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Walt Disney World Vacation Planning Tips: Everything You Need to Know Before Your First Disney Vacation

SmarterTravel

So, you’re planning a vacation to Disney World. Congratulations! If this is your first time visiting the popular Orlando theme parks, you might be feeling a little overwhelmed. That’s why we’ve put together this step-by-step guide on how to plan a Walt Disney World vacation. Keep reading for planning advice and all kinds of Disney World tips.

How Big Is the Walt Disney World Resort?

Say Walt Disney World, and many people immediately think of the Magic Kingdom. And while that theme park plays a big part in any Walt Disney World vacation, there’s so much more to the destination than that.

Walt Disney World Resort is home to four theme parks, two water parks, and one massive shopping and dining zone. Thus when you talk about Disney World in Orlando, you’re actually talking about seven unique destinations owned and operated by Disney. The Disney theme parks in Orlando are Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. The two water parks are Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. There’s also a shopping, dining, and entertainment zone called Disney Springs.

But wait, there’s more: Walt Disney World Resort is home to some two dozen hotels available in a range of price options, plus two more hotels planned or already under construction.

Where to Stay at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando

One of the first things you’ll want to do when planning a Walt Disney World vacation is decide where to stay. Choosing a Walt Disney World Resort hotel comes with various perks and privileges.

In addition to the Disney theming that allows you to fully immerse yourself in a Disney World vacation experience, all Disney Resort hotels offer free bus transportation to and from the six amusement parks and Disney Springs. Some hotels also offer boat transportation to certain parks; and the Grand Floridian, Contemporary, and Polynesian resorts are located on the Monorail that takes guests to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot (via a transfer at the Transportation and Ticket Center). Coming in fall 2019, the Disney Skyliner gondola transportation system will provide service connecting Hollywood Studios and Epcot to Disney’s Art of Animation, Pop Century, Caribbean Beach, and (opening in late 2019) Riviera resorts.

In fact, if the Walt Disney World Resort is the focus of your whole vacation, you don’t even need to rent a car. Guests at Disney Resort hotels can reserve complimentary bus transportation between Orlando International Airport and their Disney Resort hotel at the start and end of their vacation. In addition to the transportation options mentioned above, guests can also use Uber and Lyft to get around Disney World—you can even access special “Minnie Van” service through Lyft and get picked up in a red-and-white polka-dot vehicle.

If you stay at a Disney Resort hotel, you can also make your FastPass+ selections up to 60 days before check-in for the entire length of your stay, a huge perk when you’re trying to get on the most popular rides. (More about FastPass+ shortly.) Disney Resort guests also get access to Extra Magic Hours at one of the theme parks each day. That’s extra time either before the park opens or after it closes to the public when select attractions and experiences are open just for Disney Resort guests.

Disney Resort hotels are divided into three levels: Value, Moderate, and Deluxe. Room size, amenities, and price all increase as you climb the levels. A standard room at a Value Resort like Pop Century Resort, for example, would mean one king or queen bed, one Murphy-style queen bed, and one sink in the bathroom. Move up to a Moderate Resort, like Port Orleans Resort, and a standard room will include two queen beds, two sinks in the bathroom, and sometimes the option for a child-sized pull-down bed. Rooms at Deluxe Resorts offer the most square footage and sometimes options like bunk beds instead of a second queen bed.

The resort level can also affect amenities. The main pools at the Value Resorts, for example, don’t have water slides, but the main pools at other resort levels do.

Larger families looking for more space can book one of the Family Suites at Disney’s Art of Animation or All-Star Music resorts. Another option is one of the cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, which sleep up to six. If budget isn’t a factor, consider one of Disney World’s Deluxe Villas, which offer one- and two-bedroom villas and even some three-bedroom grand villas.

Of course, there are lots of other hotel options located near Walt Disney World. So if you have rewards points at a certain brand or the pricing is just better for your budget, staying “off property” works just fine. There are even some non-Disney Resort hotels, including seven in the Disney Springs area, where guests can also make FastPass+ selections up to 60 days in advance.

Many off-property hotels offer some kind of bus or shuttle service to the Disney theme parks (it just might not be as frequent as Disney World’s own service). If you’ll be driving your own car to the parks each day, it costs $25 to park, so factor that into your planning and budgeting.

When to Visit Walt Disney World

Summer, Christmastime, and spring break season tend to be the most crowded times at Walt Disney World. Advance planning for a trip during these times is definitely a must to make the most of your Disney World vacation.

  • Tip: A Disney World crowd calendar, such as this one from Pixie Vacations, is a good way to anticipate crowd levels at the parks by day, week, or month, based on a number of factors such as holidays, special events, and school vacations. “If you’re looking for the best day to go to the parks at Walt Disney World, midweek is almost always a better time to go than over the weekend. Of course holidays and any time kids are out of school are popular times at Walt Disney World,” notes Steve Griswold, owner of Pixie Vacations. (Sponsored Link.)

You’ll often find smaller crowds in August and September when all the kids have gone back to school, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, and in January and February after the holiday rush. But no matter when you go, there will still be a lot of other people there with you. And Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will likely bring a lot of visitors to Disney World at times that have been traditionally less crowded.

