Everything you need to know about visiting Walt Disney World Resort
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Editor’s note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.
Walt Disney World Resort spans a massive 40 square miles — almost the size of San Francisco — and is home to four theme parks, two waterparks, more than 140 restaurants, a couple of dozen on-site Disney hotels and endless shows, shops, characters, rides and attractions. No wonder planning a Disney family holiday can be overwhelming … even during normal times.
Before you head to Central Florida, you need to do some homework if you want to get the most out of your Disney holiday. During normal operations, you have to reserve not only your flight and hotel well in advance but you likely also want to book several of your rides and meals — up to two months out for FastPass+ rides and 180 days out for meals. (Those who like to wing it may be a better fit at Universal Studios Orlando.) But right now, those timelines and offerings are a bit altered.
It’s admittedly daunting to plan your first Disney trip, but we’ve already done much of the work for you. This is the ultimate guide to visiting Walt Disney World, with all our tips on choosing the best on-site hotel for your budget, the top money-saving tricks, what’s worth splurging for and more.
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How to start planning a Disney holiday
It helps to start by understanding from the very beginning that you can’t do it all. (Remember: Disney World is the size of San Francisco.)
Navigating the four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom) is challenging enough before you throw in Disney’s two waterparks, almost endless restaurants, hotel resorts and the ever-expanding Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex. While in line for the most popular rides, you may feel like an entire city is packed in front of you … and you could well be right.
That’s why it’s important to have a plan. When you’re starting to craft that perfect Disney World holiday, first consider the desired length of your trip and what you can afford. The price of theme park tickets may make you want to squeeze in every last minute in the parks, but you also need to know your family and your pace. Walt Disney said that it all started with a mouse, but a Disney World holiday most definitely starts with a plan. Get your pencils ready and make sure you have an eraser. And some coffee.
Disney World is a planner’s paradise. Do you know what type of food you’re going to be in the mood for six months from now? That’s just one of the questions a holiday to Disney World poses. There are very few restaurants in the world without a Michelin star that require reservations 180 days ahead of time … many of them are located in Orlando. (Note: Dining reservations are currently only accepted 60-days out during COVID-19.) You might think that you can ignore “that whole dining thing” and figure it out later. Maybe, but that depends on what your goals are.
On a short trip, where meeting all the princesses is a goal, a meal at Cinderella’s Royal Table may be just what you’re looking for. It’s just one of many dining experiences you may want to consider. But, if you wait until you get to Orlando to make those choices, you’ll likely be out of luck. Heck, in some cases you’ll be out of luck 179 days ahead of time.
If Star Wars is your passion, you’ll need to plan to get up way before the crack of dawn to huddle outside the hottest of Disney’s theme parks to fight the masses for a virtual boarding pass to experience Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Your preferences (or, more likely your kids’ preferences) will help shape the sort of holiday you plan.
Regardless of your specific choices, start with planning a budget, determining how long you want to stay and what are your absolute must-do trip goals will be. Those details will drive many of the next decisions.
Choosing the best hotel for your Disney World holiday
There are hundreds of hotels within a short distance of Disney World, most costing 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 in some situations.
So why pay so much more to stay on Disney property? Disney magic … and perks.
Disney hotels excel at theming, whether it’s a Lion King room at Art of Animation, the South Pacific island atmosphere at the Polynesian Village Resort or the Mediterranean at the new Disney’s Riviera Resort.
The benefits of staying on Disney property at an official Disney resort don’t stop with the themes or location.
Three of our favorite benefits are the two-month window for making FastPass+ ride reservations (60 days instead of 30 for most guests); 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.
That said, know that right now a stay at a Disney World resort hotel is a bit different due to the pandemic. FastPass+ and Extra Magic Hours are currently suspended … along with daily housekeeping and some other changes. Some of the Disney resort hotels are still closed.
Thankfully, staying on Disney property doesn’t have to always 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 & Spa. They usually 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 (for either you or your kids).
There are other Deluxe resorts with unique characteristics. They include Animal Kingdom Lodge (see review), where you see native African animals right outside your window or Disney’s Beach Club, with its three-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!
These top-tier Disney deluxe resorts generally run from $300 to $500 per night, with rates occasionally dipping to the $200–$299 range.
