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10 Things I Wish I’d Known Before My First Disney World Vacation

SmarterTravel

I have hazy memories of visiting Disney World as a kid. There’s an old picture of me grinning from ear to ear in front of the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, so I think it’s safe to say I probably enjoyed the experience. But going to Disney as an adult in charge of planning the trip—where to stay, how to navigate the park, how not to waste two hours waiting in line—is an entirely different experience. It feels like going for the first time all over again.

When I planned my first family vacation to Disney World as a dad this past spring, I made a few rookie mistakes. So take note, fellow first-time Disney trip planners: Here’s what I wish someone had told me before I took my family to the Happiest Place on Earth.

1. There’s an App for That

Most people picture the Magic Kingdom when they think of Disney World. I know I did—I think that and Epcot may have been all there was to “Disney World” when I was young. But in the last three decades, Disney’s Orlando presence has grown substantially: In addition to the Magic Kingdom and Epcot, there are the self-contained Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios theme parks; two water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach; and Disney Springs (formerly called Downtown Disney), ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and Disney’s BoardWalk.

And there’s a single super helpful app that works for all of these parks and attractions. Download the My Disney Experience mobile app for your phone to get everything from GPS-based in-park directions (e.g., How to walk from Space Mountain to the Haunted Mansion) to current wait times (e.g., “It’s 75 minutes to get onto the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster right now, but only 20 minutes at Splash Mountain—let’s go there instead!”).

You can change or update your FastPass+ selections at any time during the day (more on FastPass+ later) and even search for restaurants and events. It’s like the One Ring of theme park apps—the one app to rule them all. And it’s essential to getting the most out of your visit.

2. Arrive Before the Park Opens

With the exception of ExtraMagic Hours (more on that later, too), the Disney parks generally open at 9:00 a.m. I made the mistake of arriving at 9:00 on my family’s first day at Magic Kingdom, thinking I was doing everything right. I wasn’t. The parking lot was already a vast sea of cars.

Let’s use a day at Magic Kingdom as an example: It will take you roughly an hour of walking-riding-waiting time from the moment you pull into the parking lot to the moment you pass through the park entrance. First you park, then you walk or tram it to the ticket gate, then you board a ferry, then you arrive at the park proper, then you go through security and have your bag searched, and only then do you reach the area you actually think of as the theme park.

It was a little after 10:00 before we boarded our first ride. Surprisingly, the park was still pretty empty even then. We didn’t encounter any wait times longer than 15 minutes until about 11:00. So we got an hour of essentially crowd-free Disney time by arriving right when the park opened, which was great…but we could have had two hours of free time if we’d arrived even earlier. That’s a mistake I won’t make again.

Crowd-free time at Disney is like gold—rare and beautiful. Treasure it.

3. Use Your FastPass+ Wisely

The FastPass+ is Disney’s way of allowing advance reservations on rides, entertainment, and character greetings during your visit. It’s included in the cost of your ticket, and you get three free reservations per person. You can make your selections as far ahead of time as 30 to 60 days before your visit, or as last-minute as, “I want to go on that ride right now, let’s see if there’s a FastPass+ spot free.” You can select rides and times on Disney’s website or from the app, and you’re given a window of time in which you can show up to use your FastPass+.

There are two separate lines for Disney rides: the walk-up line and the FastPass+ line. Using your FastPass+ feels like being a VIP and skipping to the front of the line. It doesn’t always mean there’s no wait; just that the wait is generally pretty short.

I went about using my FastPass+ all wrong.

Having not been to the parks since I was a kid, I decided to reserve FastPass+ spots on my must-do rides for the early part of the day to make sure my kids got to experience them. This was not smart. As I mentioned earlier, the parks are basically empty for the first few hours. Wait times for even the busiest rides are minimal. Do not use your FastPass+ before 11:00 a.m. You’re throwing it away. Save your passes for the peak times when the park is bursting at the seams with people, generally the hours between lunch and dinner.

If you have a ride or two on your must-do list, get to the park early and head straight to it. You might be able to experience it a few times before the lines get long. Save your FastPass+ for later in the day when you’re tired, it’s hot, and the kids have begun to fade. That’s when you need it most.

4. Plan Your Stay Around Extra Magic Hours

On designated days, the Disney parks open early or stay open later for guests staying at Disney Resort hotels. These are called ExtraMagic Hours. Plan your stay accordingly and you could wind up with a lot of crowd-free access to the best rides.

