Whether you are a first-timer or Florida local, my Walt Disney World guide offers tips and tricks for Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. I have been to Walt Disney World at least a dozen times, but it was not until our last trip for our son’s 5th Birthday where everything seemed to finally make sense to me. I studied books, blogs, and asked every friend I know whom had been and used all of the information I gathered to have a trip of a lifetime!
Planning a trip to Walt Disney World? Here is Andi’s guide to visiting:
How To Get There
We flew direct from Charlotte, North Carolina (CLT) to Orlando, Florida (MCO). It was about an hour flight. We flew with American, since we are members of the AAdvantage® program, however Spirit was offering roundtrip tickets for less than $100. For Florida locals coming from the South, there are many options from Miami to Orlando by bus.
We always choose to stay off-site, thus we rent a car from the airport. We save our credit card points to rent cars. I think flying is so much easier than driving to Walt Disney World, but that is definitely a decision you have to make as a family. On a side note, if flying give yourself extra time in MCO (at least two hours if you are flying domestic), as the security lines are perpetually long there.
Disney’s Magical Express is a free buss service available to guests staying in a Disney-owned hotel to and from the airport. An alternative to a rental car is Lyft (or the Minnie Van service powered by Lyft) or Uber.
Where To Stay
Do you know the best place to stay on your Walt Disney World trip? A great family vacation in Disney World should include access to waterparks and magnificent scenery. Stay in a hotel or resort with all the finest amenities to ensure an unforgettable experience for your family. You can check this guide to Florida’s best waterpark hotels for an unforgettable vacation experience.
For those that do not know, Kissimmee gets you even closer to all of the parks than Orlando. The city has world-famous shopping, dining, sports, and natural wonders. You can expect year-round sunshine, an array of accommodations, and the friendliest people you can imagine. I quickly found out why families return over and over again to Kissimmee, since it is a destination that truly captures your heart.
On this past trip, we chose to stay at this Kissimmee AirBnB less than twenty minutes away from all of the Disney action. It was not a sponsored stay. For less than $200/night we had a four bedroom house with a private pool and jacuzzi. It was brand new construction, so it was very modern and luxurious. On top of that, they had anything you could possibly need if traveling with children, such as a crib, stroller, car seat, highchair, etc. In the future, we will stay there again if it is available — we loved it that much! My husband and I both agree that staying off-site is what works best for us.
Do you need to bring any essentials that are not easy to pack and will cost a fortune on-site? Buy it on Amazon before your trip and Prime it to where you will be staying. We did this with our son’s Birthday presents and formula.
In regards to staying on-site, when pricing out Walt Disney World hotels, you are bound to have some sticker shock. Prices have gone up considerably and discounts are not nearly as abundant as they once were. If your budget is tight, but your heart is set on staying on-site, consider getting a quote from Disney Vacation Club or use a free Disney travel agent (there are so many awesome ones out there to choose from — ask around between your friends or simply google one). Here is the complete list of all of the Disney resorts.
I only recently learned about Mouse Savers, which is a Walt Disney Travel Company that offers discounts. I was told if you give them your goals and budget parameters, they will work with you to help create the best stay possible. They will work through pros ands cons of different hotels, ticket packages, and the various rates associated with different times of year.
When To Visit
Walt Disney World is great any day of the year, but I could never do it during the warmer months when it is at its busiest. I love going in January, since the parks are still decorated from the holidays, there are fewer people, and the weather is perfect to walk around in. Here is a helpful crowd calendar.
As a quick guide, the best time to visit Disney World if you don’t mind the larger crowd is from March to May. You also need to consider special events when determining the best time to visit this child-friendly destination, so be sure to check the crowd calendar.
Moreover, new attractions, rides, and any major openings impact the number of visitors, as seen in recent years. I remember the massive crowd with the opening of famous rides that caused increased waiting time. Hence, it’s important to make early reservations.
Disney App & MagicBands
As soon as you make the decision to go to Walt Disney World, the first thing that you need to do is create a free My Disney Experience account in order to synch everything into one place. Then download the accompanying app onto your smart phone and make sure everyone in your party is connected. This will make the entire process feel much less overwhelming.
If you stay on-site you will get a MagicBand as part of the package, if you stay off-site I recommend you purchase one, as it makes life easier and the experience more magical. You can buy them here. I bought the white one for myself and then further customized it with a rose gold decal wrap.
You can use your MagicBand to:
- Unlock the door of your Disney Resort hotel room
- Enter theme and water parks without having to wait in line
- Check in at FastPass+ entrances quickly
- Connect Disney PhotoPass images to your account
- Charge food and merchandise purchases to your Disney Resort hotel room
Park Tickets & FastPass+
Disney’s mantra is “the longer you play, the less you pay per day.” Single-day Walt Disney World tickets are expensive, but multi-day tickets are much cheaper per day. The cost of additional days on a ticket substantially decreases with each day you add after three days. In other words, longer trips are not proportionately more expensive than shorter ones. You can buy your tickets here.
How long you should stay at Walt Disney World depends largely upon the type of trip it is. If you are taking your kids on a “once in a lifetime” rite of passage trip, I recommend you stay a week. The exact length will still vary a bit depending upon how much vacation time you have and if you plan on visiting non-Disney destinations (example: the Everglades). I cannot stress enough how important it is to build a day into your itinerary for relaxation, as you will get worn out by the parks.
Buying in advance of your trip allows you to book three FastPass+ selections up to 60 days before your trip if you are staying on-site (it is 30 days if you stay off-site). Whatever you do, do not wait to buy your tickets at the front gates of the parks, because then you cannot book your FastPass+ attractions in advance and you will have to wait in long lines.