The best Moderate Disney World resorts
If you are OK at a resort without a major dose of Disney theming, we also enjoy the new Gran Destino Tower, which is the only Disney Moderate resort with a club lounge option.
The Moderate-level hotels usually set you back $200 to $300 per night during peak season.
The best Value Disney World resorts
For budget-conscious travelers who still want the full Disney experience, consider the Art of Animation (see review) and Pop Century (see review). All the Disney Value hotels typically run around $100 to $200 nightly for standard rooms.
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 Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long in the evening.
For the most part, you won’t be able to use traditional hotel points to cover your room costs at on-site Disney World properties (the Swan and Dolphin being the notable Marriott exceptions, though note those properties don’t get access to the Magical Express Bus).
Rent your way to a better room
Alternatively, to save money, 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. The upsides are obvious. More space and a nicer room — plus all the benefits of being on-site at Disney World.
But while this can save you a bunch of cash, there are some potential downsides.
Since this is Disney’s version of a timeshare, you won’t receive full housekeeping services daily unless you’re willing to pay extra. And renting Disney Vacation Club (DVC) points typically restricts your ability to change or cancel your reservation without a significant penalty. You may have to work through an individual who owns DVC points to get your reservation confirmed, which requires a bit of trust. Some larger DVC rental services may give you a bit more comfort in the rental process.
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.
Off-property hotels that still have some Disney perks
If you decide that a true on-property Disney resort just isn’t the best choice for you, but you still want some of the Disney perks (such as the 60-day FastPass+ bookings during normal operations), there is one other option.
There are a handful of resorts in the Disney Springs and Bonnet Creek area that aren’t Disney properties, but have access to Extra Magic Hours and 60-day FastPass+ bookings at least through 2020. The on-property Swan and Dolphin also fall into this hybrid situation. You won’t get access to the Magical Express Bus or included Magic Bands at these resorts, but some magic is better than no magic.
In Disney Springs, hotels that currently offer select Disney resort benefits include DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Orlando-Disney Springs Area, Hilton Lake Buena Vista-Disney Springs Area, Holiday Inn Orlando, Best Western Lake Buena Vista, Wyndham Lake Buena Vista, Wyndham Garden Lake Buena Vista, the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace-Disney Springs Area and the B Resort.
In the nearby Bonnet Creek area, the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek (with great waterpark and on a 482-acre nature preserve) and the high-end Waldorf Astoria Orlando also both convey 60-day FastPass+ access and Extra Magic Hours.
Your hotel points and free night awards can be used at many of those properties, with Hilton points being especially useful for an off-property Disney holiday that still has some magical perks.
Disney hotel reviews
To help you find the best hotel for you, here are some of the first-hand Disney World hotel reviews TPG has completed:
Disney Deluxe Resorts
- Review of Disney Riviera Resort
- Review of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
- Review of Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Review of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Review of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort
Disney Moderate Resorts
- Review of Disney’s Gran Destino Tower
- Review of Disney’s Fort Wilderness Cabins
- Review of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
- Review of Disney’s Coronado Springs
Disney Value Resorts
Types of Disney World tickets
Disney has many different ticket types.
There are standard tickets, Park Hopper tickets, party tickets (such as Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party) and the occasional special ticket offer that can save money in the right situation. After deciding on how long your trip will last, you need to decide whether you want to visit one theme park per day or more than one park per day. (Note: park hopping is suspended in 2020.)
Standard tickets allow entry to one park per day and start at a bit more than $100 a day on the most off-peak of dates. Peak dates start north of $150 for a one-day ticket. The price for a single-day park ticket varies based on when you’re visiting and which park you want to visit (the Magic Kingdom costs the most on a one-day ticket), 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 about $35 on top of the four-day pass.
Disney World will give you a few days of cushion to use up your multiday tickets. For example, you have eight total days to use up a five-day ticket, but you can’t save unused days for a trip next year. That does help though if you want to go to Disney for a week but will need some built-in downtime during that week. When deciding on how long to visit, there’s no question that one longer trip to Disney World is less expensive than two shorter trips when you factor in ticket prices.
Are Park Hopper tickets worth it?
