We took our girls on their first trip to Disney last February. I started planning that trip about EIGHT MONTHS in advance and over that time, I became somewhat of a Disney expert and obsessive. There is a lot to know before you head to Disney. And while I’m the kind of person who does research before a trip to the dentist, I would NOT advise that anyone, even the largest of procrastinators, just “wing it” at Disney.
It truly is magical to take your little ones to Disney. It’s also truly stressful. You will set alarms. You will wait on lines. You will push through crowds to get places. You will battle your cranky, overtired kids. You will probably also cry yourself. And yet I can’t wait to go back!!
To help you plan your trip, here are some tips that helped us:
An important thing to know off the bat is that there are certain perks given to folks who stay onsite at a Disney property*, and so in many ways, that itself makes it worth staying "on property". Your hotel choice will be based on your budget, and second to that, convenience and proximity to your parks of choice should be given priority. *Certain Disney property perks do “convey” (as they say in Disney speak) to non-Disney hotels. If considering a non-Disney property, be sure to understand which onsite perks, if any, you’ll get and which you’ll give up.
Unfortunately, the Disney hotels are pretty overpriced for what you get. Their themes can be super cool, but the actual accommodations are somewhat no frills, even in the "Deluxe" hotels, which is frustrating given the high nightly price tags. On a very positive note, Disney does offer hotels for a wide range of budgets.
Believe it or not, Disney dining reservations can be made 180 days before your arrival - and word on the street is that some of the most popular spots (character meals like Cinderella's Royal Table, Be Our Guest, Chef Mickey) do sell out fast. How fast, you ask? I don’t know because I’m that person who set an alarm 180 days in advance, woke up that morning at 6am and made my reservations for all three at the first possible chance. Yup, I’m a huge loser. If you happen to be crazy like I am and already have your Disney hotel stay booked at that point, Disney hotel guests, on that 180th day out, can make ALL their dining reservations for the entire length of their trip (up to 10 days) at once - rather than having to instead wake up each morning super early to snag the reservation for a different day of your trip. The early bird DOES get the worm when in Disney!!
Your Disney FastPass selections (advance reservations for rides and attractions that allow you to skip massive lines) are booked 60 days prior to your arrival, if you'are staying on property, and 30 prior if you aren't staying on property. Getting to do your FastPass selections 60 rather than 30 days out is another big Disney hotel guest perk, as popular attractions WILL run out of FastPasses 60 days out.
You are allowed to book 3 FastPasses in advance and there’s a real strategy here. FastPasses should be used on those attractions that historically have the most brutal lines (there are plenty of online posts about FassPass strategy). A well selected FastPass could save you 2+ hours in lines. Spend some time planning your advance FastPass picks so that when the day comes, you’re informed and ready to go.
Once at Disney World, you can get one additional FastPass as soon as you have used up your first three. And you WILL strategize while in the parks regarding what FastPasses are still left for the day and whether it makes sense to swap an existing FastPass for something else. I’m not sure that I have experienced a higher high than when I snagged a last minute Soarin’ FastPass.
2018 Disney is quite high tech and I am here for it!! You book your dining, hotel and FastPass selections through the Disney website and/or mobile app. Once you’re at Disney World, you'll use that mobile app A TON to monitor wait times for attractions and to view and change your FastPass and dining selections.
Now we have to talk about Magic Bands. Those snazzy bracelets store your FastPass selections, your credit card information (no cash needed at Disney parks and properties), any professional pictures taken by Disney staff and, if you’re staying at a Disney hotel, they are your room key, too. While the Magic Bands can be very bad for your bank account, it is incredibly liberating to not have to constantly rummage through your pocket/pocket book for a room key or a wallet.
Another HUGE perk given to folks who stay on property is Extra Magic Hours. Each day, one Disney park (and they release the info in advance, so you'll know before your trip which park it is) is either open about an hour late or early ONLY for guests staying at Disney properties. This is absolutely clutch because it means that during those hours, the park is far less busy than during normal hours. You will get a lot more accomplished during that Extra Magic Hour than during any regular park hour.
You'll hear a lot during planning about the Disney Memory Maker. Disney professional photographers are stationed at various places around the parks and shopping areas, ready and willing to take your family’s picture with their pro cameras. Well, I should say willing to take the picture of your family and THE TEN OTHER FAMILIES THAT LINED UP IN FRONT OF YOU. These professional pictures are free and available to anyone. However, if you purchase the Memory Maker, you get the uninhibited ability to download every single pic taken by these professional photographers, to then be printed by you using your photo printer of choice. Without the Memory Maker, Disney will charge you for every individual photo you want to download from the Disney app. With lines often being long and pro photographers not exactly everywhere, we still ended up taking a lot of our own pictures. The professional ones definitely turned out better (and google Magic Shots), but next time, I think we'd spend less just paying to download the ones we liked.
We made the mistake of not including a pool day in our trip and so, our only pool visits were squeezed in between park time and dinner reservations. It would have been nice to have at least one slow, relaxing day at the hotel, either after the park visits ended or in between park days. I left Orlando with a nasty cold and I know that all our running around helped bring that along.
