If you have ever thought of taking a Disney vacation but just didn't know where to begin, or have been on a Disney vacation that just missed the mark, this post is for you! We've been going to Disney with our daughter every year since she was one year old, and we've got lots of experience in getting it just right for anyone, at any age! It makes me so sad when I hear people say 'We went to Disney and had a terrible time' or 'Disney just isn't for us'. I mean, I don't feel bad for Disney, because, heaven knows they make enough money, but I feel sad that other families don't experience the magic the way they can. So, below are some tips and tricks for getting the most out of your Disney trip, to create lasting, joy filled memories for your entire family!
1. Plan ahead, do some planning, plan some more, and, oh yeah, make sure you plan.
I mean, it sounds obvious that you would need to 'plan' your Disney vacation, but I'm not just talking about planning where you're going to stay and what park you're going to go to each day. I mean really, truly, down-to-the-finest-detail planning. Sounds a bit tedious, right? Yeah, it might be, but it is so important. If you think you're just going to show up at the park one day and get on ALL the rides, well, bless your naive heart. That's really just setting yourself up for disappointment and a lot of wasted time and money.
The first year we went to Disney, when our little one was a year old, we went with family and just decided to 'wing it'. You want to know what we ended up doing that entire trip? Nothing. Well, not nothing, more like a lot of walking around with no destination. It was exhausting and boring. And hot. So, I quickly learned from my mistake, and as we approached our next Disney trip, I took the time to plan out a schedule of activities for each day. Because I'm a nerd, I created a spreadsheet for myself with each block of time mapped out for each day. I took a look at park maps and tried to ensure that we weren't zigzagging all over the parks. The walk around the entire Magic Kingdom park is just over 2 miles, so, if you are not careful to plan your ride schedule accordingly, you can end up walking 8 to 10 miles in a day. Yikes!
Planning your trip should really start 6 months before your arrival date, as that is when dining reservations open up. And, if you plan on getting into your favorite table service restaurant, you must reserve in advance. Disney has over 50,000 visitors a day, and rising, so that's a lot of competition for a seat at your favorite restaurant. At the 90 day mark, you can start booking fastpasses, if you're staying t a Disney property, and again, competition is stiff, so you really need to jump on this as soon as it is released. This leads me to my next topic....
2. Fast Passes are your keys to the Kingdom
For Disney newbies, let me explain a bit about fastpasses. Fastpasses, which were introduced in 1999, are basically a cut the line card for Disney rides. And every ticket holder is eligible to get them, at no additional cost. If you bought any park ticket, you can get fast passes. If you are staying at a Disney property, you can book your fastpasses, for your entire trip, 90 days from the date of your arrival. If you are not staying at a Disney property, you can book 30 days out.
As I mentioned above, it is important to book your fastpasses as soon as you are able, as there are only so many allotted to each ride per day. You are allowed to prebook 3 fastpasses a day, for a single park. That means that if you plan to go to 2 parks in a day, you can only prebook 3 fastpasses for one of the parks you are going to. However, once you use those 3 fastpasses, you can then book additional fastpasses. In the busier seasons, this can be difficult, as most fastpasses are gone by the time you use your prebooked ones.
Now, fast passes are not available for every ride, but they are available for most. And fastpasses to some rides are definitely more valuable than others. When you are planning your trip, you want to try to get fastpasses for the most popular park rides, the rides that usually have the longest lines. For instance, in Magic Kingdom, it would be ideal to have a fastpass for The Mine Train Ride, or Peter Pan or Space Mountain. Unless you get to the park early (which I'll talk about later), if you don't have a fastpass and want to get on one of those rides, you can plan on waiting a LONG time in line.
Sometimes, when booking fastpasses, especially if you don't book them as early as possible, you might not get them for all the rides you want. But, that's OK!! Once you determine what fastpasses you can get, you then plan the rest of your day around those passes.
3. The Early Bird Catches the Worm (err, Rides?)
One of the best ways to ensure that you and your family get the most out of a day at the park is to start early!! I know that some people like to take it easy on vacations and sleep in, but, if you want to ride all the rides, you need to get your priorities in order! Being at the park for 'rope drop' or park opening is essential. If there is a ride you want to go on but couldn't get a fastpass for, arriving to the park at opening and heading right for it is your best chance at ride success. Another perk of staying at a Disney hotel is Early Morning Magic. On each day of the week 1 (or more) parks open an hour early to Disney Hotel guests. That means you get an extra 60 minutes to get on rides before the public at large can enter the parks! That could mean 3 extra rides that you wouldn't even need fastpasses for.
