Maybe it’s because many of my Facebook photos contain mouse ears, or maybe it’s because I carry around a Disney handbag. The question I am asked most often by my family and friends is: What advice do you have for our first trip to Disney World?
Sometimes my reply is, “How much time do you have?”, because I could go on and on about Disney World and Disney in general. Disney happens to be one of my favorite subjects! I tend to focus on advice for saving money on a Disney trip, but many factors come into play that affect the entire vacation experience.
There are so many books and forums out there on Disney World, but reading and sorting through all of that information is a daunting task. Some people love the research, but others would rather skip the homework and cut right to the chase. Here are the ten most important things I want you to know as you plan your first trip.
- Don’t put off your trip too long. I cannot stress this enough, so I’m saying it first. If you really want to visit Disney but are waiting until your kids are tall enough for a certain ride, or your kids are out of diapers, don’t wait too long. I personally think that age 4-5 is a great age to bring kids to Disney World since they can ride many rides and they still believe in the magic, but there isn’t really one perfect age to go to Disney. I’ve been on family trips with a baby and with seniors. Every age enjoys something at Disney World!
Life is unpredictable. If you wait too long, things can change and time slips away. If you’re planning on bringing grandparents and you wait too long, their health may decline enough where they can’t go or enjoy the trip as much. As your kids get older, their activities and school commitments may pull them away from family trips. A job change or illness may derail plans. If going on a trip to Disney World is a priority, make it happen sooner rather than later.
- Weigh the pros and cons of going at different times of the year. I used to tell people to go during the off-season whenever possible, even pulling kids out of school if necessary. Now with FastPass+, it’s easier to work around the crowds than it used to be, so there are other factors to consider when picking the right week for your trip.
If saving money is a top priority, go when school is in session and avoid summer, holidays and Spring Break. Most hotels have lower prices during the off-season, and airline award seats and lower cash fares may be more prevalent.
Consider the temperature and humidity at different times of the year. Sometimes, the temperatures in the winter dip into the 40s, which makes enjoying the pools difficult even though they are heated. On the flip side, the summer can feel so hot that carrying around a personal mister is necessary.
Different times of the year have special decorations and activities that may be a draw for your family, like the Flower & Garden show in the spring, the Food and Wine Festival in the fall and Halloween and Christmas special events.
- Pick a hotel that best fits your needs. The biggest misconception about visiting Disney World is that you have to stay on-site to have the best Disney experience. I disagree with this wholeheartedly. Most of the time, I see that opinion on social media from travel agents who make a higher commission for on-site bookings. Some people get discouraged at the on-site prices and back away from the trip altogether.
If you are looking to save money or if you have a larger family, consider staying off-site in a suite hotel or a condo rental. Many of these places offer multiple bedrooms and bathrooms with room to spread out at a fraction of the cost of a Disney resort (and many are available on hotel points, too). My family stayed at a 4-bedroom condo at Wyndham Bonnet Creek a few years ago with extended family. We loved having a full kitchen and a large living room. The resort offered some really nice amenities, too—including two lazy rivers, multiple pools and water slides, face painting, etc. See this post on Traveling Mom for off-site hotel ideas.
If convenience is a top priority, splurge for an on-site Disney resort. Disney will pick you up from the airport on the Magical Express bus and deliver your luggage to your room. You can take Disney transportation to the parks and have your park purchases delivered right to your room. On-site resorts have that extra Disney magic with great customer service and Disney touches, but the price is higher than many off-site options. If you do stay on-site, I strongly recommend you use a travel agent to help you pick the right resort for your family and notify you of promotions for your timeframe.
I have stayed both on-site and off-site, and I see the pros and cons of both. In my opinion, for shorter trips of less than a week, staying on-site is the way to go. This cuts down on transportation expenses and puts you close to everything. For longer stays of a week or more, I recommend staying off-site for the extra space and cost savings or renting a DVC condo (see this post by The Deal Mommy for more info on DVC rentals). Note: You can use many travel rewards credit cards for both on-site and off-site hotel stays, including the Capital One Venture card and the Barclaycard Arrival Plus.
- Make a few dining reservations in advance. Dining at Disney World is part of the experience, as Disney has some great themed restaurants with and without characters. You can make dining reservations for full service restaurants six months prior to your trip. Make a few reservations, even if you don’t want to dine with characters. Lines at the quick-service (aka fast food) restaurants can be long, and who wants to stand in the heat, carry trays and search for a table when you’re tired from walking around all day? Not me! Full service restaurants book up quickly. I usually make at least one dining reservation per day in an indoor restaurant where the air conditioning and assigned table feels so good.
- Learn about FastPass+ and use it. FastPass+ is a way to avoid major lines for rides. It’s the best thing since sliced bread! You can go online and reserve a time for a specific ride 60 days in advance (for guests of on-site Disney resorts) or 30 days in advance for other guests. This is HUGE! I went to the Magic Kingdom last July with my daughter expecting the worst in terms of crowds and rides, but we accomplished so much with the help of FastPass+. Last January when we went into the Magic Kingdom at the last minute before our cruise, I was able to make ride reservations the day before and still found great availability. Read more about FastPass+ here.
- Understand ride requirements before you go. Many rides have health restrictions and height requirements. Before you promise your kids a ride on Space Mountain, take a peek at the height requirements in advance so they are not disappointed when you get there. If your kids aren’t tall enough, prepare them in advance and focus on other rides. You can use the rider switch option to make sure others in your group can still go on the ride.
- Prepare for lots of walking. You will do more walking at Disney World than you ever thought was possible. Just walking from the bus drop-off to the security line and down Main Street U.S.A. to the first ride is longer than you think. Many people walk 5-10 miles in a day at the parks. Before your trip, go on walks as a family to build up stamina. Walk to school or work instead of driving. Make sure to wear sensible shoes (sneakers or tennis shoes) around the parks. I can’t tell you how many people I see limping around with flip-flops and blisters. I’ve learned my lesson.
- Break up into smaller groups. Touring the parks is easier with smaller groups that have similar interests. If you have multiple kids and adults, consider breaking up into groups of two or three for part of the day to do the things you want to do without having the rest wait on you. You will see more things and get some precious one-on-one time with a kid or grandparent.
- Take a break. The rides, ambiance, entertainment and food can be so much fun, but also exhausting and overstimulating. The truth is, spending multiple days at the parks is a total beating. The heat, lack of sleep and unfamiliar surroundings are prime breeding ground for meltdowns (both kids and adults). Find some time in your day to stop what you’re doing and sit down. Get an ice cream cone, sit in the shade and chill. Food, drinks and a little downtime do wonders for everyone’s mood!
- Don’t try to do it all. Even if you are 100% certain this will be your only trip to Disney World, don’t kill yourself by trying to go on every single ride and seeing every single show. It’s just too much! Prioritize, but be flexible. The goal of a vacation is to have fun, right?
Do you agree with my advice for first-timers? What would you add?
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Leana is the owner and founder of Miles For Family. She enjoys beach vacations and visiting her family in Europe. Originally from Belarus, Leana resides in central Florida with her husband and two children.