Disney World may be the Most Magical Place on Earth, but it is MASSIVE. If you’ve started planning your first trip, or your first trip in a long time, I’m sure you’ve experienced just how overwhelming it can be. Gone are the days when you could just go down and wing it (well, you CAN wing it, but you won’t be doing yourself any favors). A little know-how will go a long way to drastically improve your experience. I’ve pulled together all of my best Disney World tips for beginners to make the most out of their Disney World vacation!
When To Go To Disney World
This might be the single most important decision you make in your planning. Crowds are a fact of Disney World, but there are certainly times when the crowds are heavier and times when they’re far lower.
In general, the best time to go is September through early November, as this is when schools are back in session, and it’s before the holidays. The worst time to go is, of course, summer and holidays, but there is slightly more nuance than that. The general rule of thumb is that the crowds are the highest when school is on break, but I’ll break it all down, season by season:
Spring often has fantastic weather, but you’ll want to avoid peak spring-break weeks. That starts around mid-february and runs through mid-late April. Late April and early May is often a great time to go for good weather before it gets sweltering and lower crowd levels.
If you can avoid going in the summer, avoid it. The temps and humidity are soaring, it rains most every day in the afternoon, and the crowds and prices are high. If the summer is the only time that works for you, try to keep your trip to the end of August, after many schools and universities are back in session.
This is often the best time to go. Mid August – all of September is the best time of the year to go with schools freshly back in session. You can often get the best prices on hotels at this time as well. October and November, save for holiday weekends, have lower crowds than peak, and can have fantastic weather.
It goes without saying to avoid the week between Christmas and New Years (in fact, I’d avoid from the Friday before Christmas through the Sunday after New Years if you can), but the second week of January through mid February can be a great time to go – cooler weather and lower crowds can make for a great trip!
Touring Plans has a super-detailed crowd calendar if you’d like to get super granular, if you’re looking for a low-crowd week for your vacation, if you follow these general guidelines, you’ll be in good shape!
How To Get to Disney World
After your flight to MCO, how does one get to Disney World Property? Orlando International Airport is about 20-30 minutes away from WDW, and while, unfortunately, the complimentary Disney’s Magical Express is ending its service at the end of 2021, there are still a lot of options to get to and from the airport with ease.
Taxis are usually readily available at MCO, and will run you between $50 – 60 each way to and from a Disney World Hotel.
Usually readily available, and it’ll run you between $40 – $50 each way. When the Minnie Vans are running (they operate via the Lyft App), they’ll run you a bit more, but they’ll be guaranteed to have car seats, if that is necessary for you – that’s not something guaranteed (or likely to be present) in your standard Lyfts and Ubers.
Mears Shuttles / Disney’s Magical Express
The Magical Express, Disney’s defunct free airport transport service is, sadly, no more. Mears does run shuttle busses to transfer guests of the resorts, and for those staying off property, this’ll run about $40 round-trip per-person depending on the hotel you’re staying at. Good low-cost option, but it will take quite a bit of time, so weigh your time/budget accordingly.
This is a great option for a bigger crew, or if you plan to do other things in Orlando outside of Disney property. It can also be MUCH faster to drive yourself vs. depending on free Disney transportaion. Be sure to factor in the daily cost of parking at the parks (at the time of publishing – $25 per day).
Where to Stay in Disney World
This is a loaded question, and pretty much EVERYONE you ask will have very strong opinions about it. Ultimately, the best place to stay is the place that works best for your group and budget. Here’s an overview of the Disney World resort levels and areas to help you figure out what is right for you. For a more detailed look into each of the resorts, check out our detailed Disney World Resorts list here.
Value, Moderate, or Deluxe?
In broad strokes, these refer to the price level of different resorts. Value being the most cost efficient, Moderate being in the middle, and Deluxe, of course, being the most expensive. There are also Villas, which we’ll touch on a little later. These titles also refer to the level of amenities (i.e. gyms, number of food options, spas, etc.) Value resorts will have limited amenities – no gyms, limited food options (often just one quick-service outlet), etc. Moderates are right down the middle, and Deluxe, naturally, having the most amount of amenities across the board.
Which Area to Stay In?
Magic Kingdom Area Hotels
These are, of course, the resorts closest to Magic Kingdom. With the exception of Wilderness Lodge, which offers quick boat access, they are all now walkable to the park. Because of their prime location, they do tend to be some of the most expensive resorts to stay in, but if you’re traveling with kiddos that need that mid-day nap, or you plan to spend plenty of time relaxing at the resort, these might be worth the splurge to you.
