A trip to Disney World can be the best vacation you’ve ever had, or it can be a stressful ordeal. With the right combination of preparation, planning, and purpose you can have an amazing Disney adventure. Here are my top Disney World tips for your Orlando vacation.
1 Do Your Homework
The number-one thing to know about Disney World is that it is not like any other place you’ve ever been. Obvious, I know, but even if you’ve been to Disneyland a hundred times this is not the same.
Disney World is its own universe. It’s the size of the city of San Francisco, encompassing four completely separate theme parks, over 30,000 hotel rooms, two water parks, golf courses, a shopping and entertainment village, several lakes, multiple freeways, and on and on.
When you visit Disney World it’s very important to know where you’re going and what you’re going to do when you get there. The more planning you do, the more you can avoid crowds and long wait times. So this is why my absolute top tip is to do your homework.
By “homework” I mean find out as much as you can before you even pick the date for your trip. Factors like crowd levels, seasonal weather, and which park is likely to be your favorite will impact your decision about when you’d like to visit and how long you’ll want to stay.
In turn, this information will influence where you’d like to stay too – Disney World has hotels near each theme park, but since everything is spread out there are very few hotels near multiple parks. And if you’re considering staying off-site, research can help determine if this is the best choice for you.
Good news – you have already started on your homework by reading this post! Another “assignment” I recommend is to get your hands on The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, which is super-comprehensive and will really give you a solid understanding of everything WDW. (That’s short for Walt Disney World and you’ll see it a lot as you dive into this topic).
After you finish reading all 55 tips, I suggest heading over to this post for links to my top-recommended Disney World books, websites, and podcasts.
And be sure to check out my free Go Informed podcast series 10 Days to a Better Disney World Vacation.
2 Get There First
The absolute best way to beat the crowds at Disney World is to literally beat them to the park. Most people don’t want to get up early on vacation, and if you make the effort you can have the park virtually all to yourself.
Getting there first means arriving well before the park opens. Know that Disney World parks generally open about 15 minutes earlier than their posted time. So for a 9:00 park opening, guests will usually be allowed through the gates at about 8:45. So if you show up at 9:00 you’re late.
At some parks, guests are allowed past the turnstiles even earlier. In this case, visitors are held behind a rope until the fanfare begins and the day officially starts. (This is referred to as “rope drop”) If you want to be at the front of the rope, plan to arrive about 45 minutes prior to the stated park opening time.
This first hour or two that the park is open will be the lowest crowds of the day, by far. If you arrive in time for rope drop you can ride as many attractions in your first couple of hours as you might ride the entire rest of the day. It is absolutely worth the effort.
How do you get your family up early for the park? Episode 19 of the Go Informed podcast, Master Your Theme Park Morning, gives you the tools to get you ready for rope drop.
3 Stay On-Site
There are a lot of benefits to staying on-site at Disney World. My top reasons are location, Extra Magic Hours, transportation, and the “Disney Bubble”.
For proximity to the Disney World parks, you can’t beat the on-site hotels. Some are literally within walking distance to a park, and the rest are all just a bus, boat, or monorail ride away.
One of the best benefits for guests who stay on-site is Extra Magic Hours. An Extra Magic Hour is time that on-site guests get a theme park all to themselves. It is a huge advantage in touring – and you’ll see it is my #7 tip below.
Disney transportation from the airport, and between the hotels, parks, and other Disney World attractions, is complementary for all guests staying on-site. (Offsite guests can also take the transportation around Disney World for free, but they need other transportation to get to/from WDW).
Staying on-site at Disney World immerses guests in the total experience, known as the “Disney Bubble”. The moment you step onto the Disney Magical Express bus at the airport, your Disney vacation begins. Disney’s attention to detail in everything they do – from the bus driver’s costume, to the greeting at each hotel, to the nods to Mickey throughout the resort – really inspires guests to let go of the real world and embrace the magic.
4 Know the Lay of the Land
Disney World is big. Distance between the parks and hotels can easily be a 30 minute bus ride. Where you stay makes a big difference in which park will be most convenient to you, so be sure to consider location before you make your hotel reservation.
And definitely familiarize yourself with the map before you start planning your restaurant reservations and park touring schedule.
These two infographics give a quick view of the size and major attractions at Disney World:
5 Have a Plan
Have a plan for your trip to Disney World. A plan for your overall stay, and a plan for each day of your trip.
For your stay, a plan should include your top goals and requirements. Do you absolutely have to meet Chewbacca? Is gourmet dining important? Are you all about thrill rides? Start with a sense of your most important must-dos, then figure out where and when you can accomplish these objectives.
From your overall plan, you can start to flesh out your daily schedule. This doesn’t mean you need an itinerary for every minute of the day, but it does mean knowing which park you plan to visit and at least the top things you want to do there. And it means being thoughtful about where you expect to go during the day.
These plans will help tremendously when it’s time to make your dining and FastPass+ reservations.
