18 mistakes to avoid at Walt Disney World
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If you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveller, you might not have such a magical time at Walt Disney World. This sprawling entertainment complex has so much to see and do — and is so busy year-round — that planners score big while travellers who “let the wind take me where it may” can lose out. How? By not doing the research to understand how to use FastPass+ and virtual queues, not snagging reservations for the most coveted character breakfasts or a simple air-conditioned sit-down lunch. Or, simply by deciding to sleep in at your Disney resort and missing out on early-entry opportunities to enjoy the parks and rides with fewer crowds.
To help you make the most of your Disney World trip, let’s talk about mistakes first-timers make and how you can sidestep those potential pitfalls.
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Thinking there is a perfect age
Many families decide to hold off on a Disney vacation until their kids are of a certain age. Other families think their teenagers may have already aged out of the experience and don’t consider a vacation to Disney at all. The best advice: Don’t ever feel like a trip would be a “waste” for younger children who may not remember it (you will!) or for older kids who may seem too cool for amusement park rides. They may be secretly dying to check out the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The truth is, Disney World has curated an array of activities and experiences for a wide range of age groups, from toddlers who love the character meet-and-greets to octogenarians who gravitate to events like Epcot’s International Flower & Garden Festival. It’s true that if you are only going to go once, you probably want to wait until your kid is old enough to remember it, but there’s plenty to do at any age.
Underestimating the cost
We’ll tell you right now, a Disney World vacation isn’t cheap. Even when you economize and stay at one of Disney’s Value hotels or use points to stay off-property, it’s still going to be a pricey endeavor to fly to Orlando, buy theme park tickets, pay for food and extra activities, and splurge on a few souvenirs. TPG estimates that a family of four — with two kids under the ages of 10 — will pay about $2,900 for a five-night Disney World vacation including lodging, park tickets, food, parking, transportation and souvenirs. Of course, you can save money off this total by leaning on points and other discounts, but Disney still costs a pretty penny.
Before booking any components of your trip, rough out your budget so you have a good idea what your total outlay will be before committing to the trip. Check out How much does a Disney World vacation cost? for details on what a budget, moderate or luxury trip to Disney will cost.
Not using a Disney expert to plan your trip
You can totally become a Disney expert and plan your own trip. (Here’s our Guide to visiting Disney World, for starters.) But, if you’re worried that planning a Disney World trip is too much of an undertaking, hire a professional. There are some incredible companies out there that are staffed by Disney experts who will plan the perfect trip for you and execute all of the details — and most of the time, it won’t cost you one cent extra since Disney pays the commission, not you.
Small World Vacations and Dreams Unlimited Travel are two well-known agencies that can help you. And the best part is that they’ll monitor the discounts Disney offers throughout the year and alert you if the price has gone down so your reservation can be revised to save money. Some Disney vacation planners even wake up early and snag those FastPass+ and dining reservations on the day they become available so you don’t have to.
Not stocking up on Disney gift cards
There are very few ways to find meaningful discounts on Disney vacations. Instead, you’ll need to find strategies to save in untraditional ways. For example, did you know you can use Disney gift cards to pay for nearly everything at Disney World? You can use Disney gift cards to pay for Disney hotels, park tickets and annual passes, and even Disney meals. Your goal here is to find discounted Disney gift cards, which will net you savings on your entire Disney vacation bill.
So, if your vacation costs $3,000, you could purchase $3,000 worth of gift cards to load onto your online Disney account.
Buying your tickets or vacation package directly from Disney
Purchasing all of the elements of your trip through Disney can be a good strategy, but it’s not always the best way if you’re trying to save money. There are other options. When it comes to finding discounted park tickets, you can use a reputable broker like Undercover Tourist and Get Away Today. These outlets can be especially useful immediately after a Disney ticket price hike when brokers still have some stock available at the old price. Just be wary of the vendors you see online touting heavily discounted tickets. If a deal seems too good to be true, it is likely a scam.
You can also potentially grab savings by purchasing a vacation package from Costco Travel. We priced out a five-night stay at Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort — one of Disney’s Value hotels. Besides the hotel, the package included four theme park tickets (for entry to one theme park per day) for two adults and two children under 10. Perks like advance FastPass+ reservations at 60 days before your stay, Extra Magic Hours benefit and complimentary Disney’s Magical Express transportation from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to the hotel and back are included in the $2,236.30 price tag.
Not considering an annual pass
Depending on your family, where you live and how many times you think you may visit Walt Disney World in a year, it may make sense to buy an annual pass. This post explains the different types of annual passes and when they can be a good deal for certain types of travellers. Not everyone in your family needs an annual pass. It can be useful even if just one of you purchases a pass. Some of the perks of this type of pass include free parking at the theme parks (though not the Disney Resorts), dining and shopping discounts, hotel discounts, VIP access to special events and more.
