First time visitors to Walt Disney World make a lot of mistakes. There are many things that are simply impossible to know until you go, and due to many planning resources being written by seasoned Disney veterans, it can be easy for those sharing tips to completely gloss over something because they are so familiar with the parks and just take certain things for granted.
With that in mind, we’ve written this blog post with some important things that first time visitors ought to know. If you’ve been to Walt Disney World even one time, you will know most or all of this information. In that case, you might ‘pay it forward’ by sharing a basic bit of info about Walt Disney World that you didn’t know before your first trip, but that you consider important.
Okay, let’s dig into our list of some basic things first time Walt Disney World guests should know…
If you’ve done any amount of research, you probably know that Walt Disney World is the “big place” in Florida and Disneyland is the “little place” in California.
It bears reiterating: Walt Disney World is HUGE. It’s located on 25,000 acres, has 24 hotels, 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, and more “other stuff” beyond the parks than you can shake a stick at. On the one hand, it’s awesome to have so many different great things to do. You could easily visit for 2 weeks and not run out of things to do–the options beyond theme parks, from fishing to golfing to spas and more are staggering. On the other hand, because there is much, the distance between hotels and parks, parks and other entertainment, etc. can be fairly substantial. Walt Disney World is not a place that you can cover on foot.
The other consequence of this is in terms of time. Whether you rent a car or use Disney’s free transportation, you are going to spend a lot of time during your trip commuting. The best case scenario, if you only visit one park per day and rent a car, puts your total commute time at an hour. If you park hop and use Disney transportation, you might spend 3 or more hours per day commuting. Yes, all of those options are great, but the time it takes to get from one of them to another is not. We have a post dedicated to Walt Disney World Transportation Tips that can help you take shortcuts (not literally) to save time with Disney’s transportation system.
You can make Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) to Walt Disney World restaurants 180 days before your trip. Take advantage of this, because popular restaurants like Le Cellier, Cinderella’s Royal Table, Be Our Guest Restaurant, and Chef Mickey’s book up months in advance.
While the importance of ADRs isn’t as significant as it once was thanks to Disney putting in a new deposit system, if you want to dine at the most sought-after restaurants or you travel during busy times (or during the “Freem Dining” promotion, the importance of ADRs for popular restaurants cannot be understated. We’ve heard horror stories from guests who book Free Dining, then just show up, expecting to eat anywhere…and unable to find a table at even the most unpopular restaurants. Make your reservations as early as possible. When we have used the Disney Dining Plan in the past, we’ve made reservations months in advance. Sometimes, even at 170+ days, we still didn’t get what we wanted.
We normally use Disney’s Magical Express, which is a complimentary transportation service from the Orlando International Airport to Disney-owned hotels, and that’s partly because renting a car at the airport can be prohibitvely expensive. In fact, when we’ve priced it out in the past, the prices have often been substantially more than we’re used to paying whenever traveling elsewhere.
There are two ways to avoid this. The first is renting a car at an off-airport location, and taking a shuttle to get it. Likewise, you can use Disney’s Magical Express (if you’re staying at a Disney-owned hotel) and then take a bus to the Swan & Dolphin to pick up a car when you need one. An Alamo/National rental desk is located near guest services at the Dolphin. This can be a real money saver if you only need a rental car for a day visit to SeaWorld, Universal, or another theme park.
Another option is a new rental car agency called Firefly that is located in the Orlando airport. We recently rented from them, and they rate we paid was about one-quarter the price of the next lowest agency (it worked out to be $15/day AFTER taxes). In doing some random searches, this seems fairly typical. Our experience with them was fine, although they were more aggressive than the major agencies with upsells and trying to push insurance. This is just one experience, but I’ve heard the same thing from a few other people who have used Firefly. The point is that they’re legit, but the try to get around those low base prices by selling you add-ons you don’t need. Stand firm.
Walking around the parks for a day will tire you out. Walking around for an entire week can leave you downright exhausted. Seriously.
This is not to say that you need to do some sort of marathon training regime prior to visiting Walt Disney World, but if you plan on lasting the entire day in the parks without fatigue and blisters, you should physically prepare yourself for the trip. How you prepare is ultimately your call, but you’ve been warned. (This could explain why moleskin is one of the top recommendations from commenters on our Unique Disney Packing List post.)
