DisneyWorld for Newbies

Hi all!  Today’s blog post has nothing to do with real estate.  But my family and I just got back from a fabulous vacation in Orlando and it got me to thinking… there is SO much to know before you go to DisneyWorld!  And I figured maybe I could help a few of you out if you’ve never been there before by writing this DisneyWorld for Newbies post.

I had not been to DisneyWorld since I was a teenager back in the 80’s.  I’d been to DisneyLand a few times but not DisneyWorld.  Then we moved to Georgia and it was suddenly within driving distance so last year we decided to go during my daughter’s fall break from school.  Now, when I go to Six Flags I just show up, randomly go from ride to ride without any particular plan, and try not to die from heat exhaustion.  I assumed it would be the same for Disney, right?

WRONG!  My mom has a good friend named Kim who gave her so much info to pass on to me, my head was swimming.  What do you mean, I have to make a reservation at the restaurants 4-6 months in advance?  It’s an amusement park!  At that point I was so overwhelmed I stopped thinking about it until about a month before our trip.

Here are my top 9 tips for doing Disney if you’ve never been before, or just haven’t been since you were a kid.


#1 – It’s all about the FastPass

Disney has something called a FastPass.  This is essentially a “go to the head of the line” pass for each person that wants to go on that ride.  You sign up for them in advance.  You MUST have your tickets for the park already in order to reserve any FastPasses.  If you have a military ID you can buy a 4-day park hopper pass at your closest base for an amazing price.  It’s called the Armed Forces Military Salute and it goes through 2017 (although they seem to renew it every year so hopefully it will continue indefinitely.)  If you stay at a Disney hotel you can reserve them 60 days in advance of your trip but if you don’t stay on-site you can only reserve them 30 days in advance.

You can reserve FastPasses for 3 different attractions each day.  So let’s say I’m going to the Magic Kingdom next Monday and I want to get a FastPass for Pirates of the Carribbean, The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Space Mountain.  You go to My Disney Experience and create an account.  You will type in the big long number on your actual ticket to the park and the name of the person using that ticket.  You can then pick your rides and the times you’d like to ride them and it basically makes a reservation for you.

The FastPass will be good for an hour, say from 10:15 to 11:15 am, so you can show up at any time during that hour and skip to the front of the line.  It’s awesome!!!  The downside is that if you don’t reserve far enough in advance all the FastPasses for that ride might be gone already.  Or they might only have weird time slots available, like 9-10 am or 8-9 pm.  So plan as far in advance as you can.

Once you use all 3 you can then go reserve more so download the Disney Go app to your phone and then you can book new passes on the fly, and change your reservation times as well.  You might walk up to Buzz Lightyear and see that the wait is only 5 minutes long, so why waste a FastPass?  Just open the app and change it to a different time slot or a different ride altogether.

We got a 4-day Park Hopper pass, which lets you hop between the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and the Animal Kingdom.  All four parks are considered DisneyWorld so I had to learn to start calling it the Magic Kingdom.  You can go to one park each day, or do half a day at one park and half a day at another.  Luckily you only have to pay for parking once a day so if you hop to another park make sure you don’t throw out your parking receipt!

You can reserve FastPasses for each day at each park but only 3 per day until you’ve used all three.  Make sense?  Good.

#2 – Buy a Book on Disney Dining

This is still overwhelming to me but, in a nutshell, you have three types of dining options – Quick Service (buying popcorn or cotton candy at a stand), Counter Service (like fast food), and Table Service (a sit-down restaurant.)  On top of those choices you can also make a reservation to eat in a restaurant where the characters will walk around and take pictures with your kids (character dining.)  Dining at Disney is NOT cheap.  It’s quite appalling how much food costs here.  I downloaded a Kindle book called Dining at Walk Disney World that gave me a description of each place to eat in all four parks with great tips, like where you can sit at an outdoor cafe and watch the parade while you’re having dinner, and how you can order a giant smoked turkey leg and a couple people can share it to save money on lunch.  It was well worth the few bucks that it cost.

The only character dining experiences we did were breakfast at the Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom (breakfast and lunch are almost always less expensive than dinner, for all you money savers like me!) and Mickey’s Backyard BBQ.  Sadly my 2 year old was terrified of the characters 90% of the time so that was a bust last year, but this year he hugged them all and was ecstatic every time he saw Mickey or Goofy walking around.  You should make sure you know if your child will really enjoy this before shelling out the big bucks for character dining.

#3 – Where to Stay

I know lots of people who stay at the Disney resorts and just ride the bus or monorail each day to get to the parks.  I can’t do it.  I personally cannot justify spending $100/night at the cheapest hotel (and more like $700/night at the fancy ones!) when you know you’re not going to be spending that much time in the hotel.

We like to rent condos.  That way you can have breakfast in your room since it has a kitchen, and only pack half as many clothes since you can do laundry once or twice during your stay.  Plus we can get the kids their own room when we rent a 2-bedroom condo.  This way Mom and Dad get a break and some privacy after the kids go to bed.

If you have a military ID I cannot say enough good things about the Armed Forces Vacation Club.  It’s free to join and they sell rooms at a huge discount for active duty and retirees.  It’s like a Space A flight only it’s for a hotel or condo and you can reserve months in advance.  We got a 2 bedroom/2 bath condo with a kitchen and washer/dryer in a simply gorgeous resort for $349 for the entire week.  (Actually I bought it on sale so I think it was more like $289.)  It was less than 10 minutes from the Magic Kingdom and only a mile or two from the Animal Kingdom.  Yes, you have to pay for parking each day but even if you spent $100 on parking over 5 days you’d still save a bundle by staying off site.

