Guide to Walt Disney World – Tips and Tricks for your family vacation!
It’s no secret that I love Disney. My family and I usually go to Disney World twice a year, and some of my favorite memories are from our trips to The Happiest Place On Earth. We have several nieces and nephews, and a very large family in general, so it’s a great way to ensure we are all spending quality time together in the same place. Since we have several little ones (and let’s be honest, it’s my favorite park), we spend most of our time at Magic Kingdom. To clarify, Walt Disney World is a collection of theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom), water parks, resorts (including a campground), Disney Springs, which is an area full of shops and restaurants (no admission), and a bunch of other stuff. It really does feel like its own world. For the purpose of this guide, I’ll be focusing mostly on Magic Kingdom, my favorite resort, and general tips to make the most of your trip to Disney World.
Before your trip:
Plan in advance. Buying your tickets in advance can save you money and a whole lot of time. They often have special offers for multiple day passes that are worth looking into, or package deals with their on site resorts. Not only will you be able to skip the long lines for purchasing a ticket, you can also skip the lines on select rides by making FastPass+ selections — which are included with your admission. Buying in advance will also allow you to plan your whole trip with the help of their site , where you can make dining reservations, FastPass+ selections, and start organizing your itinerary. I don’t bother with the Park Hopper, and instead prefer to dedicate full days to whatever park I’m attending (and you need more than one day, in my opinion, to fully enjoy each park). And do not forget to personalize your MagicBands!
Get Your Magic Bands. Once you book your reservation, you can personalize your MagicBand by choosing your color and what name you want printed on the inside. What’s a MagicBand? It’s that little bracelet that everyone always asks me about (I have a Minnie slider that makes it a little more festive and everyone asks “where did you get your watch?”). Your MagicBand holds your ticket to the parks, hotel key, your reservations for dining and rides, and can even be used to make any on-site purchases (with a four digit pin). You just hold the Mickey symbol on the bracelet to the Mickey symbol on a scanner, and voila! They make everything incredibly simple and organized, with everything linked in one place. I always turn off Ryder’s access to using it for purchases, because that little guy will run around buying everything. He is very quick to scan his MagicBand.
Download the app. Normally, I’m not one to download a special app for a theme park…but this one is really worth it. It holds your whole itinerary (which is also stored on your MagicBand) so you can easily keep track of your FastPasses, dining reservations, and resort reservations, and also schedule any activities and shows you want to attend. The app has a map with all rides, entertainment, dining, restrooms, and shops clearly marked and easy to navigate, and you can view all of the photos you have taken around the park and on rides. Best part? It shows wait times for each ride, in real time. That’s a game changer!
Take advantage of Extra Magic Hours. If you’re staying at a Disney Resort, you get the perk of extra hours at the parks, which vary each day. We plan our days accordingly, so that if we’re going to Magic Kingdom, we go on a day that has extra magic hours…preferably in the morning, so we get there before all of the crowds. This is both the best time to get on any rides with usual long lines and to take photos without all of the crowds (clearly my priority is the latter).
Consider the time of year you’re visiting. If you have a somewhat flexible vacation time, try and avoid Summer and Spring break. Not only is it oppressively hot, it’s also jam packed and prices are higher. My favorite times to visit are fall and winter, when the weather is nicer and the crowds aren’t as crazy. Even when we go for the holiday season, we usually go earlier in December.
Celebrate the holidays at Disney. Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party both require special ticket purchases, but both are so much fun. We love Disney in December, because it really gets us in the holiday spirit. They go all out for Christmas, with fake snow, lots of decorations, and treats and hot cocoa all over the park. For Halloween, you can trick or treat (even the adults!) and the characters are dressed in costumes. It’s also the only time that adults can wear actual costumes (though themed outfits are always okay). If you don’t want to spend the extra money for a special event, you can still get the Christmas-y experience during normal park hours.
Dress the part. Dressing on theme is half the fun, so choose your favorite character and get in the Disney spirit! Just remember that adults cannot wear actual costumes (to avoid any confusion between the real characters and the guests). Snow White inspired outfit? Good. Actual Snow White costume? You’ll probably be asked to change your outfit before you enter the park. Want some Disney outfit ideas? Check out my post, here.
Rides and Entertainment at the park:
Take advantage of FastPass+. You can book up to three passes per day in advance, and then one by one at park kiosks (or on your app!), after those three are used. Choose your advance selections wisely, as some lines are much longer than others. At Magic Kingdom, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train generally has the longest line and the fast passes go quickly, so that would be my first pick. Other popular rides with long lines are any of the mountains: Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain — and Peter Pan’s Flight seems to always have a crazy line. At Hollywood Studios, Toy Story Mania (so much fun!) is our priority for a FastPass, followed by the Tower of Terror and Rock N Rollercoaster.