If your trip is at least a week long and/or you may visit Disney World at least twice within 12 months, at least do the math on getting an annual pass.
Underestimating crowds — at least in a pre-pandemic world
Picking travel dates for a Disney World trip is an art.
You, of course, have to work around your own schedule, but you also need to factor in what’s going on at the theme parks (any special events) and home (like school breaks or holiday periods). Some times of the year can be incredibly busy at Disney. For example, the week between Christmas and New Year’s is the busiest week of the year at Disney and lines can reach five hours long. That doesn’t mean you can’t still enjoy the parks, but you’ll need to be plan carefully so you can do and see as much as possible without battling crowds 24/7.
That may mean getting to the parks as early in the morning as possible to get a jump on the day, paying for a Disney hotel that offers Extra Magic Hours that get you into the park even earlier and carefully planning out the use of your FastPasses.
We don’t yet know what Disney World will look like when it opens post-coronavirus but crowd flows may be very different than before with capacity capped at a much lower number. TPG will report on that as soon as the Disney parks begin to reopen.
Not starting your day as early as possible
The phrase “the early bird catches the worm” has never been more true than at Walt Disney World. It truly pays to be at the theme park gates before opening time. You want to queue up and be among the first guests to enter the park. Then you’ll briskly walk to your “must-visit” attractions to knock those off your list before most other families have even finished their breakfast. If you enter at or before opening, you can usually get two to three rides done before the wait times really creep up.
There are a few ways to get into the park before everyone else (or stay later after closing time). Extra Magic Hours is the first option. It is available to those staying at true Disney Resorts, as well as a few select others, including:
- Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Hotels
- Shades of Green Resort (for military personnel)
- Disney Springs Resort Area Hotels
- Four Seasons Resort Orlando
- Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
- Waldorf Astoria Orlando
These guests get access to a specific park on a specific day of the week either before or after the park closes to the general public. Once inside, you can enjoy select park attractions that are open and operating during these extra hours. For example, in the Magic Kingdom, some of the popular attractions that are open during Extra Magic Hours include the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Pirates of the Caribbean, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Dumbo The Flying Elephant and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin.
Another option is to pay extra money to access Fantasyland at the Magic Kingdom early with a much smaller group via Disney’s Early Morning Magic package. You need to pay for regular theme park admission and then the added cost of $89 per adult (10 years old and older) and $79 per child ages 3 to 9. It’s an investment, but one that is really enjoyable if you are OK with the early start.
However, be honest with yourself. If your family is comprised of late sleepers, paying for Early Morning Magic or trying for the morning Extra Magic Hours may be a huge mistake that puts undue pressure on everyone.
Not leveraging the My Disney Experience app
If you haven’t yet downloaded the My Disney Experience mobile app to your smartphone, you’re missing out. Even in the planning stages of a Disney vacation, the app is super-helpful in allowing you to explore the resorts, theme parks, restaurants and more. It’s helpful to see wait times to gauge what the park may look like when you’re there.
You can buy theme park tickets directly on the app, too. Once you’ve made reservations for a resort stay or purchased admission, you can keep everything organized in the app’s My Plans section. When it comes time to make your FastPass reservations, which let you skip ahead in line at Disney World’s most popular attractions, you can do so right in the app. You can manage your dining reservations here too and share all those plans with your family and friends.
On-site, the app lets you check into your hotel, shows you your room number and unlocks your door. In the theme parks, you can see real-time waits at rides and view your Disney PhotoPass photos, too.
Perhaps most importantly for time savings, you can make mobile food orders and grab additional FastPass+ reservations beyond the three you booked in advance. It’s a very powerful app that makes Disney vacation planning a breeze. Download it as you begin to plan your vacation with the mouse.
Not having a back-up charger
This is a super-simple tip but it’s so important we have to say it: Bring a back-up charger for your cellphone, at a minimum. It’s especially important to have a smartphone charger — or portable power bank — if you’re using the My Disney Experience app, which you should be using. You don’t want your phone going dead right in the middle of a mobile food order or just as you were about to snag a FastPass+ reservation for the hottest ride in the park.
It’s pretty common to go through two fully charged cell batteries during a busy day at Disney World.
Not booking advance dining reservations
I feel your pain on this one. Who knows when you’ll want to dine or what type of cuisine you’ll crave 180 days in advance? But when it comes to Disney’s best restaurants — and even those in the middle of the pack — you truly do need to reserve in advance if you want to experience that restaurant, especially if you want control over the time you eat.
It’s especially important to book the character-meal runaway hits like Cinderella’s Royal Table, Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White, Chef Mickey’s and ‘Ohana. But check out this list of lesser-known character meals that can be a tremendous value for families.
Anyone can make dining reservations up to 180 days in advance, regardless of where you are staying or if you even have theme park tickets. Make the reservations in the My Disney Experience app or call 407-WDW-DINE or 407-939-3463. The phone line opens at 7 a.m., but as of 6 a.m. on the app.
