Over the coming weeks we at the TouringPlans Blog will be going Back to Basics. We often write our posts from the perspective of people who have visited theme parks many, many times and we sometimes forget that there are those who need more basic advice. This entry is our first “Basics” post with several more to follow on topics such as characters, FastPass+, dining, hotels, and how to use our Touring Plans and Crowd Calendar. If there’s anything specific you would like us to cover let us know in the comments. Enjoy!
Sooooo, you’re planning your first trip to Walt Disney World, and you go onto the internet and ask the masses for advice. I see exchanges like this all the time:
You: Hi everyone! I’m planning my first ever trip to Walt Disney World, and I’m not really sure where to begin. What do I need to know?
Within seconds, responses start to pour in:
Helpful person number 1: Doug is the best Jungle Cruise skipper! He’s worth waiting for, so try to get on his boat!
Helpful person number 2: If you go to the phone booth in Tomorrowland and pick up the phone, you’ll hear some funny chatter! It’s a MUST do!
Helpful person number 3: I’ve never done it myself, but I heard from a bus driver that there’s a secret passageway on the pathway between Space Mountain and Storybook Circus that you can use to get to Animal Kingdom! Just whisper “Marcelline” into the third shrub on the east side of the path, and a Cast Member will appear and escort you to a high-speed underground rail that connects directly with Expedition Everest! It will save you so much time AND you get to ride Everest without a wait!
…and so on and so forth — good info to have, and well-intentioned, but not really critical from a planning standpoint for someone that has never even set foot on Disney property. Before you know it, the signal to noise ratio is unbearable, and you’re getting bombarded with so many niche tips and tricks that the information that is legitimately important for a first timer to have gets lost in the shuffle.
The biggest problem a first-timer encounters is that they don’t know what they don’t know, and knowing where to direct your focus is half the battle. With that in mind, I’ve tried to put together my “most important concepts” for a first time visitor that provides the bare minimum amount of information you need to successfully plan a trip, and then you can add on to that as you like. There is probably nowhere on planet earth that rewards a little advance planning like Walt Disney World, so I’d encourage anyone reading this to move beyond this guide, but this will at least provide the concepts that you need to be aware of to plan your first trip that you can use as touchstones if you start to feel a bit lost. Here goes with the most important things for a first time visitor to know:
- When you go and where you stay can have a big impact upon your trip
- While you Don’t have to plan every moment, certain planning is wise
- Understand what FastPass+ is and use it liberally
- Walt Disney World is probably larger than you think
There you have it, have fun on your trip!
Looking at what I’ve written with the benefit of a few seconds hindsight, it occurs to me that there might be a need for a little more detail. I promise I’ll keep it light, though, and will limit it to stuff that will really move the needle for you. Sooooo, without further ado, let’s jump in!
When To Go and Where To Stay
One thing a lot of first timers don’t realize is that when you visit can have a dramatic impact upon every aspect of a trip, including the amount you pay, the experiences you’ll have available to you, and the crowds — and accordingly lines — you’re going to encounter. Many families in particular will select times purely based upon when kids are out of school without realizing that those are also the busiest and most expensive times to visit. I’ve even heard of people thinking they are being clever by going on Christmas day expecting it to be empty and then being stunned to find awe-inspiring crowds upon arrival. For a deeper dive into when the best time to visit will be, please check out this article.
Walt Disney World also provides a dizzying array of hotel options from campsites to 5 diamond properties, and that’s not even including the myriad off-site options in the area. Moreover, there are significant differences between the experience staying onsite and off-site that can have a real impact upon your trip; here’s a quick overview of the pros and cons of each approach:
- Free transportation to and from the airport (Disney’s Magical Express)
- Book Fastpasses 60 days prior to your trip for the duration of your stay
- Free parking at the parks
- Access to Extra Magic Hours (where the parks are open early or late just for Disney Resort guests)
- Free transportation around the resort property
- Free Magicbands
- Charge most resort purchases to your room
- Elaborate theming
- Higher cost compared to comparable off-site accommodations
- Limited room configurations
- Lower cost, sometimes dramatically so, particularly for more elaborate accomodations.
- Much wider array of options — everything from traditional hotel rooms to the rental of entire mansions with multiple master suites, private pools, game rooms and other amenities not available at Disney properties.
- Book FastPasses 30 days prior to your trip, one day at a time, rather than 60.
- Must pay to park at the parks.
- Generally not as convenient, especially if you tend to take midday breaks.
- You realistically MUST have a car or plan to use some other form of transportation (Uber/Lyft, cabs, etc.).