Use Rider Switch. One adult can wait with the littles ones who can’t/don’t want to ride, while everyone else goes on. When they return, you can go (and bring up to two other people!) through the FastPass line so you don’t have to wait. Just make sure you ask for the Rider Switch before you go through the line and they’ll give you the passes. The big kids love this, because it means they get to go on twice in a row while one of us waits with Lily and Ryder. Combine these with your Fastpass and you’ll maximize your amount of rides:)
Rent a stroller, park it in stroller parking. We’ve brought our own stroller a few times, and it’s just a huge pain. It’s worth it to rent one of their heavy duty strollers so you don’t have to break it down and bring it on the bus or monorail, and the Disney cast members (aka employees) are good at keeping an eye on / organizing them in the stroller parking areas outside of the rides.
Don’t have a FastPass? Check the wait times on the app. As state above, it shows them in real time, so you can skip Peter Pan’s Flight if it has a 2 hour wait and go to the Haunted Mansion (forever a fave!) that has a 10 minute one. When the lines at all the rides are crazy or it’s just too hot outside, the Monster’s Inc Laugh Floor is always a good option, or an oldie but goodie like the classic Country Bear Jamboree.
Consider special experiences for little ones. Shows are always a great option for little children who can’t/don’t want to do any rides, but there are a lot of other experiences to check out. Kids (ages 3-12) can get a beauty session at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique in the Castle, but be warned: reservations are hard to come by (you can try for the Disney Springs location, too). You can also take your child for a haircut at the Harmony Barber Shop, share enchanted tales with Belle, or let them go on a pirate’s adventure with Jack Sparrow. Make sure to catch the Dapper Dans and dance with the Incredibles! Oh, and search for hidden Mickeys! They’re ALL over the parks and resorts. The kids have gotten really good at spotting them. Even though this list is mostly geared toward Magic Kingdom, just a note that if you’re headed to Hollywood Studios, they have a Jedi Training Academy!
Make time for parades, shows, and fireworks. There are various parades and shows throughout the day, in front of the castle and around the park (check the schedule to plan accordingly). Parades are not to be missed, but we usually don’t sit and wait — we just catch them from the sidelines of wherever we are. But for the castle light shows like Wishes (which features both a light show and spectacular fireworks, but ends in May) and Once Upon a Time, try and find yourself a spot well in advance for the best viewing. During Wishes, don’t miss Tinkerbell flying from the castle! You can reserve a spot for the Fireworks viewing (they have dessert parties in the park and on a ferry), but they’re $$ and I’m just as happy with a Minnie Mouse treat and a spot near the castle.
Meet and take photos with all of the characters. Other than the rides I mentioned, we like to book FastPasses for character meet and greets. Since I always bring my nieces and nephews, we spend a lot of time meeting the princesses, Mickey and Minnie, and other characters throughout the park. Roxy Mae has filled her autograph book from front to back (I highly recommend that as a souvenir for any kids). One FastPass+ will get you to meet two princesses at Fairytale Hall, where the lines can get pretty long. It’s also a great idea to book a FastPass+ if you want to meet Mickey! You do not, however, need one to meet Minnie, Goofy, Daisy, or Donald — they have a dedicated spot where you can meet all 4, and the lines are usually not too bad. You can spot other characters throughout the park, where you’ll wait in line to meet/take photos/get their autographs. If there’s a specific character you’re looking to meet, check out where they will be and at what time.
Take lots photos, or let them do it for you! Obviously, I usually bring my own camera (and my iPhone) and take my own photos, but I also love being able to take big group photos with the photographers around the park, just for our own memories. If you take full advantage of photos with the park photographers, which are all over the park and with all of the character experiences, it’s worth it to buy a MemoryMaker. They scan your MagicBand, the photos go to your app, so you can always decide if you want to buy them after you have them taken. I usually get a MemoryMaker for unlimited photos and videos — you can even take photos in the photobooths and they’ll be stored with the rest (and printed!). We always make sure to take a special photo with Tink. Just ask if you can get a photo with Tink, and they’ll know what you’re talking about! You can also ask them to take photos with your camera or phone, so don’t be shy. In front of the castle is the most popular photo spot, but my favorites are at Cinderella’s Wishing Well (tucked away, with the castle behind it!) and by the Crystal Arts shop – a quiet side street with seating, lots of flowers, and balloons and silhouette art.
Dining Reservations. Reservations can be hard to come by for certain dining experiences, which is yet another reason to plan your trip in advance. There are plenty of quick service options available, so you won’t starve, but some of the restaurants are worth going to. If there are no reservations available, keep checking back! You have to cancel within a 24 hour period if you don’t want to be charged, so I often get lucky in that 48 hour window before. You can even dine in the castle! My favorite restaurant in Magic Kingdom is “Be Our Guest” in the Beauty and The Beast castle — it’s stunning and such an experience, especially during the holidays! If you can’t get a reservation, they have counter service at lunch. Make sure to check out the West Wing – even though it’s forbidden! But most often, since we travel with a pack full of kids, we make sure to take them to their favorite character buffet at Crystal Palace. Since it’s a buffet, it’s super easy for everyone to find plenty to eat. The added bonus: all of the characters from Winnie The Pooh come to each and every table to take pictures and sign autographs.
