Are you having fun planning your Disney World trip yet? I am! But I find the planning process to be ALMOST as much fun as the actual trip! And planning what to do is the best part of the process, at least for me! This is where you decide which parks you’ll visit and what all you want to do there. There is so much to choose from and something fun for everyone in your group, no matter what age they are!
So, Disney World is just that, a WORLD. And a magical world at that! It consists of:
Four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom)
Two water parks
ESPN Wild World of Sports Complex
In this post I’m going to focus on the four theme parks because they have the most going on.
Magic Kingdom (MK)
If this is your first trip, you must visit Magic Kingdom. Period. And to do it justice, you’ll want to spend two days in the park. Magic Kingdom is what we all think of when we think about Disney World – the castle, Mickey Mouse (the one at MK actually talks!), Princesses, rides. There is something for everyone and can really set the tone for your trip.
Magic Kingdom is divided into six sections, or lands: Main Street, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, and Frontierland.
Fantasyland is popular with families with young children because it includes rides like Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Peter Pan’s Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and It’s a Small World. It also includes Seven Dwarfs Mine train, the most popular ride in the park.
Tomorrowland includes popular rides like Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Astro Oribter, and People Mover. Popular rides in Adventureland include: Pirates of the Caribbean, Jungle Cruise, and The Magic Carpets of Aladdin. And Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad are located in Frontierland.
There are a lot of character meet and greets scattered through the park, some more popular than others. Magic Kingdom is home to the one and only TALKING Mickey! He is located at the front of the park at Town Square Theater, along with Tinkerbell (two separate lines for both characters). Several princesses are also available for meet and greets.
The park also includes a wide variety of food options, both table service (TS) and quick service (QS) options, as well as many snack/treat options. There are two character dining experiences: Cinderella’s Royal Table (variety of Disney Princesses, including Cinderella) and The Crystal Palace (Winnie the Pooh and friends). Be Our Guest restaurant isn’t a typical character dining experience, but during dinner hours, the Beast is available at the castle for pictures (the only place he appears in the parks). In addition to the character dining experiences, there are several other TS restaurants, covering a variety of cuisines.
My favorite QS restaurants are Columbia Harbor House, Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn and Cafe, and Casey’s Corner (because sometimes you just want a simple hot dog!). Also worth noting is Tortuga Tavern, one of the few places at Disney World that offers free soda refills!
There is an afternoon parade and an evening fireworks display above the castle that are both must-sees!
Magic Kingdom Tips:
If you’re spending more than a day at MK, divide the lands and focus on two your first day and the other two your second day.
Guests are let into the park an hour before the official opening time. This gives you an hour to stroll along Main Street and check out the shops. One less thing to do later while the rest of the park is open!
If you’re using strollers, think twice before using the Walt Disney World Railroad (aka, the train) to get from one land to another. Strollers are not easy to get through the turnstiles into the boarding area, and even folded up, they are difficult to have on the train. You’re better off walking between lands. Trust me. I know! However, if you want to ride the train all the way around and will be getting off at the same place you boarded, then you can just leave your stroller parked at the train station.
DO NOT skip meeting Gaston. He is located near his tavern in Fantasyland and he is hilarious!
Personally, Epcot is my favorite park! It is divided into two sections: Future World and the World Showcase. Epcot can be done in one day if you’re efficient. However, if you want time to investigate each country fully and try many of the different food offerings, you might want to plan on two days.
Future World is home to the giant Epcot ball which houses the Spaceship Earth ride. While there are a few attractions suitable for younger/smaller kids, many of the “big” attractions are geared towards older/bigger kids and adults, most notably Soarin’, Mission Space, and Test Track.
The World Showcase consists of 11 countries situated around a lagoon. Each country is designed with iconic architecture and staffed by natives from each country. Food, attractions, and souvenirs keep to the theming of each country. The World Showcase has the best variety of food and drink than any other park. Some countries have rides, including Norway, which is the home of the new Frozen Ever After ride.
Epcot also has a nighttime fireworks show called IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth, that takes place on the lagoon in the World Showcase.
