Looking for some tips to help plan your first trip to Walt Disney World? You’ve come to the right place! Read on to find everything you need to plan the ultimate Disney vacation.
**Please note: due to COVID-19, some of the usual processes and offerings at Walt Disney World may be modified or unavailable. Make sure to check the Walt Disney World website for the most up-to-date information when planning your trip.
In the course of my adult life, I have planned dozens of vacations for myself and others, and for the most part I find the entire process easy and enjoyable. A five-week honeymoon through Chile and Argentina? No sweat. A weeklong road trip across Ireland? Done and done. Finding the best Punta Cana all-inclusive for a family of six? I’m on it.
Until recently, however, there was one type of vacation that seemed completely daunting to undertake. It’s a complex, not-exactly-inexpensive, high-emotional-stakes trip that is a bucket list item for families everywhere, and it had me quaking in my boots.
The destination? Walt Disney World.
Luckily, I have a good friend who is an expert in navigating the ins and outs of visiting Walt Disney World. Natalie grew up taking frequent family vacations to the Florida theme park mecca. Since then, she has started the same tradition with her own husband and two boys. There were multiple reasons why the family moved to the Orlando area a few years ago, but one of the major ones was that it would allow them to visit the park more regularly.
Natalie readily admits that planning a trip to Walt Disney World can be an overwhelming endeavor, especially if you’ve never been there before and don’t know much about how the parks work. She has served as an unofficial Disney consultant for innumerable friends and acquaintances planning their first trip to Walt Disney World, and today she has graciously offered to share some of her expertise with Full Life, Full Passport.
Thanks to her, you can use this helpful guide to plan your first trip to Walt Disney World!
Walt Disney World Overview
Walt Disney World is made up for four main parks:
1.) Magic Kingdom
Magic Kingdom is the park that most immediately springs to mind when people think of Disney World. It was the first Disney park built in Florida and opened in 1971.
Upon entering, you are immediately greeted by the iconic view of Main Street, U.S.A. leading up to Cinderella’s castle. Other areas of the park include Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.
While this park is primarily geared towards kids, it is a favorite for people of all ages and does have several rides for older kids and adults. You will also find the majority of the Disney characters here.
Epcot‘s most distinctive feature is the giant golf ball-like structure that dominates its skyline. (Fun fact: there’s actually a ride in there called Spaceship Earth!) It’s an interesting park because there are two distinct areas and each is quite different from the other.
The front half of the park is called Future World and has lots of rides and attractions based on that theme. (EPCOT actually stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.)
The back half of Epcot is the World Showcase. This area loops around a central lake and features representations of eleven countries. Each country has its own architecture and aesthetic, which makes for a great miniature trip around the world in one afternoon. There are plenty of culturally-specific shops, performances, restaurants, and a few rides to complete the experience.
(Can you guess which Disney park is my favorite?)
3.) Hollywood Studios
As you might have guessed based on the name, Hollywood Studios is all about the movies. This is where you’ll find the newer Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge sections of Walt Disney World. There’s even a replica of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the famous LA landmark where generations of movie stars have immortalized their hand- and footprints in cement. This park has rides and shows for all ages.
4.) Animal Kingdom
The most notable landmark in Animal Kingdom is the massive Tree of Life. This park has a variety of animal exhibits (including a safari-like game drive), shows, and rides. This is also where you’ll find the new Avatar-based area, Pandora.
In addition to the four main parks, there are multiple additional areas of Walt Disney World that are worth exploring:
- Blizzard Beach: waterpark (separate admission required)
- Typhoon Lagoon: waterpark (separate admission required)
- ESPN Wide World of Sports: sports-related events and activities (separate admission required)
- Disney BoardWalk: shopping and dining (no admission fee but parking can be tricky to find)
- Disney Springs: shopping and dining (free admission and lots of free parking)
Planning Your First Trip to Walt Disney World: Before You Go
Start Planning Early
For your own sake, it is essential to start planning your first trip to Walt Disney World as early as possible. There are a lot of pieces to put together, and some reservations sell out months ahead of time.
