In a perfect world, your Disney vacation would be a lengthy and leisurely affair, where you’d have multiple weeks to really take it all in, experience everything you’d like on your schedule, and get a comprehensive overview of all that Disney has to offer. Both for reasons of time and expense, however, this is not always an option, and sometimes all we can manage is a quick Disney trip. Indeed, I’m often asked for planning trips from people that are only going to be at Disney for one or two days and, without any sense of irony, want to do it all during their quick Disney vacation.
Veterans know that a comprehensive tour of Walt Disney World in a day or two is an exercise in futility, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t have a really worthwhile stay over a couple of days. In fact, we recently decided to take my daughter’s bestie (who had only ever been to Magic Kingdom) on a Disney trip with us, and wanted to give her a reasonable sampling of the whole Disney World experience in a short amount of time.
Despite the constantly ticking clock, we had a really great, albeit short, trip that gave her the opportunity to sort of see what the various parks were like and prime her for a more complete trip in the future. I wanted to share some of my planning thought process and a few tips for the next time you’re trying to put together your own “sampler platter” of Disney World on a tight schedule.
Focus on the Highlights
Here’s an understatement: in a day or two, you’re not going to get everything done, or anything close to it. Just own this, embrace it, and start thinking about your trip in a different way. Instead of crossing things OFF of your list, pick a small number of things that you MUST do, build your trip around that, and everything beyond that is gravy.
For example, on our trip, the focal points of the trip were the new Toy Story Land at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Pandora at Animal Kingdom, so we wanted to make sure we hit the major attractions at those parks. Because the Studios had morning Extra Magic Hours, we made the decision to be at the Studios early to do what we could there before crowds got high and save our FastPasses for the headliners at Animal Kingdom later in the day when beating the crowd wasn’t an option (more on this later). Secondarily, we wanted her to be able to experience Soarin’ and Frozen Ever After, and see the fireworks at Magic Kingdom, so once we had those primary things locked in, we looked at what time we had available and where we were going to be on property, and backfilled the trip from there.
Pay Extra Attention to Lodging and Transportation
On a leisurely trip, the extra time you spend in transit to and from your off-property accommodations may not be a big deal, but on a quick trip, that time can eat into your touring and impede your ability to get much done. With that being the case, if ever there’s an excuse to splurge for a Deluxe resort, it’s on a short trip — and in particular, the Monorail Loop and Crescent Lake resorts that allow you easy access to the parks. We personally favor Crescent Lake on shorter trips (and the Swan and Dolphin in particular) because there are two parks and several great dining options that don’t require you to get into a motor vehicle at all, but that’s really a matter of personal preference.
Speaking of lodging, it’s worth noting that guests who are staying in Club Level rooms at Disney Deluxe resorts, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort’s bungalows, and at the Copper Creek Villa Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge have the option of purchasing an additional 3 FastPass+ reservations a day for $50, and they can be made for more than one park at a time. This could obviously be helpful in hitting the highlights of more than one park on a trip. To be eligible, you need to be an annual passholder or have a 3-day ticket (or more), so it might be worth considering on a long weekend. Details can be found here.
Regarding transportation, you’ll find that you get more mileage, pun very much intended, from having access to a vehicle (rather than relying upon Disney transportation), whether it’s a rental or using a rideshare service like Lyft or Uber. The Disney transportation system in general works pretty well, but when time is a factor, having your own car can really be helpful. The one exception to this rule, however, is when you’re visiting the Magic Kingdom, because parking there requires you to wait for, and then take, either a monorail or a ferry to and from your vehicle. Because the resort buses drop off right by the entrance, it’s generally faster to use Disney’s transportation. Sometimes that’s not practicable, however, so it’s a good idea to…
Start or End the Day with Magic Kingdom
There’s no way around it: getting in and out of the Magic Kingdom is not quick. For this reason, I always want to either start my day there, so there aren’t precious park hours ticking away while I’m en route, or finish the day there so the only thing I’m missing when I’m in transit is downtime anyway. If you have no option but to hit Magic Kingdom midday, one workaround is to come and go via Uber or Lyft to the Contemporary Resort; you’ll have a brief walk over to the Magic Kingdom, but I still find that it tends to be faster than parking at the Ticket and Transportation Center and making your way over to the Magic Kingdom on the monorail or ferry.
