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We just took our first major family vacation. I'm not talking a holiday trip to visit family. I'm talking about an actual vacation – just for fun – as a family. Did we do something relaxing like go to a beach or stay in a mountain cabin? Nope! Our philosophy is “go big or go home”, so we decided to go to Disney World in Orlando, Florida!
I have to be totally honest and say that I spent years poo-pooing Disney…writing it off as too expensive, too crowded, too much of a hassle, you name it (I mean, seriously, with the word “magical” being thrown around left and right – could it be any more hyped up?). And I admit that I wrote Disney World off without trying it out first. Well, now I'm completely sold on Disney! I literally went from thinking before we left that “we would just suck it up and do it for the kids to have the experience” to thinking as we were leaving “I'm so sad to be leaving! I had such a great time…when can we come back?”
When my husband and I first started talking about the possibility of going to Disney, I started researching. I was pricing out options, trying to figure out when to go, how long to go, where to stay, how to eat, etc. And since we live in Colorado, we had to factor in airfare and airline schedules. Can I just say that, as someone who had never been to Disney before, I felt overwhelmed!
I was incredibly lucky in that I got several helpful tips from friends who had been. However, since I didn't know the lay of the land or have a feel for how Disney works, more information was almost too much. But then I asked my amazing sister-in-law for any pointers she had (she's the person in my life whom I would call the “Disney Expert”) and she delivered in a major way! Let's just say that without her details and helpful pointers, our vacation would not have been nearly as relaxing as it was!
In reflecting on our experience and from talking with others, I realized that there are tons of people who are in the same boat – they have never traveled to Disney World and have assumed it's either too expensive or too overwhelming, so they don't bother researching it. Can you relate?
I decided that to create a list of simple tips – nothing overwhelming – to help you skip some of the confusion and hours of research that we went through. These are the very basics to get you started in your planning. If you want more detailed tips, let us know!
Let's dive in!
1) Spend time researching and planning on the front end (before you leave) so that you can simply relax and enjoy while you are there
This is normally not my idea of a vacation, and when a friend recommended doing this, I initially balked. However, I ended up taking her advice and spent roughly 40 hours planning out our trip ahead of time. It wouldn't take nearly that long to plan now that I am familiar with Disney and how everything works. While to some people that may seem ridiculous, I can see firsthand how that pre-planning made our trip so much more relaxing and fun.
Start planning your trip at least 3 months out. Many people plan their Disney vacations 6 months or more in advance. We started researching about 3 months out, and I booked the flights and resort reservations about 9 weeks before our trip.
Pre-plan these items (I recommend doing so in this order):
- Place to stay (more info in tip #2)
- Airfare, if needed
- Arrange Disney's Magical Express or a rental car (see tip #9)
- Book any dining reservations (up to 6 months in advance)
- Reserve Fastpasses (more info in tip #3)
- Check into which parks have extended hours (available to guests staying on property)
- Set up an account in “My Disney Experience” (on the Disney website) – this will allow you to view and access all your trip details (reservations, schedule Fastpasses, etc)
- Add Memory Maker – for $150 for our trip, it was a great value for the photos we got – this is an easy and affordable way to get professional photos of your trip from photographers throughout the parks as well as photos from the rides and attractions throughout the parks.
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2) Stay on property
Staying on property means that you are staying in a Disney World-owned resort inside Disney World itself. If you have never been, think of Disney World as a huge base, and within that base are many places to stay. Disney owns most of the resorts on property; some are privately-owned.
Staying on property and being close with access to the bus system means that your family can get downtime during the day. This is essential to avoiding meltdowns and a huge perk to staying on property. Disney involves a lot of stimulation and tons of walking. The entire family gets tired. Staying on the property allows the little kids to take a nap and the bigger kids to swim at the pool for a bit – everyone needs a mid-day recharge of some sort.
With so many options and price points, it can be confusing where to begin. HERE is a great resource with details about each place to stay on Disney Property. It's a great place to begin and branch out from there.
We stayed at the Art of Animation Resort. It fit our family of 5 perfectly! There are multiple pools, a great food court with many food options, and the best part…dedicated buses (meaning that we didn't have to stop at multiple resorts – our buses went directly between the parks and the resort).
Another perk to staying on property is that one park each day has extended hours (either before opening or after closing), and that feature is only available to guests staying in a Disney property.
3) Get (and use) Fastpasses!
What are these, you say? Fastpasses are add-ons to your daily park admission which allow you to enter special lines for rides that bypass (skip) the long wait times of the normal lines. This was super confusing to me until I saw it in action. It's brilliant and amazing. I will never be able to enjoy Disney without them. I can't tell you how many times we would use a Fastpass to cut a 90+ minute wait for a ride to 10 minutes or less.
The key to Fastpasses is to schedule them in advance. You can schedule them 30 days in advance if you don't stay on property and 60 days in advance if you do stay on property. I didn't schedule the Fastpasses until we were about 45 days from our trip, and it was hard to get the rides and times that I wanted because they were already taken. Earlier scheduling is yet another perk to staying on property.