There are also many character meet and greets throughout both sections of the park, including Anna and Elsa and many other princesses. The two character dining experiences at Epcot are Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (LOTS of princesses) and Garden Grill (Chip & Dale and “other friends”).
Hollywood Studios (HS)
This park is smaller than Magic Kingdom and Epcot and can currently be done in one day. It is a must-do if you have Star Wars fans in your family. It is currently being expanded to include a whole Star Wars land and a Toy Story land, but there’s still plenty to do there now. Star Wars fans will enjoy Jedi Training Academy (for ages 4-12), Star Tours, and the Star Wars Launch Bay. The Launch Bay is where you can currently meet BB-8, Chewbacca, and Kylo Ren and trade with Jawas in the cantina. You’ll also see Storm Troopers constantly patrolling the park in groups of two and they all march down the main street, led by Captain Phasma several times each day. There is a Star Wars stage show that occurs several times each day, as well as a fireworks show in the evening.
Other notable attractions include Toy Story Mania, Tower of Terror, and Rockin’ Rollercoaster. I find the pace of Hollywood Studios to be much slower, partly because there are fewer rides and more shows. Popular shows include Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, Beauty and Beast Live on Stage, For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing Along Celebration (this one includes witty jokes that moms and dads will appreciate), Voyage of the Little Mermaid, and Disney Jr., Live on Stage.
Like the other parks, there are a number of character meet and greets through the park, including Disney Jr. characters, but the food options are not quite as extensive (remember, it’s a smaller park). Check out the QS restaurant, Backlot Express, for really good chicken strips and free soda refills! If you’re looking for a character dining experience here, check out Hollywood and Vine (Disney Jr. characters).
The park day culminates with the Fantasmic fireworks show and the Star Wars fireworks display.
Animal Kingdom (AK)
This park is all about animals, nature, and living things. It is also smaller than Magic Kingdom and Epcot and can be done in one day. Some notable attractions include Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, Kali River Rapids, Kilimanjaro Safari, and several interactive animal experiences.
There are a number of character meet and greets and impressive stage shows. As well as a nighttime water and light show called Rivers of Light. Tusker House is the park’s only character dining experience.
The recently opened area, Pandora – The World of Avatar, is getting rave reviews and includes two new rides: Avatar Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey. There are also new QS and TS restaurants to check out.
General Park Tips:
Stop and get a celebration button if you are celebrating something, especially if your kid is celebrating a birthday. When my daughter had her birthday button on just about every cast member wished her a happy birthday, she even scored a couple freebies during the week!
If you’re pushing around a stroller, bring a refillable wipes package with to hang from the stroller for easy access. They come in super handy during the day!
If you plan to be in the parks after dark, bring along glow stick bracelets and put them all over your stroller, as well as every bag you have with you. It makes staying together as a group easier, not to mention locating your items when it’s dark out.
If you want more information about the water parks, Disney Springs, and the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, check out the links below.
Once you know which parks you want to visit and how many days you want to spend at each one, you can purchase your tickets. When purchasing tickets directly through Disney you’ll select the number of days you’ll be in the parks then how many people will need tickets. A Disney Adult is anyone 10 years and older and a Disney Child is ages 3-9. Children younger than three are free! The more days you plan to spend in the parks, the lower the cost per ticket, and discounts usually kick in at three days.
Once you have your base tickets selected (tickets that get you into one park per day), you can choose some add-ons:
Includes same day admission to all four theme parks – hop between parks as many times as you want each day.
Park Hopper Plus:
Includes same day admission to all four theme parks on each day of your ticket, plus extra entries into water parks and other Disney entertainment. For example, if you buy 4-day tickets, and add on the Park Hopper Plus option, you’ll be allowed 4 visits to the two water parks, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course, and/or the two mini golf courses.
All ticket holders can make use of the free Photo Pass feature which allows you to have your picture taken by any and all of the professional photographers scattered through the park, the digital photos are collected in your account and you can pay for each print you want made. Memory Maker gives you access to the same photographers and pictures, but it also gives you the digital copy of EVERY photo taken, including ride photos. You can then edit the photos, download them, and print them at your favorite photo printing location (I like Costco!). Just about every Photo Pass photographer has magic in their camera, where they can add in characters like Tinkerbell and Olaf.