Probably the most crucial part of planning a successful trip to Walt Disney World is booking your FastPasses+. The first time we went, we had no idea about them and were barely able to ride anything the entire trip. During our more recent visit, we had a better understanding of how they work, however it was not until our final day did we really understand them. We feel like FastPass+ pros now! Please take the time to learn as much as you can about them — they will make or break your trip. Here is an excellent guide on how to use them.
A downside to the FastPass+ is that the person who is in charge of trying to get them (once you use your first three), ends up missing out on a lot as they are glued to their smartphone.
Where To Eat
Full disclosure: I am a vegetarian and my son is the world’s pickiest eater, so dining while traveling can be tricky for us. This is one of the main reason’s we stay in AirBnBs, because that gives us the option to cook and, of course, save money. Having said that, Walt Disney World has food to make anyone happy!
The most important thing for first-timers to know is that the stereotype that Disney dining is all fast food is not remotely true. Disney has a lot of amazing culinary options that can be an experience in themselves. Unfortunately, I cannot offer a lot of help in this area, so if you are a foodie, I recommend checking this blog out.
Definitely consider whether you should add-on the Disney Dining Plan. It is not right for everyone. Also, remember that you can order ahead of time while in the park using the app on your smart phone. That saves having to wait in long lines and allows time to find a table and chairs. Make sure to sample from the different countries in the World Showcase in Epcot.
Disney’s dining system is based on Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). The window for ADRs opens 180 days prior to the beginning of your trip, so if you are going during high season, you may have a difficult time getting into the most popular meals (Cinderella’s Royal Table, Be Our Guest Restaurant, and Akershus breakfast with the princesses), but there is still plenty of awesome options without ADRs. You must cancel 24 hours in advance to avoid a cancellation fee.
My absolute favorite Disney food is the popcorn. Guests can purchase a souvenir bucket at one of the popcorn carts (they are everywhere) for $12 and then have it refilled at any cart at any park for $2.
What To Do
Obviously, this is THE most important part of planning your Walt Disney World vacation. Which days are you going to which parks? I will say that I have always believed that when you are traveling you should never put pressure on yourself to do and see everything on your list, because then you have a reason to return to a destination! Having said that, I agree with what this blog post recommends. My favorite park is Epcot, my husband’s is Hollywood Studios, and Joaquín’s is Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom definitely needs two days to truly experience and I think it is the best for babies and toddlers. The good news is you cannot go wrong with whatever park you choose, but remember book those FastPasses+. My favorite ride in all of the parks is It’s a Small World in Magic Kingdom.
If you are celebrating anything while you are at Disney, such as a Birthday, Anniversary, engagement, etc, make sure to tell an employee, as they will give you a free pin to wear that says what you are celebrating with your name. I cannot begin to tell you how many people wished my son a “Happy Birthday” and it definitely made his special day feel extra special.
Something that I regret not doing was buying or creating beforehand an autograph book for Joaquín to collect the signatures of princesses and characters that he met. One nice thing that Disney allows is the ability to take photos on your phone or camera if you do not wish to purchase the PhotoPass.
When you first arrive to a park, grab the showtimes list at the entrance. It will even have all the character times that do not have a normal meet-and-greet building. You must see at least one performance, parade, or fireworks show while you are there — they are 100% worth it. Here are some other observations I made:
- STROLLER RENTAL: Orlando Stroller Rental. Pick up and drop off at MCO. Other companies deliver/pick up at your hotel, but someone must be present for exchange.
- STROLLER IDENTIFIER: Use a tag, bandanna, lights, etc. Lights really help to pick out a stroller at night.
- CARABINER HOOKS: Hook them on the stroller handle bar to hold bags, popcorn bucket, water bottles, etc.
- BUBBLE REFILL: It is inevitable, your child will end up buying a bubble wand. Refills are $2.
- PORTABLE POWER BANK: Good to have as a back up. You will end up using your phone a lot for directions, photos, and for the FastPass+.
- ZIPLOC BAGS: Pack kids outfits in gallon bags separated by day and labeled. Use leftover bags to pack for trip home (left over food, all the little stuff that is collected throughout the week, etc.)
- REUSABLE WATER BOTTLES: You can fill up at any resort faucet — the water is safe for drinking and tastes fine. You can get cups of ice and water at any of the stands/restaurants to refill for free.
- SNACKS/DRINKS: You can bring your own food and drinks in. I packed a backpack full of stuff daily.
- BALLOONS: If you end up buying one, deflate it, pack it, and get it refilled at home.
Where To Shop
No trip to Walt Disney World is complete without shopping for exclusive merchandise. If you or your family enjoy shopping, you will be glad to know that there are many shops that offer Disney-inspired souvenirs and personal items. I easily found great Disney items for every age and budget. Some of the cool items to buy in Disney Springs include hats, books, memory makers, lanyards, pins, Christmas ornaments, and pressed pennies.
There is no better place to shop than at Disney Springs, as it offers the largest collection of Disney merchandise in the world. We love it so much, that we always give ourselves at least one full day to spend there every trip. We each pick out one or two things for ourselves and we buy gifts for our friends and family as well. The 120-acre complex is a great place to end the day (the restaurants are incredible) and/or kill some time before your flight.
If you have a Target Red card, go to Target before your vacation and buy a bunch of Disney gift cards — you will get 5%-off with your Red Card since Target classifies these as entertainment cards, not gift cards.
My Favorite Experience
One of my favorite things about the Walt Disney World are the nightly fireworks. However, we are usually too exhausted to see them. There are many companies in Orlando and Kissimmee that offer helicopter rides during the fireworks. From the air you are able to see each park’s fireworks display and it is absolutely unforgettable! You can read about our experience here.
I will constantly be updating this post as I learn more about Walt Disney World. If you have any further recommendations, please leave them in the comments below!