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 WDW without feeling like Goofy.
The Latest Disney Magic: As soon as you book your Disney tickets or hotel, you should explore MyMagic+, which allows you to create an interactive itinerary through MyDisneyExperience.com and a free mobile app. With MyMagic+ in hand, you can then book three timed FastPass+ tickets per day, allowing you to skip lines for popular rides. You can book the tickets 60 days ahead if you're staying at a Disney property, 30 days if you're not (some passes are also available the day of your visit from in-park kiosks).
Disney hotel guests receive a free MagicBand before arrival. These rubber bracelets with microchips store all your vacation info, including MyMagic+, in one wearable, swipeable entity. (Non-Disney-resort guests can buy a MagicBand for $12.95, or just use MyMagic+ with paper tickets.) Advanced Dining Reservations can be made up to 180 days ahead through your account (and are a must for any kind of sit-down or special meal in the parks).
Insider Info: MyDisneyExperience spaces your FastPasses through the day, but Jason Cochran, author of Frommer's EasyGuide to Walt Disney World and Orlando 2014, recommends changing them to the morning, when kids have more energy. Plus, after you use your three daily passes at the parks, you're eligible to get more from kiosks on-site.
First-Day Strategy: 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.
Money Saver: "Weekdays in May and September are the least crowded times to visit. September is the cheapest month to stay and eat at the parks because it's Orlando's Restaurant Month, and Disney's Stay and Eat Free promotion" is often available." -Kyle McCarthy, editor, FamiyTravelForum.com
Which Disney hotel? Some favorite picks in three price ranges:
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 WDW make it Kyle McCarthy's favorite.
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."
Money Saver: "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." -Kim Orlando, founder, TravelingMom.com
Insider Info: The Yacht Club, Beach Club, Boardwalk, Swan, and Dolphin 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's 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 About.com family vacations expert Suzanne Rowan Kelleher.
It was the first park at WDW, 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." -Nancy Schretter, editor-in-chief, 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.
Jennifer 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 and Jason Cochran recommend 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." -Nancy Schretter, FamilyTravelNetwork.com
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.
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. In Mexico, Tres Amigos boat ride is also cool and comfortable.
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.
Sneak Peek: At press time, the Maelstrom ride in the Norway pavilion had been closed to make way for a new Frozen attraction.
Originally published in the March 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.
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.
Rest Stop: The nearly 20-minute, air-conditioned Great Movie Ride, which slowly traverses indoor sets and revisits classic Hollywood moments, is a perfect way to catch your breath and cool off.
Sweet Treat: Try the PB&J shakes at the 1950s-themed Prime Time Café, a favorite of Jason Cochran.
Sneak Peek: At press time, the Studio Backlot Tour had closed; Disney won't say what's coming, but bloggers are betting on something icy-cold (hint, hint).
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 (note: while Flame Tree is under renovation, its BBQ highlights are available at nearby stands).
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.
Sneak Peek: An Avatar-themed land will be opening here in the future.
Melissa Klurman is a family travel expert and the editor of Frommer's EasyGuide to Disney World, Universal and Orlando 2015. She lives in New Jersey with her husband and son, who are both nuts about the croissants at Epcot's Les Halles Boulangerie & Pâtisserie.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.