Not using your 3 advance FastPass+ options wisely
FastPass+ is a perk many people enjoy at Disney World. All Disney World theme park guests with valid tickets or an annual pass can make three complimentary FastPass+ bookings in advance of your visit. Those at Disney Resorts or select off-property resorts can book 60 days out, while everyone else can book 30 days out.
With FastPass+, you can reserve a spot to “skip” the standby line and board the attraction faster than the regular queue.
As you plan the attractions for which you want to use your FastPass+ reservations, think carefully. It’s best to use them at the most popular attractions with the longest lines. That can include the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Slink Dog Dash, Peter Man, Test Track and Pandora: Flight of Passage.
And, if you plan to enter the park early via Extra Magic Hours or Early Morning Magic, don’t bother booking FastPass+ reservations for the first morning hours or for rides that will be open during those extra hours, since you’ll be going to those rides without using FastPass+ before most other visitors are allowed in the park. Normally, we like to use our FastPass+ bookings starting around 10-10:30 a.m. as the crowds begin to build but after you’ve gotten in a few rides ahead of the crowds.
Not leveraging Rider Switch service
Disney’s Rider Switch program can be a game-changer for families. If anyone in your party doesn’t want to ride — or can’t because of height or other restrictions — that’s OK. Send the rest of your family onto the ride while an adult waits with the non-rider(s).
When your family gets off the ride, the non-riding adult can now “switch” and bypass the normal ride so he or she can enjoy the attraction without an additional wait. Typically, the kids who do ride then get to enjoy the ride a second time! Rider Switch isn’t available at all rides but it is an option for select attractions at all four theme parks. In Epcot, for example, it’s available at Frozen Ever After, Mission: Space, Soarin’ and Test Track. Ask the ride’s attendant for assistance as you get in line.
Not having good shoes
This may seem like a little thing, but it goes back to planning. Here’s a fast fact: You will easily walk 8-10 miles per day at Disney World. This means that whether you’re travelling with little kids, teens or adults, it helps to remind everyone to take comfortable walking shoes. You will be on your feet all day during a Disney vacation and you can’t afford cramped toes or blisters. Also factor in what some Florida rain showers can do to your shoes, and plan accordingly.
Not renting a stroller
Are you travelling with 3-, 4-, 5- or 6-year-olds who normally don’t need strollers? If so, think about renting a stroller anyway.
Remember those 8 to 10 miles you’ll probably walk each day at Disney World (in the heat) and think about whether that is realistic for your kid. Even the most active child will burn out and need to sit a spell while at Disney. You can rent a single stroller at Disney for $15 per day or $13 per day for the length of your stay.
There are also third-party companies like Kingdom Stroller Rentals that will deliver higher-quality strollers directly to you at Orlando International Airport or many local hotels — though most of the companies can no longer drop off at Disney resorts without meeting you face-to-face.
Not crafting a rain plan
Spend a little time making a “rain plan” for your family’s trip. If you’re travelling in the summer months, you will probably encounter rain at some point … perhaps a morning shower or perhaps an incredible downpour in the midafternoon. Make sure you’re familiar with the terrain of each theme park you plan to visit and either consult the park’s map in the My Disney Experience app or carry a paper map. It also helps to have your rain gear at the ready if there is any chance of rain in the forecast.
When the skies open up, you have to act fast to reposition to an indoor activity to ride out the storm. Here’s some advice on what to do at Disney World when it rains.
When I was growing up, we almost always purchased Park Hopper tickets that allowed us to go from one Disney theme park to the next on the same day. However, admission tickets were much cheaper in those days and there was less to do within each individual park. Today, we never buy Park Hoppers and instead earmark one complete day (or more) to a specific park.
Right now, a standard one-day ticket to one theme park costs at least $109 per adult (10+), more during busy timeframes. You can spend an additional $65 to upgrade that ticket to the Park Hopper version. If you’ve got a family of four with everyone over 10 years old, you’re looking at spending an extra $260 for park hopping. Many families find that it just makes more sense to devote one day to one park and skip the idea of visiting several parks on the same day. Your feet may thank you too.
Trying to do it all
We saved the gravest mistake for last. As tempting as it may be, don’t try to do it all when you visit Disney World. Don’t stress when you couldn’t make it to that perfectly arranged FastPass, or when dinner in bed sounds way better than dinner anywhere else, or when you decide to just stay at the resort and swim. In fact, you should probably plan for all of those things to happen. Even if you are at Disney for a full week or longer, there’s always going to be more left to see, do, taste, ride and enjoy — and that’s OK.
You may have started your trip telling yourself Disney World is a “once in a lifetime” thing, but it’s normal to change your mind and go back. Don’t worry, you’ll be a seasoned pro by your second visit and there will be plenty of new, magical Disney experiences to enjoy.
Featured photo by Matt Stroshane/Disney Parks.