Epcot Area Hotels
The Epcot Area hotels have the bonus of being close to two parks. They are all walkable to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios, and otherwise offer quick boat access. We find these are great for those who enjoy hopping over to Epcot to have dinner or a few drinks in the park at night. Definitely worth the price if quick access to Epcot or Hollywood Studios is important to your group.
Animal Kingdom Area Hotel(s)
Close proximity to Animal Kingdom and Blizzard Beach, ideal if you’ve got a real animal lover, and you plan to spend lots of time in that area. Animal Kingdom Lodge is often considered the best themed resort with the best food options, so despite it’s distance from everywhere else, it’s definitely still an option to seriously consider.
Disney Springs Area Hotels
This is where most of the moderate and value resorts reside. These are often very large resorts, with great room options and the most over-the-top theming. While they tend to have less food options than most of the Deluxe options, they have quick and easy access to Disney Springs, and all of the options available there. The theming at these hotels is also elevated, so if your kids love giant characters, or icons, you definitely want to check out the value resorts.
Off Property/Good Neighbor Hotels
There are a TON of hotels in the areas surrounding the Walt Disney World Property. These hotels can give you everything you’d want for a lower price, and can even give you some of the perks you’d get from staying on Disney Property. Some offer free shuttles to and from the park, but if not, you’ll need to consider your own transportation to the parks or parking fees at the parks. The savings might be more than enough to cover this extra cost, though!
A great option if you’re traveling with a large group and want to stay together, or want to save a little money by cooking for yourself. There are plenty of options around the park, but as with the Off-Property hotels, you’ll need to account for transportation to/from the parks or parking fees and the cost of rental cars.
Getting Around Walt Disney World
One of the perks of staying on Disney Property is the free Disney transportation to and from the parks and around property. You don’t need to be staying on Disney Property to use the transportation, though. You can use the transportation to get between parks, and around property no matter where you’re staying, but you’ll still need to deal with getting to or parking on property.
Probably the most ubiquitous form of Disney Transportation – the free busses are everywhere. They’ll take you to and from your resort, from park to park, to Disney Springs and back. If you need to get somewhere on property, chances are there’s a bus that’ll do the trick. Be sure to check time tables (and take them with a grain of salt), and know that as of the time of publishing, there are still operating at limited capacities, so plan a little extra time to accommodate for that.
If the busses are ubiquitous, the Monorail is iconic. This “train in the sky” is an elevated train that has two loops. One connecting the Contemporary, Polynesian, Grand Floridian and the Magic Kingdom, and the other loop connecting the Ticket and Transportation center and Epcot. *Note that COVID has caused some limited service on the monorail, so double check what’s running before you go.
Boats are everywhere in Disney World, and they can be a downright pleasant form of transportation. From the ferries that run from the TTC to the Magic Kingdom, to the friendship boats that travel the World Showcase Lagoon and out to the Epcot-Area hotels, to the Sassagoula River Cruise boats that connect some of the Disney Springs area hotels to Disney Springs. If where you are and where you’re going is on water, check to see if there’s a boat option to get you there!
The newest form of Disney Transportation, the Skyliner connects Pop Century/Art of Animation, the Riviera Resort, Caribbean Beach Resort and Hollywood Studios and Epcot. This has been a game-changer for some of these resorts that previously suffered from only having bus transportation to all of the parks, and long internal bus loops. This is relatively high-volume, so lines can move quickly, and since it operates outside of public roads, can be a much faster way of getting where you’re getting.
Planning Your Park Days
For the foreseeable future, park reservations are still going to be part of planning your Disney World trip. Once you pick your days, you’ll want to book those reservations as soon as you can. Even if you’re going during a time when park reservations aren’t required, you’ll want to start planning out your days (especially if you’re planning on snagging some dining reservations).
In general, you’ll want to keep some awareness as to what’s happening which days at which parks, and plan accordingly. Around the holidays, keep your eyes out for the hard-ticketed events (i.e. the Halloween and Christmas Parties). If you’re not doing park hoppers, you’ll want to make sure to avoid those days as your park day will be cut short unless you have a ticket to the event at night. If you ARE getting park hoppers, it might behoove you to go to the park on the day of a hard ticketed event, as crowds will generally be lower because of the event, and hop to another park when that event starts.