If your goal is to do everything Disney World has to offer from sunup to sundown, that’s when you should consider Park Hopper tickets. For around $65 to $85 more, the Park Hopper add-on to any multiday ticket lets you go from park to park as often as you’d like that day.
That’s not a huge cost in the grand scheme of Disney, but the fact is most families — especially those with little kids — don’t need access to more than one park per day even when this is an option again in the future.
Before you lay out that extra cash, be sure you and your family have the stamina for it: You can walk eight 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, but even then it’s not essential. You can also hold off on the decision until you get there and simply have guest services help you buy-up to Park Hoppers if needed.
In normal operations, there is also the Park Hopper Plus (about $20 on top of the Park Hopper price) that 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. As of now, the waterparks have not reopened at Disney.
Realistically, it’s hard to do both a waterpark and a theme park on 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.
Which theme parks should I pick?
The good news is you don’t typically have to pick your parks when you book your tickets, but it’s still a good idea to outline your goals. Yes, Magic Kingdom is great for little kids — but it’s also fun for big kids and adults with the three ‘mountain’ rides (Space, Splash and Thunder) and it’s hard not to love Pirates of the Caribbean and Mine Train.
If you are going for a week, we recommend visiting all four theme parks. If you only have a long weekend to work with, you’ll have to pick and choose based on the preferences of your group. It’s hard to generalize, but if you have to play favorites, little kids shouldn’t skip the Magic Kingdom, but may not miss Epcot quite as much. Hollywood Studios is currently the park with the newest, coolest attractions. But, Pandora at Animal Kingdom is also pretty special.
Consider an annual pass
If you are planning a longer Disney World trip, or think you will have two trips within 12 months, it can make sense to seriously consider a Disney World annual pass — at least for one member of the family. An annual pass can cover the cost of admission for the passholder, but also unlock discounts on dining, purchases, resort stays and more for the whole family.
Disney party tickets
If you visit Disney World in August to December, there may be some special parties going on during select nights at the Magic Kingdom. Namely, August to October normally brings Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party and November to December brings you Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas a few nights each week. The Halloween special event was canceled for 2020, but we haven’t yet heard an official announcement related to the Christmas party.
These party tickets are a different type of purchase than your regular park admission, but they can save you money in some ways because you can enter the Magic Kingdom using a party ticket starting at 4 p.m. that day without needing to use up a day of regular admission, even though the party doesn’t officially start until 7 p.m. The party tickets start at $85 per adult, so they are cheaper than typical one-day Magic Kingdom admission tickets.
Discounted Disney tickets
You can also save some money on Disney World tickets by buying them from a third party. There are a few reputable sources for Disney World tickets that we trust. Our go-to is Undercover Tourist. One of the best ways to save money with Undercover Tourist is when Disney World raises ticket prices, which is usually at least once per year. Undercover Tourist will typically have some existing ticket stock available at the old prices for a few days, though they go quickly. Get Away Today is another solid choice to check for discounts on Disney World and Disneyland tickets.
Best time to visit Disney World
Disney World has evolved into a destination where there’s always something going on so there is no true off-season.
On top of the rides, shows and characters to occupy your time, there are festivals, marathons, water parks, more festivals and holiday parties. The best time to visit Disney World is going to be highly dependent on what you want to accomplish. If holiday decorations are your thing, you might think that December around Christmas is the time to visit Disney World. But, you also might be wrong.
If you want decorations without the crowds that come with the Christmas holidays, know that Disney World usually transforms the Magic Kingdom from Halloween to Christmas overnight, the night after Halloween. Not all of the decor across the parks and resorts is finished on 1 or 2 November, but much of it is up by a week or two into November. You’ll generally find the parks a bit quieter in November (other than Thanksgiving week) and early December than if you wait until the true holiday season for your visit.
If you’re an adult, the festivals in the spring and fall at Epcot are a great way to eat, drink and “adult” your way around the world in a leisurely way. Those of us in better shape than others will want to focus on January as marathon season, including runs themed to such popular characters as princesses or Star Wars characters.