I was only tangentially aware of this perk when I booked my stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and wasn’t able to take advantage of it because my stay didn’t overlap with the Extra Magic Hours available at the two parks (Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom) that my kids wanted to go to on this trip. Next time, Extra Magic Hours will factor more heavily into my decisions.

5. You Can Leave and Come Back Later

Even if you haven’t bought a park hopper pass (which allows you to visit multiple Disney parks in one day), you can still leave and come back to the same park at any time on the day of your visit.

Why is this a big deal? Let’s say you arrive early to enjoy the short lines and relatively cool weather before midday. Let’s also say you want to watch the Magic Kingdom’s nightly fireworks show at 10:00 p.m. There’s a 0.0 percent chance you’re making it from the opening bell to the closing whistle without exhaustion, whining, and/or a full-on meltdown (to say nothing of how your kids will act).

Leave. Enjoy the afternoon at your hotel. Go for a swim, buy or make a nice meal, read a book, binge watch something on Netflix in your air-conditioned hotel room. Relax and come back after dinner when the crowds thin again and the heat has slipped out of the sunburn zone. It’s better that way.

6. Where You Stay Matters

If you’re planning a Disney-exclusive vacation (instead of, say, one day at Disney and another at Universal), it makes sense to stay at a Disney resort. There are the obvious perks—a unified experience between hotel and parks, free shuttles, free parking, etc.—but also another perk: location.

Let’s use the fireworks example again. I have young kids. I didn’t particularly want to drag them from our hotel after dinner at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. to go back to the Magic Kingdom for the fireworks. If I’d stayed at, say, Disney’s Polynesian Villas and Bungalows Resort, I wouldn’t have had to—you can watch the fireworks from the resort. Trust me, it’s worth it in the long run.

(Side note: We stayed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge instead. If your kids love animals—giraffes in particular—this is the place to be.)

7. You Can Get a Free Souvenir for Your First Trip to Disney

If you mention that this is your first visit when you buy your tickets, check in at a Disney resort, or stop in at Guest Services, you can get a free button to wear around the park. Free and cheap souvenirs are hard to come by (even the famous mouse ears can set you back $20) so don’t turn your nose up at a free gift.

8. The Magic Bands Really Are Convenient

Disney’s Magic Bands are customizable waterproof wristbands that you can use around the parks and resorts for everything from FastPass+ access to unlocking your hotel room door. If you link them to your credit card, you can also use your Magic Band to purchase food or gifts. (That way you won’t need to carry cash or credit cards on you at the parks.)

9. Bring Your Own Food to the Disney Parks

There’s no nice way to say this, so I’ll just level with you: The food in the Disney parks is not good. I mean, it probably tastes all right if you’re the kind of person who enjoys a deep-fried turkey leg on a 90-degree day. (And judging by the sheer volume of people eating fried turkey legs, many people do seem to enjoy it. But not me.)

The food is overpriced (which is to be expected) and the lines to get food can stretch 50 people deep. We ate breakfast before we left our hotel but decided to buy lunch at the Magic Kingdom. Big mistake. It took about an hour to get four cheeseburgers from a fast food window in Tomorrowland because literally, everyone else in the park wanted to eat lunch at the same time.

The smart people were using lunchtime to sneak onto the busiest rides with shorter wait times. You can bring “snacks and other foods that do not require heating” into the park, and I’ll definitely do that next time. Not only will it save money, it’ll also allow us to skip some lines while the rest of the crowds are lining up for their deep-fried turkeys.

10. Look for Disney World Discounts 

It’s expensive to visit a Disney park. Let me rephrase that: It’s EXPENSIVE to visit a Disney park: roughly $100 per person per day, and it gets even more expensive on peak days and during peak seasons (sometimes referred to as seasonal pricing or surge pricing). Whatever you call it, the takeaway is that the Happiest Place on Earth is also among the most expensive places on Earth to bring a family.

Disney does offer military discounts, multi-day passes (the more days you stay, the less you pay on a per-day basis), and other money-saving opportunities like Florida resident discounts.

But the real savings come from discounted passes, which you can buy from authorized sellers like Mouse Savers and Undercover Tourist. Give them a look before you book directly with Disney.

Josh Roberts feels more at home in hiking boots than at a theme park, but he was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed Disney World. Follow him on Twitter @joshwritesYA and on Instagram @jauntist.

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