Yup, I’m a Disney nerd. Many people know this. So I get asked for my advice often. (If you find yourself reading this article after you’ve asked me for advice–you’ve come to the right place!)
Usually, someone asks me about my tips for Walt Disney World about a month or two before they depart on their vacation. This doesn’t provide much time to plan–and unfortunately, in today’s Walt Disney World, you are put in a position where you really must plan–ideally, a year or more in advance.
There are PLENTY of Disney planning sites on the Internet (like Touring Plans or the DIS Unplugged / the DIS or Kenny the Pirate or WDW News Today or MouseSavers or the Disney Tourist Blog or the Disney Food Blog or WDW Prep School or … the list goes on forever), but some of the advice on those sites can be cliche, outdated, or sometimes downright wrong.
This advice is definitely going to be accurate (as of 2020) and I’m going to avoid the cliche as much as possible. (COVID Update, written 8/19/2021 – The information below is still very valid, except where noted in red.) While I may love Disney, I’m going to be brutally honest, and not everything I say is going to be positive. As of January 2020, here are my thoughts:
- Get there early. I mean–arrive at the park early in the day before opening. On most days, you will find that you’ll accomplish more in the first hour of park opening than you’ll probably accomplish in the following three hours. On most days, if the park opens at 9 AM (referred to as “rope drop” by many Disney nerds like myself), you want to try to be standing with the crowd in front of the rope at 8:15 or 8:30 AM. And don’t be a jerk and try to push ahead of people ahead of you–you’re in Walt Disney World, dang it. Behave.
As for picking the “best” time of year to go, worry a bit less about crowd levels and more about pricing of hotels & resorts. If you plan on going on a week where hotel rooms are north of $300 a room for a basic, off-property hotel, the parks will probably be super crowded that week. (Fellow non-revvers–going right after a hurricane isn’t a bad idea for a last-minute trip, either. Many cancel their vacations, leaving the parks more empty than usual and hotel prices reasonable.)
- Buy a membership to Touring Plans. This advice is especially important if this is your first trip. I mentioned Touring Plans among some of my Disney resources above. Their online software has a bunch of pre-built touring plans for different types of groups, which make it easy for one to have a pre-planned “canned” trip without doing too much planning, but most importantly, the software allows you to “simulate” a day by putting in the attractions you want to visit, and it will estimate (with eery accuracy) how much time it would take to follow the itinerary. The software will also “optimize” your plan for wait times and will help minimize walking. I don’t necessarily recommend following one of these plans completely (unless your time is really limited–more on that later), but it can really help set your expectations on what you’ll get done in a day.
But that’s not all–they also have a checklist that tells you all of the things that you need to think about for your vacation before your trip. They have a tool which can help you snag hard to get dining reservations. They have a tool which lets you see the location of and view from any Disney Resort hotel room on property. They even have a powerful smartphone app that displays anticipated and posted wait times at each ride. Not too shabby for about $15 per year. (And, no–I do not receive any benefit–financial or otherwise–for recommending the site to you here.)
If you own the “Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World” (published annually in September-ish), you get a few bucks off of the $15 per year cost.
- Fully understand how Fastpass+ works before your arrival, and plan your first 3 fastpasses earlier in the day (but not too early.)
Generally speaking, if the park opens at 9, you probably want to put your first Fastpass around 10:30 or 11. You shouldn’t need a fastpass before then. Then, stack the fastpasses as best as possible–Suppose your first Fastpass is for 10:30 AM – 11:30 AM. Then, ideally get your second for 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM (or as close to it as possible). Get your third for 12:30 PM – 1:30 PM (or as close to that as possible.) Then, show up and use your fastpasses at the start times. As soon as you use them, make your next fastpass–and then rinse and repeat the rest of the day.
Along with timing–make sure that you don’t waste your fastpasses on stupid things. For example: in the Magic Kingdom, using a fastpass for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, or any of the mountains are your best bets. Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are good-to-okay uses of fastpasses. But using your fastpass for Mickey’s Philharmagic is a dumb waste of a fastpass. So is using one of your three fastpasses on “seating” for fireworks. (Not only can you see fireworks from everywhere in the park, you won’t be able to make additional fastpasses until you use your fireworks one–so you’ll be stuck with only 3 fastpasses for the entire day!)
One last note–if you arrive too early at an attraction window for your Fastpass window, it isn’t a good idea to loiter around waiting for the window directly at the entrance of the fastpass line. This blocks everyone else from getting there and makes you a jerk.
COVID Update, written 8/19/2021: Fastpass has been completely disabled for the time being in Walt Disney World. Disneyland is rolling out a program right now that involves paying to gain access to a version of Fastpass. Only time will tell of the fate of Fastpass in Walt Disney World.
- Don’t plan TOO much. I alluded to this in my Touring Plans point. Just because you CAN make a very accurate Touring Plan where every second of your day is accounted for doesn’t mean that you SHOULD. Use the tools out there to get an idea of what’s reasonable, and have a basic plan and make your Fastpass+ reservations ahead of time, following my advice. Then, enjoy the parks. Enjoy walking around and looking at the details.
