(Updated February 2013)
If you go to Walt Disney World without a game plan and knowledge, you'll be one of those families we always see, standing in the middle of Main Street USA with jaws dropped and a blank stare. But go prepared and you'll have an absolute blast.
Avoiding Jaw-Drop, Deer-In-the-Headlights Syndrome
How large is Walt Disney World? Try twice the size of Manhattan Island! At 43 square miles, there's four large parks, two themed water parks, a sports complex, several PGA-level golf courses (and several cool miniature ones), Downtown Disney shopping area, over 100 fabulous restaurants, over a dozen resorts on property, a huge campground, lakes, busses, monorails, trains...it gets staggering.
The key to a great vacation is taking time to plan and educate yourself ahead of time...not only will it make your vacation happier, but planning will get you and your family even more excited. I've begged friends to follow some simple planning tasks: The ones who did were thrilled at the outcome; the ones who didn't came home frustrated and worn out! Here are some ways to get started:
- Check out two excellent places on the internet: Mousesavers.com is not affiliated with Disney, and has lots of great information on saving money on hotels, tickets, meals, even souvenirs. Allears.net is by far the greatest resource in my opinion for Walt Disney World vacationers (outside of Disney's official site). The site seems to have every base covered to help you select your on-property resort (dozens of photos of each resort - rooms, shops, surroundings - give you the flavor of each choice), restaurant menus and reviews, planning tips, theme park news and more.
- Invest in a book. Although Disney's official book is nice, the best one in my opinion is Bob Sehlinger's "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World." (It's easily found on eBay...) It gives a more honest look at the parks, giving vacationers a very workable plan to make the most of time (we used it when vacationing in the packed months of June, once, and it really did keep the lines short for us). It rates rides and shows by age group, offers queue line information, loading speed and other tips.
- Get the free Disney DVD. I know this sounds simply, but it has multiple benefits. Call 1-407-W-DISNEY for the free planner; it'll inspire you and get you excited for the trip. It may also get you on a mailing list for some great deals!
The Top 10 Biggest Mistakes First-Time Guests Make
Some of the biggest mistakes first-time Guests to Walt Disney World are listed below. Learning from these errors will help keep your vacation running smoothly.
- "We're going to save money by sleeping off-property." Mistake. Though you can get lower prices outside WDW, you will spend time, gasoline and parking fees if you do. We've stayed at Disney's All-Star Movies, Music or Sports for under $80/night. Check Mousesavers or other places for details and make the most of AAA rates and specials. Staying on-property, you have Disney magic 24/7. If you want to go back to your room for a nap, hop on Disney transportation and let someone else drive! Rooms are clean, nicely designed and at cost-point levels to suit anyone. From the Pop Century basics to the beauty of Animal Kingdom Lodge, you'll love staying on property. Our first two visits, we were off-property; since then (26 more times), we've always stayed on property.
- "We'll just find a place to eat when we get to the parks." HUGE mistake, especially since Disney added their Magic Your Way meal plan. Guests staying on-property may make Priority Seating requests 180 days in advance...and they do! At Epcot or Disney-MGM Studios for dinner, it is now mandatory to get Priority Seating months early to get the restaurants you want. Make Priority Seating reservations as soon as you know your schedule.
- Lunch at Noon, Dinner at 5:30 p.m. Humans are creatures of habit. Most Guests will stick to their normal eating schedules, which means restaurants will be hit heavily at the traditional lunch and dinner times. We usually have our main meal at lunch (when prices are less and portions are still good), eating right at 11 a.m. Then, we catch dinner between 4:30 p.m. and 5 p.m. (many of the sit down restaurants have "early bird" specials too). Then, while others are eating, we enjoy shorter lines.
- "Let's just wait until we get to the parks to see the parade and fireworks schedules." If you go in the summertime, the parks usually have their nighttime fireworks and parades all the time. But during other seasons, there are nights in the Magic Kingdom when the fireworks and SpectroMagic will not take place. At Hollywood Studios, Fantasmic no longer runs nightly. Well before you leave on vacation, get online at Disney's official site to see all four parks' hours of operation and what parades and fireworks displays take place. One advantage to being on-property and having Park Hopper passes is being able to jump around from park to park, catching the wonderful special displays and shows.
- "You've seen one fireworks display or parade, you've seen them all." Absolutely do not miss the night-time shows. Epcot's Illuminations is amazing, with lasers, fireworks, flaming water and great music. The Magic Kingdom's fireworks will take your breath away (stand at the hub or between Main Street USA and Tomorrowland). Also catch the SpectroMagic parade (if it runs twice in the night, the 2nd one is much less attended...stand in front of the Pin Trading shop in Frontierland between Country Bear and the Diamond Horseshoe Saloon for excellent viewing). Fantasmic at Disney's Hollywood Studios is also spectacular, but can be frightening for preschool and early grade school children (arrive at least an hour early for decent seating...and beware of the "wet zone")...and the Pixar-inspired Block Party Bash parade is cute...although some adults may find it boring, the kids seem to enjoy it. Even Animal Kingdom has a fun Jungle Jammin' parade in the late afternoon.
- "We HAVE to go to the Magic Kingdom first for the kids' sake." For younger kids, this can be a mistake: The Magic Kingdom (especially Fantasyland) is a young kid's dream world. If you go there first, there's a real risk of kids measuring the other parks at that same standard and being bored. We suggest going to Epcot first (which still has lots of stuff for the kids...even in each country of World Showcase, there's crafts for the kids to do). Then Animal Kingdom, then Disney's Hollywood Studios and finally the Magic Kingdom.
