TPG’s Ultimate Guide to Walt Disney World Resort

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Welcome to Disney Week at The Points Guy! All week we’ll be covering everything there is to know about Disney parks all around the world. After you’ve read our “Ultimate Guide to Walt Disney World Resort,” make sure to check out our other Disney stories — the list is at the bottom of this page.

Walt Disney World Resort is a massive 40 square miles — almost the size of San Francisco — and home to four theme parks, two waterparks, over 140 restaurants, a couple dozen on-site hotels and endless shows, shops, characters, rides and attractions. No wonder planning a Disney family vacation can be overwhelming!

So before you head to Central Florida, you have to do homework. You have to reserve not only your flight and hotel well in advance, but also rides and meals — two months out for FastPass+ rides and 180 days out for meals. (If you want to wing it, go instead to Universal Studios Orlando.)

It’s a daunting task, but we’ve already done much of the work for you. This is the ultimate guide to Walt Disney World, with all our tips on the best on-site hotels for your budget, money-saving tricks, what’s worth splurging for and more.

For our guide to the best restaurants in Disney World, go here. And if you’re a Disney World newbie, read our five essential tips for first-timers.

In This Post

Where to Stay During a Disney World Vacation

There are hundreds of hotels within a short distance of Disney World, most around $100 to $200 per night. Staying at a comparable on-site Disney World Resort can cost you at least double. Many off-site Disney-area hotels let you redeem hotel points for free award nights, making them an even better value.

Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Room (photo courtesy of hotel)
(Photo courtesy of Wyndham Lake Buena Vista.)

So why stay on Disney property?

Disney magic.

Disney hotels excel at theming, whether it’s a Lion King room at Art of Animation or the South Pacific island atmosphere at the Polynesian Village Resort.

You also get access to plenty of Disney perks. Three of our favorite are: the doubled window for making FastPass+ ride reservations (60 days instead of 30); Extra Magic Hours, which let you hit the park before the main gates open or linger after they close; and Disney’s Magical Express Bus to whisk you to and from the Orlando International Airport (MCO) at no extra charge. 

Disney's Magical Express Bus will whisk you to and from MCO
Disney’s Magical Express Bus.

Finally, staying on Disney property won’t necessarily cost an arm and a leg. The hotels cater to a variety of budgets, from budget to deluxe.

The Best Deluxe Disney World Resorts

The cream of the crop are the three resorts on the Disney monorail: the Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Village Resort and Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. They cost more than other deluxe resorts, but the convenience may be worth it if you need to sneak back to your room in the middle of the day for nap time (either you or your kids).

Disney's Grand Floridian Resort and Spa (photo by Disney)
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa (photo by Disney)

Other deluxe resorts with unique characteristics while also being close to the parks include Animal Kingdom Lodge (see review), where you see native African animals right outside your window, and Disney’s Beach Club, with its 3-acre waterpark with a lazy river and 230-foot slide from the top of a pirate ship. Talk about a hotel pool your kids can fall in love with!

Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge (photo courtesy of Disney)

These top-tier Disney resorts generally run from $300 to $500 per night, with rates occasionally dipping down to the $200-to-$299 range.

The Best Moderate Disney World Resorts

For midlevel budgets, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort (here’s our review) and the Cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort are solid choices. Some of the upgraded rooms at Caribbean Beach feature pirate themes, while the Cabins at Fort Wilderness can house up to six people. As an added bonus, Fort Wilderness is an easy boat ride away from the Magic Kingdom.

The moderate-level hotels usually set you back between $200 and $300 per night during peak season.

The Best Value Disney Resorts

For budget-conscious travelers who still want the full Disney experience, consider the Art of Animation (see review) and Pop Century (see review), though all the Disney value hotels typically run around $100 to $200 nightly.

Hang out with the Lion King at Disney's Art of Animation Resort (photo courtesy of Disney)
Hang out with the Lion King at Disney’s Art of Animation Resort (photo courtesy of Disney)

If you want to spend the night outdoors with Mickey, campsites and RV slots at Fort Wilderness start around $60 per night. Plus, Fort Wilderness has archery, pony rides, wagon rides, a stable, playgrounds, kayak and bike rentals and evening Chip and Dale campfire sing-alongs.