As demonstrated in my dorky spreadsheet, we like to wake up early, eat breakfast in our room (more on that later!) and head to the hotel bus stop for the first bus to the park. It is important to factor walking time to the bus stop into your schedule, as some of these properties are massive and it could take you 15 minutes just to go from your room the the bus stop.
Now, don't get me wrong, getting to the park at opening doesn't mean that you'll be strolling the park streets alone. Nope, lots of other people know this trick too, so you'll feel a bit like you are at the starting gates of a marathon when the park opens, but the parks are big and people spread out once inside. If you've done it right, you'll have ridden on a few rides before you start to notice the park really fill up. That's when you start using your fastpasses, and, again, if you've done it right, will never have to wait more than 20 minutes to get on a ride.
4. Schedule Down Time!
This is probably one of the biggest factors in our Disney success. I see so many people trying to stay at the parks for the entire day, and, honestly, it is a recipe for disaster. If you have kids, you know what I mean. That utter exhaustion that creeps in right around 2 or 3 pm after a day in the sun, lots of sugar highs and lows and sensory overload. I see those families dragging their kicking screaming kids around by one arm. The little ones turning themselves into flat boards, refusing to get into their strollers. The tired and stressed parents teetering on the edge of divorce because they can't decide where to go next. Don't be those families!!! Instead, take advantage of your early morning successes, and head back to your hotel after lunch. Spend some time lounging pool side, or napping in your air conditioned room. After a couple of hours, you'll feel refreshed and ready to head back out for dinner.
And, I hear you value conscious peeps over there saying 'But I want to get the most for my money! I paid for these tickets and dammit, I'm gonna squeeze every last drop of value out of them'. Well, in my opinion, you see significantly diminishing returns on your purchase the longer you drag your family around the park, so, if you want the most 'fun' out of your trip, take a breather. You'll all be better for it.
5. Food is life
Not sure if I want to open this can of worms, since food is so personal, but I'm gonna share what we do and what works best for us regarding food at the parks. You can take it or leave it.
To dining Plan or Not? Dining plans sound good - all my meals wrapped up in my vacation package? wow. what a win. Well, maybe for some, but not for all. We've done the dining plan a couple of ways at Disney, and it never really ends up being the right fit for us. We found that we never ate enough on the deluxe dining plan to recoup our costs and we found the more basic dining plan to be too restrictive for us. When I do the math, for us it makes the most sense to pay as we go. And, you can do the math too, if you really want to get into it. Again, I use a spreadsheet to plan out what we will eat each day and, using websites like allears.net or Disney's own website, I can find food costs for practically everything we will eat. I can then tally it up and compare it to the dining plan cost to see which is cheaper.
Quick Service v. Table Service - Hands down, we prefer quick service over table service. There are many reasons for this. First, the time spent in a table service restaurant can be excruciatingly long. For some reason, it just seems like you can never spend less than 2 hours in a table service restaurant. And, for me, that's 2 hours I could be riding rides or walking around enjoying the sites. Second, kids and long waits in a table service restaurant don't mix. Third, those meals are expensive! We're not 'foodies' per se, so it seems like a waste of money for us, when we could spend half that price at a quick service restaurant.
Groceries! - One of the best things we discovered, food wise, was that you can order groceries from local stores and have them delivered directly to you at Disney hotels. We use Garden Grocer and have always been very happy with the service. We order ourselves breakfast items like bagels and vegan cream cheese, non-dairy milks (the Disney hotel rooms have fridges!) and healthy snacks. Because we are able to eat our breakfast in our room while we get ready in the morning, we are able to get to that bust stop extra early! You are also allowed to bring snacks into the parks, so this is a great way to save money.
6. Where to Stay
Again, this is a pretty personal thing, but I'm going to make the argument for staying at a Disney Hotel. We've stayed at every range or hotel, from budget to deluxe, and have never been disappointed. There is something so magical about the Disney Hotel experience and the customer service is top notch. Most of the hotels also have really fantastic pool areas, which can save you from purchasing tickets for the water parks! When staying at a Disney hotel, you get lots of extra perks:
Magic Express - This is a FREE bus service that whisks your from the airport directly to your hotel. They'll even retrieve your luggage and deliver it directly to your room. So, you don't have to get a rental car, you don't have to wait for your bags, you don't have to navigate Orlando traffic and you don't have to pay for parking. Sounds like a win to me.
Early Morning Magic - Mentioned it above. Such an important perk when trying to get the most out of your trip.
Fastpasses 90 days out
Park Transportation - When you stay at a Disney hotel, you won't need a car to go from park to park, because every hotel has transportation to each park. I love a no-driving vacation.
OK, This is getting a bit long, so I'll stop here. Because, I know, TLDR. But, I'd love to share more Disney knowledge, so feel free to comment below with what else you want to know, and I'll get another post together answering all those questions!