The price of a Disney World holiday varies greatly not just in what you choose to experience, but also when you plan to experience it. September is when you’ll generally find some of the lowest ticket prices. Conversely, the days around Christmas and New Year’s are priced the highest of the year (and feature by far the biggest crowds). Hotel pricing at Disney World resort properties generally follows the same trajectory as the ticket prices.
Ticket prices are a good indication of crowd volume, though sometimes can be deceptive. The days right after the marathons can be very high-volume days in January. There’s usually a lull in early December between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And any Florida school holiday is sure to bring the crowds out. Using a crowd calendar, such as the one maintained by Undercover Tourist, can be a good tool to know what to expect.
How to reduce your time in line at Disney
Standing in line is just about the least “fun” thing you can do in a place as great as Disney World, even in a non-pandemic world.
Disney does a good job of themed elements while you wait in line, even if they’re not the best at protecting you from the hot Florida sun on some attractions. Standing in line is a fact of life when it comes to theme parks (or at least it was in a pre-coronavirus world), but some strategies can reduce your wait. As Disney World has evolved and added items like virtual queues (for Rise of the Resistance), the optimal strategy has also evolved.
But, also keep in mind that things are different right now.
While we will leave the FastPass+ and Extra Magic Hours info below, note that right now the parks aren’t using FastPass+ or Extra Magic Hours. Outside of Rise of the Resistance, which does still require an advance boarding group, the rides are all operating with old-fashioned but socially-distanced lines.
So for now, just check the wait times in the Disney app and get ready to stand in line. We’ve found that wait times are usually at their lowest as soon as the park opens and then again later in the afternoon, but generally speaking, are much shorter than they traditionally were during busier times.
FastPass+ is temporarily suspended.
Included FastPass+ with all Disney tickets is one of those innovations that sets Disney World apart from places like Universal Studios, as well as Disneyland.
It’s a unique system that allows guests to grab guaranteed reservations for attractions ahead of time so you can skip most of the line, including for some of the most popular rides across all four parks. As we’ve mentioned, planners win the day at Disney World. You’ll need to be ready right at the beginning of your FastPass+ availability window, which is up to 60 days ahead of your first trip date for Disney Resort guests; 30 days for non-resort guests, if you want to snag a spot on the most popular attractions. In some cases, even that won’t be enough. More on that in a bit.
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 in advance per day. Typically those have to all be in one park, though Disney is testing allowing them across different parks for select guests.
Note that Disney World replaced FastPass with FastPass+, though people tend to use the terms interchangeably. To make it even more confusing, Disneyland — the one in Anaheim, California — uses a system called FASTPASS. For simplicity and in line with common usage, when we refer to something as “FastPass” in this story, we mean FastPass+ at Disney World.
Start early, ride often
Extra Magic Hours are temporarily suspended.
Starting your Disney day early to maximize your time is an easy strategy, but Disney World even has nuances when it comes to starting early.
Extra Magic Hours in the morning for Disney Resort and select off-property guests at a few partner hotels are a great way to knock out a bunch of rides before things get too crowded. However, if you’re not staying at a hotel with Extra Magic Hours (EMH), you should avoid parks that have EMH in the morning as you’ll find yourself behind a crush of humanity for the most popular attractions by the time you can get in. Animal Kingdom is a park where Extra Magic Hours can make all the difference if you weren’t able to score a FastPass for Avatar Flight of Passage.
If you don’t have access to Extra Magic Hours, you can still make hay before the sun shines. All of the recent changes at Hollywood Studios (which have made it the hottest theme park) involving Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, make an early wake-up a necessity. Disney has employed a “boarding group” concept that essentially puts you in a virtual queue for Disney World’s most popular attraction, Rise of the Resistance.
To ensure a spot, you’ll need to get to Hollywood Studios before the park opening to grab a boarding pass right as the park’s official time arrives. Then, you’ll head straight to Toy Story Land and with any luck, you’ll be at the front of the line for Slinky Dog Dash. After a quick ride there, you can knock out Toy Story Midway Mania and finish up with Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, all before the crowds get too ugly.
