While on Facebook, I often notice that family and friends from up north are looking for recommendations for their trip to Disney World…
I grew up vacationing at Walt Disney World theme parks with my parents and sister. My love of Disney and a summer job at the parks as a “close personal friend of Pluto” as part of the Disney College Program are what ultimately lead me to move to Florida. Now a local resident of the Orlando area for nearly 15 years, I consider myself a Florida native and I’m pretty well versed in navigating the Disney theme parks.
First, to clarify a few basic elements for those new to Disney parks:
A. Disneyland = Anaheim, California
B. Walt Disney World = Orlando, Florida
The Walt Disney World family of parks in southwest Orlando consists of the Magic Kingdom (the one with Cinderella’s Castle), Disney Hollywood Studios (the one with the big theater and Tower of Terror), Animal Kingdom (you guessed it, the one with all the animals) and Epcot Center (the one with all the countries and the big sphere).
1. Check the Weather Report. Before you leave check out the average highs, lows, and general weather patterns for that time. I have run a marathon in January at Disney where it was 28 degrees and water stations were literally freezing over into solid ice patches, but in the summer is unforgivingly hot and humid and will certainly reach the high 90s every day. Most of the time in the winter you will find great weather here with lows in the 60s and highs in the 70s, but it we can have hot days or dip near freezing, so for a winter trip pack some shorts and a bathing suit for that heated pool or hot tub, but also bring a pair of jeans, a few sweaters and a jacket. (In my teenage years I was admittedly the northerner determined to wear shorts and an t-shirt in the 40 degree weather over a Christmas visit – yes, eventually I bought a slightly overpriced sweatshirt in the park.) Likewise in the summer, pack whatever will make you most comfortable in the sweltering Florida sun (for me usually just shorts and a tank). It rains for about an hour each day from June through August in mid-afternoon, so I would opt for flip flops over sneakers to avoid wet socks sloshing around in your shoes(ew!). Click here to go to the Weather Channel link and check it out.
2. Ponchos. Since we are already discussing rain, let’s talk ponchos. Don’t wait until you are being held captive by an August afternoon monsoon to buy your ponchos. Buy a poncho at Target or Amazon ahead of time and it will be infinitely cheaper, you won’t get caught in the rain without one, and you won’t match every other person in the park wearing the mouse issued rainwear. I also like to throw a large ziplock bag in my purse or diaper bag so we can throw our phones in there if the rain gets terrible.
3. Sunscreen. Bring multiple bottles, spray cans and sticks along from home. You will inevitably lose some of these along the way, and paying for replacements at the parks will be pricey. And yes, you need sunscreen down here, even in the winter people!
4. Timing. When you live in Orlando its easy to pop over to the parks for a few hours and then be back home for dinner. For those who are coming in from out of town, it can cost a substantial amount of money, so make sure you consider when is the best time to visit for what you want to experience. Typically Presidents Day Weekend, Spring Break, Summer Break (June through mid September), Thanksgiving and Christmas Day are super busy times to visit, and often times the weekends are also busier with locals heading to the parks after the work week. During these times the parks will be crowded and the lines longer. Some folks can only go when the kiddos are off school which I totally get, but just be aware that things will be a bit backed up.
5. Download Apps. There are lots of apps available out there that provide information about the parks, including maps, lists of attractions, and the best of them will include up to date projected wait times for the attractions. These are a great tool to help plan your day and take advantage of shorter lines when they occur. Disney’s official “My Disney Experience” app includes park maps (so you don’t need those loose brochures cluttering up your bags), wait times for attractions and characters, locates restaurants, entertainment, restrooms among lots of other information. You can enter your park pass information in this app and link your family and friends so you can reserve Fast Passes for your entire group with the swipe of a finger.
6. What the heck is a Fast Pass? Disney allows guests to reserve an exact time to reserve up to 3 attractions (including character experiences) in advance of your visit, subject to availability. Arrive at the attraction within one hour after the designated time and you will essentially walk onto the ride with little to no wait. As soon as you use your passes you may visit kiosks designated in the parks to get 3 new fast passes. This is a great tool to use your time efficiently and bypass lines. Use your apps to scout out the attractions that you don’t want to miss that have the longest wait times. I also like to get Fast Passes for peak times during the day when the most visitors are in the parks. Beware that new and popular attractions fill up fast, so try to get on-line as quickly as possible. (And if you happen to miss your time slot, you just may be able to go to a guest services kiosk and nicely ask them if you could pretty please have another time, and many times they will give you a new one.)
7. Parade. Disney parades can be pretty spectacular, especially the holiday ones, but once you have seen one parade I wouldn’t wait around for another. People will line up well in advance to scope out a clutch parade watching spot, and the parade can end up being a time vampire in the middle of the day. The parades usually pull people away from the attractions, so consider taking advantage of these times to hit those busy rides that you couldn’t get Fast Passes for.
