I was chatting with another guest at Magic Kingdom on a recent trip to Walt Disney World that was telling me that he was going to take the bus over to Disney’s Hollywood Studios to see Harry Potter. I did my best to politely advise him that Harry Potter is not at Disney to hopefully avoid any unpleasant surprises, but he was undeterred to the point of arguing with me about it, so I did my best Elsa and let it go.
While it would be easy for us theme park nerds to just kind of laugh this off, a surprising number of people think Harry Potter is at Disney, or even more broadly confuse Disney and Universal (or think they are one and the same). It can be a costly and/or heartbreaking mistake to make. I assure you, those folks received a rude awakening, either when showing up to Hollywood Studios and wondering where Hogwarts was, or when they showed up at Universal Orlando and realized their Disney tickets wouldn’t work, meaning they were going to have to fork out more cash if they wanted to see the boy wizard.
With that in mind, let me say this:
Harry Potter is not at Disney Wold. Harry Potter is at Universal Orlando. Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are competitors.
(Lather. Rinse. Repeat.)
Please spread the word. Thank you.
Unfortunately, this Harry Potter – Disney connection is not the only misconception about Disney World out there. Between the internet, friends-of-friends, and the like, the reality is that there is a lot of bad or outdated information floating around that can really impact trip planning. Read on to make sure you avoid these traps when planning your next trip — and my apologies in advance for any dream crushing that unintentionally results.
Your Offsite Hotel Is Not Close to the Parks
On more than a few occasions, I’ve had people ask me about Walt Disney World accommodations that say that they are “close to the Maingate,” with the assumption being that this means that it’s a great location. In some cases, I’ve even seen this misinterpreted to mean that you can walk to the parks, like you can from some Disneyland hotels. At its core, this stems from people that are unaware that “Maingate” refers to the entrance to the resort property as a whole, not the gate to any particular park. Passing through the “gate” to Disney is always one of my favorite parts of a trip, but you’re still a few minutes’ car ride away from anywhere you might actually need to be at that point.
On a related note, many off-site hotels advertise that they run shuttles to Disney World, but the reliability, schedules, and usefulness of these shuttles varies wildly, and it would be tough to recommend relying upon any of them as your exclusive means of getting around. In most instances, you’re going to want to either have your own vehicle or take a ride-sharing service like Uber or Lyft to get to the parks. If the main reason for staying off site is cost, you could well find that the added cost of having a rental, parking, and so on eats into whatever savings you’re realizing by staying offsite.
To be clear, it’s not that off-site places that advertise themselves as being “close” to Disney World, like some in Kissimmee or in the larger “Attractions area” parts of Orange County, are in bad locations — indeed, as compared to places in other parts of the area, they ARE relatively close. The problem is the insinuation that their location makes them super convenient. They aren’t, and I often see families have to call an audible very early in a trip once they show up and realize where they are in relation to the parks.
Here’s what you need to know: if you don’t plan on having a vehicle, the Disney hotels are going to make it the easiest to get around without adding cost to your trip. You can take Disney’s Magical Express to and from the airport, and Disney transportation (buses, boats, and monorails) around the resort. If convenience and proximity to the parks are your primary concerns, a Disney hotel is likely going to be the best fit for you.
You Won’t Be Strolling Down Main Street, U.S.A., with a Character On Each Arm
Ever see those Disney World commercials where Mickey is skipping along, arm-in-arm with a family, or Goofy is riding along with a child on the Barnstormer? I have some bad news. Character interactions at Disney World these days generally are tightly scripted, and highly choreographed affairs. Typically, if you’d like to meet and interact with a character (as opposed to seeing one in a stage show or parade), you’re going to be going a designated location, standing in line, and meeting them in a very structured way.
That is not to say, however, that Disney’s character meet and greets are bad — quite the contrary, in fact. The characters themselves tend to be fantastic, and some of my fondest Disney memories are at these meet and greets. They are not, however, spontaneous, and you need to set aside time in your day to do them if they are important to you. Stumbling upon characters in the park and interacting with them is by far the exception and is extremely rare.
The Monorail Doesn’t Go Everywhere
The monorail is an iconic part of Disney World, and perhaps for this reason, many guests assume that you can use it to travel all around the resort. This is another one where I think you can point to Disney’s marketing as the reason this belief persists, but regardless, it simply isn’t true. The monorail takes you from the Transportation and Ticket Center (i.e., the Magic Kingdom’s parking lot) to the entrance to the Magic Kingdom, and also services the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary resorts. Additionally, there is a monorail that will take you between the Magic Kingdom area (again, from the Transportation and Ticket Center and not Magic Kingdom itself, however) and Epcot. That’s it. Most other places are serviced by a combination of buses and (less frequently) boats. If you’re staying at a Disney Resort other than those mentioned, you might not have occasion to ride the monorail at all, because the Magic Kingdom buses drop you off right near the park entrance.