What’s that saying about the best laid plans of mice and men? That might as well have been written about you and Mickey. Once you’ve developed a daily itinerary for your trip (and you absolutely should make at least a loose one), take a red pen and randomly cross off about half the things on that list. That’s how much you should actually expect to get done–if you end up finishing more, consider it a pleasant surprise.
Everything takes longer than you’ll expect at Walt Disney World. The odd thing here is that this is usually not a result of waiting in lines longer than you expect (in fact, usually posted wait times are higher than actual wait times). Instead, you’ll find that transportation, walking between attractions, dining, and various other things all take longer than you plan.
In some cases, this is a good thing. There will be times in the parks when you’ll stumble upon roaming entertainment or a fun detail that will preoccupy you for a bit, and these diversions are a pleasant surprise. Other times, this is a not so good thing. You plan for 30 minutes to get from your room to a park, but due to bus delays or parking time, it might actually take an hour.
If you want me to be completely honest, the heading on this one would be “Downtown Disney is a Waste of Time.” However, I know some people really like Downtown Disney for whatever reason, so I’m trying to be a bit more balanced. The reason I think Downtown Disney is generally a waste is because its biggest draw is shopping, and virtually everything sold at Downtown Disney can be found in one of the parks. The second biggest draw is dining, and with few exceptions (we recently dined at Raglan Road for the first time, and it’s a big exception), there are far superior restaurants in the parks and Disney hotels.
Essentially, Downtown Disney is a sprawling outdoor mall with a mix of real world locations and Disney-specific locations. If you live in a major US city, many of the highlights of Downtown Disney will also exist in your hometown. Add to this the fact that Downtown Disney is poorly laid out and now contains plenty of construction walls as it’s being reinvented as “Disney Springs.” Finally, transportation to and from Downtown Disney is inconvenient, as is parking, and you have a location that will not appeal to everyone.
In fairness, a lot of people love the shopping, dining, and ambiance at Downtown Disney, so take this opinion with a grain of salt. It just seems to me that if you have limited vacation time, that time is better spent doing something totally unique to Walt Disney World, not going to a glorified mall similar to what you might have back home. If you’re looking for places outside the parks to visit, we suggest the Boardwalk area (a short walk from Epcot’s International Gateway) and Animal Kingdom Lodge. Both have dining, entertainment, and ambiance superior to Downtown Disney.
“If there’s a long line, it must be for something good.” While this sounds a bit silly, this describes Disney guest behavior to a degree. (Seriously, we have heard multiple stories about guests lining up for Be Our Guest Restaurant because there was a line and they assumed it was a good ride.)
Just because an attraction has a long line doesn’t mean you’ll enjoy it, and just because it has no line doesn’t mean it’s no good. There are a lot of factors affecting wait times, including an attraction’s hourly guest capacity, its location in the park, the type of attraction it is v. other attractions in the park, etc. Some of our favorite attractions at Walt Disney World rarely have waits, and that’s often because they have highly hourly capacity or aren’t thrill rides (as a general rule, thrill rides have the longest waits–even though they’re typically the shortest and least-detailed).
Beyond Disney’s free FastPass+ system, another similar time-saving option is the Rider Switch Pass (more commonly known as a “Child Swap”), which can be obtained from Cast Members outside attractions with height limits. This pass allows one parent to stay with the kids who don’t meet the height requirement for an attraction while the other parent (or group of above-height people) waits with the kids.
When the riding parent/group is done, the waiting parent/group (up to 3 per pass) can use the pass by going to the FastPass+ return line. Since three people can use the pass, your kids or other party members who are tall enough to ride the attraction can conceivably go twice: once in line with the first parent, and the second time by using the pass with the parent who did the watching the first time!
As part of a new system called MyMagic+, guests can now schedule time windows for bypassing the lines at attractions via something called FastPass+. FastPass+ can be obtained via the My Disney Experience app or via in-park kiosks and are stored on the MagicBand. Guests then “redeem” their FastPass+ by swiping it against an RFID reader outside applicable attractions. Guests are able to book 3 FastPass+ tickets in advance of their vacation (so, from home) 60 days in advance.
This can be a confusing and convoluted system for the first time guest to understand. For further information about FastPass+, check out our MyMagic+ FAQ. To figure out where you should use your 3 FastPass+ per day, check out our Disney Ride Guides.
A lot of Disney commercials show kids and Disney characters romping around the parks hand-in-hand, as carefree as can be. While there are some spontaneous character interactions, most of the time you will need to wait in line in order to meet Disney characters. In some cases, these wait times are longer than what you’ll encounter for popular attractions. In fact, right now the Frozen meet & greet in Norway at Epcot has the longest lines in that park, with waits longer than any attraction in the park.