To defray the cost of staying on Disney property, use your Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card or Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard to book your stay, and then use the points from those cards to cover the charges. (TPG values these at 1 cent per point.)

Picking the Right Disney World Ticket

The first thing you need to decide is whether you want to visit one theme park per day or more than one park per day.

Standard tickets allow entry to one park and start around $100 or more a day. The price for a single-day ticket varies based on when you’re visiting and which park you want to visit (Magic Kingdom costs the most), but most folks visit over several days. You begin to see your per-day price really drop at five or more days. For example, on a five-day ticket, the fifth day only costs $15 on top of the four-day pass.

You’ll need to use all your days within 14 days from your first visit, so you can’t save unused days for a trip next year. But there’s no question that one longer trip to Disney World is less expensive than two shorter trips when you look at ticket prices.

Main Street USA at 7:50AM
Be realistic about whether you’re really going to park hop. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

If your goal is to do everything Disney World has to offer from sunup to sundown, consider Park Hopper tickets. For around $60 to $75 more, the Park Hopper add-on to any multi-day ticket lets you go from park to park as often as you’d like that day.

But before you lay out that extra cash, be sure you and your family have the stamina for it: You can walk 8 to 10 miles per day at Disney World in just one park. Generally speaking, older kids or adults without kids benefit more from Park Hoppers.

Park Hopper Plus (about $25 on top of the Park Hopper price), includes one “Plus” activity for each day: either a visit to a Disney World waterpark, a tee time at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course or a round of miniature golf.

Realistically, it’s hard to do both a waterpark and a theme park in the same day (we’ve tried). The better play here is to schedule a day where you don’t plan on going to the theme parks and go to a waterpark instead, because the Disney World waterparks are awesome. You could also work in miniature golf or a trip to Disney Springs and then return to the parks the next day. This plan works best if you’re staying at least five days and have time to venture beyond the main theme parks.

If you live in Florida, or are active or retired US military, there are generous, discounted Disney World tickets for you.

How to Use Disney World FastPass+ Reservations

There’s no one-size-fits-all strategy when it comes to FastPass+ at Disney World. The basics are that you’re allowed to book three FastPass rides, attractions or character meet-and-greet experiences per day (up to 60 days ahead for Disney Resort guests; 30 for non-resort guests).

Note that Disney World replaced FastPass with FastPass+, though people tend to the use the terms interchangeably. To make it even more confusing, Disneyland — the one in Anaheim, California — uses a system called FASTPASS. For the purposes of simplicity and in line with common usage, when we refer to something as “FastPass” in this story, we mean FastPass+.

Even if you have a Park Hopper ticket, all three advance FastPasses per day need to be booked in one park. Once you’ve used them, you can get more FastPasses at any of the four Disney parks, if available. Remember, if you have a FastPass for a ride, you need a ticket for the park it’s in.

If nothing else, download the My Disney Experience app before your trip, and bring backup phone power.

Being able to manage Fastpass+ selections on the fly is the key to scoring more than three shots at not waiting in line. If you don’t see what you want on the app, keep refreshing. Disney World will make you space FastPass+ slots an hour apart, but you may be able to modify initial FastPass selections later so they’re closer together.

Get a FastPass+ reservation for Mine Train if you can
Get a FastPass+ reservation for Mine Train if you can.

There’s no perfect strategy, but your FastPass+ experience will vary depending on whether you have young children or are in a large group.

Younger children will gravitate toward Magic Kingdom. If you can get your kids up and into the parks early, you can knock out a bunch of rides before lines get long. Schedule your first FastPass around lunch or late morning. Try to stack your three FastPass+ selections as close together as possible, so you can start getting more after the third one’s done.

