Often, I’m asked about my best tips for Walt Disney World. When I initially wrote the first version of this article back in early 2020, we were in for one heck of a series of changes. Therefore, I’ve decided to heavily re-vamp this article and re-release it.
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Food Blog or WDW Prep School or … the list goes on forever), but some of the advice on those sites can be cliche, outdated, or sometimes downright wrong.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 3/2023) and I’m going to avoid the cliche as much as possible. While I may love Disney, I’m going to be brutally honest, and not everything I say is going to be positive. As of today, here are my thoughts:
- Get there early, or plan on staying late. The best hours of the day for dealing with crowds at Disney parks are generally in the early morning hours or the late evening hours. These will probably be your “most productive” hours in the park, as they’ll generally have the shortest lines and smallest crowds, relatively speaking. 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.)
Finally note that an early arrival to the parks isn’t as critical as it once was, as early morning hours are generally every day for resort guests, which means that they’re the only ones that can take advantage of “rope drop.” If you are a resort guest, you should FULLY take advantage of rope drop–arrive early, and have a plan. Speaking of plans…
- 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.
- Don’t Bother With Genie+.
The Genie+ Service is essentially the introduction of paid Fastpass. First: a quick introduction. Disney was the first amusement park to introduce virtual queueing in the late 90’s. Basically, you could approach a ride with your ticket, get a paper pass with a return time, and turn that paper pass in to skip the line and enter the ride. The cool thing about it was that Disney never charged for this service for over 20 years, even after adding features to the service.
Genie+ now is the latest generation of Fastpass, basically offering access to the fastpass line (which has been re-branded to the “lightning lane” line), and with a lot of luck and finite bandwidth limits introduced that the earlier versions of Fastpass didn’t have with them. Oh, and there’s a series of corny SnapChat-style camera filters that you’re allowed to use for the day if you purchase Genie+.
Sound annoying and confusing? It totally is. Shame on Disney for screwing Fastpass up. I don’t recommend it. If you decide to give it a shot, it won’t break the bank (it’s somewhere around $15-$25 per day, depending on how busy the park is, and they’ve now made it so you cannot book it in advance, so if you want to try it, you can purchase it the day of and use it accordingly.) It’s also stressful to use (especially when you aren’t getting the ride(s) you want to get) and you end up living on your phone to make the reservations and monitor the status of your day. And being on my phone is simply not why I go to Walt Disney World.
So, I’d not recommend bothering… maybe it’s because I’m an annual passholder and I can come back anytime. Note that spending the money and buying Genie+ WILL save you some time in line, but if you’re going to do it:
- If you have decided to try Genie+, purchase it ASAP and start making your reservations at 7 AM (local time) the day of your park trip.
- Also purchase and use the Standby Skipper service, on top of your Genie+ purchase. This is an additional cost on top of your Genie+ purchase, but I’ve heard that it is TOTALLY worth it, if you’re going to splurge for Genie+. (If you’re planning on doing to Disney and purchasing Genie+ for multiple days, this makes Standby Skipper even more worth it…)
- Bring a USB battery for your phone, as you’re going to be glued to it throughout the day to try and get the Genie+ reservations you want.
- Check the Genie+ ride list to make sure the rides you want to ride are listed. (The most popular rides aren’t even in the Genie+ ride program and instead require you to purchase “Individual Lightning Lanes,” which is a consummate rip-off, but if it’s worth it to you–go ahead…)
- Depending on the park you’re going to visit, it really may not be worth it. I probably wouldn’t get the service in Epcot or Animal Kingdom, but would be more inclined to get it for Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios.
- Don’t plan TOO much. I alluded to this in my Touring Plans point above. 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.)
A trip to Walt Disney World should be relaxing and fun. If you are simply getting stressed, it’s time to re-consider what you’re even doing going to Disney. Don’t let all of the planning crap bring you down–sometimes, it’s best to just go with the flow and enjoy the parks without stressing all of the extra planning.
- Buy a popcorn bucket (provided you like popcorn). 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.
Also with an annual pass, you get free parking, which makes it super worthwhile to “control your own transportation” with a rental car–a huge plus over having to take Disney busses everywher. With the retiring of Disney’s Magical Express during COVID, having a car is even more worthwhile than it was 3-4 years ago.
- 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.
- If you want to eat at the popular restaurants in Walt Disney World, make your dining reservations T-minus 60 days out at 6 AM Eastern Time. This is a royal pain in the butt, but you really have no option here. And–even with perfect execution, I still have issues getting exactly what I want.
If you are a resort guest, you get to make your reservations 60 days out plus the length of your stay… so if you will be staying on-property at a Disney resort hotel for 5 days, you could make your ADRs 65 days in advance. If you were staying at a Disney Resort hotel for 12 days, you could make your ADRs 70 days in advance. (The ADR booking window advantage maxes out at 10 days.)
Some of the restaurants that are tough to get that you may want to shoot for 60 days out include Chef Art Smith’s Homecomin’, Space 220 (either the lounge or the restaurant), ‘Ohana, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Oga’s Canteen, Be Our Guest, Sci-Fi Dine In, Tusker House, Via Napoli, Chef Mickey’s, Garden Grill, Teppan Edo, San Angel Inn, T-REX, and Yak and Yeti (though if you are a member, you can use a Landry’s Select Club Membership to get a table at T-REX or Yak and Yeti).
- 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. I used to swear by Brooks running shoes, but have since fallen in love with Hokas, which are worth every penny. You may also want to try the On Clouds. All of these shoes cost more for a reason–you get what you pay for.
Additionally, wear comfortable, season-appropriate clothes. No matter what the season, I recommend wearing performance, moisture wicking fabrics. (I really swear by Columbia PFG button down shirts here. Vineyard Vines also makes a bunch of good stuff, and I also love Rhoback. Most companies make them now, though–even Reyn Spooner, another fave of mine.) 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. (I’ve got to recommend Helly Hansen’s lightweight “sailing” jackets here–they’re super compact and toasty warm, but also breathe, and they’re often available at Disney gift shops, especially in the Norway pavilion of Epcot.) 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. You can buy ponchos at Disney gift shops, but they’re pretty generic and boring, cheap, expensive, and they kind of suck.
Oh–and Men: I highly recommend the Underarmour tech “boxerjock” boxer briefs. These will help prevent chafing from all of the walking. Also, runner’s glide helps here as well (any brand will work).
Update, 10/15/2023: I recently found a better pair of underwear than the Underarmour. I now recommend the Wama Hemp Boxer Briefs far more than the Underarmour ones. They’re really outstanding. They’re stronger and thicker but still breathe just as much, they’re more comfortable, they have a premier feel to them–and they’re just higher quality. They’ll last longer as their stitching quality is superior. They might be a bit more expensive than buying the Underarmour boxer briefs at one of the Underarmour outlet locations with a sale, but they cost more because they’re better–and they’re well worth the delta, if there even is one. I’ll be buying these from now on. As of now, they’re officially “park tested, Joe approved.” You can find Wama’s mens boxer briefs by clicking on that link. You’ll be glad you did. (And with these, you won’t need that runner’s glide.)
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. Don’t forget USB batteries and cables for your smart phone. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!