Use Your FastPasses at a Time When You Have No Option But to Wait
If you look at our recommendations for when to experience popular attractions, you’ll notice that in most cases, we recommend doing them first thing in the morning, or towards the end of the evening. The natural corollary to that, of course, is that that time in the middle is a less ideal time, you’re going to see your longest waits during that time, and if you want to hit those headliners in the middle of the day, you’re going to wait a while if you don’t have a FastPass.
For this reason, while there’s obviously a lot of factors that go into where and how you want to use your FastPasses, I generally favor the afternoon on a quick trip where I’m visiting more than one park. Yes, I could start them early at my first park and then churn through them and start getting more sooner than later, but by grabbing three in the afternoon, it means that I’m locking in three high-quality attractions for a chunk of time where I will really benefit from that FastPass. If I use them in the morning, I’m either going to be getting subsequent FastPasses for lesser attractions, or I’m going to be getting them so far into the future that I’m going to be waiting standby for most things in the afternoon anyway. In summary, by saving those advance FastPasses for the afternoon:
- I’m not wasting FastPasses in the morning hours when they don’t save me as much time — a FastPass that saves me an hour wait at 2:00 p.m. might only save me 10 minutes at 9:30 a.m.;
- I’m minimizing standing in line during the heat of the day and when crowds are at their high point; and
- I’m locking in three high value attractions at a time when I most need the assist that comes from a FastPass.
By way of example, imagine that you’d like to check out Toy Story Land and the other headliners at Disney’s Hollywood Studios to start the day, taking advantage of morning Extra Magic Hours. If I use a FastPass for Slinky Dog Dash, Tower of Terror and Rock n Roller Coaster, my morning unfolds like this, and I’m able to start acquiring additional FastPasses, one at a time, as of 10:00 a.m. Not terrible:
With that said, this plan includes a less-than-ideal 83 minutes of free time most of which is when you’re waiting for FastPasses to start. You could obviously reclaim some of that time by just riding the attractions standby, but then you’re going to lose the benefit of those FastPasses. Imagine if instead of using those FastPasses, you just rode everything standby and took advantage of the light morning crowds? It would look like this:
Now, instead of being done a little after 10, you’re done a little after 9, gaining an hour. More importantly, however, instead of only being able to acquire day-of FastPasses one at a time, you’re instead able to use three FastPasses that you can book 30 or 60 days in advance. Rather than getting second- or third-tier attractions, you can get headliners, and you can get them at a time when they’ll do you more good for the remainder of your day.
I can hear the comments already, though: “But that’s Hollywood Studios, there’s only a few attractions there. What about a park with more stuff?” Well, the same largely holds true. I’ve put together a quick visit to Magic Kingdom where the goal is the hit each of the mountains in addition to several other high-demand attractions to see how your morning would look. I used FastPass for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan, and Space Mountain. Here it is with FastPass, ignoring FastPasses that aren’t necessary:
Here is the same itinerary, except you’re saving those FastPasses to use at another park later in the day:
As you can see, using those FastPasses super early in the day saves you really no time at all, but it DOES limit you to single, day-of FastPasses for the remainder of the day. The clear takeaway is that is you’re going to be doing some park hopping on a quick trip, there’s not much point in using your FastPasses at your first park — save them for headliner attractions later in the day at another park when you can really derive some benefit from them.
A Quick Note on Food
For a lot of people, the dining at Disney can be just as much of the experience as the attractions. Indeed, especially with the upgrades to the dining options over the last couple of years, I’ve kicked around the idea of taking a short trip to Disney PURELY to eat my way around Disney Springs and the Animal Kingdom properties. With that said, sit-down meals take precious time you don’t really have. On the other hand, a sit-down meal can be a great semi-break from a hectic day of commando-style touring, so there can be value there as well. Ultimately, it’s a matter of priorities, so you just have to make a decision as to where you want to devote your focus.