You can purchase tickets through your My Disney Experience account online, through the app, or by calling a Disney cast member.
MAKE ADVANCED DINING RESERVATIONS (ADRs)
Most table service (TS) meals require advanced reservations, known as Advanced Dining Reservations, or ADRs. These can be made starting 180 days prior to your dining date. If you are staying on-property you have the advantage of being able to make all your ADRs for your entire trip (up to ten days) on the 180th day prior to the first day of your trip. If you are staying off-property, you can still make ADRs at 180 days, but you have to do them on the 180th day prior to each day you are dining (if you are making three different ADRs on three different days, you need to login to your account and make those reservations three separate times). The easiest way to make reservations is to log into your My Disney Experience Account at 5 am Central on the 180th day and book them online.
Character dining are some of the most difficult meals to make ADRs for. If there is a TS meal or character dining experience you really want to snag, you’ll want to get online right at 5 am at the 180 day mark.
You can make all your ADRs through your My Disney Experience account online, through the app, or by calling a Disney cast member.
It doesn’t really matter when you go, there will always be other people in the parks with you! That means there will be lines for everything. The time of year/month you go can significantly reduce your wait times. But there will still be long waits for the most popular attractions. Disney knows this, and they know people don’t like waiting in line. So, they have the FastPass+ system.
The FastPass+ system, simply put, allows you to cut in line on select rides and is available free of charge to all ticket holders. It’s like a reservation to get on the ride with a very minimal, if any, wait. For each park day, you can select three initial rides you want to FastPass. Once you have used all three FastPasses, you can grab additional FastPasses one at a time. When you book a FastPass, you’ll have an hour time frame to show up at the ride entrance and by-pass the regular line, known as the Stand By line. This is really great for the popular rides that can end up with 90+ minute waits. Most of the time when you arrive during your FastPass time you can just walk right on the ride. Other times, you may have a short wait, but it is significantly shorter than the Stand By line.
Guests staying on-property can make their FastPass selections 60 days prior to their park days. Like the ADRs, they can select all their FastPasses for their entire trip (up to ten days) on that 60th day. When staying off-property you have to wait until 30 days prior to each day you are selecting FastPasses for.
On our recent trip to Magic Kingdom, which saw moderate crowds, the longest we waited in the Stand By line was 40-50 minutes for Splash Mountain (to then be turned away just before boarding the ride due to technical difficulties). The next longest wait we had was 30 minutes for Journey of the Little Mermaid. We made use of the FastPass+ system to walk onto Peter Pan, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Then later in the day we added another FastPass to give Splash Mountain another go.
You can schedule your FastPasses through your My Disney Experience account online, through the app, or calling a Disney cast member.
Are you completely overwhelmed and ready to throw in the towel before you even get started? Is planning not really your thing? Don’t worry, you do not have to spend a whole year (or more) planning your trip for it to go well! Still not sure you have it in you to plan it all? Then consider enlisting the help of an official Disney Travel Agent. Their services are free if you book through them and they provide as much or as little assistance as you need!
Like I said, I spent a lot of waking hours researching and planning our trip. In that process I looked through more websites, blogs, discussion groups, and books than I care to admit. And I’ve found a handful of resources that I kept coming back to. Below are the resources that will help you the most and the ones that I liked the best. I’ve also included a short list of common abbreviations you might run into while planning your own trip.
My Disney Experience
Shop Disney Parks
Glossary of Terms and Abbreviations
7DWM: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
ADR: Advanced Dining Reservation
AK: Animal Kingdom
BOG: Be Our Guest Restaurant
BTMRR: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
CM: Cast Member
CRT: Cinderella’s Royal Table
DVA: Disney Vacation Account
HS: Hollywood Studios
MB: Magic Band
MDE: My Disney Experience
MK: Magic Kingdom
ROL: Rivers of Light
TTC: Transportation and Ticket Center