Bigger groups may struggle to get everyone’s FastPass+ on the same ride. Try searching for smaller groups in the My Disney Experience App. You may be able to overlap times so everyone can still ride at the same time. (If two people have a FastPass for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at 1:05pm and two find it at 1:20pm, those overlap by 45 minutes in the one-hour window, so it’s possible for the family to ride together, even if the FastPass times aren’t identical.)

If you want to map out your perfect day at Disney World, check out Touring Plans, an organization tool with lots of free resources (for $14.95 you can get an exceptional level of detailed planning). We used Touring Plans for our crazy ride-every-ride-at-Disney World charity fundraiser. When you consider how much you’re spending for your Disney vacation, the additional $14.95 to maximize your time can be a wise investment.

The Princess Path

Don’t forget, you can use FastPass+ to meet characters. Princess meet-and-greets are a great example.

Meeting with Princess Tiana in Magic Kingdom
Meeting with Princess Tiana in Magic Kingdom. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Since you can book FastPass+ slots 60 days before your first Disney Resort day, you may need to look to your second or third park day to get really popular FastPasses, such as Mine Train, Slinky Dog Dash and Flight of Passage. While there are some rides with longer lines in Magic Kingdom (Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, for example), you’ll have a better shot at grabbing a FastPass for those later in the day.

A specific dilemma for parents with kids who love princesses is Frozen Ever After at Epcot. Not only can this be a tough FastPass to secure, but the restriction on one park for your preselected FastPasses can mean deciding between Frozen Ever After or another attraction at another park. Our experience is that a Frozen Ever After FastPass can be found closer to the date of your trip —  sometimes, even later in the day. But your best bet is to split Magic Kingdom and Epcot into two separate days.

Tier One FastPasses

Even within one park, you can’t have everything you want. In the new Toy Story Land at Hollywood Studios, for example, you’ll find Slinky Dog Dash, Alien Swirling Saucers and Toy Story Mania, all of which are Tier-One FastPasses. That means you can only select one of them ahead of time. (Slinky Dog Dash is definitely the hardest of the three to get, so grab it if you can.)

Slinky Dog Dash
Slinky Dog Dash. (Photo by Becky Beall)

The same is true in Animal Kingdom for Avatar Flight of Passage, which may still need to be booked more than 60 days out.

Don't spend hours in line with 60-day FastPass+ reservations (Photo courtesy of Disney)
Don’t spend hours in line with 60-day FastPass+ reservations. (Photo courtesy of Disney.)

How do you do that? The FastPass window for your entire trip should open 60 days prior to arrival on your first day at a Disney Resort. That means it’s technically possible to grab passes farther than 60 days out on a multinight stay. It could also be the only way to guarantee an Avatar Flight of Passage FastPass during the busiest times of the year.

Rides You Shouldn’t Book With a FastPass+

There are a few rides that might seem like a good choice for a FastPass, but you just won’t get the bang for your buck: Dumbo the Flying Elephant in Magic Kingdom, for example. Once you get through the initial part of the line, there’s an indoor, air-conditioned play area for kids. This means a wait for Dumbo isn’t the worst thing!

(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

And don’t spend your FastPass on rides or attractions with a lot of capacity, like Mickey’s PhilharMagic or It’s a Small World.

Air-conditioned play area while you wait for Dumbo
Air-conditioned play area while you wait for Dumbo. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

The Best Splurges at Disney World

For some families, Disney World’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip. And a VIP experience can take basic Disney holiday to the next level.

One of our favorite Disney splurges is Disney Early Morning Magic (not to be confused with Extra Magic Hours, which come with all Disney Resort stays). Early Morning Magic will cost extra, but the Fantasyland version grants access to some of the most popular rides in the Magic Kingdom before the park officially opens, including Mine Train!

Early Morning Magic is $99 for adults and $69 for children 3 to 9, in addition to the cost of a park ticket for that day. This may be the best money you can spend at Disney World, as you get unlimited access to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Peter Pan and more from 7:45am to 9:00am.

There’s a chance you might be able to sneak on It’s a Small World during your Early Morning Magic, but it’s not guaranteed. This package also includes breakfast at Cosmic Ray’s.

No lines in Fantasyland with Early Morning Magic
No lines in Fantasyland with Early Morning Magic.