I say that not to scare you, but to empower you. By starting the research and planning process sooner rather than later, you put yourself in the best possible position to get the reservations and Fast Passes you want (more on those later). You also allow plenty of time to put together the rest of the vacation so that you can sit back and enjoy it when the time comes.
Do Your Research and Make a List of Priorities
If you take nothing else from this article, remember this tip. Walt Disney World is not the kind of place where you can just show up and wing it and expect to get everything you want out of a weeklong (or shorter) vacation, especially if you have kids in tow. Disney World is HUGE. There’s more to do than anyone could ever possibly fit into a single trip.
It’s best to figure out what your family’s “must-do’s” are early so that you can maximize your chances of accomplishing as many of them as possible. Check out the Walt Disney World website to see what rides, attractions, shows, and food options are available and where. This will help you decide which parks to prioritize and how long you might want to spend in each. The site also has ride descriptions and height requirements so that you can vet what will and won’t work for your kids.
Make a list of your priorities and try to formulate a rough plan of what you’d like each day and the vacation at large to include. This will be invaluable when the time comes to book Fast Passes, dining reservations, and any other experiences. It will also help you structure your time. Especially with little kids, you don’t want to waste a lot of time and energy traveling willy-nilly over each massive park.
Download the My Disney Experience App
In addition to their website, Disney has also created a really convenient app to help you put together your first trip to Walt Disney World. The My Disney Experience app is absolutely free, and you should download it as soon as you start planning.
Through this app, you can purchase park tickets, pick out Fast Passes, manage reservations, and build your whole itinerary. Once your park tickets are purchased, you can link them (or your MagicBands*) to your account and start putting together the trip. You can even unlock your hotel door right from the app if you’re staying in a Disney resort.
Not only can you use the My Disney Experience app to plan your trip, but it will also be an invaluable tool to use while you’re in each park. You can view wait times for rides and attractions, see where characters are greeting guests, get directions, check fireworks and show schedules, shop for souvenirs, and even order food from quick-service restaurants.
*MagicBands are wristbands that can be used in place of tickets.
When Is the Best Time to Visit Walt Disney World?
This is one of the most common questions people ask Natalie.
In the past, Disney crowds ebbed and flowed with the seasons, and there used to be distinct times of the year where the park was significantly less crowded. Today, however, there is no longer any true “slow” season at Disney World.* There are, however, times of year that are extremely busy and times that are less busy.
The busiest season at Walt Disney World is during the holidays (Christmas and the New Year), spring break, and over the summer months. Holiday weekends also tend to draw lots of people. You’ll find lighter crowds in September and October as well as certain weeks in January and February.
In addition to the general flow of seasons, events held at Walt Disney World can impact crowd size as well. The Disney Marathon, cheerleading and dance competitions, and Pro Bowl festivities are all examples of events that bring a lot of people to the area.
Before selecting your dates, you may want to consider checking a Disney crowd calendar to get a better idea of what to expect. Natalie recommends the WDW Prep School calendar.
*This is partly due to the addition of some great events during previously slower times of the year, such as the Food and Wine Festival in the fall and the Flower and Garden Festival in the spring.
Disney Vacation Packages
For those looking to simplify their planning, Disney offers a number of vacation packages that conveniently bundle park tickets with a hotel stay. You can even add a dining plan and airport transportation if you’d like. This can save you a lot of time and research, and you get all the benefits of staying in a Disney hotel. (More on that later.)
That said, many people prefer to make their arrangements separately in an effort to save money or because they don’t want or need everything that the packages offer.
Where to Stay at Walt Disney World
There is no shortage of places to stay when visiting Walt Disney World. Not only does the Orlando area boast a wide range of accommodations*, but Disney offers several dozen hotel options as well. These properties range from Value Resorts that start at $119 per night all the way to Deluxe Resorts where you can stay in the lap of luxury. Disney even has campgrounds, if you’re so inclined, which are least expensive of all.
