For most guests, the first day of their Disney World vacation is a partial day. You arrive mid-day and then what? Do you rest? Play? Eat? How do you plan these things? Here’s what you need to know.
How long will it take me to get from the airport to my hotel?
The first thing to remember is that it often takes a minimum of 30 minutes after the plane lands to get to the point where you’re ready to leave the airport. This includes a disembarking the aircraft, a restroom stop, and collecting luggage (if you’re not having Disney deliver it). Be sure to factor this into your schedule.
After that, your timing depends on whether you’re using Disney’s free Magical Express transportation service or using a rental car. In both cases, you’ll need to budget 35ish minutes to drive from Orlando International (MCO) to Disney World.
If you’re using Magical Express, you may need to add up to 20 minutes for the bus to load at MCO. Additionally, the ME bus may transport guests from the airport to three or four different hotels. So, if your hotel is the first stop, then it will take just the 35 minutes to get from the airport to the resort. If you’re the fourth stop, then it may take up to about 75 minutes once you leave the airport.
If you’re using a rental car, the drive will take the same 35 minutes as the bus. However, you must collect your checked luggage yourself at the carousel (which is not always the case if you’re taking ME), and you’ll have to wait in line to get your car from the rental counter. Most of the time, this will be a 15 minute or so process. However, I have sometimes encountered HUGE rental car queues of well over an hour, while hour-long waits for ME almost never happen.
All of that is a very long way of saying that it will probably take you about an hour and a half from the time your plane touches down until the time you’re pulling up to your hotel, give or take, no matter how you’re getting to Walt Disney World.
I’ll be using a car to get to WDW, how do I find the right address to put in my GPS?
The street address of every Disney World resort hotel is listed on the DisneyWorld.com website on that resort’s main page, on the right, under the map. For example, you can see on the Pop Century page, the street address is: 1050 Century Drive, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830-8433.
Please bear in mind that some GPS systems handle directional street name modifiers differently. For example, the address for the All Star Music resort is 1801 West Buena Vista Drive, Lake Buena Vista, Florida 32830-8436. The “West” in that address often trips up GPS units that want you to input “W” instead of West or to first input “Buena Vista Drive” and then select “W” or “West” from a menu. This may seem obvious, but flummoxes many guests who are tired from travel and using an unfamiliar rental car guidance system.
I’m not going to my resort first. What do I input into the GPS to get directly to a theme park?
For all the theme parks, use the street address below to get you close. I’ve found that once I’m within a mile or so of the parks, it’s often easier to turn off the GPS and just navigate using the signage, but that may just be me. Additionally, remember that many nav systems can get you to the parks via an “Attractions” or “Local Sites” menu item. If I don’t have the street address on hand, this usually works for me. Another sticking point for some is the use of the word “Disney” or “Disney’s” in the name of a location. Some attraction location systems want you to input “Pop Century” while others want something like “Disney’s Pop Century.” For the Magic Kingdom, some systems will list it as “Magic Kingdom,” while others list as “Disney World Magic Kingdom” or similar.
I almost always have problems with my iPhone when trying to get the map to take me to the Magic Kingdom. Sometimes I fudge and ask it to send me to the nearby Polynesian resort and then follow the signs when I get close. I’ve also had problems with Siri trying to send me to the secure cast member entrance of Disney’s Hollywood Studios instead of the main gate guest entrance. Be alert to this possible pitfall. (Can you tell that I have a terrible sense of direction and have made MANY mistakes driving around Walt Disney World?)
Magic Kingdom GPS address: 3111 World Drive, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
Epcot GPS address: 1200 Epcot Resort Blvd., Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
Disney’s Hollywood Studios GPS address: 351 South Studio Drive, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
Animal Kingdom GPS address: 551 Rainforest Road, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32830
Do I have to pay for parking if I drive directly from the airport to a theme park?
If you’re an annual pass holder or are staying at a Disney resort hotel, you are entitled to free parking at the theme parks, even if you have not yet checked in.
Annual pass holders should show their pass card which has the “PARKING” designation written on the back. (Magic Bands may not work for this.) When you check into a WDW hotel, you will be given a white barcoded paper to place on your dashboard indicating your resort guest status and free parking eligibility. If you’re staying at a Disney hotel but have not checked in, explain this to the parking booth attendant and show him/her a printout of your reservation confirmation. They should wave you right in with no fee.
If you’re not an annual pass holder and not staying at a Disney hotel, then you will have to pay for parking.
If my flight is delayed, can I still use Magical Express to get to my hotel?
Yes. Magical Express buses run 24 hours a day and they are well aware of flight difficulties. See more details on our Magical Express FAQ page, but rest assured that Magical Express will get you from MCO to your Disney resort hotel.