While Frozen is a bit of an anomaly due to its incredible popularity right now, it’s not uncommon to wait 30 minutes or more to meet “ordinary” characters. That can be less or considerably more depending on the time of year you visit, and the character’s popularity. To make matters worse, many of these lines are outdoors and do not offer shade.
If you must meet characters, doing a character meal is a good way to save time by having the characters come to you while you eat. Of course, there is an additional charge for these meals, and most of them are not cheap. (Here are our recommendations if you’re on the Disney Dining Plan.) Still, it can be worth your time, money, and sanity if your kids are really into characters.
In pop culture, Disney trips are portrayed as expensive, highly commercialized affairs. This sentiment has become so commonplace that Jungle Cruise skippers often joke that everything leads to a gift shop. While much of this is deserved, visiting Walt Disney World doesn’t have to be ridiculously expensive.
Guests can stay in cheap, off-site hotels that are in abundance around Orlando. (We far prefer staying on-site; click here to read our article weighing the pros and cons of off-site v. on-site.) Disney allows guests to bring their own food to the park (a rare policy among theme parks), but even if you don’t do this, prices are still significantly lower than what you’ll find at a movie theater or ball park. You can buy discounted souvenirs at nearby outlets or online, or have freebies offered in-park substitute as souvenirs. About the only thing significant aspect of a Walt Disney World vacation that can be done significantly cheaper with an alternative approach is theme park tickets. Then then, though, you can save money by purchasing them from a third party.
Walt Disney World will never be as inexpensive as visiting a state or National Park, but compared to a lot of other entertainment and vacation options, it can be a better deal. It’s just a matter of perspective and being willing to do things a certain way to save money.
PhotoPass is a free service where Disney photographers around the park will take photos of you in front of park icons and other photogenic scenery. Normally, the catch is that while the taking of the photos is free, downloading and printing them costs money (as does the Memory Maker package).
This would render that “free” tag illusory, but for the fact that PhotoPass photographers (and any Cast Member, for that matter) will also take photos for you with your camera.
Given the fact that PhotoPass will take photos of you with your own camera, I have always had a really hard time recommending guests purchase Memory Maker. Granted, there are benefits if your camera isn’t very nice, and the PhotoPass photographers are more “aggressive” in getting good photos with their own cameras than with yours, but to me, that’s not enough to justify spending over $100 on Memory Maker. Most guests would come out ahead buying a cheap point & shoot (or even had PhotoPass photographers use their phones to take photos), had PhotoPass photographers use that to take their photos, and then purchased photobooks through reputable online services.
One theme of this post is that planning is important. This really cannot be understated. While it’s true that every destination you visit is best experienced with advance planning, this seems especially true at Walt Disney World. There is so much to do, and so many of the things that exist at Walt Disney World involve waiting or lines, making it seriously advantageous for anyone who is knowledgeable or has an efficient plan of attack.
Some guests go all out, planning every detail of their trip, making binders full of color-coded stuff, and all sorts of other craziness. This type of thing is best reserved for those who actually enjoy doing those things–more power to you if that fits your personality. That degree of planning is not necessary, and the amount of time you’ll expend on those efforts will be grossly disproportionate to the amount of time you’ll save over someone who is moderately prepared. (Moreover, you’ll put pressure on yourself to have an unattainably ‘perfect’ vacation.) Instead, read a variety of blogs, find some planning tips on Pinterest or Facebook, and/or skim a book like The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. You’ll spend anywhere from a few hours to several days doing this, but you will poise yourself to have a great vacation.
Planning, or a lack thereof, is ultimately the key difference between those who visit Walt Disney World for the first time and have a great time, and those who have an awful time. As with all things, you get out of it what you put into it.
That’s it for our list of first timer tips. If you are planning your first trip to Walt Disney World, make sure to check out our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for comprehensive planning ideas, our dining reviews to find the best restaurants, and our 101 Great Walt Disney World Tips posts.
For updates on Walt Disney World, the latest news, and tips, sign up for our free monthly newsletter!
If you are a Walt Disney World veteran, what other ‘overlooked’ things to know would you add to this? Which would you emphasize, and with which do you disagree? If you’re a first-timer, is there anything else you’d like to know? Chances are if you have questions still, so does someone else! We love hearing from readers, so please share your thoughts in the comments.