Other things to keep your eyes on: RunDisney events, Candlelight Processional, new attraction openings, local Orlando school holidays, etc. Keep an eye on that Touring Plans Crowd Calendar for more detailed crowd and event information, and plan accordingly. It can make a HUGE difference to avoid the high crowd days and enjoy the lowest possible crowds for the time you’re down there.
Dining in Disney World
Dining Plan or No Dining Plan?
There’s something to be said for paying for all of your dining in advance and not worrying about pulling out your credit card or getting that huge bill at the end of the trip. One thing to remember about the dining plan is that it does not include gratuities, and alcoholic drinks beyond the one included drink, so be sure to keep that in mind as you’re budgeting for your trip.
Is it worth it, though? The long and short of it, though, is that, if you crunch the numbers, unless you’re getting the most expensive dish at every meal and really maximizing your snack credits, it’s almost always not a great deal for you. If you get the Dining Plan, it’s mandatory that every person in your party also has it, so if you’ve got a light eater, know that you’ll likely be having some meals or snack credits left over, and leftover snack credits = wasted money.
Once an insider’s secret, Mobile Ordering is now the standard for quick service outlets in Disney World. Because everyone is now mobile ordering (which, to be honest, is still a better experience than standing in long lines), it does require a little forethought. If you’re trying to mobile order lunch for 12:15 at 12:00 Noon, chances are, you won’t be able to get a slot before 2-3 PM, so do what you can to start thinking about when you’d like to eat, and what you’d like to eat as early as you can to ensure you can eat what and when you want.
If there’s one thing that is absolutely critical to your Disney Day, it’s staying hydrated. Orlando can be extremely hot and humid, so between walking nearly 20,000 steps every day and the sweating, dehydration can become a real risk, but don’t spend money on bottled water at the parks! Every quick service location will offer free ice water to anyone who asks, and bottle filling stations are everywhere. I, personally, like my water to stay very cold, so I tote along my handly Hydro Flask and keep topping it up with ice water throughout my day. If you’re someone who doesn’t like the taste of tap water, bring along some Nuun tablets to flavor that water, and keep your electrolytes in balance.
Table Service Meals
There’s no shortage of sit-down meals in Disney World ranging from the casual to total splurge, from buffets to Character Dining. Depending on where you’re looking to eat, reservations can be incredibly difficult to get, so if you’re trying to eat at one of the restaurants that are hard to snag, like Be Our Guest and Cinderella’s Royal Table, jump on the reservations as soon as the window opens for your trip.
What to put in your park bag?
A well stocked park bag can make or break your day. You can check out my comprehensive list of things to pick up before you head to Disney World that will make your trip more affordable and much more comfortable. For your actual park bag here are some of the key items I bring with me in my bag every single trip I take into the parks:
This goes without saying. Stay hydrated.
You’ll be out in the sun all day, so one application is just not going to cut it. Waterproof sunscreen is ideal, so you can last through sweat and water rides!
It’s not a question of if your phone is going to run out of power, it’s when. With everything moving over to Magic Mobile, this is only going to get worse. You can pick up a Fuel Rod in the park (free to swap out for a fresh rod), or bring one along. I recommend at charger with at least 3,000 mAh – or one full charge.
The most handy thing you’ll have with you. Good for protecting your electronics on water rides, separating dirty things out in your bag, storing leftover snacks, etc. Bring a few with you every day!
Wallet/Backup Credit Cards
Yes, you can do most things using your Magic Band or phone in the parks, but sometimes technology fails, so have a little cash or a backup credit card, just in case.
If you’re heading to Disney World in the summer, and you’re not accustomed to Florida-level heat, you’re going to want something that can keep you cool in the heat of the day.
Rain Poncho / Umbrella
For a lot of the year in Disney World, it’s not a question of if it will rain, it’s more a question of when it will rain. Be prepared to ride out the rain storms with a poncho or umbrella in your bag. You will be able to pick up ponchos in the park in a pinch, but you can save a ton of money by picking some up ahead of time and just being prepared.
Wet Wipes and Hand Sanitizer
Double this if you’re going with kiddos. You’re going to want to be able to clean them (or yourself) up without braving the crowded bathrooms.
If you’re heading to Disney World on a budget, or if you’re looking to keep to healthier options, bring along a few snacks in your bag!
For blisters, scrapes, etc. You’re better off having a few in your bag than having to shell out theme park prices to buy some in the stores.
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