Don’t worry, there are opportunities for night owls as well. One of the easiest ways to save time in the evening is to focus on the fireworks. The crowds will gravitate toward Main Street before the fireworks. That will thin the lines out some. Then, right as the fireworks start, the wait times on many rides will plummet. We scored a 15-minute wait on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a ride where the wait can easily stretch past two hours. Then, just before closing, hop in one final line. As long as you are in line before the official closing time, Disney lets you finish your wait and ride the attraction.
Getting more than three FastPass rides per day
Once you’ve used your first three pre-planned FastPasses, 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. In fact, you need a valid park ticket loaded to your My Disney Experience account to even make an advance FastPass booking.
We recommend downloading the My Disney Experience app before your trip and bring backup phone power to last you through the day.
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 your FastPass+ slots an hour apart, but you may be able to modify initial FastPass selections later so they’re closer together.
When to schedule your FastPass+ attractions
There’s no perfect answer on when to schedule your FastPass+ attractions, but we often lean toward mid- to late morning. Assuming you want to get to the parks when they open for the day, you can usually get one to three rides in pretty quickly before lines begin to build. Hold onto your FastPass+ bookings until lines are a bit longer in the mid- to late-morning, or later in the day if mornings just aren’t your thing at all.
Try to stack your three FastPass+ selections as close together as possible, so you can start getting more after the third one’s done.
Which FastPass+ to choose
Personal choices rule the day here, but in general, the most coveted FastPass+ reservations are Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom), Slinky Dog Dash (Hollywood Studios), Mine Train (Magic Kingdom), Peter Pan (Magic Kingdom), Frozen Ever After (Epcot) and Mickey and Minnie Runaway Railway (Hollywood Studios).
Unless you get lucky, these FastPass+ bookings may not be available 60 days out and you may need to book them for 62 to 64 days out (which would be the third through fifth days of your trip) because remember you only have to wait 60 days from your first holiday date to make FastPass+ bookings.
But even within one park, you can’t have everything you want and not all FastPasses are created equally. You can’t get the three hottest FastPasses for a park in advance even if luck is on your side.
For example, Hollywood Studios revamped its FastPass tiers with the addition of Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Millenium Falcon: Smugglers Run to Tier 1 FastPasses. Slinky Dog Dash was already in Tier 1 for that park.
When you make your three FastPass selections for Hollywood Studios, you’ll only be able to choose one of these three very popular attractions in advance from that first tier. You’ll also find it very difficult to grab a FastPass for any of these popular attractions after you use your first three of the day. With Hollywood Studios specifically, an early-morning start coupled with a Tier-1 FastPass is probably the only reliable way you’ll get on all three of these awesome rides in one day.
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 1:05 p.m. and two find it at 1:20 p.m., 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 holiday, the additional $14.95 to maximise your time can be a wise investment.
Tap, grab and modify
This is the next level of “next-level” FastPass craziness. First, a quick breakdown of what “tap, grab and modify” is.
We first heard the term from Parkeology, when we were planning our crazy trip through Disney World to ride all the rides for charity. The key part here is “modify,” but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. “Tap and grab” is the art of checking the Disney app frequently, looking for FastPass+ opportunities. The app has many flaws, but there’s one aspect that you’ll love if you’re willing to dedicate some time running down the battery on your smartphone.
Essentially, grab whatever FastPass you can find, even if the time or the ride isn’t perfect. We’re not saying you should pass up Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in the place of a FastPass for Mickey’s PhilharMagic. We’re saying that once you’re in the park, the goal of “tap, grab and modify” is to ride as many rides as you can. The app has a really weird (but consistent) habit of allowing you to improve a FastPass much more reliably than finding exactly what you’re looking for on the first try.
One example of this is adjusting the time on a FastPass that doesn’t quite work for you. In one real-world example from our trips to Disney, we had already exhausted our three FastPass selections by early afternoon. We found a FastPass for The Many Adventures of Winnie The Pooh, which can be a tough one to find at the last minute. At any rate, the FastPass we grabbed was for 7 p.m. that evening. Once we grabbed the FastPass, the app allowed us to modify the time of our FastPass to roughly 30 minutes earlier. It then allowed us to modify it in the same fashion a total of 11 times until our FastPass was for 15 minutes from the current early afternoon time.
