Are you planning a Disney World trip for the first time? This is your 10 must-do’s to ensure you have the vacation of a lifetime.
#1 Research and Plan A LOT!
If you have never been to Disney World, you will not be prepared for how huge it is. You aren’t just going to some amusement park; this place is literally the size of San Francisco! Please do not decide to just show up and “wing it.” You are investing good money into an unforgettable experience, however it will turn into a frustrating and maddening trip very quickly if you don’t know how things work ahead of time.
A huge part of this is learning the fastpass system, inside out, and making reservations as early as possible. If you are not a planner, you need to either become one, or make sure someone going on the trip is one. Otherwise, you will not be able to get the value for your money.
#2 Stay on Property, if possible
The reasons for this are both practical and experiential. When you stay in a resort on Disney World property, you can just relax and use their transportation to get everywhere—buses, boats, and a monorail. You avoid the headache of driving around, parking, and finding your car in the most massive parking lots you’ve ever seen. On our first trip, years ago, we rented a car even though we stayed on property. After two days, we just let the vehicle sit because the Disney World transportation was so much easier. In addition, if you stay at a Disney World resort, they provide a shuttle to get you from the Orlando airport to your resort, and back, called Disney’s Magical Express. It’s a great way to do a vacation—once you are on your airplane, bound for Orlando, you sit back and let Disney take care of getting you where you need to go.
For many people, the transportation itself is the sole reason for staying on Disney World property. For others, it’s the experience. You might hear people talk about “the magic” and wonder what that’s all about. You see, a lot of folks connect with Disney World on a very emotional and nostalgic level. If you have a strong imagination, have ever dreamed of living in a fairytale world, or remember a feeling of pure excitement when your fifth grade teacher started playing a movie and the Disney logo flashed on the screen—you will probably feel the magic too. And when you do, Disney World isn’t really about thrill rides anymore, it’s about your family leaving the real world for a while and living in a fantasy land.
Now if you are in this magical world during the day, but in the evenings you drive off to your room at the Holiday Inn or Aunt Betty’s condo, it is going to be a jolt back into reality. You can still have an amazing trip, but it will not be the same experience. Disney World Resorts are all themed with great imagination and detail, making you feel like you never leave the magic. If money is the deciding factor, you should be able to find a value resort on property that is at least comparable to any deal you would find in the Orlando area.
If you are a person who thinks, “It’s just a place to sleep, I don’t care where it is,” please read on.
#3 Know Your Children’s Temperament
While Disney World is “The Happiest Place on Earth,” you will still encounter very crabby people. Be ready for it, and avoid having too many of those moments for yourself. Almost always, the root of the problem is parents pushing their kids too hard. Trying to do too much.
You want to do “everything,” after all, you are paying a lot of money to be there. But we forget that our kids do not have the mental stamina that we do. They get tired, and hot, and overstimulated.
First of all, accept that you will not be able to “do everything” in one trip, not even close. You won’t even be able to do everything that your friends and relatives said you “have to do.” So please take this advice to heart: Prioritize a reasonable set of attractions to visit and just take it all in.
Also, plan to go back to your resort and relax if people need to refresh. This is where staying on property is also a huge plus. Don’t feel bad about it. Some of our best Disney World days involved riding the bus back for a relaxing break around the pool before heading to the parks again. I’ve even been known to sneak in a quick nap once or twice.
You will have a much better vacation if you focus on enjoying what you can, rather than pushing your kids through an all day death march to check off every box on the list.
#4 Get A Discount
Disney announces discount offers for Disney World on a regular basis, usually for certain blocks of time. My family has never gone to Disney World where we didn’t get 20-30% off on the resort or a free dining plan. You have to get in tune with when they do this, and it will save a ton of money. However, if you are going during a peak time, you will probably have to pay full price.
#5 Use a Dining Plan
Especially if you are staying on property. I will say that it can be cheaper to pay out of pocket for your meals, assuming your family doesn’t eat a lot. However, if it’s your first Disney World visit, you have enough things to keep track of and restaurant prices don’t need to be one of them. Think of it like an all-inclusive package (minus alcohol); sure, it could be cheaper to pay as you go, if you really keep tight control over your dining. But it’s usually better to worry about the cost before a vacation, not during it.
#6 See Nighttime Fireworks and Shows
Disney World parks are great during the day, and they take on a whole different level of magic at night. If you haven’t seen the fireworks at the castle in Magic Kingdom, Fantasmic in Hollywood Studios, Illuminations in Epcot, or any other night shows that are offered, be sure to stick around for them. They are arguably worth the price of the park ticket by themselves.
This is where I would also recommend taking a “pool break” during the day if your kids have been run ragged, so you can come back recharged for the night show.
#7 Ride Haunted Mansion
Please, don’t miss this one. So many first time visitors pass up The Haunted Mansion (or don’t even know it’s there), and it is the most meticulously detailed and entertaining ride in all of Disney World. It is also suitable for both adults and children. My daughter loved it at five years old, so there shouldn’t be any worries about it being too scary.
#8 Watch the Festival of the Lion King Show in Animal Kingdom
If you visit Animal Kingdom for the first time, The Festival of the Lion King show is a must see. This musical production has everything from big laughs to high flying acrobatics. It was the first Disney World attraction my family ever visited, and during it I realized I was giving my daughters such an amazing experience that it brought tears to this Dad’s eyes.
#9 Eat at Be Our Guest Restaurant
The variety of dining experiences at Disney World is staggering. You have character meals, themed restaurants, fine dining, quick service, Cinderella’s Castle, foreign country cuisine, etc. If I had to chose one place to eat, it’s Be Our Guest (from Beauty and The Beast). Oh, and be sure to sit in the West Wing, with all the lightning, cobwebs, and the rose with falling petals.
Keep in mind, reservations should be made as many months before your trip as possible—especially for Be Our Guest, or Cinderella’s Castle. That is another advantage of staying on property; you are allowed to make your dinner reservations much sooner.
#10 Visit Other Resorts
This one does depend on how long you are staying in Disney World. If you are going to be there for 5 days or less, you’ll feel pretty cramped for time the way it is, without trying to do much outside of the parks. You can still book a few meals at restaurants that are inside various resorts, you’ll just have to plan out the day to make sure you get there in time.
If you are staying for more than 5 days, I recommend setting aside a day to visit a few of the deluxe resorts, or just hang out around your own resort. You don’t even have to buy a park ticket for that day. The Grand Floridian, Animal Kingdom Lodge, Polynesian, Contemporary, Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, and Wilderness Lodge resorts are all fascinating places to both eat at, or just walk around and enjoy the scenery.
A Disney World vacation can be overwhelming, so I hope this guide helps you to prioritize and make your trip the best experience it can be. I know I’ve never regretted a single cent I’ve spent there.