If you happen to have some time when the park meter isn’t running, that can be an ideal time to target for a nicer, table service meal. Often, this will occur at the start and/or end your trip. On a short trip, you’re probably getting in the evening before or leaving in the morning. Rather than burning a park day when you wouldn’t have a ton of time anyway, it’s a great opportunity to have a nice, leisurely meal without having to worry that you’re missing prime touring time.
Pay Attention to Extra Magic Hours
Our readers are no doubt aware that we generally advise against visiting parks that have Extra Magic Hours, because those parks tend to be targeted by Disney resort guests regardless of whether they actually utilize those extra hours. If you will use that extra time, however, it can be a great opportunity to get a lot done without a lot of waiting. Extra Magic Hours at the Magic Kingdom in particular can really be fruitful; if your goal is to pack a lot into a short period of time and you don’t mind getting up early or staying out late, consider taking advantage of them.
So, how did this play out for us? We got in on Thursday evening but only had a two-day park hopper for my daughter’s friend, so we opted to skip the parks that first night and just have a nice dinner and relax. As it turns out, our flight got in late and we ended up just scarfing down some tacos at Picabu at the Dolphin instead (which were actually pretty good by quick service standards!). We had a big day planned thereafter and didn’t want to get to bed too late, so having to punt on a nicer meal wasn’t the end of the world. Flexibility is always a virtue at Disney, but it’s even more critical on a quick trip.
The next morning, we were up bright and early to visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The original plan was just to ride Toy Story Mania and explore the new Toy Story Land, but as it turned out, the lines at Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers weren’t horrible that morning (which has been the case lately, by the way), so we did get to ride each of them as well, and hit Toy Story Mania one more time. After a quick breakfast at Woody’s Lunch Box, we took in a couple more attractions, and then left the park having gotten a flavor for Disney’s Hollywood Studios, but leaving plenty of time left in the day.
For many, pool time is as important as anything else that occurs at Disney, so we took a couple of hours to swim at the excellent pool at the Swan and Dolphin resorts. We also squeezed in a quick poolside lunch at Cabana while we were at it. Was it the best lunch I’ve had at Disney? No, but the girls couldn’t have cared less, and this enabled us to let them swim and have fun while they were waiting for their food rather than us wasting time getting cleaned up and then sitting and waiting for food to be prepared elsewhere. It was a great opportunity to multitask and the hour-plus of time we saved was well worth the trade-off.
Our first FastPass of the day was for Kilimanjaro Safari at 2:15, so we targeted about 3 p.m. to arrive at the gate at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. This gave us ample time to get back to the attraction before the 15-minute grace period expired. We then had some time to explore the park and Pandora prior to our 4:15 p.m. Avatar FastPasses. We had a quick snack at Satu’li, explored the park a bit more, and then we were off to Magic Kingdom.
Now our primary goal at Magic Kingdom was to watch Happily Ever After, but I had nabbed a FastPass for Haunted Mansion after we checked into our last FastPass, so we had time to do that and a few other easy-to-do attractions and grab dinner at Skipper Canteen, followed by Dole Whip for dessert while we were waiting for the fireworks. After the show, we opted to do a couple more attractions just to allow the monorail line to die down before we left.
We got up early the next morning, but not crazy early, showing up at the International Gateway at Epcot in time to head directly to Frozen Ever After to start off the day, which we walked onto. From there, we bounced over to start our FastPasses, which started with Soarin’ (which we did twice on account of absolutely no wait) and wrapped up with Spaceship Earth. By 11:30, we had enjoyed (?) the obligatory sample of Beverly at Club Cool and were giving the girls a quick pass through World Showcase, including lunch at Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie in France. We rolled into the hotel at about 12:45 p.m. to drop the girls off with the grandparents.
In summary, in less than a day and a half, we hit four parks, experienced multiple headliners at three of the four parks, enjoyed some Dole Whip, took in the fireworks, and managed to have enough time left over to have a relaxing table service dinner and get in some pool time. Even though it was quick, we had a great trip and it definitely “felt” like a legitimate Disney vacation!
So, this trip worked out great for us, but I know everyone’s idea of an ideal quick Disney trip is different. What do your trips look like, and what strategies do you use to make the most of it? Let us know in the comments!