As soon as we scanned our phone for the Winnie The Pooh FastPass, we began “tap, grab and modify” all over again for our next ride. If you’re really lucky, you can even turn lesser FastPass selections, such as Barnstormer, into Pirates of the Caribbean. Again, the key is to keep trying to modify what you have, either by changing the time or the ride.
This technique can be helpful if you’re trying to ride a ton of rides in one day, though the trade-off is more time staring at your phone than you might have planned. But, it can also help you score a hard-to-get FastPass that you might have missed out on when your FastPass window opened up 30 or 60 days before arrival. One other great tip here is to modify your second FastPass of the day after you use your first one. Optimal spacing is one hour apart for each of your first three FastPass selections. Let’s say you grab a FastPass at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. Most attractions take way less than an hour to complete.
Your first FastPass is at 11 a.m. on Peter Pan’s Flight. If you show up right at 11 a.m., a normal FastPass wait should have you done by 11:15. As soon as you scan your phone for that 11 a.m. FastPass (while you’re standing in line to ride Peter Pan), start trying to modify that noon FastPass. If you can move it up to, say 11:30 a.m., then try to move that 1 p.m. FastPass up to noon. If you’re successful, you’re set up to grab a fourth FastPass at 12:15 or 12:30, while there are still prime selections available. Using this method, we’ve scored upward of 10 FastPass selections in a single day.
The princess path
Don’t forget, you can use FastPass+ to meet characters. Princess meet-and-greets are a great example of a way you might want to use a FastPass if you have a little kiddo who isn’t into thrill rides and rollercoasters.
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 popular FastPasses, such as Mine Train, Slinky Dog Dash and Flight of Passage, but the princess meet and greets are usually much easier to secure for even closer-in bookings.
If you don’t want to spend a FastPass+ on princess encounters, look to dining experiences such as Cinderella’s Royal Table or Akershus so you can meet princesses without standing in line.
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 the Magic Kingdom, for example. Once you get through the initial part of the line, there’s an indoor, air-conditioned play area for kids to play while they wait. This means a wait for Dumbo isn’t the worst thing.
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.”
Use mobile ordering to skip food lines
It’s not just rides and shows where Disney has created a way to skip the line, it’s true for some food orders, too.
Most quick-service restaurants offer what’s called mobile ordering, available in the My Disney Experience app. (A Disney quick-service restaurant is not a sit-down restaurant with a server, nor is it one of those snack carts — it’s basically everything else.)
When you’re starting to get hungry, load up your My Disney Experience app, order food at the quick service restaurant of choice and then pick up the food at the counter when it’s ready. You order and pay in the app and never have to wait in line for your Dole Whip from Aloha Isle, BBQ from Regal Eagle Smokehouse, hot dogs from Casey’s Corner or breakfast wraps from Ronto Roasters.
In fact, during current pandemic operations, the use of mobile ordering is all but required.
Best Disney World splurges
For some families, Disney World is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. A VIP experience can take a basic Disney holiday to the next level.
Sure, you can hire a true private Disney VIP guide, and if that is in your budget, then have a blast and don’t look back. But, you don’t have to spend a few thousand extra dollars for a taste of the VIP world.
When it is available, one of our favorite Disney splurges is Disney Early Morning Magic (not to be confused with Extra Magic Hours, which come included with all Disney Resort stays). Early Morning Magic will cost extra, but it gets you into the park before most other guests and even includes breakfast. The Fantasyland version grants access to some of the most popular rides in the Magic Kingdom before the park officially opens, including Mine Train, Peter Pan and more — and you can score some fun pictures with minimal crowds.
While it is temporarily unavailable, during normal operations, Early Morning Magic cost $89 for adults and $79 (plus tax) 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 “it’s a small world,” Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Princess Fairytale Hall, Peter Pan’s Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid and Mad Tea Party from 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m. This package includes hot breakfast at Cosmic Ray’s.
Hollywood Studios has had a similar package that allows you to experience the most popular rides in Toy Story Land without the outlandish waits for around the same price, however, tickets for that package are not currently on sale.
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.
(I know I sound like a broken record, but these extra packages currently aren’t available, but since we hope they return one day, here are our favorites.)
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 important, 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 $50 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 Sparkling 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 $99 for adults and $59 for children.