Note that there are a number of other hotels on and near Disney property that are not Disney owned but that nevertheless get some of the same benefits as Disney hotels. This includes the Swan, Dolphin, Four Seasons, Shades of Green and numerous “good neighbor hotels” that are at Disney Springs and the surrounding area. The specific benefits vary depending upon the property, but the feature that distinguishes all of them from most Off-Site hotels is that you can still book your FastPasses at 60 days rather than waiting until 30 days prior to your trip. This is one of the more important perks, because for some high demand attractions like Avatar — Flight of Passage, not booking at the 60 day mark can make it very difficult to obtain a FastPass at all.
Regardless of whether you are staying on or offsite, it’s important to select a place that’s going to mesh with the type of trip you’re taking. Check out this article for some assistance in finding a place that aligns with your travel priorities.
Planning a Few Things Will Go A Long Way
While plenty — actually the overwhelming majority of people — just go to Disney and wing it and have a great time, a little bit of planning will really enhance your trip and knowing what you need to plan ahead is critically important. Both dining and attractions can be reserved well before you arrive at Disney, and if you care about where you eat and what you do, you should absolutely take advantage of this opportunity. Here are the critical deadlines of which you should be aware:
- Advance Dining Reservations can be made at 7 a.m. Eastern time 180 days from the start of your trip. Believe it or not, for certain high-demand restaurants like Be Our Guest, Chef Mickey’s and Cinderella’s Royal Table, we actually advise that you take advantage of this and book at the earliest possible opportunity. Most of the really in-demand dining options are Disney’s famous character meals, so keep that in mind if you’re wanting to experience one or more on your trip.
- FastPass+ Reservations, which allow you to skip Disney’s similarly famous lines, can be made at 7 a.m. Eastern time 60 days from the start of your trip for guests of Walt Disney World resorts (including the Swan and Dolphin), or 30 days before your trip for everyone else. Note that you have to have valid park admission linked to your account to be able to make these reservations.
FastPass+ is a free system that allows guests to experience high-demand attractions with minimal wait. Understanding FastPass+ is probably the single most important bit of homework for a Disney trip. Take a moment to read through our overview of FastPass+ and make sure you understand it and know how to use it. It has the potential to save you hours each day as compared to just waiting in standby lines.
Also, we strongly recommend that you use a Touring Plan to direct you around the parks. That should probably come as no surprise coming from a site called “TouringPlans.com,” but this is not just self-promotion. Walt Disney World is chock full of attractions, shows and other diversions, but they are not all created equal. Some are incredible, not-to-be-missed experiences, while others can most definitely be missed. Moreover, these attractions have different capacities, different ride systems, and different demand levels, and all of those things dictate when the best time to see them will be. Some attractions will generate massive waits from the moment the parks open, literally requiring you to be there to make a beeline to queue up even on the slowest days. Other attractions can be experienced whenever you’d like with no wait, even when crowds are at their apex.
If you really want to be in the best position to optimize your time, there’s really no substitute for doing research to figure out what you do and do not want to do and plotting out your day in a way that will minimize the amount of time you spend waiting. This article is not about that yeoman’s work, however, it is about doing the bare minimum you need to do to give yourself an edge, and the easiest way to do that by far is to pick one of our Touring Plans that matches your traveling party and follow it because we have done that research for you. Doing so will ensure that you’re hitting the attractions most guests care the most about and that you’re experiencing them at times where you are minimizing the overall amount of time you spend in line.
You’ll notice that most of our Touring Plans have you arriving at the park before it even opens. I recognize that it may seem counterintuitive to be up that early while on vacation, but if seeing and doing as much as you can and standing in as few lines as possible while on your trip is important to you, getting there early is the single best tip I can give you. You can accomplish more in the first two hours a park is open than you can in several hours later in the day, and you’ll do it when the temperature is more mild and you’re not surrounded by a sea of humanity. Be at the parks early, relax at the resort during the afternoon when the lines and heat are at their apex, and then return in the evening to wrap up when things start to die down. Lather, rinse, repeat. It is a simple, proven formula.
Walt Disney World is Huge
The most common report I hear from people that come back from their first trip — and the biggest mistakes I see while people are planning their first trips — share a common theme, in that they underestimate the size and scope of Walt Disney World. Many people that have not been assume that it is like a better and perhaps slightly larger version of your local Six Flags, and those that have been know that that isn’t really even in the same ballpark. Even Disneyland Resort in California is tiny in comparison.
There are several things that naturally flow from this that are useful for a first-timer to know:
- Wear comfortable shoes
As you’ll see below, I take a somewhat dim view of the over-the-top, expansive packing lists that you’ll encounter on some Disney sites, but there is one thing that is absolutely necessary no matter who you are and when you’re going, and that is comfortable walking shoes. We tend to average around 8 miles of walking a day, and it can take a toll on your feet if you’re not wearing appropriate shoes. There are few things that derail a trip like a blister that reminds you how miserable your feet feel with every single step you’ll take, because you’re going to take a lot of them.