One last planning tip - it also takes A LOT longer than you might think to get anywhere in Disney. Plan accordingly!! We were late to almost every reservation and, a few times, we only made it to our FastPass reservation (which, by the way, allow you expedited entry for a FULL HOUR) with minutes to spare.
In summary, Disney is CRAZY crowded and each day there are millions and millions of people gunning for the same rides, attractions and reservations that you are. Leaving things to chance or sleeping in and strolling into a park mid-day will mean long waits and potentially missing out on popular stuff that either sells out or becomes too mobbed to bother. And we all know how much kids LOVE lines and being told “No”.
Now, onto the fun stuff! My random musings on Disney World!
Magic Kingdom is truly magical. I dare you to hate it there. It’s larger than the other parks and has the most attractions for younger kids, so consider spending more than one full day there, especially if it’s your kids’ first time.
Fantasyland in particular will very much bring out the child in anyone. Being a #GirlMom, we started our MK day with breakfast at Cinderella's Royal Table, where a bunch of Disney Princesses stop by your table to chat and take their pic with you while you dine. It was really cute for the girls and worth the 180 day out reservation.
The most popular rides for our family at MK were definitely the Seven Dwarf Mine Train and Splash Mountain (and the little one loved It’s A Small World) - don’t miss those! Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are also mega popular with the older kid population.
Animal Kingdom also really impressed me. The park is themed around animal conservation and nature preservation, so real life animals and animal themed attractions are everywhere. It’s a newer park (opened in 1998), and while it’s smaller and narrower than the others, the attention paid to its details and the immersive lands of Asia and Africa were really quite beautiful.
Then there’s Pandora - The World of Avatar, which opened last summer. WOW. I feel silly gushing over anything Disney as an adult (and I know zero about the movie Avatar), but this area truly is gorgeous. You feel transported to some far away land.
Disney offers Rider Switch at its more popular attractions, allowing parents to take turns going on a ride that their kiddies are too short for. One such ride that you MUST use Rider Switch on is Avatar Flight of Passage, a motion simulator like no other in the Pandora area. Your young ones will be too short for the ride and your older ones might be too scared (our 6 year old went on and was petrified), but you MUST do it (and aim to get a FastPass in advance or else wait times can be up to 5 hours!). It is without a doubt the best ride I’ve ever been on. Check the Yelp reviews if you don’t believe me!!
Na'vi River Journey is the more tame and kid friendly attraction in Pandora, and also should not be missed. It has gorgeous special effects, a crazy impressive animatronic and 3-D holograms. Ahhh I want to go back to Pandora.
New for this summer is the Toy Story Land in Hollywood Studios. We only spent just about an hour at Hollywood Studios before our dinner there one night. There’s a lot of Star Wars attractions there, which will excite many folks - just not the folks in my family. With the new Toy Story expansion, this park will appeal more to my crew going forward.
Epcot can feel past its prime, but the World Showcase is certainly fun to walk and eat your way through. And there was no chance my girls would let us skip the Frozen Ever After ride in Norway. Epcot is in the process of a significant expansion and renovation, so future visits will bring a Guardians of the Galaxy exhibit to Future World and a Ratatouille attraction to The World Showcase.
Disney is not known for its food. The best eats we had were at the Boathouse in Disney Springs, followed by Saana at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. We also had fun one night walking from Epcot to Beaches and Cream for ice cream. While in the parks, order your food - including your iconic Dole Whip at Aloha Isle - in advance using the Disney mobile app and you’ll be able to skip the long lines that form at lunchtime at all the counter service places.
Besides Cinderella’s Royal Table, we also hit Chef Mickey at the Contemporary Resort for its character breakfast. It’s a buffet and the food is nothing to write home about, but it’s a very easy and cute way to have your kids meet Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, Pluto and Donald, without having to wait on dreaded long lines in the parks. Really a perfect meal for first timers. Hit it for breakfast and then jump on the Monorail right from the Contemporary to get to Magic Kingdom or Epcot.
And while not technically a character meal, we did get to meet and take pictures with the Beast (and it’s the only place you can) at our Be Our Guest dinner. The Beast is only there at night. During the day, Be Our Guest is a quick service counter restaurant.
Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Fireworks, etc!
If your family includes a Prince or Princess or two, then a visit to Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique might also be a good idea. We opted for the Disney Springs location, not wanting to give up any of our Magic Kingdom time at the Cinderella’s Castle location. It’s a very sweet little salon and the cheapest option they offer was plenty good. We brought along princess gowns from home, the girls changed into them there, then had their hair and makeup done and professional pictures taken. Too bad my older one opted for not particularly photogenic fake red highlights!!
We sadly didn’t make it to a single firework display on our trip - we were getting such early morning starts each day that our little one couldn’t make it out that late. And then, the one night we were out late and planned to go to the MK fireworks, our dinner reservation at Be Our Guest conflicted. Next time, the girls will be older and able to rally for the fireworks.
Besides the many Star Wars rides and attractions at Hollywood Studios, as far as popular stereotypical “boy” Disney activities go, a friend told me her son LOVED the Captain Jack Sparrow’s Pirate Tutorial show that takes places outside the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at MK.
Have a magical time planning! Any specific questions, feel free to hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org!