On a related note, those that have been led to believe the the monorail goes everywhere often underestimate the amount of time that is takes to get around the resort. I’ve made this point in several articles, but it bears repeating for first-timers planning trips: Disney World is huge, and is much more grand in scope and size than you’re probably expecting if you’ve never been. If you’re relying upon Disney transportation, you should budget in 45 minutes or so to travel between parks, or between parks and resorts.
FastPass Doesn’t Cost a Ton (or Anything At All, Really)
FastPass+ is a system at Disney World that allows you to reserve attractions in advance and then experience them with minimal wait. In most instances, you’ll skip the regular standby line entirely — often while absorbing glares like daggers coming from those waiting in mammoth lines — and proceed directly to the boarding area. It feels like you have VIP status, and perhaps for this reason, many guests assume that those that use it are paying extra for the privilege of skipping the line.
Simply stated, they aren’t — ALL guests are entitled to take advantage of FastPass+, and using and understanding it is one of the best ways to save time in line at Disney World. Also, it is free for everyone to use — you are entitled to make up to three advance reservations per day (and you can get more once you’ve used those three), and it won’t cost you a dime. Make sure you read up on it before you go so you know what it is and how to best use it.
Free Dining Isn’t Free
There was a time when free dining was a boon for travelers — when you booked during certain times of the year, Disney threw in the Disney Dining Plan for free, and in most cases, it would save you a ton of money. Over the years, however, that has changed. Disney has made subtle tweaks to what the plan provides, and it changes the value analysis. Ultimately, free dining CAN save you money, but it won’t NECESSARILY do so. It clearly isn’t the windfall it once was, and in any event, it certainly isn’t “free.”
The reason for this is simple: while the Dining Plan may not add an additional line item cost to your bill, you pay for it by foregoing other discounts. To be eligible for free dining promotions, you have to pay full rack rate for your room. Almost invariably, however, any time Disney is running a free dining promotion, they are also offering other room-only or package discounts. Depending upon how you eat, those discounts may save you more money than taking advantage of Disney’s “free” dining.
Now, whether or not “free” dining will save you money is beyond the scope of this article — you really have to do the math and compare the discount you’re getting by forgoing free dining with the value of the dining plan. As this goes to press, the quick service plan (which is provided to guests at Value resorts for free dining) is $52.49/adult per day ($21.74/child), and the standard dining plan (which is provided to everyone else) is $75.59/adult ($25.75/child). It’s also a reasonable estimate for what you might pay for food for a day out of pocket. Compare that to other available discounts to get a sense for which discount is better for you.
You’re most likely to benefit from the dining plan if you do a bunch of character buffets or have more than 2 adults in a room, but at the end of the day, you really need to run some numbers to figure out if you have to give up too much in other discounts for your “free” dining to make sense. Also worth considering is whether the dining plan actually matches the way you eat — for example, if you wouldn’t get dessert or an alcoholic drink with every meal, it well could be that you’d spend less just paying for the food you want than relying on the dining plan anyway.
Those Super Cheap Park Tickets Are Bogus
Visiting Walt Disney World is expensive, and one of the most frequent questions I get is whether there’s a way to save on park tickets. The short answer is yes, there is — you can use our Ticket Price Comparison Tool for guidance on where you can find the best discount for the sort of tickets you need — but those discounts tend to be pretty modest, a few percentage points at best. Check out our page identifying the various ticket options, and legitimate vendors where you can get discounted tickets for more information.
What, then, of the tickets you find on the internet or in the Orlando area that purport to be free or steeply discounted from the gate price? One of two things is happening. Unless you are a Florida resident, the only way to legitimately get really cheap or even free Disney tickets is by agreeing to sit through a timeshare presentation. Invariably, the presentation will be high pressure, far longer than advertised, and unless you’re actually in the market for a timeshare, probably a bad use of your time.
The other possibility is that the tickets are bogus. It is the case that you can buy Florida resident tickets at kiosks or on gift card displays at major retailers, like Publix or Wawa in the Orlando area (currently $159 plus tax for 3-day passes or $179 plus tax for 4-day passes). Other deeply discounted Disney tickets sold at less established locations to the public at large are likely fake or have already been partially used by someone else and should be viewed with caution. Craigslist, eBay, random convenience stores around Orlando — you might see Disney World tickets advertised at any of these places, and chances are good that you’ll be buying tickets that have no value at all.
Simply stated, if it seems to good to be true, it probably is. Caveat emptor.
As always, we love having you in the discussion. Have you encountered any of these misconceptions or heard any horror stories? Know of any others that impact trip planning? Let us know in the comments!