One final note about Fastpasses: Disney gives each ticket holder 3 Fastpasses each day. Each Fastpass has a dedicated window of an hour, meaning that if you have a Fastpass for The Tower of Terror at 9am, you have an hour window (9-10am) to use that Fastpass. If you don't use it within that hour window, you forfeit it. Once you have used all 3 of your daily Fastpasses (either by riding the rides that you have a Fastpass reserved or by passing the allotted window of time), you may schedule unlimited Fastpasses until the park closes. The catch is that you can only schedule one Fastpass at a time after using your initial 3.
4) Get a dining plan
If you are staying on property, you are eligible to purchase a dining plan. There are several options available so that you can choose a structure (and a price point) that fits your family.
I highly recommend going with this option because it is more affordable than buying your meals as you go. To be completely honest, the food was amazing. I keep saying that we ate like royalty while we were there! We enjoyed every meal we had and talked about those meals for days afterward.
5) Get Magicbands for everyone in your party
The Magicband really impressed me. They are basically bracelets that you snap on your wrist, but they have many magical powers! These bracelets can magically open your resort room without the need for a key. They can magically pay for your food or allow you into the resort pool or the parks and on rides, all with just the magical swipe of your wrist. They even have the ability to have a credit card attached to them so that you can buy items in the gift shops with another magical swipe.
6) Book everything through Disney
It really is easiest just to book your entire trip through Disney World. You can call their number and speak with someone who will walk you through the entire process and make it as painless as it can be. I literally had a guy helping me to breathe through the anxiety and uncertainty I was feeling – he was so patient!
Now that I understand what everything is and how it works, it would take me about 15 minutes on the phone to book everything. It's really very simple. In full disclosure, you can plan and purchase your entire vacation online, if you prefer that method. I needed to speak with someone who could answer questions about the things that were confusing me and talk through other options with me (as well as make suggestions – I got some great restaurant and ride suggestions from the people I spoke with!).
7) Skip the Park Hopper add-on
We added this option because we thought we would have extra time to kill and might want to go revisit a park. It was a waste of money for us. Each park literally takes at least a day to cover (assuming you take a mid-day break). It might have been worth it had we ventured to Magic Kingdom for the nighttime fireworks show, but honestly, we were too exhausted! Next time, I would just skip this add on.
8) Take advantage of Disney transportation
If you are staying on Disney property, you don't need a rental car (assuming you are flying)! In fact, a rental car would be a bigger hassle than using Disney's transportation. Disney's Magical Express will pick you up from the airport and take you to your resort. They will also handle your luggage for you, so you don't need to wait at baggage claim after you land. Simply put the special luggage tags on your bags before you fly, and Disney's Magical Express will locate them. Disney staff will transport the bags to your resort and take them to your room for you. FYI, Disney's Magical Express will also take you and your bags back to the airport at the end of your trip.
To make navigating this transportation system a little easier, remember these tips:
- Your luggage will not be on the same bus that you ride on, meaning your bags will most likely arrive in your room about 3 hours after you do. If you use this service and need anything from your luggage sooner than that, take it with you on your carry-on (we learned this one the hard way – our flight arrived around 8:30 PM, and we didn't get our bags until the next morning because we were too exhausted to wait up for them). Otherwise, grab your luggage from baggage claim and take it to the Disney's Magical Express bus with you.
9) Download (and use) the Disney App
This app works in conjunction with the My Disney Experience account online. I found it to be tremendously helpful in showing directions, wait times for rides and attractions, adding Fastpasses, etc. There is Wi-fi all through the parks for guests to use – that was helpful too!
10) Souvenirs – stick to a budget.
The gift shops at Disney are super expensive and everywhere you turn (at least I thought so). Add in a budgeting lesson for the kids by telling them they have a certain amount of money they can spend (say $25). Another option: have them bring their own money (a limited amount) from home to spend. We waited until the last day we were there to buy our souvenirs, and we set a limit of $25 per kid. It was a great exercise for them in making sure they stuck to their budget (including tax!).
- Unless your kids are well past the age to ride in a stroller, take (or rent) a stroller. You will walk miles at Disney every day, and those kiddos get tired! At very active 6, 8, and 9 years old, our boys did well, but even they got tired. Another option (if you don't want to deal with strollers) is to plan lots of water/rest breaks. We splurged on a couple of ice cream breaks on hot days and had a blast people-watching and chatting about what they were enjoying about the park that day.
- All the staff at Disney World work really, really hard to create a magical experience for each and every guest! Each time we asked for help, directions, or anything else, we received it quickly. The parks are gorgeous and in top condition. Staff complete any needed cleaning or landscaping at night during off hours.
I think it's important to mention that we decided we were just doing a dedicated Disney experience on this trip. We didn't go to Universal Studios, the beach, Kennedy Space Center or anywhere else. We wanted to completely immerse ourselves and get the fullest Disney World experience that we could. Honestly, I'm so glad we did that!
I am so glad we took the plunge and went to Disney World! It was an amazing vacation that we experienced together as a family. I can't think of another place where kids and adults alike feel awed and have tons of fun. It truly was an amazing and magical experience. No exaggeration at. All. There is no place like Disney World! I'm itching to get back…
Check out these websites for more information or help planning your trip. I found these sites extremely helpful when I was planning our Disney Trip!
Tell us, what do you want to know or wish you knew before going to Disney?
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