(Note: As an exception to this rule, for those with a shorter trip to Walt Disney World, you may need to plan more to get everything done that you want to do. Especially if you go on a crazy week–like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years (before 1/2) or spring break. Note that if you go during these periods, you are probably crazy.)
- Buy a popcorn bucket. Some of the best things in life are free. This popcorn bucket certainly isn’t free (they start at $10–and the more unique ones go up to $25-ish–the one pictured above cost about $25), but once you buy it, refills are $2–which is about as close to free as you’ll get at Walt Disney World. Some even collect these buckets. Also, depending on where you get the popcorn refilled, different flavors are available. (My favorite–the maple popcorn in Canada at Epcot is delicious, though sometimes a bit sticky.) The popcorn bucket refill deal is good for the entire “length of your stay,” whatever that means… (Though if you show up at the popcorn stand in July with a halloween popcorn bucket, they may refuse to refill it for you…)
- If you plan on returning more than once in a year, seriously consider an annual pass. It isn’t too hard to do the math… it could well be less expensive. Further, as a passholder, you get many discounts and freebies. Touring Plans has a helpful calculator for park admission cost options as well.
- Don’t leave the park immediately after fireworks or a parade. If you do, you’ll be waiting forever for a monorail / bus / boat / etc. This is painful, especially after a long day in the parks. Actually–it is better to time it so that you leave during fireworks or a parade. And if you are trying to get to another park or resort for a dining reservation, allow plenty of time.
COVID Update, 8/19/2021: During the height of the CCP virus pandemic, and immediately after the extended closure of Walt Disney World, Disney did away with fireworks for quite a while. They’re back now, but it’s always a good idea to check the Walt Disney World website to learn the latest status of fireworks. Note that TouringPlans also updates their website to indicate when fireworks are at each park, and the information on TouringPlans is generally very accurate for stuff like that.
- Free dining is rarely worth it anymore. I used to love this deal that they announced this deal annually at the end of May(-ish), as you could stay in a moderate and get one dining plan per person in your room–which included a snack per day, a quick service per day, and a sit-down meal per day per person… and you could stretch the dollars a lot! Now, staying at moderates with free dining give you a quick service plan–assuming you can even find a room that meets the “free dining” criteria… Regardless, you may be better off with a room discount.
COVID Update, 8/19/2021: “Free Dining” hasn’t been offered since the onset of the CCP Virus pandemic, and likely will not be offered for the foreseeable future. This is largely due to the fact that Disney Dining Plans have been completely cancelled for the time being. Only time will tell the fate of the “free dining” deal as well as the Disney Dining Plan at large You can read more speculation about free dining and the Disney Dining Plan here on Tom Bricker’s outstanding Disney Tourist Blog.
- Be discount savvy. There’s a few discounts that I’d recommend:
For tickets, use Touring Plan’s ticket finder to get the least expensive publicly available ticket deal for what you need. If you want to upgrade to annual passes later, they’ll let you pay the difference at guest services at the front of any park–just bring your partially used ticket and explain your situation. (Additional note: If you paid for the Memory Maker photo package, they’ll let you put the cost of that towards your annual pass as well, as annual passes essentially come with memory maker.)
If you do have an annual pass or Visa Disney Credit Card, you should always ask for your discounts. Many places don’t offer discounts, though.
For gift cards, go to Target and use your 5% off discount with your Target card (debit or credit) to buy gift cards at a discounted rate. Then, combine these cards together using Disney gift card website, and use it to buy tickets, pay for your reservation, or just bring it to the parks for some spending money. If you do this–then wham! You’ve just earned 5% off everything at Disney. Getting one of these Target “red” cards can be done for free on your already existing debit card with your bank.
- Be prepared. First, be physically prepared. Be able to walk 20,000 steps a day regularly before arriving. You don’t have to be a marathon runner, but you should be able to walk a good deal. (Today, EPCOT really stands for “Every Person Comes Out Tired.” Be ready for that.)
Also, make sure you are wearing appropriate attire. About a month before arriving, purchase a good pair of comfortable walking shoes and start to wear them in before arriving.
Additionally, wear comfortable, season-appropriate clothes. If you are going in the winter, you shouldn’t need to bring a winter coat (though always check the temperatures), but you’ll probably need a jacket of some sort. Of course, if you are going in the dog-days of summer, heavy jeans probably aren’t a good idea. It’s a good idea to bring a poncho as well for water rides and for the seemingly daily afternoon rainstorm.
When it rains, the parks can empty out.
Finally–build a good packing list before leaving to make sure you aren’t forgetting anything important. In addition to the obvious necessities, it is also a good idea to bring a few specific things as well that you hope not to use. This includes the aforementioned poncho, extra shoes, some runners glide, USB batteries and cables for your smart phone. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!