Hollywood Studios has a similar package that allows you to experience the most popular rides in Toy Story Land without the outlandish waits for the same price.

The Best Disney World Splurges for Night Owls

If you have cash burning a hole in your pocket but don’t like early mornings, Disney World still has you covered.

Ultimate Night of Adventure VIP Tour at Animal Kingdom: To avoid both lines and FastPasses for Pandora and other Animal Kingdom rides, spend $249 per person to get expedited FastPass+ access to Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris, DINOSAUR, the Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular and, most importantly, Avatar Flight of Passage. This four-hour evening tour also includes snacks and a specialty nonalcoholic or alcoholic beverage.

Rivers of Light Dining Package: Choose breakfast, lunch or dinner, and score premium seats to the Animal Kingdom nighttime light show. Packages start at $39 for adults and $26 for children.

Fantasmic! Dessert and VIP Viewing Experience: $39 per person ($19 for children) will get you a buffet to satisfy your sweet tooth and VIP seating at Fantasmic!, the nighttime spectacular at Hollywood Studios.

Frozen Ever After Dessert Party: If your little princess or prince loves the Frozen ride at Epcot, get a great seat for Illuminations! — the nighttime fireworks show at Epcot — a buffet of sweets and afterward, do Frozen Ever After without waiting in line. The experience is $79 for adults and $47 for children.

Photo courtesy of Disney
Disney gets even more magical after dark. (Photo courtesy of Disney.)

How to Save Money at Disney World

Stroller Rentals

Renting a stroller from a Disney World preferred stroller provider can save you time and money — and they’ll even drop off a clean, nearly-new stroller at your hotel. Unlike the hardshell plastic strollers Disney rents within the parks, these strollers recline into beds for your little ones to sleep in. They’re cushioned and have plenty of room for storage. It’s easy to save $5 a day on a single stroller and $10 to $15 a day on a double stroller by renting from an off-site stroller partner, like Magic Strollers. You’ll pay less and get a better stroller you can use outside the parks.

Relaxing in her rented stroller
Relaxing in her rented stroller. (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Grocery Delivery

Grocery delivery is a huge money saver at Disney World. Staying in a room with a kitchen? Pick breakfast items to feed the family before you head to the parks, and bring your own drinks and snacks to save money during the day. (A family of four could easily drop $50 for snacks and drinks on a hot day in the parks.) Don’t worry: Disney will allow beverages and snacks into the parks.

Disney Memory Maker Advance Purchase

Disney Memory Maker Advance Purchase will save you a few bucks if you intend to purchase Disney photos. You’ll get access to unlimited pictures taken throughout the parks, as well as unlimited digital downloads. Purchase Memory Maker at least three days ahead of time, and you’ll spend $169 instead of $199.

Memory Maker photo with Tinker Bell
Memory Maker photo with Tinker Bell.

Request Free Ice and Water

Disney World is well aware of the temperatures in Orlando. The restaurants at Disney World are always happy to hand out complimentary cups of water and ice. You’ll even find restaurants serving ice water outside on the hottest days.

Free Disney Dining Plan

The Disney Dining Plan has passionate supporters and detractors. Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to argue that free is a darn good price. Generally once a year, Disney World offers a promotion where they include a free Disney Dining Plan for your entire party if you book a stay at a Walt Disney World Resort. They rarely advertise this promotion ahead of time, so keep your eyes peeled for news of its return, and then book your dining reservations ASAP.

Rent Disney Vacation Club Points

The short version is that you can rent points from a Disney Vacation Club member to stay in a Deluxe Villa on site at Disney World. Typically, you can do this at a deluxe resort for the price of a reservation at a moderate-tier resort. A popular service for renting points is David’s Disney Vacation Club Rentals — and here are additional details on how the DVC point rental process works.

We rented DVC points to book a villa at Disney’s Polynesian Village.

Other Discounts

There are a host of other ways to save on your trip to Disney World. You can sometimes find targeted Amex deals on tickets when you log into Undercover Tourist. You can also save on Disney gift cards at Target, getting 5% off when using your Target REDcard, with additional savings available periodically throughout the year.