Do I need to go to my hotel first thing on my arrival day?
Yet again, it depends on how you’re arriving at Walt Disney World. If you’re arriving on Disney property via Magical Express, then yes, you must first go to your hotel. The ME buses will only bring you to your own resort.
If you’re arriving by any other method, then you’re welcome to visit a theme park directly on your first day without first stopping at your hotel. I often take an early flight from New York that puts me in Orlando at about 9:00am. When I rent a car, I usually just drive from the airport to a theme park to get a jump on the day. This works well because I can leave my luggage in the car. This would be somewhat more problematic if you were to take a taxi or town car to the parks because you would need to store your luggage somewhere. There are lockers at some of the theme parks, but they will not accommodate large bags.
In previous years, guests who purchased Disney vacation packages would have to stop at their hotel before going to the park to get their park admission tickets, but with the advent of MagicBands and MyMagic+ this is no longer the case. Since you can use My Disney Experience to pre-load your tickets onto the MagicBands which are shipped to your home in advance (for most guests), you’ll have your admission media in hand prior to arrival. Please note that you will not be able to charge merchandise to your room until you have officially checked in; however, you’re welcome to use other payment methods.
What time can I check in?
For most Disney resorts, the check-in time is 3:00pm. The variations on this are that the Fort Wilderness campsite check-in time is 1:00pm and the Disney Villa Resorts check in time is 4:00pm.
The villa resorts are: Animal Kingdom Lodge Jambo Villas (not the standard Jambo House rooms), Animal Kingdom Lodge Kidani Village, Bay Lake Tower (not the Contemporary), Beach Club Villas (not the main hotel), Boardwalk Villas (not the main Boardwalk Inn), Grand Floridian Villas (not the main hotel), Old Key West, Saratoga Springs and Treehouses, and Wilderness Lodge Villas (not the main hotel).
Can I check in earlier than those stated times?
Sure, you can check in as soon as they roll over the computer system to the next day. Typically this happens at some point during the pre-dawn hours. If there is a room ready, they’ll give it to you. I’ve often been let into rooms as early as 10:00am. They won’t promise to let you into a room until the stated check-in time, but if they can, they will.
Why would I want or need to check in early?
If you have a super early arrival time at MCO and are taking Magical Express, then you’ll be at the hotel anyway, so you might as well. But really, once you check-in you have all the privileges of a resort guest. You can use the hotel pools, charge merchandise (if you so desire), double check room requests, get your parking pass, and so on. And as an added bonus, you may find that your room is ready and can then freshen up and unpack.
My room is not ready, what can I do with my bags if I want to go to a theme park?
There is a bell services desk at every Walt Disney World resort. If your room is not ready and you want to head out, you can drop your bags with bell services. They will tag them with your name and a barcode, give you a receipt, and store them in a secure location. Be sure to keep with you anything you’ll need during your time away, such as daily medications. While obviously you’ll want to use your own judgment, I can tell you that I have left valuables like computers, cameras, and other electronics in the care of bell services many times and have never experienced any sort of problem at all. Once your bags are with bell services, you can go off to enjoy Walt Disney World. Please consider tipping your bellman.
What exactly happens during check-in?
The check-in desks at the resorts are all well marked and there are usually lots of friendly cast members to direct you. Once at the desk, you should be prepared to show a photo ID in the form of a driver’s license, passport, military ID, or similar. They are using this to verify your name and address and, in the case of younger guests, possibly your age.
The check-in clerk will then double check all your information with you such as the names of the other guests in your party, your check out date, whether you’ll be parking a car at the resort, and so on. Depending on how/when you reserved your room, you may be asked to pay part of your bill. You’ll be asked whether you want to allow charging privileges for your party’s MagicBands and if so how you’d like to secure those charges. You will also have to sign a half-page document in which you agree to pay your bill and abide by the resort’s rules.
The check-in clerk will give you a resort map, parks maps, a WDW Times Guide, Disney Dining Plan information (if this applies to you), and other helpful information. This is also an opportunity for you to ask questions, if you have any. If your room is ready, you’ll be given instructions about where it is.
How long will the check-in process take?
This depends on whether there are other guests ahead of you, whether you’re asking lots of questions, and whether you have a particularly complicated reservation (a large party, several rooms, etc.) But for the most part, you can expect that check-in will take somewhere in the 5-7 minute range.
Will doing online check-in impact whether my room will be ready when I arrive?