While you might save money by staying off-property, there are some perks to staying at one of Disney’s hotels and resorts:
- Early access to Fast Passes (more on that later).
- Free transportation from all hotels to the main parks and major attractions by monorail, bus, boat, and gondola.
- Extra Magic Hours, where hotel guests have access to certain parks an hour before the general public on certain days.
- Option to purchase a dining plan.
Please note, though, that you now have to pay to park at the Disney hotels. The per-night price depends on the tier of the hotel. With free transportation to the park and the option to include airport transfers, however, you may not even need to rent a car.
*The area closest to Walt Disney World is Kissimmee, so we suggest basing yourself in that general area unless you’re looking to explore more of Orlando than just Disney.
Walt Disney World Tickets
Depending on how you want to structure your trip, there are several ticket options for visiting Walt Disney World. You can find more details and purchase your tickets here, but there are two main kinds of tickets:
Standard Theme Park Tickets are the most affordable option for visiting Walt Disney World. You are limited to one park for that day, but you can come and go as much as you like. (You can head back to your hotel room for nap time, for example, then return afterward.)
Park Hopper Tickets allow you to jump between any of the four main parks as many times as you want within a single day. With a Park Hopper pass, you can spend your morning at Hollywood Studios, your afternoon at Magic Kingdom, and bop into Epcot for dinner. These tickets are more expensive since they give you more flexibility.
The more days you spend at Disney, the cheaper the cost per day of your tickets. For instance, a two-day park hopper pass is $142 per day, while an eight-day pass is just $66 per day. While you don’t have to use the days all in the same vacation, the passes do expire. Thus, you’ll need to plan accordingly to make sure you use all of your days.
If you are not staying at a Disney hotel, you will need to pay to park at any of the four main parks. The cost (currently $25) covers you for the day even if you leave and return or move to another park.
Pro Tip: Visiting Disney can be an exhausting experience. Consider building some downtime into your schedule, like an afternoon at the hotel pool or a day trip to the coast to visit the beach or Cape Canaveral.
Fast Passes are an absolute must when planning a trip to Disney and can save you hours of time waiting in line. Best of all, they’re free! Fast Passes allow you to select three rides or shows per day (at a single park) ahead of time and walk on with very little wait. You reserve an hour time slot, show up at some point within that window, ride your ride, and go on with your day!
Fast Passes can be booked through the My Disney Experience app mentioned above. We suggest booking times that are earlier in the day. Then, after you’ve used your original three Fast Passes, you can use the app to add another Fast Pass if there is one available for an attraction you want to experience. You can keep looking throughout the day for more to add and use them one at a time for the remainder of your visit to that park.
It is essential to book your Fast Passes as far in advance of your trip as possible since there are limited quantities. Guests staying in the Disney hotels can book Fast Passes sixty days ahead of time, while those staying off-property can book theirs thirty days in advance. Passes become available at 7:00 AM EST each day, and you can bet that there will be people waiting on the app at 6:59 AM! Try to be there as close to 7:00 AM as possible on your first available day to maximize your chances of getting your preferred Fast Passes. The most popular rides do run out quickly.
If you aren’t able to get a Fast Pass for a ride you wanted, you can always continue to check back in the app in case more become available.
Fast Passes are another reason why you should have a plan going into your Disney World vacation, as you will need to know which days you will be in each park to be able to obtain the relevant passes. You will also want to know what rides and attractions are available so that you can determine which Fast Passes would be best for your family.
The Busiest Rides and Attractions in Each Park
Consider booking Fast Passes for the following:
Big Thunder Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, Carpets of Aladdin, Dumbo, Haunted Mansion, Jungle Cruise, Peter Pan’s Flight, Pirates of the Caribbean, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Speedway, Space Mountain, Splash Mountain
Frozen Ride (Norway), Future World: Mission Space, Soarin’, Test Track
Alien Swirling Saucers, Millennium Falcon – Smugglers Run, Rockin’ Roller Coaster, Slinky Dog Dash, Star Tours, Tower of Terror, Toy Story Mania
Avatar Flight of Passage, Dinosaur, Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safari, Na’vi River Journey
Is your child dreaming of sipping tea with a Disney princess? (Are you?) How about having breakfast with the Mouse himself? Would you like to take in a dinner show, or maybe just a nice “sit down” meal after walking around the park all day? It’s all available at Walt Disney World, but you’d better make a reservation.
