My family spent seven days and nights (and a small fortune) at the Most Magical Place on Earth. We had an amazing time and I picked up a lot of tips along the way. Let me share them with you!
Walt Disney World sure has changed a lot since my husband and I last visited in 2010 to celebrate our honeymoon. We were expecting the new rides and attractions. What we weren't expecting was how much meticulous planning goes into creating a Disney vacation.
Perhaps some families go to Disney and wing it. Maybe they don't feel like they have to ride every ride and see every fireworks show. Our family wanted to do and see everything for our kids' inaugural trip. We were balls to the wall the whole time and definitely maximized the experience.
I am Type A by nature so organizing and arranging is my jam. However, I did outsource the groundwork preparation when I caught wind of how complicated it is to arrange a Disney vacation. Our Disney Planner Alyssa put together the most amazing getaway for us. She navigated the cut-throat resort reservations, dining reservation timelines (you better reserve at 60 days out or else!), Park Hopper passes, park ticket reservations, Magic Band ordering, deposits, travel protection, and about a million other things.
In the past you'd just show up at a park, pay, and go in. That's not how it works anymore. The new policy is to reserve a particular park for a particular day far in advance. You can't just show up. The park pass reservation system was put into place in July 2020 when Disney reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown. It's a way for them to keep a closer eye on park attendance and capacity.
I'm fine with this new policy because I'm a planner but those who thrive on spontaneity may not like it. Those who don't know about this requirement and attempt to visit a park without reservations will really not like it when they are turned away!
Seeing everything in the parks requires a lot of strategizing so I took the lead on this once we were actually on our vacation. I downloaded the My Disney Experience app which provides lots of useful information: park maps, wait times for attractions, scheduled show times, mobile ordering for quick food options, PhotoPass previews, and mobile checkout for gift shops.
The MDE app is helpful and mostly user friendly but does make you reliant on your phone for everything. It's nearly impossible to put your phone away and be present with your family when you need to keep checking your screen for the next update. Also, I could see the MDE app being a challenge for those who aren't tech savvy or are screen averse. Sorry, Boomers.
Here are my top tips for visiting Walt Disney World, especially if you are like us and hadn't been there for quite some time:
Hire a Disney Planner. For real. This is my #1 top tip. Our Disney Planner Alyssa was a lifesaver. She knew all the nitty-gritty details of planning a Disney vacation that I was unaware of (including the park pass reservation thing!). She was even able to get us a reservation at EPCOT's hottest new restaurant, Space 220. She offered awesome suggestions, helpful tips and navigated the whole thing like a pro. Because she is a pro. And fun fact: families don't pay for this service. Disney pays their Disney Planners!
Get the Magic Bands. They are an added cost (between $10 & $50, depending on the one you choose) but they make life so much easier. And they're cute! And waterproof! Magic Bands can unlock your on-site hotel room, get you into the Lightning Lanes, and act as a form of payment at restaurants and gift shops. It's a little too easy sometimes!
Splurge on Genie+. Disney doesn't have free FastPasses anymore. Their new system for skipping the line is called Genie+ and costs $15 per day per person. Initially I scoffed at this extra charge but was glad we decided to add it on after seeing the length of the lines. Genie+ allows you to reserve timed Lightning Lane privileges at certain rides which makes for a significantly shorter wait. You can reserve your first LL at 7 AM each morning, then additional ones every two hours. The LL privileges go FAST on certain rides and sometimes availability runs out, especially towards the end of the day, so it's not a perfect system. A handful of the most popular rides require an additional fee on top of the Genie+ cost. I refused to do this on principle! I wasn't happy about paying for Genie+ but we really wanted to do all the rides each day and this helped us save time and accomplish our goal. Also, less time spent in a long line with two whining, wrestling boys = crucial to my sanity.