Quick Service Meals. Since the restaurants can be quite pricey when traveling in a large group, we often eat breakfast at the resort and then grab snacks and quick service meals at the park. We also pack snacks and drinks for the kids. There are a ton of options throughout the parks, and you can find them all on the map or the My Disney Experience app (a must download for the park, as stated above). Each place has its own offerings, so check their menus – and if you have dietary restrictions, let them know! They have always been incredibly accommodating, in our experience. Note: cups of water are free, so stay hydrated.
Treats. There are treats galore throughout the parks, but since we spend most of our time at Magic Kingdom, I’ll focus on those. My absolute must have: a Pineapple Dole Whip Float (with Pineapple soft serve) from Aloha Isle. Bobby has two: the Mickey Mouse Ice Cream Bar and a Mickey Rice Krispie Treat. Tessa always gets a Mickey caramel apple, and the kids love the Mickey and Minnie cake pops and just about anything else they can get their hands on. There are the waffle sandwiches and funnel cakes at Sleepy Hollow, churro carts, and specially themed treats for all of the different events. The best spot to get treats is at the Main Street Bakery, where you can watch them make and decorate the caramel apples. You can also get them at the Bigtop Souvenirs tent in Storybook Circus if the line at the bakery is crazy. And while you’re over there, take the kids to meet and take photos with Minnie, Daisy, Goofy, and Donald at Pete’s Silly Sideshow.
If you can afford to do so, stay in an official Disney World resort. You’ll get free airport transfer, free parking, free transportation via bus, ferry, or monorail, Extra Magic Hours at the parks (exclusive park hours for resort guests), and other perks. There are lots of off site options, and many have great Disney themes, but of course staying on site just adds to the experience. That’s not to say that you need to splurge on a luxury resort. We actually prefer Art of Animation, which is a value resort! In my opinion, it’s more kid friendly than the “nicer” resorts, and has the best themes. Ever since our first stay there, we have repeatedly come back…so let me tell you more about it.
Art of Animation Resort (my top pick for traveling with kids). The Art of Animation is fully decked out in Disney, with four themed room choices: The Little Mermaid (only standard rooms), Finding Nemo, The Lion King, and Cars. We have stayed in all of them, but prefer Nemo and Cars. Nemo is most central, and has the best pool — you can hear the characters when you’re under water! Cars has the cutest land surrounding the buildings (perfect for photos) and its own designated pool at the Cozy Cone Motel. I actually think Cars might be my favorite, because it really feels like you’re staying on the movie set. What I love about Art of Animation is that they have family suites, which are great for groups with children. There are three beds and two bathrooms in each suite, with a small kitchenette if you want to bring groceries. There is a large food court with countless food options for everyone, from made to order omelettes, salads, and pastas, to grab and go meals and snacks. The kids dining options are great and affordable, and include two sides and a drink. We often get kids options all around, and no one ever seems to mind:) Also, we spend most of our time at the parks, but they have lots of on site entertainment. There are the pools and play areas, outdoor movie nights, an arcade, bikes, a pool bar for the adults, and an activity center for kids. Oh, and of the value resorts, this one has its own dedicated bus – so no stops along the way! It goes straight to whichever park you’re visiting. So, I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re taking kids on your trip, this is the resort you should pick! And p.s. request a wake up call from Mickey Mouse!
There are countless, ever rotating souvenirs at all of the parks and resorts, and it’s hard not to go a little crazy. While there are too many to list, there are several mainstays that I highly recommend.
Personalized Mickey Ears. If it’s your first trip to Disney, stop everything and go straight to The Chapeau on Main Street and get your personalized, embroidered Mickey ears.
A free button at any shop register! They have free buttons at Disney World and resorts for lots of special occasions, whether it’s your first trip, you’re just married, it’s a family reunion, your birthday…just ask and they probably have a button for it. It makes a great souvenir and you’ll get treated very nicely. Kim was loving all of the “Happy birthday, princess!” comments. There are also stickers available for kids.
The personalized haunted portraits at Memento Mori. We had them done for the kids for Halloween!
An autograph book. You can save yourself some money and bring your own, or buy one at Disney. The kids (especially Roxy Mae) love collecting autographs from all of their favorite characters. I also recommend taking polaroids with the characters to go with each autograph page!
Collector’s pins. Each of the kids have lanyards where they display all of the pins they collected, and I let them pick out new ones on each trip. But the best part is that you can trade pins with any Disney cast member – just ask! This is really fun for the kids, since it’s like getting new prizes all the time. You can also buy some before your trip (I’ve gotten some inexpensive lots on Amazon!) to save yourself money and give the kids a fun activity between rides.
I hope you found this guide helpful for planning your trip to Disney World (well, Magic Kingdom!) – please let me know if you have any questions or other helpful tips to add. Please note that these tips are mostly specific to the parks in Orlando, Florida. If you’re traveling to Disneyland or California Adventure in California, check out Going To Disneyland and Going To Disney California Adventure — and check my instagram later today for a Disney World themed giveaway, featuring a ton of goodies from Oh You Pretty Things and both of the Going To Guides books.