Tips for Visiting Walt Disney World from a Self-Proclaimed Expert
Born in Southwest Florida, my family and I took many, MANY trips to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Some years I would go 4 to 5 times, visiting all 4 theme parks in one determined trip. When I took my first trip, I was just over a year old. Back then there were characters walking freely around the park, ready and waiting to greet children and sign autographs. The wait times were shorter, there was no Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom, but it was still a ton of fun.
It's been almost two years since my last Disney experience and I must admit - I'm beginning to feel a form of withdrawal. Over the years I have gathered a great deal of knowledge that can only be gained from multiple, exhausting trips to the happiest place on Earth.
Disney Resorts & Hotels
On my vacations with my father and two older brothers, we would almost always stay at Disney's Contemporary Resort near the Magic Kingdom while on occasion staying at the Grand Floridian or Polynesian Resorts. On the other hand, when I would travel with my mom we would stay at either the Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground or the Wilderness Lodge. I can honestly admit that there is not one resort I didn't enjoy staying at. Each hotel has the same, Disney-style feel while mixing in their own flair to go along with the individual resort's style.
Now that I am older (and have to pay for my own trips!) I stay at one of the "value resorts" - Disney's All-Star Movies, Music and Sports Resorts, Art of Animation and Pop Century Resorts. A little off the beaten path near Animal Kingdom and ESPN's Wide World of Sports, these resorts offer the same great accommodations as their big brothers, but at a discounted price. I highly recommend these hotels, especially for Florida residents. You can't beat the prices and you still have access to bus transportation so you can avoid those nasty parking fees at the park gates.
All Disney Resorts have access to all four parks and other area located around the property whether it be bus, monorail or the ferry. The best part about staying at a Disney Resort hotel? Guests are granted access to one of the four parks an hour early OR can enjoy an extra two hours after normal closing time.
Walt Disney World Resort Location
“!Por favor manténgase alejado de las puertas!”
I learned how to say that at a very young age and thoroughly confused my parents. That phrase you hear at least a dozen times while riding the monorail. "Please stand clear of the doors," followed by the Spanish version chimes over your head each stop before the tram moves along. Although at the end of the night the wait for the monorail can be extremely long (especially at Magic Kingdom after the fireworks because it's the primary way to get back to the hotels AND the parking lot), but it is generally efficient while moving from place to place during normal hours. There are two main routes for the monorail - one is a giant loop around the Magic Kingdom Resort area including stops at the Magic Kingdom, general admission parking lot, the Contemporary Resort, Grand Floridian and Polynesian. The other route takes you from the general admission parking lot at the Magic Kingdom to Epcot.
Buses are the other mode of transportation to make your way around the Disney property. They take you EVERYWHERE, but my tip here is to make sure you get on the right bus. I know - it sounds like common sense. There are specific lines for specific destinations and the actual bus has a sign flashing on the front. If you're on a schedule it can throw quite a wrench in your day, especially if you accidentally travel the completely opposite way in where you want to end up. (Confession/Example: I once got on the Magic Kingdom bus from Hollywood Studios to go to Animal Kingdom. DUMB. It added at least an extra hour onto our day, easy.)
The ferryboat is another option to take you from the Magic Kingdom entrance to the parking lot. At night after fireworks it's a faster option than waiting for the monorail, but except for then, I personally avoid it. It's slow and takes a ridiculous amount of time for people to get on and off.
Walt Disney World Property Map
Be Prepared - it will be HOT, HOT, HOT!
There is a very short time during the year where you can visit Disney World and not have to worry about passing out from heat exhaustion. Spring, summer and most of fall are a mixed bag when it comes to weather in Florida. Thunderstorms, hurricanes and torrential rain are always a concern, but the biggest weather obstacle that is a given is the HEAT. (FYI: For some reason, Animal Kingdom always seems to be the hottest park. Keep a bottle of water on hand at all times!)
While dressing for the park (particularly in the spring and summer months) be sure to dress appropriately - tank tops, shorts, sunglasses. Hats are always a wonderful option. No, not silly Disney hats and character ears. Hats that will give you some protection from our beautiful yet brutal Florida sun. And even though it is Florida and you are on vacations - don't wear flip-flops to the parks. Your feet will thank you for wearing comfortable shoes.
Also, be sure to pack your own sunscreen because the sunscreen available for sale on property is SUPER expensive. No matter how nice the landscaping looks in pictures - there is NO shade at Walt Disney World. NONE. Well, there's a little...while you are on an indoor ride! After waiting an hour in the blistering sun, that freezing cold blast of AC never felt so good.
Which park has what? Here's a basic breakdown:
Disney World Park
What sets them apart?
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad/The Haunted Mansion
World Showcase: Great food variety - and BEER!
Test Track/World Showcase
Biggest, baddest rides
Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular/Rock 'n' Rollercoaster
Disney Tour - All 4 ParksClick thumbnail to view full-size
Walt Disney World has fantastic nighttime entertainment available at every park with the exception of Animal Kingdom. No matter which show you would like to attend at which park, its SUPER important to show up early to get a good seat or spot along the parade route.
The Magic Kingdom ends the night with the classic "Main Street Electrical Parade" followed by an impressive fireworks display. Floats and popular Disney characters are decked out in unique lights that flash along to music as they make their way through the park. It's been years since I have sat through the parade. Instead, if you're not interested in the show, this is an excellent time to ride the biggest rides! Either way well before the parade starts, make sure you pick which side of the route you want to be on, because once it starts - you are stuck!
Epcot features an evening show called "Illuminations". The incredible fireworks and light show takes place over the lagoon in the center of World Showcase. It's an awesome show with wonderful effects and music. Being over the water, as long as you are somewhere around the edge there isn't a bad seat and unlike the parade you aren't blocked from either side of the park while it's going on.
"Fantasmic!" is the nighttime at Hollywood Studios and it has everything! Fireworks, live action, boats, pyrotechnics, projections of Disney films onto screens of mist and best of all - Maleficent as a fire breathing dragon! It has tons of Disney characters teaming up with Mickey Mouse to stop the popular Disney villains. The show is amazing and a must-see, but it fills up FAST!
Parade and Show Schedule
- Walt Disney World Schedule
Disney World park hours, fireworks and parade hours and time, theme park times. Check to make sure the shows and parades you are interested in are available on the day you are visiting!
Want to meet Tigger?! You're going to have to wait...
Final Tips & Advice
- Fast Passes: Use them. They are great, especially on those super hot days. Even if you only cut off 10 minutes from your wait time, it's worth it! But be warned - those people you speedily pass waiting in the regular line WILL HATE YOU. Just wait until you are in their place. You'll understand. Just hold back the urge to trip anyone.
- Character Meetings: Unlike when I was little, your kid's favorite Disney characters no longer wander freely around the park. When you do see them, they have another Disney employee with them and they are on their way to a specific location for a meet & greet. If your kids want that autograph (and they do) this will be another line you have to wait it.
- Bird Poop: Trust me, it's a thing. While visiting MGM (now Hollywood Studios) my mom & I were pooped on so many times waiting to see the live "Beauty and the Beast" show we came up with a song: "Be our guest, be our guest, let a bird poop on your chest!" Witty, I know.