Disney Theme Park

How to make the most
of your Walt Disney World vacation

 


 

By Leah Zanolla

In my last article, I talked about the 4 things that you need to think about when beginning to plan your Disney vacation (when to visit, where to stay, how to play [tickets] and what to eat).  Now that your trip is booked, it’s time to start the day-to-day planning so you can make the most out of your time at Walt Disney World!

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1) Food/Dining

As Disney veterans know, this is a biggie.  As we discussed last time, you have the option of paying out of pocket or purchasing the Disney Dining Plan.  No matter which payment method you choose, you’ll want to start thinking about where you want to dine.  Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) open up for table service (sit-down) restaurants 180 days in advance.  Yep, you read that right.  6 months in advance of your vacation.  Now, this isn’t always necessary, but there are some restaurants that are so popular that if you want to dine there, you should be on the phone on your 180-day out mark.  A couple examples of these would be Ohana and Cinderella's Royal Table.  One of the great things about booking through a travel agent that specializes in Disney vacations, like Dreams Unlimited Travel, is that your agent can take care of making those reservations for you.  Something to remember is that your agent doesn’t have any special pull to guarantee the reservations you want, but they will be up early on the phone so that you don’t have to be.

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No reservations are required at the quick service (fast food) restaurants.  They’re often crowded during traditional mealtimes, but if you can eat at off-times like before 11:30am or after 1:30pm, you’ll have a much better chance at finding a table without a problem.  Same goes for the dinner hour.  Try for around 5:00 or after 7:00pm.

Looking to save some money in your dining budget?  Disney does allow guests to bring in their own snacks and food.  The restrictions are: no hard-sided coolers, no glass bottles and no alcohol.  My family often brings in food for our kids.  They tend to be picky and don’t eat very much, so buying them a full meal is often a waste of money.  We pack a soft-sided cooler with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, applesauce pouches, crackers, granola bars and juice boxes, along with an ice pack.  We normally fly down to Florida, so we order groceries online from GardenGrocer.com to be delivered to our hotel.  There is a $40 minimum order and a $14 delivery fee, but we save enough on in-park meals that we still come out ahead.  All the Disney hotels have a dorm-size fridge in the rooms, so we order a carton of milk and breakfast items as well.

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Everyone knows it’s hot in Florida, especially in the summer, but not everyone knows that you can get free ice water at any quick service restaurant.  Just ask at the counter and the servers are happy to get it for you.  We bring HydroFlask reusable bottles (keeps beverages cold for 24 hours) with us to the parks and fill those up all day long to keep ourselves hydrated in the hot Florida sun.

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If you or someone in your traveling party has food allergies or other dietary restrictions, Disney is a great place for you to dine.  At any restaurant (quick service or table service), just ask to speak to a manager or chef and someone will come discuss your specific food needs with you.  Disney is extremely knowledgeable about these requests and is happy to accommodate their guests.  If you are making an ADR, the request can be noted on your reservation so your server will be aware of it before you even arrive.  If you want to pre-plan, you can email specialdiets@disneyworld.com before your trip and they’ll be happy to work with you and answer any questions you may have.

Note - We have no financial relationship with Garden Grocer or Hydroflask, I just use their products/services and think they're great!

2) Park Touring

Everyone has a different approach to park touring.  Some like to be at the park first thing in the morning for rope drop, some like to close the park down no matter how late the hour, and some like to go back to the resort for some downtime in the afternoon.  Whatever your style is, there are a few things you’ll need to think about.

FastPass+ - The FastPass+ system allows guests to reserve a time to experience FastPass+ attractions and entertainment in advance of your visit. This means that you can avoid waiting in long lines for some of the most popular attractions.  FastPass+ reservations can also be made the day of your visit by visiting one of the kiosks or by accessing the My Disney Experience app on a mobile device.  Once your resort reservation and valid park admission are linked into your My Disney Experience account, you have the ability to schedule three FastPass+ selections for one park per day.  You may not get multiple FastPass+ for the same attractions in one day.  These can be modified if necessary, even the day of, as long as your desired times are still available.  When you arrive at the attraction, simply tap your MagicBand on the RFID reader and the system will scan them, allowing you access if it is the correct time. There is no charge for using FastPass+.  Opinions vary about the FastPass+ system, but our family has found it to be extremely helpful.  It's nice to know that we don't have to run to get in line for certain attractions, because we already have our FastPass+ reservations made.  Our tip would be to schedule these for later in the day.  Crowds aren't as busy in the mornings, so chances are that you can get onto the rides fairly easily.  Later in the day when the parks get busier, you can use your FastPass+ reservations and not have to wait in such long lines.

If you are a Disney resort guest, you’ll want to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours (EMH).  Each day, one park is open either one hour early or stays open two hours later than the posted hours.  This perk is only available to Disney resort guests, so it can be a great way to get some extra park time in.  Morning EMH are generally less busy, because people are less likely to get up and get to the parks early.  You can often get several attractions done in that first hour before the park starts to fill up.  If you have kids that get up early anyway, definitely take advantage of these.   We have the dates/times for EMH listed here.