Rope Drop the rides that have additional Genie+ fees. I had never heard of Rope Drop until our trip. I learned it's a Disney term for when a park opens. Since I was too cheap and disgruntled to pay the additional fee for the "hot" rides, we decided to ride them first thing in the morning. For example, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios was charging an additional $12 per person per ride. Instead of paying the extra money, we arrived at Hollywood Studios for Rope Drop, power walked to the back of the park and got in line right away. There was still a 45 minute wait, but that's nothing compared to 180 minutes later in the day!
Reserve a Club Level stay if you really want to feel spoiled. We stayed at the Polynesian Village Resort (loved it!) and were able to access the King Kamehameha Club. It's a special lounge in one of the hotel buildings that serves really delicious food and drink throughout the day. We enjoyed a daily hot breakfast, complimentary wine, beer, and cordials, fancy Nespresso drinks, an afternoon snack bar, an evening Asian-inspired hors d'oeuvres bar and a nightly dessert buffet. It was so much food that I thought we were on a cruise ship. Food at Disney is expensive, and I'm sure our club level upgrade was pretty pricey too, but it was so nice knowing we had this food at our disposal every day. It was fancy, delicious, and the lounge has a perfect view of the Magic Kingdom fireworks over the Seven Seas Lagoon.
Bring a fanny pack. Call it a belt bag if you can't stomach the term. Seriously. I probably looked like a total dork but my fanny pack was so useful. Sometimes purses make my shoulders sore but I didn't have that problem with the fanny pack. It was big enough to store all of my day-to-day necessities: phone, sunglasses, acetaminophen, lens wipes, etc. I bought this one on Amazon because flamingos = Florida, IMO.
Bring a lightweight backpack for your partner to carry. Carry it yourself when you're feeling generous. Stuff it with snacks and water bottles. Disney lets its patrons bring in food and drinks. We did this to save a bit of money and time spent in food lines. We'd fill up at water fountains and save about four dollars per refill as that's the cost to buy one bottle in the parks! My husband was a saint and carried our snack backpack 90% of the time.
Prepare for rain. It tends to rain a lot in Florida. Knowing this, we packed emergency ponchos and two pairs of sneakers each. I bought the emergency ponchos at Walmart for about a dollar each. I'm glad I did because the ones sold in the parks are significantly more expensive. I'm also glad we had some spare sneakers with us because we were caught in a newsworthy rainstorm on our first day of vacation. Our sneakers were soaked! Luckily we had dry ones for the next day. Bonus tip: use your hotel's hair dryer to dry out your sneakers if you don't have a backup pair.
Wear a pedometer. You will be amazed by how far you walk everyday. Make sure you brag to all your friends and family when you get home. You deserve those bragging rights!
Take the Skyliner directly to EPCOT's World Showcase. The Skyliner is a very cool, relaxing gondola ride from Hollywood Studios to the World Showcase by way of the Caribbean Beach Resort and Riviera Resort. We took a bus from the Polynesian to Hollywood Studios, picked up the Skyliner right near the bus stop and flew over to Remy's Ratatouille Adventure in France. I'm not sure if it saved any time from taking the monorail but it was a nice change of scenery and entertaining in itself.
Set your kids' souvenir expectations early and firmly. We started our vacation by letting our kids know that they had X number of dollars to spend on souvenirs and they could "window shop" all week, then make a final decision on how to spend their cash on our last day. This prevented a lot of whining and our kids had fun looking in all the gift shops for their "perfect" present. We did our purchasing on our last day, towards the end of the day, so we wouldn't have to lug stuff onto rides. Our kids made mindful decisions and ended their vacation with some pretty cool mementos. If you're looking for an economical but meaningful souvenir, try the flattened pennies that you see all over the parks. You can get eight for $5 and the kids love them because they show little imprints of Disney characters and attractions.
If you have kids, get this book: Birnbaum's Walt Disney World The Official Guide for Kids. It was so much fun to read in anticipation of our trip. It's written for kids but still entertaining for adults. It prepares kids for all of the cool rides, shows, character interactions, food choices, etc. The end of the book includes reflective journaling pages that will preserve the awesome memories you make together at Walt Disney World!