Walt Disney World Vacation Planning: Expert Tips, Tricks & Ideas
Leave the hard stuff to a (free!) travel agent
Look for an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner, an agent who is an expert at helping you customize your Mickey-centered vacation. Disney takes care of the agent’s commission, and he or she can suggest itineraries, make all meal reservations, and keep up with special promotions that might save you money.
When Snow White graced our cover in April 1972, admission to the park was just $3.50.
Set your alarm for 5:55 a.m...
...six months before the trip. Advanced planning is especially crucial for meals. “You can make dining reservations 180 days in advance,” says Erin Shaw Street, a Southern Living Associate Editor and lifelong Disney visitor. “The hottest tickets, like Cinderella’s Royal Table, fill up instantly during peak times.” How do you score a seat? Go online. While the phones open at 7 a.m. EST (407/939-3463), the Web site accepts reservations starting at 6 a.m. (disneyworld.disney.go.com/reservations/dining)
Stay at a Disney hotel
—get “Extra Magic Hours.” Every day, one of the parks opens early or closes late. If you’re staying at a WDW Resort, you get a pass for these hours. Day-trippers leave; you ride Space Mountain at 10 p.m.
But choose the right hotel
Don’t stay at the Animal Kingdom Lodge if little Sally wants to ride Dumbo every single day. Here’s a guide to Disney’s resorts, based on your needs:
- If you have young children: Try the Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary Resort, where you can walk to the toddler-friendly Magic Kingdom.
- If you want some serious pool time: Try the Beach Club Resort. Stormalong Bay, a mini water park, is on site.
- If Dad’s more of the safari type: Try the Animal Kingdom Lodge, which sits on a wilderness preserve.
- For a good value: Try the Pop Century. For a weeknight in mid-June, rooms run $124 a night, compared to $190 for a moderate-level resort (one level up from a value resort) and $310 for a deluxe-level resort.
Pack bandages and a poncho
The average park visitor walks 8 to 10 miles a day. “I don’t leave the room without a few blister bandages,” says Bob Sehlinger, author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Grab a poncho too. June and July are Orlando’s rainiest months.
Beat the crowds
Parks usually open at 9 a.m. Crowds tend to arrive around 10 or 10:30, says Chuck Lionberger, founder of the blog Disney Daddy (disneydaddy.blogspot.com). Show up 30 minutes early to the Magic Kingdom and you can see characters like Mickey and Goofy arrive on a train. You’ll also enjoy the rides with minimal waiting time.
Remember three rules for FASTPASS
FASTPASS tickets, which you get from park kiosks, give you a scheduled window of time to visit a popular attraction. Show up and you bypass the regular (standby) line. Here, some pointers:
- Stock up in the morning. You got there early, right? After you relish a couple of crowd-free rides, grab some FAST-PASS tickets for other biggies while the kiosk lines are still short.
- If the ride’s standby line isn’t long, don’t waste your FASTPASS. Use it for a second spin on Space Mountain once the line snakes around the building.
- Feel free to use them past the assigned window of time. “If it says 1:30 to 2:30, and it’s 3:00, go right ahead,” says Chuck. “The only restriction is that you must use them before the day’s end.”
Be sure to wait in line for these rides at least once
Disney has worked hard to make standing in line fun for parents and kids, with interactive games and animatronics greeting you at every roped turn. Our experts agree that these three attractions give you the coolest in-line experiences:
- Expedition Everest: The “line” starts at a remote village at the base of Mt. Everest and winds through The Yeti Museum.
- The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh: Parents take one for the team here, but there’s a great play area for kids to run free while Mom and Dad stay in line.
- Toy Story Mania! Mania it is; lines can be hours long. But if it’s only 30 or 45 minutes, it’s worth waiting just to hang out with the amazing Mr. Potato Head.
Search for Hidden Mickeys (Warning: It may become addictive)
Disney plants mouse-ear outlines all over the park. (Hint: a manhole cover with two horseshoes as ears is outside the Haunted Mansion.) There are Hidden Mickeys in Disney movies too, so you can practice spotting them before your trip.
Download the Disney World Lines App
Of the many Disney apps out there, this one, which tells you the current wait times for every attraction in the park (and predicts them for the next day!), is worth the $10.95 price. (touringplans.com)
Don’t miss the Disney Moms Panel
This forum (disneyworldforum.disney.go.com), now in its fourth year, consists of Disney-savvy parents or grandparents. And we mean savvy: About 43 were chosen from a whopping 20,000 applicants in 2010. They’re committed to answering any and all of your questions. Need a gluten-free personalized birthday cake? Call Disney’s Cake Ordering Hotline (who knew!) with 48 hours notice (407/827-2253).
Bring retractable pens—and more tips for meeting the characters
- Get a daily guide at the Magic Kingdom entrance, which will tell you where to find the meet and greets.
- If your child wants autographs, have the book open to a blank page. Characters have big fingers, so it’s hard for them to flip.
- Bring retractable pens that click open. (Less fumbling to get the cap off.)
- Ask the reservations manager to book the last available meal slot. “By the end of your seating, the restaurant will have cleared out, and the characters will spend extra time with your children,” says Sheri McGowan, a park character whose Disney persona will remain anonymous.
To see a Princess, go to Norway
Belle, Ariel, and the rest of their pals don’t just wander the parks willy-nilly. There are meet and greets, which are packed, and princess meals can be expensive. That said, try the Princess Storybook breakfast at the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in the Norway Pavilion at Epcot.
“It’s wonderful, and not as crowded as other meals,” says Lou Mongello, producer and host of WDW Radio. No Cinderella (she dines in her castle or the Grand Floridian Resort), but the other princesses will visit individual tables, which isn’t always the case elsewhere.
Save some cash by talking turkey and sampling free sodas
You’ll see gigantic smoked turkey legs sold all over. (Disney peddles some 1.6 million a year.) “They’re really good, and they’re relatively inexpensive,” says Bob. One leg ($8) will feed two people, and you can wash it down with
a free soda from Club Cool in Epcot, which offers fountains of soft drinks from all over the world, such as Smart Watermelon from China.
Raining? Stick it out!
And when it’s 95 degrees, head to Epcot.
Bad weather can be good luck. Crowds tend to scatter. “And in Florida, we get a shower for 20 minutes, then it’s over,” says Lou. Duck into a coffee shop, then take advantage of shorter lines. When it comes to the Florida heat, remember that most Epcot attractions are indoors. Plus, it’s the most spread out of the parks, so even if you’re walking more, it feels less congested.
End the day with fireworks
Watching Wishes Nighttime Spectacular, the fireworks display at the Magic Kingdom, is the perfect way to wrap up a vacation. The best (less crowded) spots to catch the show include the Polynesian Resort (you don’t have to be staying there), the California Grill on top of the Contemporary Resort (the view is incredible) or from the private Grand 1 Yacht as you sip Champagne. (Call 407/824-2682 for reservations; accommodates 18.)
The Magic, The Memories, and You!
Walt Disney World celebrates 40 years with The Magic, The Memories, and You!, a new show that features visitors’ photos and videos shot during the day and shown on the castle every night. The gang’s all here!