#4 – The RideMax app

There are several different apps that you can get on your phone to help you make a plan for the day.  I’ve only tried this one but it’s FAN-FREAKING-TASTIC!  Best $15 you’ll ever spend.  For some weird reason it’s not in the iTunes app store.  You buy it on their web site at Ridemax.com but their site is mobile friendly.  So you just access it through the browser on your phone instead of through an app.

You tell it what date and day of the week you’re going, what time you’ll arrive, what time you’ll leave, which rides you have FastPasses for, when you’ll eat and where, if you want to watch the fireworks, etc.  You plug in all this info and it tells you what order to go on the rides.  Here’s mine from our first day:

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You’ll notice that we didn’t wait longer than 16 minutes for any ride that day.  That’s amazing!  And I want to stress that this is not just because it was an off time of year.  We used this program several years ago at DisneyLand in California on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day, the busiest time of year according to the people who work there.  And we still never waited longer than 20 minutes for anything.  This app is GENIUS I tell you!  It also works for Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios in Orlando.

You can revise your itinerary as much as you want, make several different plans, make one for each day at each park.  The only drawback is that they don’t calculate times on Sundays.  However, both last year and this year we went to MK on a Sunday so I just scheduled my itinerary only I said I was going on Saturday instead of Sunday.  It worked out just fine.  In fact, I think we were ahead of schedule several times during the day.

# 5 – It’s blazing hot in Orlando

I bet in January it’s quite lovely, but every time I’ve been to Orlando it’s like being in the devil’s steam room.  So we like to go to the parks first thing in the morning and leave after lunch.  We go back to the hotel, the kids take naps, we go swimming and take showers, then we either do other stuff for the rest of the day or we go back to the parks at dinner time.  It’s far less crowded in the evenings and everyone knows the rides go faster after dark. ; )

Bring those chilly pads that you dip in water and drape around your neck, umbrellas, parasols, sunscreen, water, mister systems, hats, whatever you need to do to keep yourself from dying from heat stroke.  Did I mention that Orlando is hot?  It’s freaking HOT, I tell you!

# 6 – Are the fireworks worth staying to see?

I will give you my personal opinion and you can take it for what it’s worth.  We stayed for the fireworks at MK one night last year.  There’s an adorable show that goes on at the castle prior to the fireworks and Tinker Bell flies across the sky, which was pretty fabulous to see.  But the Magic Kingdom is on an island and you arrive (and leave) by ferry or monorail.  That particular night the monorail wasn’t working so everyone had to take the ferry.

Now, imagine it’s 9 pm and it’s still 90 degrees out.  The kids are whiny after a long day and you’re exhausted from so much walking.  You wait 20 minutes for the ferry to arrive and pack yourselves in there with 500 other people who are as hot, sweaty, and tired as you are.  If you’re lucky your kids are zonked out in a stroller.  If you’re not so lucky you’re carrying them.  By the time you get to your car you want to weep with relief.

Am I glad I did it once?  Yes.  Will I do it again?  No.  Not unless we arrive at the park at 5 pm and only stay for a few hours.  Then it might not be so bad.  But battling the crowds to get out of there was my idea of hell.  If you can see the fireworks from your hotel room, by all means watch the show from there!  Preferably while in the pool with a pina colada in your hand.

# 7 – The Disney Dining Plan

I have never done this so I really can’t say whether it’s worth it or not.  If you have input please comment below!  You have to stay in a Disney hotel to participate but it essentially gives you meals at a discount.  I have friends that went when they had a huge sale so their meals were very inexpensive compared to the typical prices.  Read up on the Dining Plans here and see what you think.

# 8 – Best times of day to go

There is a Team Go Early and a Team Stay Late and I’m Team Go Early all the way.  Why?  A few reasons:

  • It’s not so freaking hot
  • You park closer to the front gate (I’m not exaggerating here – the parking lots are ACRES AND ACRES AND ACRES big.  Just park up front and walk right in, or park toward the back and wait forever to ride the shuttle, and forget where the heck you parked when you leave at the end of the day.
  • The lines are much shorter
  • You can ride everything you want to ride by 1 or 2 pm, then leave when the heat is getting unbearable, and go back to the hotel.  Take a nap, go for a swim, take a cold shower, and then either go back to the park at dinnertime or go explore the town and have dinner somewhere that doesn’t cost $15 for chicken nuggets.

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If you arrive about 45-60 minutes prior to the opening of the park you can park the car, get to the front of the lines, watch the little show they do with all the characters singing and dancing, and then be among the first in line to ride your favorite rides.  We arrived two hours early the first day by mistake.  What?!  I thought they opened at 8 am but they didn’t open till 9.  We were literally the first people there.  I guarantee you we didn’t wait an hour to ride the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train though!

# 9 – Bring something for autographs!

I’m really not into this at all, quite honestly.  But my 11 year old daughter acts like she just saw Taylor Swift when Minnie Mouse walks by.  So she bought a Minnie baseball hat and has all the characters sign it when she meets them.  Last year it was a fuzzy Minnie Mouse backpack.  There are plenty of opportunities to take photos with the characters (and you can take your own photos with your phone or camera too!  The professional photos usually turn out awesome but you aren’t forced to buy them.)  So when your child gets to the front of the line just ask the person managing the meet-and-greet if they have a Sharpie on them.  They always do.

So that’s it!  My top tips for doing DisneyWorld as a newbie.  Have a wonderful time and let us know how your trip goes!

Karin