Park hopping is something else you’ll have to consider.  For an additional $35-$60 per ticket (depends on the length of your ticket), park hopping lets you come and go as you please through all four Walt Disney World theme parks on the same day or every day for each day of your pass.  If this is your first trip and you aren’t staying very long, I don’t think the park hopping add-on is a must-do.  There’s plenty to do at each park to keep you entertained for a day, or most of the time, a few days.  That being said, it’s a really great option, so if you can afford it, go ahead and add it on.  It really opens up your itinerary and allows you to be flexible each day with your plans.

When entering the park each day, grab a park map and times guide.  These tools are important to help you plan your day.  Park maps not only list the attractions’ locations, but also show you where you can find restrooms, the baby care centers, first aid and restaurants.  The times guide is a listing of restaurant operating hours, show times, special operating hours for attractions, locations and times for character meet and greets, and the hours for the other theme parks.  Sure, these can all be found on the My Disney Experience app on your smartphone, but it’s so much easier to just glance at the paper! Plus, it’s nice to get a break from technology while on vacation.

3) Other Hints/Tips

There are lots of little tips I could share, but for the purpose of this article, I’m just going to share some of the bigger things that you’ll need to know in the parks.

You will barely be through the turnstiles and you’ll start noticing people with big cameras wearing khaki-colored vests.  These are the PhotoPass photographers.  PhotoPass is a great service that allows you to put your camera away and let the Disney photographers take care of your vacation photos.  You will receive a card (or have the photos scanned onto your MagicBand) that links to your My Disney Experience account.  For a fee, any photos that you have taken throughout your trip can be purchased and downloaded or printed. You can save money by purchasing a PhotoPass package ahead of time.

Another useful tip, only available to Disney resort guests, is to take advantage of resort package delivery.  Up until 2 days before you check out, any merchandise you purchase in the parks or at Downtown Disney can be delivered back to your hotel for you.  Not having to lug around shopping bags all day is such a great perk!  And if you buy something too big to take home on the plane?  Disney can ship those items home for you.

Strollers.  It’s Disney, they’re going to be everywhere.  Popular speculation is that the average guest walks around nine miles per day while on their Disney vacation.  That’s a lot for those little legs.  If you opt to not bring your own stroller from home, you can rent one from Disney or from an outside company.  We recommend Orlando Stroller Rentals, who have been great sponsors of our site for years.  Something to consider: if you rent a stroller from Disney, you’ll have the use of it in the theme parks, but it doesn’t come back to the hotel with you.  One nice thing is that if you keep your rental receipt from one park, you can show it to get a complimentary rental at the next park you hop to that day.  If you rent from an outside company, the stroller is waiting at your hotel for you upon check-in and you keep it until you check out.  This can be really helpful when your child conks out at the end of the day...

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Disney provides complimentary transportation on buses, boats and monorails.  These run about every 20 minutes and are so handy to have, especially when you don’t have a car on your vacation.  One thing to remember is that the buses run from hotel to park or park to park.  They do not run hotel to hotel.  This means that if you have a dining reservation in another hotel, you will need to transfer at a park to get to that dinner.

If you’re traveling with small children, you’ll definitely want to check out our Height Requirements calculator.  There’s nothing worse than your child getting excited about going on a particular ride and then getting there and finding out they’re too short.  If there are attractions that the kids are too short for, but mom and dad still want to experience, you can take advantage of Rider Switch (also called Baby/Child Swap).  The Disney Cast Member will instruct you to enter the queue. Once you're at the boarding area, let the Cast Member know that you want to "child swap." They'll show you where to wait while the rest of your party enjoys the ride. Once they get back, you hand the little guy over to them and you get your turn without having to get back on the line.  This can really save families a lot of time and you don’t have one parent that always has to sit off by themselves while everyone else enjoys the attractions.

If you think that being at Disney World on a family vacation means there can’t be an adult night out, you’re mistaken!  There are a couple of different options for babysitting services on Disney property.  Several of the deluxe hotels have Children’s Activity Centers where kids ages 3-12 can spend the evening playing games, making crafts and eating dinner while their parents enjoy a night out.  These centers are open until midnight and do have a fee of $15 per hour.  If you have younger children, or just would prefer your kids to stay in the hotel room, you can check out the Kid’s Nite Out service.  Caregivers can provide one-on-one in-room childcare in the comfort of your Walt Disney World Resort room or can just hang out with your family if you need a father’s/mother’s helper. The sitters are over the age of 18 years old and are certified in child/infant CPR and basic first aid.  This is a great option if you want your kids to be in bed when you get back.  The fee for this service is $16/hour, plus $2.50 per hour for each additional child.  

 

As the tips above should make clear, planning a Disney vacation isn’t something easily done in a few days.  Accept that, have fun with the planning experience and start making small decisions as your trip inches closer.