Disney allows guests to “check-in” prior to their arrival at the resort up to 60 days in advance via the DisneyWorld.com website. During this process you’ll verify the names of the guests in your party, add payment information, etc. Theoretically, this allows you to skip lines at the check-in desk and simply sign the resort agreement and be on your way. I have heard anecdotal evidence from some guests that they have found this useful. I’ve personally used online check-in five times and have never found the process to be any different than when I didn’t use it. I’ve found it has no impact on how long check-in takes and no impact on whether my room is ready. Your mileage may vary.
My room wasn’t ready at check-in and I’ve decided to go off and play in the parks. How will I know when my room is ready?
If you have a mobile phone, you can arrange to have the front desk of your hotel notify you when your room is ready via text or voice mail. The clerk should ask you whether you want this during check-in, but if she doesn’t, then be sure to ask. The text/voicemail will tell you your room number, so you can go directly there if you want to, using your MagicBand to open the door.
Can I have help getting my luggage to my room?
Sure. If you need help getting your bags to your room, just ask at the bell services desk. There is no fee for this service, but again, please tip your bellman.
Can I get a room upgrade when I arrive?
It couldn’t hurt to ask, but honestly this is unlikely. If rooms are available, you might be able to pay to upgrade to a nicer room location, but the odds of you being upgraded as a “gift” are small. I’ve had well over 50 WDW hotel check-ins and have only been gifted with an upgrade once, from a standard to a preferred room at the Pop Century. The check-in clerk saw that during that trip I was a woman traveling alone and might enjoy the added security of room closer to the main building. This was a nice gesture, but not exactly earth shattering.
Can I use the resort pool on my check-in day?
Yes. Once you’ve checked in, all the amenities of the resort are yours to enjoy, including the pools. If you want to swim and your room is not yet ready, you can use the changing facilities at the pool.
Can I arrange to have a gift/flowers/balloons/surprise waiting in my room when I arrive?
The Disney Floral and Gift Department has oodles of fun stuff that can be delivered to your room, everything from personalized mouse ears and candy bars to champagne and jewelry. But they will not put anything in your room prior to arrival. Disney rooms are not officially assigned until the guest checks in on property. Imagine what would happen if you had champagne and balloons delivered and your flight was delayed causing you to arrive a day later. Or what if you found a problem with your room, but the Florist had decorated it for little Jimmy’s birthday. There are just too many ways this could go wrong.
The Floral and Gift Department can arrange for a gift to be held at the front desk and presented at check-in, or you can set up an in-room delivery for another day of your trip, but the “open the door for the first time and see the beautiful basket” thing isn’t going to happen.
Can I visit other resorts on my first day?
Certainly. You won’t be able to use the pools at the other hotels, but you can feel free to dine, shop, or just look around at any of the Disney resorts.
How soon after my arrival time is it safe to make a dining reservation?
I mentioned earlier that I typically budget an hour and a half from the time my plane lands until the time I’m at my resort. In addition to that, when making reservations, I assume that there will be a flight delay of half an hour. This doesn’t always happen, but it does often enough that I’m cautious. So that puts me at the two hour mark. After that, you may also have to budget check-in time, dropping your stuff in the room time, and transportation time from your resort to the meal location.
All of this means that my general rule of thumb is that you should not make any reservation earlier than three hours after your scheduled landing time at Orlando International. Sometimes even that is cutting it close. If you’re making a meal reservation at your own hotel, then a 2.5 hour buffer is probably OK.
Remember that nearly all table service restaurants at Walt Disney World now require a credit card hold for reservations and a have a penalty charge for no-shows. This means that if your flight is significantly delayed and your party of five misses its reservation at ‘Ohana, you’ll be out 50 bucks before your vacation even starts. This may be a risk you’re willing to take (I often do), but you should be particularly wary about scheduling your MUST DO meal for arrival day. If the only thing your child wants in the whole wide world is to dine with Cinderella in the Castle, then you should probably makes this reservation for something other than your arrival day.
I’m getting to WDW late at night. Are there any restaurants that will be open?
Most of the resort food courts and quick service restaurants stay open until 11:00 or 11:30pm with at least a limited menu. A few of the Downtown Disney restaurants (Bongos, Raglan Road, Paradiso 37) typically stay open until 1:00am. Captain Cooke’s at the Polynesian and the Gasparilla Grill at the Grand Floridian typically stay open 24-hours. That’s great if you’re actually staying at the Poly or Grand Floridian, but if you’re staying anywhere else your best bet is to grab something at the airport when you land or just cope with vending machine fare. Bonus tip: most of the WDW resorts alternate their vending machines so that beverages are on floors 1 and 3 and snacks are on floors 2 and 4 (or something similar). If you’re hungry and only find a drinks vending machine on your floor, try checking another floor for food.