- Extra Hour time isn't worth it." Every day, one of the parks will either open an hour early for on-property Guests, or will remain open for several hours later. Especially in the summertime (but anytime, really), this is a wonderful way ride some of the parks' most popular rides without the super-long lines. Morning hours are FAR less crowded than the exteneded night hours. It's a great perk for on-property Guests.
- We're in THIS park...We're going to STAY in this park. While Surprise Mornings are great for on-property Guests, the park where Surprise Mornings take place can end up being the most crowded park that day (since most resort Guests will go there and remain). Go for Surprise Mornings, but then evaluate the crowds...it takes just 10-15 minutes to switch parks, and the decision could mean much less crowded lines.
- "We have to see everything in 3 days." It's simply not going to happen. I understand having to budget funds, but I would rather wait a few more months to have the money to stay at least a week than to rush rush rush, trying to fit in everything...it won't happen and you'll end up more tired at the end of your vacation than at the start. Even staying a full week, realize that you're just not going to be able to take in everything Disney has to offer. Settle that in your mind, catch what you can at a relaxed pace, and then plan to return in the future. With Disney's 2012-13 pricing, the difference between a 3-day ticket ($299 parkhopper) and a 10-day ticket ($375) is only $76...after the initial bit hit, Disney lowers the price. The extra seven days averages just $11/day for park tickets.
- "FastPass isn't worth the effort." I'm constantly amazed at how many people don't make use of this great time-planner. Go to a popular ride early in the day and get a FastPass ticket for each member of your party; it will give you a ticket with a return time (an hour's spread)...return at that time to walk to the front of the line! Look for shows and rides that have longer than a 30 minute wait time. Once you've used your FastPass, you can get another one. NOTE: Most FastPasses sold on eBay are EXPIRED. Getting FAST PASSES are simple...save your money!
- BONUS MISTAKE: "Just put it all on VISA or MasterCard." If we don't have the money in our vacation account, we don't vacation...period. Pretty much every time we're at WDW, we see some couple or family where the dad or mom is making a scene, screaming about "spending all this %$&# money, so you'd better @&+! enjoy that Mickey Mouse ice cream!" How sad is that? You're on vacation to relax, and if you're worried about money, you won't. If this means postponing your Walt Disney World vacation a year while you save up your dollars, do it...it makes a world of difference.
Little Things to Make Your Stay "Magical"
There are pages of other ideas to help make your trip special, but that's where the Guidebooks, websites and all can help. But here are a few final thoughts...
- In Animal Kingdom, do not miss "Festival of the Lion King" and "Finding Nemo: The Musical." Get to Lion King early for up front seating and your little one might get picked to be in the show! Also, get your FastPass to the Expedition Everest rollercoaster ride and then do Kilimanjaro Safari first thing in the morning, when the animals are more lively.
- If someone in your party is a show-off, show up early for the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular at Disney's Hollywood Studios. Make a huge amount of noise ("Pick me! Pick me!") when they're picking people and you might get one of your party into the show. And catch the Toy Story Midway Mania very early in the day, as it's guaranteed to be popular...FastPasses to Mania are usually gone within a couple hours of the park's opening, so get one quickly and then ride it first thing! Also, if you want a nice air conditioned break for the kids (and not a bad show), catch "One Man's Dream" which is a mini-museum and short film about Walt Disney...a good place for the kids (or you) to take a 15-20 minute power nap.
- The revamped Test Track is excellent, especially if you're a Tron fan. Though it takes longer, take the time to go through the queue and design your vehicle; you'll appreciate the ride better (at least the first time). At Epcot, Soarin' is a must; so is Turtle Talk with Crush in the Living Seas. Spaceship Earth has recently been renovated and is worth seeing, though not early in the morning when many people do it. The American Adventure highlights some amazing animatronics and gives a great history lesson about our country's struggles and successes (and is another good nap zone for youngsters).
- In the Magic Kingdom, the big news is the new Fantasyland. Expansion is still occurring, but checking out Belle's cottage early (as well as the new Little Mermaid ride) would be worth it, in my opinion...some great special effects. It's a Small World is a great cool area in the afternoon. Mickey's Philharmagic 3D film is absolutely amazing (as with all 3D movies, sit near the back for best effect). There are quiet nooks around the castle for some rest (if you search), and Tom Sawyer's Island is a wonderful place to let your kids burn off some steam while you sit and relax with an ice cold drink. Be patient in Fantasyland...the major expansion means a lot of construction is taking place, but it'll all be worth it (as Fantasyland doubles in size)!
- In the evening, take the monorail and explore. There's one monorail that goes from the Magic Kingdom through the Contemporary resort and to the Polynesian and Grand Floridian resorts, as well as to a transfer point where you can hop another ride to Epcot. The Epcot monorail actually goes into Epcot (a great site at night). We make the monorail our first-thing tradition when we arrive in Orlando.
- If you have the chance, explore the Disney resorts...different flavors, different features, lots of beauty and some of the best restaurants.
- Leave the rental car...if flying into Orlando (MCO) and are staying on-property, contact Disney a few months in advance to use the Magical Express Service. You'll get special luggage tags and once you check in at your hometown airport, you won't have to touch your luggage again until you're in your resort room. Disney takes care of getting your luggage and transporting both it and you to your resort (this is currently a free service, though there has been talk about them thinking about charging in the future). If you do want to head off property, you can rent a car at the Dolphin resort on Disney property for the day.