Don’t forget dining splurges
This may surprise you if you haven’t been before, but Disney World has some world-class dining.
But before we get into our favorites, know that dining at Disney is a little different right now. While many Disney restaurants have reopened, not all of them have. The character meals are also operating in a different (I’d argue better) manner than before. So, while I’ll talk about our all-time favorite below, do a little research directly with Disney to determine which restaurants will be open during your visit.
In the mood for some of the best sushi in America in a quaint, quiet dining space away from all the crowds? Yes, Disney World has that. Takumi-Tei, relatively new to the Disney World dining scene, made our list of the best eats at Disney World. It’s not cheap, but you’re guaranteed to be blown away.
If you don’t have young children in tow (or have a designated babysitter), Victoria & Albert’s is some of the best food at Disney World. Expect to bring a dress or a dinner jacket and a few hundred extra dollars if you want to enjoy a meal at this Grand Floridian mainstay. California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort is a really good meal in a slightly more casual setting than Victoria & Albert’s. You’ll get a great view of the Magic Kingdom, so time your dessert to finish up during the fireworks. (You know, when there are once again fireworks.)
And if you have kids, or just want to meet characters without waiting in a line, consider a character meal as a splurge — even though the food at those restaurants isn’t usually as great as some of the others.
Some of our usual favorite character meals include Breakfast at ‘Ohana with Mickey, Stitch and friends (in Hawaiian garb), Cinderella’s Royal Table for princesses inside Cinderella Castle, brunch with Mickey and friends at Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary, dinner with Snow White and the Evil Queen at Artist Point in Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, and for a new experience, try breakfast at Topolino Terrance at the Riviera with Mickey and friends in fancy outfits.
Note that as of this update, only a handful of character meals have reopened including Topolino Terrace, Garden Grill, Be Our Guest (though it’s just the Beast) and a once per week brunch at the Four Seasons. The characters won’t be coming up to your table for a meet and greet, but you can get selfies from a distance.
How to save money on your Disney World trip
A quick search of the internet and you’ll find exhaustive lists of the best tips for saving money at Disney World. There are so many different ways to plan a Disney holiday, and it seems as though there are also endless ways to save. We’ve summarized some of our favorite money-saving tips below.
Renting a pram from a Disney World-preferred pram provider can save you time and money — and they’ll even drop off a clean, nearly new pram at your hotel. Unlike the hard-shell plastic prams Disney rents within the parks, these prams 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 pram and $10 to $15 a day on a double pram by renting from an off-site pram partner, like Magic Strollers. You’ll pay less and get a better pram that you can use outside the parks.
Two recent changes to Disney World’s pram policy are worth noting. First, the bell stand at Disney resorts will no longer accept stroller drop-offs and pickups on your behalf. It used to be very convenient to have your pram rental waiting for you upon arrival. Alas, that’s no longer the case unless you’re renting from Disney World’s preferred partner (currently a company called ScooterBug).
Second, Disney World now has some restrictions on the type and size of prams you can bring into the parks. The good news is that many popular prams fit into these restrictions. Just be sure to double-check before you rent or bring your own from home.
Grocery delivery is a huge money saver at Disney World. You might think it’s complicated to order groceries for a holiday like this, especially if you don’t have a rental car. But the grocery delivery companies make it easy, and relatively affordable to stock up on basics with minimal effort.
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 in a backpack 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.
The savings on a case of bottled water will more than cover any delivery fees. And some services can deliver in as little as two hours. Don’t worry: Disney will allow (non-alcoholic) beverages and your own 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 taken by Disney photographers. You’ll get access to unlimited pictures taken throughout the parks, as well as unlimited digital downloads if you want this package. Purchase Memory Maker at least three days ahead of time, and you’ll spend $169 instead of $199.
Request free ice and water
Disney World is well aware of the temperatures in Orlando and adding masks to the equation certainly doesn’t make it any cooler (bring a neck fan!). 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.
While the dining plan is also temporarily suspended, generally once or twice 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 and purchase park tickets. They rarely advertise this promotion ahead of time, so keep your eyes peeled for news of its return, and then book your stay and dining reservations ASAP.