- Pick ”must-dos” rather than eliminating things
I have been to Disney World many times at this point in my life, usually for week-long trips, and I have yet to experience everything that the resort has to offer — there is simply too much to do. For that reason, it always cracks me up when first-timers ask me what things are skippable, because it presumes that they’ll be able to do everything else. Even just limiting yourself to the attractions within the four theme parks, doing it all is a really tall order.
Embrace this truism right now: no matter how long your trip is, you’re probably not going to be able to fit everything in that you would like to do as a first-time visitor. For that reason, the better way to think about it is to pick a handful of things that you absolutely must do, prioritize those, and everything after that is gravy.
- You’re probably underestimating transit time
When selecting the location for Walt Disney World, Walt explicitly searched for an area that was large enough to block out the outside world and give everything he wanted to build plenty of breathing room. Well, mission accomplished — Walt Disney World in fact occupies about as much acreage as San Francisco — but this also means that things are quite spread out and between parking, trams, traffic and crowds, it can take a while to get from one place to another.
I remember a friend planning her first trip sent me a copy of her proposed itinerary, and it had them essentially teleporting themselves all over property, hopping from park to park in a matter of moments as if they were next door to each other. There was one day where they were set to go to Magic Kingdom for an hour, only to leave to go to Animal Kingdom just to catch Finding Nemo, only to turn around and head back to the Magic Kingdom area for lunch at Whispering Canyon at the Wilderness Lodge — all over the course of 3 hours. You’d have to hit everything just right for it to even be possible, but it would end up being needlessly hectic.
Here’s the takeaway from this — rein in your expectations about what you might accomplish on any given day. Hopping from one park to another is reasonable, and squeezing in a trip to a resort or Disney Springs for a meal on the same day is also fairly common (particularly if it’s a resort near the park you’re visiting or it’s at the beginning or end of your day). Try to squeeze more than that into a single day, and the amount of time you spend in transit is going to start to add up and you’re going to water down the experiences you have at each location.
Don’t Overthink It
There is an overwhelming amount of information available about planning a Disney trip — books, websites, podcasts, online forums, Facebook groups, twitter, etc. — and, indeed, it can be, well, overwhelming to someone that has never done it before. Frankly, it pains me when I see an exchange like the one at the start of this article, where someone asks for assistance and they get bombarded with niche tips that are more appropriate for someone that has been several times. Accordingly, while I do believe that having a solid plan of attack is the best approach to a Disney trip, let me provide this bit of counter-balance: relax. The fact that you know of the need to plan and you’re reading a Disney blog will put you in a better position than the vast majority of Disney visitors, and those people usually still have great trips. Having any plan will help you tremendously, even if you’re not planning out every little thing that you do.
Here’s the other thing: Walt Disney World itself is one of the most industrialized spots on planet earth, and it sits near a major metropolitan area. If there’s something you need, you can probably find it on the property. It might cost a bit more (OK, it will cost a bit more), but if it’s for something you’re not sure you’re going to need, you might find that to be a reasonable trade-off as compared to toting it around needlessly. Moreover, if it’s something you can’t find on property, there are places reasonably nearby that can help you out if you’re really in a bind.
Some of the packing lists I’ve seen people post are so cartoonishly long and over the top, you’d think you were going … to infinity … and beyond! The water is drinkable, the air is breathable, and you don’t need to pack a few bars of gold bullion “just in case.” While there are a few “must” items (like comfortable shoes, see above), packing for WDW doesn’t need to be dramatically different from packing for any other active vacation. Sure, people do pack lots of unique, Disney-specific things — like custom shirts, custom stroller signs, custom envelopes for gratuities, and all manner of “be prepared” items like ponchos, band-aids, snacks, etc. — but don’t feel like you’ve failed if your suitcase looks more or less the same it would for any other trip. It’s Walt Disney World, not the Third World.
Moreover, while planning WAY in advance is advisable for the most sought after restaurants and attractions, there is still lots to experience that does not require you to scramble to a computer 6 months prior to your vacation. We’ve been to Walt Disney World on less than a week’s notice before and still had a great time. Focus on the overwhelming number of things that do remain at your disposal rather than the handful that might not, and have fun!
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Ordinarily, this would be the part of the post where I invite you all to share your own tips and tricks, but this article sort of calls for the opposite. So, with that in mind, is there anything critical that I missed? Any broad, sweeping concepts that you share with first timers? Questions? Let me know in the comments!