8. On-site Hotels. Staying at hotels on Disney property (approximately 43 square miles of it to be more exact) affords you lots of extra perks, including bus service to and from the airport, and around Disney property to the various parks. Staying at an official Disney hotel also provides guests with the opportunity to enter one park early each day, called “Extra Magic Hours” which can allow you to get a jump on other park guests not staying on-site. Another perk of staying on-site is the availability of one of the Disney dining plans that allow the members of your party to eat several meals a day for a fixed fee. Each member of your party will be given a Magic Band, which is a bracelet you will wear throughout your stay that will all you to open the door to your hotel, gain entrance to the parks, and at your option charge items at your hotel or in the parks back to your room.
9. Where the #%$! Did I Park? If driving, be sure to either take a photo of the section and row you parked, or text the information to someone else in your party. Nothing is worse than looking through ten thousand cars at the end of a long day, or during a rain storm when you are fleeing the park with crying kids (or adults for that matter)!
10. runDisney. I have run 4 marathons, three half marathons and a 10K as part of the runDisney series of races on resort property, right in my own back yard. Walt Disney World started its endurance series in 1994 with the first marathon on property, and the events have grown in number and size ever since. Each January more than 20,000 people run the annual Walt Disney World Marathon, in addition to the Half Marathon, 5K and other family events. Now the world of Walt Disney World’s runDisney series includes the Princess Half Marathon, Star Wars Half Marathon, Wine and Dine Half Marathon, as well as a number of other 5K, 10K and 13K (Twilight Zone Tower of Terror run) races. These events are top notch in planning, water stops and cheerleaders along the way, and its an amazing adrenaline rush to buzz through Cinderella’s castle during a marathon or have thousands of people cheer for you when you cross the finish line. Because of these perks and the great location, lots of first time marathoners pick this as their first race, so unless you have a good qualifying time to be placed into a top coral you may be starting an hour behind the gun in a delayed coral release behind 15,000 of your closest friends (translation, it can get a bit congested for runners in the back to get around the walkers). There are lots of family events throughout these weekends, and Disney transportation helps spectators get all around Disney property. For non-racers, these events can clog up the roads and parks for the entire weekend so plan your vacation accordingly and try to avoid these times or go off site these days and visit other attractions. A list of the races and dates can be found at the runDisney link in the beginning of this section.
11. Babies. Each theme park has a designated Baby Care Center that includes full bathrooms, areas to prepare food, nurse and change babies, feed little ones, and buy any food, supplies or medicine you may have forgotten. The one at Epcot Center is the biggest and best, including a little kid TV room, and its located in the corner of Future World near the Mexico pavilion. It’s also a great way to escape the heat and crowds and relax for a little while with your little one. While talking about babies, and other smaller children in your party, please don’t be too crestfallen if your little one cries, hits, screams, runs away or otherwise comes unglued during the big character meet and greet that you have magically dreaming of in your head since you booked your vacation. As a new mommy and as a “close personal friend of Pluto” I can tell you that the reactions are varied, and some babies love the Mouse, but you may want to save standing in line or spending one of your fast passes for a character meet and greet until your little one is a bit older.
12. Strollers. Disney rents strollers so you don’t need to bring your own, but they are hard plastic and look a tad bit uncomfortable to me so we bring our own. I pack a small diaper bag with essentials, and for my little dude’s lunch we pack a separate mini cooler and put in the bottom of the stroller. I also make sure my stroller has at least one cup holder and a caddy to easily put pacifiers, toys, snack cups, etc. in a pinch. You will have to park your stroller outside some restaurants and most attractions. If you come out and your stroller isn’t there, don’t be alarmed, it probably hasn’t been stolen but just moved. Disney posts one or more people to help consolidate the strollers and maximize the room for available stroller parking outside of the busier attractions. If this totally freaks you out, consider adding a little flag or bright tape to the top of your stroller to help it stand out.
13. Dine Wisely. If you aren’t doing a Disney Dining meal plan during your stay, plan your meals wisely. The price tag for a sit down breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks throughout the day for a family of four could completely zap a huge chunk of your overall vacation budget. To help keep that $ under control, here are some tips to help. Start your vacation with a quick trip to the grocery store to buy breakfast items, drinks and snacks for the week. Eat breakfast before leaving your room, and bring snacks and a water bottle with you for the day. Refill your water bottle at fountains throughout the park. When you order lunch or dinner, get ice waters and ask for refills, or if you need to you can simply order water at a fast service restaurant kiosk. (It is usually so hot that hydrating with water all day instead of soda is good idea regardless of your motivation. Consider brining some Gatorade or lemonade powder packets if you can’t stomach water all day long alone.) If you want to purchase snacks, buy a refillable souvenir popcorn bucket in the parks and pay a nominal fee to get popcorn throughout your stay. You can also buy a refillable souvenir mug back at the hotel that you can refill for a small fee. And finally, Coca Cola sponsors a pavilion at Epcot Center (on the right side right at the end of Future World if you are leaving Spaceship Earth and headed toward World Showcase) where you can sample soda flavors from around the world. Don’t anticipate filling up your water bottle here, but good for a sugary pick me up for sure.