6 Use FastPass+
FastPass+ is Disney World’s ride reservation system, and every guest should take full advantage of it. With FastPass+ you make an appointment to ride your favorite attractions, skipping the long standby line. Guests who stay on-site at Disney World can secure these reservations 60 days before their trip, online or on the My Disney Experience app. (If you stay off-site, you can reserve FastPass+ 30 days prior to your visit).
A few things to know about FastPass+:
- Everyone in your party gets to make three advance FastPass+ reservations at the SAME park for each day. (Once you use these FastPasses you can get another one).
- The advance FastPasses are for three different rides (you can’t make three for Space Mountain on the same day for instance).
- Some parks have tiered restrictions on which attractions you can choose for the same day – for example, at Animal Kingdom’s new Pandora you can only choose one of the Avatar rides for a FastPass each day.
- FastPasses for popular attractions go fast. Your daily plans may need to be adjusted to fit the schedule dictated by FastPass+ availability.
7 Use Morning Extra Magic Hours, Strategically
Extra Magic Hours are extra hours where guests staying in on-site Disney World hotels have exclusive entry into the parks. They can be before or after the regular park hours. Extra Magic Hours (EMH) generally rotate among the parks, so during a regular week you’ll see one or two parks with EMH on each day.
Disney publishes their park hours well in advance. You can check out the hours for your trip dates here. Be aware that park hours can change, sometimes even with just a few days’ notice.
There is a debate about whether you should take advantage of Extra Magic Hours. The fact is that generally parks with EMH, particularly morning EMH, will be busier than non-EMH parks. This is because guests come early and then just stay in the park for the day. As the day goes on, the EMH park naturally gets more crowded.
My experience has been that the morning Extra Magic Hour is the best hour to be in a Disney World park, hands-down. Especially if it is a very early EMH, like 7:00am.
How do you avoid the crowds? Just stay in that park until lunchtime and hop to another, non-EMH park for the rest of the day.
Strategically using early EMH in this way has worked very well for us. Here is my post that outlines our experience with morning Extra Magic Hours.The morning Extra Magic Hour is the best hour to be in a Disney World park, hands-down.Click To Tweet
8 Expect Crowds
Yes, I know, super-obvious. But I’m putting “Expect Crowds” here to remind you to be realistic about your expectations. Even if you visit in the least-busy time of year, there will still be long lines for attractions like Peter Pan and Frozen.
The more you dislike crowds, the more strategic you need to be about your touring. Really study how to use FastPass+, be extra-thoughtful about which parks you visit on which days, and build in lots of break time to get out of the rush.
One of my favorite resources for planning around crowds, and for predicting crowd levels, is TouringPlans.com. With the tools on this site, you can customize a plan that will help avoid a ton of wait and rabble. Pay for the subscription – it’s just $14.95 (even less if you own an Unofficial Guide) – and it will be well worth it.
9 Get the Apps (and know how to use them)
There are many helpful apps for touring at Disney World. A couple of them are absolutely essential for planning your trip and for touring the parks when you visit.
Disney’s official My Disney Experience app is free, and I recommend downloading it as soon as you even start thinking about planning a Disney trip. It’s your hub for almost anything you could possibly schedule at Disney World. On this app you can view park hours, buy tickets, reserve dining, view your park photos, check ride wait times, plus lots more.
The other app I find indispensable is the WDW Lines app from TouringPlans.com. This is also a free app, although there are some excellent additional features if you subscribe on the TouringPlans.com website (see tip #8, above). Not only does the WDW Lines app show expected crowd levels and ride waiting times, it also lists each day’s remaining FastPass+ availability, and you can see the menus for every dining option at Disney World.
10 Wear Your Magic Band
Imagine if you didn’t have to carry a park ticket, room key, fast pass, photo pass, or even a credit card into the parks. Disney’s Magic Band technology makes this a reality.
A Magic Band is a waterproof electronic wristband that keeps track of almost anything you need for your day at the parks. Every guest staying at a Disney World hotel receives a free Magic Band. The Magic Band syncs up with Disney’s reservation system to keep track of your fast passes, park tickets, and even acts as your hotel room key.
Once you have your room reservation made and your park tickets purchased, you can configure your Magic Band through the My Disney Experience portal on Disney’s website. You’ll receive your Magic Bands about a month before your trip.
Be sure to wear your Magic Bands on your way to Disney World – they are also your ticket for the Magical Express bus at the Orlando airport.
11 Train for Your Trip
At Disney World you can easily walk about ten miles, or more, each day. That’s around 20,000 steps! Do you walk like this in your regular life? If the answer is no, it’s time to start training.
As soon as you start planning your trip, start adding long walks into your regular routine. It’s best if you can work up to a 5-6 mile walk on a regular basis – this will at least get you through the first part of your Disney day.
And make sure everyone in your family can do the distance. Unless they are in a stroller or on an electric scooter, everybody’s going to spend a lot of time on their feet at Disney World.
The bonus about all this training is that you won’t have to worry so much about enjoying an extra sundae or cronut on your trip, since you will have burned off a few extra pounds on the way.