A popular way to save at Disney is by visiting Sam’s Club, as they sell discounted Disney gift cards. You’ll only save about 4%, but it adds up. Plus, you can stack savings from occasional Amex Offers to Sam’s Club. Apps like Dosh and Dash can add extra savings at Sam’s Club and similar stores. During the 4th quarter of 2018, you can use your Chase Freedom to earn 5% cash back at wholesale clubs (up to the $1,500 quarterly max), which means stacking bonus points with discounted Disney gift cards! Combine all these gift cards to purchase park tickets, packages and merchandise. Don’t panic: step-by-step instructions exist. Here’s a whole article on how to save money at Disney World.

How to Navigate Disney World

Getting around Disney World may seem complicated at first, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly. There are a dizzying number of ways to get you from here to there, regardless of where here and there are.

There’s a bus network that connects dozens of dots on the Disney World map. All the hotels are connected directly with each of the parks. Plus, there are buses that go between the parks and to Disney Springs and the waterparks.

As we mentioned earlier, a handful of hotels sit right on the monorail loop to Magic Kingdom. The monorail stops at the Ticketing and Transportation Center, where guests can catch a separate monorail to Epcot.

Quick monorail stop at the Polynesian heading to the Magic Kingdom
Quick monorail stop at the Polynesian heading to the Magic Kingdom.

There are also two main boat networks: one serving Epcot and Hollywood Studios, another moving people from Fort Wilderness and Wilderness Lodge to Magic Kingdom, as well as providing overflow between Ticketing and Transportation and Magic Kingdom.

The new Minnie Vans are a premium service you order through Lyft. The vans are painted red with white polka dots, just like Minnie Mouse, and will take you anywhere on Disney World property, as well as to and from the airport. Each Minnie Van comes equipped with two Graco 4Ever car seats and phone charging cables. Minnie Vans have a variable price based on the length of the trip (though trips to the airport and cruise terminal have high flat rates).

Coming later in 2019 the Disney Skyliner will debut. Resort guests at Pop Century, Caribbean Beach and Art of Animation will be treated to a rare overhead view of Disney World on their way to Epcot and Hollywood Studios.

The Best Credit Cards to Use at Disney World

While the previously mentioned Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard are popular ways to use points for a Disney Resort vacation, they aren’t the only options.

The Bank of America Preferred Rewards program allows highest-tier members to earn 2.65 cents per point on all purchases and use those rewards as cash to cover the cost of virtually anything, including Disney World vacations.

Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points used to be one pathway towards Disney World Resort stays and tickets, but sadly that is no longer the case. However, using your Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Citi Premier Card to pay for your Disney Resort vacation will earn bonus points for the travel charges. Citi ThankYou points can also be used to book Disney Resort stays!

(Photo by Melissa Ann Photography)
(Photo by Melissa Ann Photography)

While we prefer the 3 points per dollar you earn on a Disney Resort vacation with my Chase Sapphire Reserve to the 2% awarded with the Disney Premier Visa on Disney Resort charges, some families benefit from the promotional APR of 0% for six months on select Disney packages purchased with the Disney Visa (then 18.24% variable APR applies). Additional cardholder perks include character meet-and-greets and in-park discounts on merchandise, food and tours.

The Bottom Line

No guide to Disney World would be complete without the most important tip of all: Remember to have fun. It’s OK if you miss that FastPass time, end up canceling your dinner reservation or don’t make it to all the parks. Your goal isn’t to do everything in one swoop — it’s to enjoy the magic.

Disney World can be overwhelming, even if you have been to other theme parks. Think of planning for your trip as investment research, because you’re investing an awful lot of money in a Disney vacation, and the research will make a big difference.

But once you’re there, enjoy a Dole Whip, watch your kids smile and don’t stress the small stuff. You can always come again and do the things you missed the first time. And next time, you’ll be a veritable Disney pro.

Want to read more about Disney parks around the world? Check out our other Disney guides…

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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