I’m using the Disney Dining Plan. Can I use my meal credits on the first day?
Yes. Your dining plan credit availability starts at check-in.
THEME PARK QUESTIONS
Do I need to use a theme park ticket if I’m only going to be there for a few hours?
Yes. You need to use a park admission ticket any time you enter a theme park, even if it’s just for a quick visit at the end of the day.
Is there a special half-day price for visiting the theme parks?
Not exactly. Some business conventions held at Disney World offer their attendees a special partial-day theme park admission rate. These tickets are not available to the general public and are not meant for regular guests with a few hours to kill on arrival day.
The good news is that it often costs very little to add an admission day to your theme park ticket. For example, the adult price difference between a 9-day WDW theme park ticket and a 10-day ticket is currently about $10. This effectively means that it may only cost $10 to pop into the park for a few hours on your arrival day. Compare this to even something like going to a movie at Downtown Disney and you’ll see that it may make more sense to go to a theme park than to avoid the parks.
What is there to do at Walt Disney World if we don’t want to visit a theme park on our first day?
If you’re coming off a lengthy flight, crossing several time zones, or have been driving for days, your best option may just be to relax at the pool and nap during your first day – starting fresh when you wake up. But if you want a little more excitement than that, you can find plenty to do. Disney World is HUGE. It’s possible to spend weeks having a great time without ever setting foot in the theme parks. For ideas, check out our post 101 Things to Do Near Disney World Without Going into a Theme Park.
I want to go to a theme park on my first day, how do I decide which one?
This is tricky and the answer may vary depending on your needs. Here are some things to consider before deciding:
- Will I have time to visit all four theme parks for a full day? If not, consider choosing one of the “half day” parks: Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom.
- Will we be tired from traveling? If so, maybe choose the park closest to your hotel. Or perhaps avoid Epcot, which is the park with the most walking.
- Will my kids be disappointed if they don’t see the Magic Kingdom first?
- Do I want to avoid the Magic Kingdom to “save the best for last?”
- Is there a special event happening that will make a particular park more or less crowded?
- What does the Crowd Calendar say?
- Are there Extra Magic Hours which will keep a park open extra late? Is this a good thing?
- Is there a particular restaurant inside a park that I want to try?
I always see recommendations to arrive at the parks early. Will I be able to go on any rides if we get to the park late in the day?
We do recommend that you arrive at the parks early, but arriving early is not always possible, such as on arrival day. This is one problem that finds its solution in the new MyMagic+ system. Guests can make now FastPass+ reservations in advance to ride their favorite attractions with no wait, selecting a time that works for them. Previously, if you got to Disney’s Hollywood Studios late in the day and wanted to ride on Toy Story, the old FastPasses would be gone and there would inevitably be a wait of at least 90 minutes. Now you can use FP+ to make a Toy Story reservation and walk right on, even in the late afternoon. Score one for big info!
Is it worth it to go to a theme park just for fireworks or a parade on our first night?
There’s that pesky “Is it worth it?” question again. As noted above, depending on your length of stay, the price to add another ticket day may be minimal. If you’re at WDW for a 10-day visit, then paying $10 to get into the park just for fireworks may be fine. If you’re at WDW for a two-day visit, the price to add an admission day will be more substantial and thus prohibitive. On the other hand, if you’re only there for a 2-day visit, you may want to make use of every possible moment in the parks, making a fireworks/parade viewing very worth it, no matter the cost.
If you decide you don’t want to go into a park just for the fireworks, bear in mind that much of the Magic Kingdom Wishes show can be seen from the beaches at the nearby resorts (Contemporary, Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Fort Wilderness) – no admission fee required.
I want to Park Hop on some days, but I don’t need the Park Hopper feature for my arrival day. Can I get a price reduction?
No, it doesn’t work like that. The Park Hopper ticket feature goes for a flat-rate fee, regardless of the number of days you actually use it. Learn more about this on our Park Hopper FAQ page.
Does it make sense to go to Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or Very Merry Christmas Party on my arrival day?
It depends on how much of a gambler you are. Tickets to MNSSHP and MVMCP are non-refundable. They really won’t give you your money back if you miss it. If you’re scheduled to arrive at Walt Disney World relatively early in the day, if you’re not coming from a disadvantageous time zone, and if you’re not visiting during a typical storm-delay time of year, then attending a Magic Kingdom evening party can be a great way to start your vacation with a bang. But if circumstances are less than perfect, I’d probably wait for a date later in my trip.
What are your arrival day strategies? Do you have a plan that works? Have you tried something that didn’t work? What am I missing? Let us know in the comments below.