Food Options at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando

Dining reservations at certain Walt Disney World table-service restaurants can be made up to 180 days in advance. Booking well in advance is recommended if you want to eat a meal at a hot spot like Cinderella’s Royal Table (a character dining experience with Disney Princesses).

You should also decide if you want to opt for any of the Disney Dining Plans. You can choose a plan that covers two quick-service meals and two snacks each day, or a plan that includes one quick-service meal, two snacks, and one table-service meal at more than 50 Disney World table-service restaurants each day. These can be a good option if dining will be a big part of your Walt Disney World vacation. But if you’re a light eater, it may not be worth the expense.

What is FastPass+ Service?

You don’t want to spend your whole time at Walt Disney World standing in line. That’s where Disney’s FastPass+ comes in.

This complimentary benefit allows you to reserve up to three FastPass+ selections per day in advance online at the Walt Disney World Resort website or through Disney World’s mobile app. You’ll get an hour-long window during which you can skip the regular line and enter your chosen ride or attraction through the FastPass+ line. Once you’ve used your initial three picks, you can choose another FastPass through Disney World’s app or at kiosks in the parks.

If you’re staying at a Disney Resort hotel, you can choose your FastPass+ options up to 60 days in advance. Otherwise, you can make selections up to 30 days in advance with the purchase of a Disney World ticket. Mark your calendar for this perk, especially if you have must-do rides on your list.

Buying Tickets for Disney Amusement Parks in Orlando

Determining how you want to approach your Walt Disney World vacation will help you figure out the best ticket options. You can purchase tickets that allow you to visit one theme park per day, or you can choose the Park Hopper option that allows you to visit multiple parks on the same day.

If you think you might want to head to Hollywood Studios in the morning and watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks at night, a Park Hopper ticket is the option for you. As you add more days to your ticket, the price per day decreases.

Which of the Six Walt Disney World Parks to Visit

Magic Kingdom is a must-do for anyone heading to Walt Disney World Resort for the first time. And if you have younger kids in your traveling party, take note: This is a where you’ll find lots of rides and attractions geared toward little ones. Classics include Peter Pan’s Flight and Dumbo the Flying Elephant, along with the park’s three mountains (Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Splash Mountain) that offer kid-friendly roller coaster thrills. The newish Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is still a big draw, so this is a prime candidate for a FastPass.

Epcot is divided into Future World and World Showcase. The former is home to popular rides like Test Track and Soarin’ Around the World. The latter features pavilions focused on different countries around the world, a few with rides and the rest with movies or other experiences designed to teach park visitors about the country. World Showcase is a fun place to try lots of different foods and drinks as you stroll around the park’s centerpiece lagoon.

Animal Kingdom is home to the Avatar-themed Pandora land, where wait times can be measured by hours at the cutting-edge Avatar Flight of Passage ride. (Definitely try to get a FastPass for this one.) Other must-dos here include Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris, where you’ll see giraffes, hippos, elephants, and other exotic creatures that call the park home.

Hollywood Studios is the location of the hotly anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, opening on August 29, 2019. If you’re a fan of the Force, this is  a park you’ll want to visit. Disney World’s two biggest thrill rides—the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster—are also located at Hollywood Studios, along with the popular Toy Story Land.

It can get hot in Orlando almost any time of year, so a trip to one of Disney’s water parks can be a fun way to cool down. Blizzard Beach is designed to look like a ski resort, complete with a chairlift that takes visitors to the waterslides at the top of its “mountain.” Typhoon Lagoon has a tropical island feel and boasts one of the coolest wave pools around.

What’s the Best Way to Navigate the Disney Theme Parks?

Start by thinking about your traveling party. Do you have young kids with early bedtimes and nap schedules? Can you handle marathon park days, or will you need breaks?

Figure out your must-do rides and attractions, then factor in the expected weather during your stay. When it’s hot, an air-conditioned, table-service lunch or an afternoon pool break are never bad ideas.

If you have access to Extra Magic Hours, consider using them for the chance to experience the parks in a less crowded state. Of course, every other Disney Resort guest might do the same thing, but you can often get lucky.

If you want to bang out a lot of rides and attractions, arriving at the park just before opening can often pay off. You’ll get through security before the park officially opens and will usually be allowed into the front of the park. Then once it officially opens, you can quickly head to your first ride. Attendance will pick up as the morning goes on, but the first couple of hours are usually quieter than later in the day.

Another tip: Lines for rides during popular parades and fireworks shows can sometimes be a little shorter. So if you’ve already ticked off the Festival of Fantasy Parade at the Magic Kingdom or the Rivers of Light nighttime show at Animal Kingdom, you might be able to more easily jump on a ride while everyone else is watching the action.

Be prepared for a lot of walking, so dress comfortably. Make sure to apply sunscreen and drink plenty of water. And just have fun—you are visiting the Happiest Place on Earth, after all. Following these Disney World vacation planning tips will help ensure you have a truly magical time.

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