Dining reservations can be made 180 days in advance and go quickly for the most popular restaurants and character meal experiences. Like with the Fast Passes above, it would be wise to be on the My Disney Experience app right at that 180-day mark to maximize your chances of getting what you want.
There are over 100 quick-serve restaurants spread across the parks that do not require reservations, so you definitely won’t go hungry if you don’t make reservations. (Not to mention the fact that the Orlando area has some great restaurants, as well!) You can save time by placing an order through that handy My Disney Experience app. You can also save money by bringing your own food into Walt Disney World, though glass and loose ice are prohibited.
The Disney Dining Plan
If you are staying at a Disney Resort, you have the option of purchasing a Disney Dining Plan. There are several options ranging from quick-service eateries only to a plan that includes signature restaurants and dinner shows.
Whether a dining plan is right for you really depends on how you want to spend your vacation. If you want to exclusively experience Disney meals and restaurants and not leave the property, it could save you money. For other families, though, it could end up being more expensive and/or frustratingly limiting because you can’t go off property without “wasting” a meal you’ve already paid for. We suggest determining how much you’d like to budget for food and what sort of culinary experience you’d like to have on your vacation to see if a Disney Dining Plan will help or hinder that.
Day-Of Tips for Walt Disney World
Allow Extra Time
Getting into each park can take longer than you may think. You will need to travel to the park, get to the park entrance, go through security (including bag checks), and scan your ticket. Plus, you never know how many other people will be arriving at the same time you are and how long the lines will be.
Not counting travel time to the park, we recommend planning for it to take at least 20-30 minutes at Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom and 30-40 minutes at Magic Kingdom.
Traveling between parks can also be time consuming, so keep that in mind if you’re planning to park hop. There are plenty of transportation options available. Disney buses, boats, the monorail, and gondolas are all available for free. Uber, Lyft, and Minnie Vans (provided by Disney) can be utilized as well.
Wear Comfortable Clothes and Shoes
No matter which park you visit, you will be doing a lot of walking! Be sure to wear your most comfortable shoes to avoid pain and blisters. Dress for comfort and keep an eye on the weather forecast. Florida is generally warm and can be very humid; the average temperature in January is 71°F in 92°F in July. You should also be prepared for the occasional quick shower or storm to blow through.
Strollers are recommended for younger children, especially if going out later in the day.
Conclusion: Don't Forget to Have Fun
Planing your first trip to Walt Disney World can seem stressful and overwhelming. There are a lot of moving parts, and you often need to act quickly and decisively to grab the Fast Passes and character experiences you might want. It’s also a big investment, especially for families with multiple kids in tow.
Additionally, for many people this is a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. There’s a lot of pressure to do it “right” and a ton of blog and social media posts that will try to shape your idea of what that means.
In the end, however, it’s important to stay focused on what really matters: making lasting memories with your loved ones in the place known as the “happiest on Earth.” Things might not go perfectly according to plan – anyone with a toddler knows this to be true even of a trip to the grocery store – so try to stay flexible and relaxed. Put in the planning time before you leave so that you can focus on enjoying your vacation once you’re there.
Despite the crowds, the expense, the heat and humidity, and the planning process, Walt Disney World is still an absolutely magical place. There’s just nowhere on Earth like a Disney park. Seeing kids’ eyes fill with wonder as they first behold Main Street USA and Cinderella’s Castle or witnessing their joy when their favorite character appears right in front of them are moments you will never forget.
And it’s those moments that make every hour of planning and ever dollar spent completely worth it.
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