Purchase discounted Disney gift cards
There are a host of other ways to save on your trip to Disney World. In addition to saving money on tickets via Undercover Tourist, you can save on Disney gift cards at Target.
A popular way to save at Disney is by visiting Sam’s Club, where they sell discounted Disney gift cards 365 days per year. 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.
Rent DVC points
We’ve mentioned this already, so we won’t spill too many more words about it in this section, but if the idea of a studio villa at a Deluxe resort such as Animal Kingdom Lodge from just $152 per night during the least peak days sounds worth exploring, here’s what to go to learn all about renting DVC points to save money on a trip to Disney World.
How to get around Disney World
When it comes to transportation, Disney World has a network of options (most free) to move you around between the parks, resorts and Disney Springs. Most holidays to Disney World start and end with Disney’s Magical Express. Magical Express provides a free ride to and from Disney World from Orlando International Airport for those staying at a true Walt Disney World Resort. They can handle your luggage so you don’t even have to stop at baggage claim to pick it up.
Beyond the ride from the airport, getting around Disney World itself may seem complicated at first, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly. That said, there are a dizzying number of ways to get from here to there.
Disney bus network
There’s a Disney World bus network that connects dozens of dots on the Disney World map. This is available to all Disney guests, not just those staying at the resorts. All the hotels are connected directly with each of the parks. Plus, some buses go between the parks and to Disney Springs and the waterparks. Disney has now added monitors at many bus stops that will let you know when the next bus departs, and the Disney app will also give you up-to-date information on bus departures.
As we mentioned earlier, a handful of hotels sit right on the monorail loop to the Magic Kingdom. The monorail stops at the Ticketing and Transportation Center, where guests can catch a separate monorail to Epcot.
There are also two main boat networks, one serving Epcot and Hollywood Studios and another moving people from Fort Wilderness, Wilderness Lodge and Polynesian Village to the Magic Kingdom, as well as providing overflow between Ticketing and Transportation and the Magic Kingdom. Pretty soon, Disney World will open an additional pedestrian bridge connecting the Grand Floridian Resort and the Magic Kingdom.
If you’re looking to get around more quickly and comfortably, then Minnie Vans are the right option for you … assuming they made a return as they have also been paused due to the pandemic.
Minnie Vans are a premium service you order through the Lyft app. 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 if you need them. 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).
The Disney Skyliner
Disney’s newest transportation checks a lot of boxes. Since you can only get so many buses into one area, Disney went up. Like, 50 feet up. The Disney Skyliner brings a new, free transportation method to three on-property resorts that previously only had buses — Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort — and also connects the new Disney’s Riviera Resort. The proximity of these resorts to Epcot and Hollywood Studios make an option like Skyliner perfect.
Guests can board a gondola at one of three stations that will take them to two theme parks. Along the way, they get a whimsical sky-high view of Disney World and some recorded narration of what they are seeing from a unique perspective.
Is it worth going to Disney during the pandemic
Throughout this guide, we’ve mentioned lots of changes and suspensions due to COVID-19.
At Disney World there are currently no fireworks, and many special events, hotels, restaurants, etc. are also currently suspended. All guests aged 2 and up will have to wear a face mask and have their temperature checked before entry into the parks. There’s no FastPass+, Extra Magic Hours, character meet-and-greets or Minnie Vans.
Visiting Disney World right now is undoubtedly a very different experience than normal operations. If you are considering a big “once in a lifetime” visit, then now may not be the time as you won’t get the full experience. If you are especially concerned about being around others in public or can’t tolerate a face mask in the Orlando heat, then now is also obviously not the time to visit.
But, if you take proper precautions and go in with reset expectations (this is 2020 after all), then in some ways Disney World is more enjoyable than before. It’s generally now enjoyed at a much slower pace, you won’t be going sun-up to sun-down due to shorter hours, you need less planning and strategy and you’ll see the park emptier than you’ve probably ever seen it before.
I can’t tell you if now is a good time for you to visit Disney World, but I can tell you that my daughter and I felt safe during our July visit and really enjoyed the parks in their temporarily subdued reality.
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 you booked 60 days out, 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 holiday and the research will make a big difference in your trip experience.
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.
Featured image courtesy of the Walt Disney World Resort.
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