Resort: "The monorail runs through the center, and you can take a boat across the water to other parks. The rooms have pullout sofas, great views, and more space than some of the other properties."
"You don't have to stay at a Disney Resort to enjoy the restaurants and public areas. For a first or last day, save the park admission and instead watch the animals or sit by the bonfire at the Animal Kingdom Lodge or watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the beach at the Polynesian," says Orlando.
The Yacht Club, Beach Club, Boardwalk Inn, Swan Hotel, and Dolphin Hotel all share a boat shuttle to Epcot's back entrance and Hollywood Studios: "There's never a line at this gate, so it feels like a members-only secret," says About.com family vacations expert Suzanne Rowan Kelleher.
On Property or Off?
For a first trip, most experts recommend the hotels on Disney property because of their prime locations and value-added perks, such as the Magical Express, which offers free round-trip transportation from the airport. Another major draw is Extra Magic Hours, allowing hotel guests into designated parks one hour before other visitors, says Kelleher.
Disney World Parks
It was the first park at Walt Disney World, and it's where you should start your Disney adventure.
Must-See: "One of the easiest attractions to access is Dumbo, where there are now two flying elephant rides, halving your wait time, plus a pager system and a pint-size play area," says Nancy Schretter, editor-in-chief of FamilyTravelNetwork.com. The Prince Charming Regal Carrousel is a great first ride for little ones, with no lines, says Jennifer Burg of Orlando, who blogs at TheSuburbanMom.com. Be sure to get a FastPass for Peter Pan's Flight, as the wait can be up to two hours for what is only about a two-minute ride. At the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, the (pricey) princess makeovers are booked far ahead, but kids ages 4 and up can share a wish with a fairy godmother for free, and she'll wave her wand and sprinkle them with fairy dust, notes Burg. No appointment necessary.
Best Eats: At Be Our Guest Restaurant in Fantasyland, Disney hotel guests can make reservations and even order meals 180 days in advance, says FamilyTravelForum's Kyle McCarthy.nJennifer Burg prefers to pack a picnic lunch and eat it at Tom Sawyer Island in Magic Kingdom, where there's plenty of space to spread out a blanket and the kids can run around and play. She then splurges on only-in-Disney desserts such as chocolate-dipped, Mickey-shaped rice cereal treats.
Rest Stop: When it's time for a breather, Burg recommends a leisurely train ride above Tomorrowland on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover, which gives kids who aren't tall enough to ride Space Mountain a peek inside.
Sweet Treat: "The Dole Whip frozen pineapple soft-serve, found in Adventureland at Aloha Isle, is a must," says Schretter.
Futuristic rides segue into a mini United Nations of international pavilions at this multigenerational favorite.
Must-See: "Soarin' is a great ride for everyone, including first-timers and kids; it's a smooth, simulated aerial flight with panoramic scenic views. It's definitely one of my favorite attractions at Epcot," says Schretter.
Best Eats: Jodi Grundig, a Disney Parks Moms Panel member (disneyparksmomspanel.com), recommends a stop at Sunshine Seasons, a food court selling produce grown in The Land pavilion's greenhouses. "Eat around the world" by sharing one dish from each of the counter-service pavilions, which offer generous portions of unusual and delicious food, suggests FamilyFun Senior Associate Editor Ellen Harter Wall. For a special meal, try one of the international restaurants. Many Disney fans rave about the couscous and kebabs at the Morocco eateries. "They're great for older kids and not as crowded as other Epcot restaurants," says TravelingMom's Kim Orlando.
Rest Stop: The Land has a sit-down movie, Living With the Land, and a gentle boat ride through an experimental garden. Both are light on lines and big on comfort.
Sweet Treat: Club Cool features free, self-serve dispensers with soda from around the world; fill your mini cups with such global flavors as Peru's fruity Inka Cola and Italy's slightly bitter Beverly. Keep an eye on the kids, though: there's no limit here.
This movie-themed park has the least to offer younger kids, so if you're short on time, consider saving it for another visit.
Must-See: The best ride for preschoolers is Toy Story Midway Mania, says FamilyTravelNetwork's Schretter. It's popular, so be sure to get a FastPass. For big kids, the free-fall thrills of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror is a don't-miss, says FamilyTravelForum's McCarthy. Frozen fans take note: Be sure to reserve a FastPass to "For the First Time in Forever," the Frozen-themed sing-along, so you don't miss out on singing "Let It Go" with Anna and Elsa.
Best Eats: Disney Junior fans will find characters such as Doc McStuffins at Hollywood & Vine (reserve a time for this one), says TheSuburbanMom's Burg.
Sweet Treat: Try the PB&J shakes at the 1950s-themed Prime Time Café, a favorite of Jason Cochran, author of Frommer's EasyGuide to Walt Disney World and Orlando 2014.
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At the smallest of the Disney parks, the focus is on wildlife, making it a sure bet for kids who love animals.
Must-See: The wildlife is most active first thing in the morning, while it's still cool, so head straight to the back of the park for the Kilimanjaro Safaris, where you may spot giraffes, lions, and rhinos wandering the savanna.
Best Eats: Grundig, of the Disney Parks Moms Panel, favors Flame Tree Barbecue, where there's plenty of seating and the Southern BBQ plates are big enough to share.
Rest Stop: Cool down in the AC at Finding Nemo The Musical, which Vercesi, of MickeyTravels, considers the best live show at Disney World.
Sweet Treat: A frozen chai from the Royal Anandapur Tea Company in Asia is Vercesi's favorite only-at-Animal-Kingdom indulgence.
Extra Pixie Dust
Try these suggestions to feel as if you really have a fairy godmother.
Request a special morning greeting. If you’re staying at a Disney resort, you can press a button on your phone to schedule a wake-up call from a Disney character such as Mickey Mouse, Stitch, or Olaf, says José Julian Vila Torres, who works at the Disney All-Star Resorts. Put the phone on speaker so everyone can hear!
Feel the birthday love. Ask for a Celebration button for your birthday, anniversary, graduation, or another milestone when you’re at the check-in desk of your Disney hotel or at City Hall on Main Street in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. “Cast members pay special attention to anyone wearing the buttons,” says Nikki Diaz, mom of two in Stillwater, California. “They might even give you a free dessert or let your party cut the line.”
Nurse in peace. “Every park has a baby-care center with a quiet room for breastfeeding, a kitchenette with microwaves, big tables for diaper changes, toddler-size bathrooms, and an area where little kids can play and watch TV,” Lamb says.
Win a prize. Need to kill time waiting for everyone in your group to be ready? “Ask any cast member to give you a scavenger-hunt map and a clue to start,” says Vila Torres. “Complete a little here and there, and when you’re done, someone at the hotel’s front desk will give you a prize.”
Score an amazing last-minute reservation. If you weren’t able to book a restaurant meal that you really wanted (Be Our Guest at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, for instance), check again for a table the day before your family wants to go. “Disney charges $10 per person if you don’t cancel in advance, so a lot of tables open up the day before,” Rodriguez says.