14. Pace Yourself. Hitting the parks for an entire vacation is a marathon, not a sprint. You don’t have to do it all in one day. Pace yourself and use your time wisely. For every one or two days at the parks, plan a rest day at the pool or a nearby beach. Arrive early before the parks open to take advantage of short lines early in the day before everyone arrives, use parade times to your advantage to hit more rides, take a break back at your hotel during the hottest time of the day and take a nap (adults and kids!), and stay later when everyone leaves to take advantage of the shorter lines again.
15. Ride Swap. If some of the little ones in your party can’t go on the big kid rides, Disney offers ride swap. Whether you have a Fast Pass or simply stand in line, one adult can ride the big kid rides while the other adult waits in a designated area with the little ones, and when the first adult is done the adults can swap for the second one to ride while the first adult waits. This way you don’t have to miss out on a rides like Expedition Everest and Space Mountain!
16. Kid Souvenirs. Even though our little dude is still pretty young, I’ve learned these things visiting the parks with friends with older kids. If you have a child that just has to dress up as their favorite character or princess, buy these costumes or princess dresses ahead of time on Amazon or elsewhere and bring them on vacation with you and you will save a pretty penny (maybe even surprise them in the room with a present your first night there, and they will think you are even more awesome!). Also, beware that half of the attractions will exit directly into a character themed gift shop, so move swiftly though the exit to the next attraction and tell the kids that you have to “hurry” to get to before it closes. Another trick is to buy a preloaded Disney gift card for each child before you leave so that they have a set amount they can spend, and once the card is empty, no more souvenirs.
17. Outside the Parks. In addition to the four main theme parks on Disney Property, there are lots of other great attractions including the Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon water parks, golf courses, resort spas, Disney’s Boardwalk, Disney’s Wide World of Sports (hosting a variety of sporting events, including spring training and football training camps) and the newest addition, Disney Springs. What once included the Downtown Disney shopping area and the nightclubs of Pleasure Island has been converted to a new themed entertainment area with both Disney themed and other high end stores for shopping, exciting new restaurants (including Morimotos and STK), movie theaters and other entertainment areas, which architecture inspired by Florida’s waterfront towns.
18. EPCOT Festivals. Each year from March through May, Epcot pretties up its amazing landscaping even more than usual and hosts the annual Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival, including beautiful topiaries, butterfly gardens, art and garden pop up shops, and some additional food and beverage stations. It’s a wonderful time of year for the weather too. Then from the end of from the end of September through mid-November you can attend the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival, which includes 30 themed food and beverage kiosks in addition to the ones already found in World Showcase. These kiosks include small food, beer and wine samplings for a small price. In addition, there are cooking demonstrations, food and wine seminars and other events you can attend, and a daily concert series called “Eat with the Beat” where groups like Wilson Phillips, Hanson, or Big Bad Voo Doo Daddy just might show up. You can attend both festivals you admission to the parks, but additional fees apply for certain events, and food and beverage selections. These are two of my favorite Disney events and I usually will go to Food and Wine every year in honor of my fall birthday. If you aren’t interested in attending but still want to go to the park, just keep in mind that these events will make Epcot a little more crowded than usual.
19. Leave During Fireworks. As of 2017, each of the parks will have either fireworks or some other type of night time light display show. The music, visuals, and presentation of it all will leave you in awe and they are worth seeing if you are up for it. That being said, if you stay for the nighttime fireworks or other show be prepared to slowly sift out of the park an hour later. Lines for the monorail, boats, shuttles and to leave the parking lots can be quite long at the end of the day, so just make sure you are in it for the long haul. Or… watch the first 10 minutes and then start leaving before the event wraps up – get the best of both worlds!
20. Drinking Around the World. I plan to dedicate a future post just to this topic, but it is worth a footnote here as well. If you have not heard of this before, people will go to the park and have one drink in every country of Epcot’s World Showcase, including Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, US, Japan, Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada, thus the catchy name “Drinking Around the World.” It’s all in good fun, and while I’m sure it has happened from time to time, I’ve not seen anyone get completely out of control (or if they have, I assure you they would be promptly removed from the park). I have tried this myself but have never made it through more than the first few countries. If you chose to do this, please make sure you take several hours to accomplish this, or you will most certainly be sick. Drink lots of water, take lots of embarrassing photos of your friends, and either pick a responsible designated driver, take the Disney transportation system back to your hotel, or catch a taxi or Uber back to your final destination. It is really a good time if you are somewhat responsible, but I would do this sometime that grandma and grandpa are with you to watch the kiddos elsewhere. That being said, the beer in Germany and the Grand Marnier frozen drinks in France are AMAZING!
I hope that that these tips above are helpful. I would love to hear from you if you have more questions or any tips to pass along yourself, so please click on the Contact page to get in touch. Good luck on your pilgrimage to see the Mouse! And for more details right directly from the Walt Disney World website, CLICK HERE.