I'm Lindsay Ferrier, a Nashville writer with a passion for family travel, exploring Tennessee, and raising kids without losing my mind in the process. This is where I share my discoveries, along with occasional deep thoughts, pop culture tangents and a sprinkling of snark. Want to get in touch? Use the CONTACT form at the top of the page.
October 14, 2014
We’ve just returned from our annual trip to Walt Disney World and I have to say that the more we’ve learned about the resort, the better time we’ve had as a family. It has taken us years to perfect our trip- Now, I’m passing on all my best Disney World tips in one handy dandy post. By the time you finish reading, you’ll be a Disney World EXPERT.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
1. Do your research. Many people come to Disney without doing any pre-planning whatsoever, and this makes for a very “meh” experience compared to what it could have been if they’d done a little legwork ahead of time. There are all kinds of things you can do to get the most out of your trip- and the key is to do your research at least six months before you go. Get started with The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2015, which is like the Bible for Disney-goers. There are also a TON of other books, blogs and articles on the Internet containing advice on every aspect of the Disney experience.
2. Take advantage of the Disney help line. My husband is a planner- and the first time he called the hotline for help, he discovered that the operators are incredibly knowledgeable about everything you could possibly want to know about your vacation, from the most popular restaurants in the parks to their best estimates on when Disney will offer its Free Dining Plan (the operator even pulled up all of the weeks the discount was offered in prior years in order to make an educated guess). He now calls the hotline every time he has a question about anything Disney resort-related. The number: (407) 939-5277 .
3. Schedule your Disney trip during the off season. It makes a big difference. The best months to visit Disney are September, October and November. We went during Spring Break our first year, and we’ve gone in late September/early October since then. It really does make a difference! The weather is nice, it’s still warm enough for swimming, and lines are very manageable- During Spring Break, the crowds at Magic Kingdom in particular were so large that it definitely affected our experience.
4. Plan for a recovery day (or two! or three!) during your trip. My husband and I joke about families who are clearly doing the “Disney Death March”- visiting a park every single day of their vacation, from open until close. They. Look. Miserable. We have been satisfied with the two days on, one day off model for our Disney vacations. We spend our off days recovering by sleeping in, swimming at the elaborate resort pool, having great meals at other resorts, and exploring Downtown Disney, which is really a lot of fun. Don’t miss the Lego Imagination Center while you’re there- Your kids will LOVE it.
5. Make all of your reservations six months in advance. If you’ve never done Disney before, you’re probably like “WHAT?!” But it’s true- Restaurant and Fast Pass+ reservations open up six months ahead of time- and the best restaurants and rides fill up FAST. So figure out when you want to do while you’re there and when you want to do it- then make those reservations as soon as you possibly can.
6. Plan to stay at the resort. I never thought I would stay inside Walt Disney World but once I tried it as an adult, I became a convert. We’ve stayed in the “Disney bubble” ever since. When you stay in the resort (and meticulously plan out your visit,) your entire vacation experience is filled with Disney magic 24/7 and with kids, this is just awesome. Read on and you’ll see why. We stay at the Caribbean Beach Resort each year- You can read more about that and the other WDW resorts we’ve visited here.
7. Do the Disney Dining Plan. It can seriously take your vacation to the next level. Part of our strategy is to plan our trip to coincide with one of the weeks that Disney offers its Dining Plan for free- This takes some guesswork (Disney doesn’t announce the dates ahead of time and there are only a limited number of Free Dining Plan reservations offered)- but we’ve gotten it right every year so far.
Why is the Dining Plan so great? If you plan it right and make reservations ahead of time, you can turn many of your meals into interactive dining experiences that offer far more than food.
Plus, if it’s free you won’t care that your daughter’s buffet meal technically cost $40, even though all she ate was bread and mashed potatoes!
8. Best Walt Disney World Resort dining bets with kids (outside the park):
–T-Rex Cafe in Downtown Disney is so popular that we STILL haven’t managed to book a reservation there! We can’t wait to try it… eventually.
–Disney’s BoardWalk has a number of restaurants- Booking a meal there gives you the chance to stroll down the entertaining and picturesque BoardWalk either before or after your meal. Kouzzina by Cat Cora, my absolute favorite restaurant at Disney, just closed, unfortunately, but Big River Grille is also on the BoardWalk and I’m told an Italian-themed restaurant will take Kouzzina’s place in the next few months. You also have to check out the beautiful BoardWalk hotel- It’s my favorite in the resort and decorated with elegant 1900s circus-themed whimsy. Don’t miss the pool!
-Ohana at the Polynesian Resort offers an enormous Hawaiian family-style meal, along with hula dancing lessons. Save time to explore the famous Polynesian and its grounds before or after your meal.
-The Whispering Canyon Cafe at the Wilderness Lodge offers a western-themed, rollicking good time for kids. Periodically throughout the evening, kids are given hobby horses and encouraged to ride them in a long line throughout the restaurant. And while you’re there, be sure and ask for ketchup. Trust me on this. While you’re at the Wilderness Lodge, head outside to see the elaborate man-made geyser.
-Boma offers a huge South African buffet with lots of tasty options, as well as African drummers providing entertainment. We allow at least thirty minutes to tour the beautiful hotel and enjoy the balcony views of the Animal Kingdom’s exotic menagerie outside. Thanks to our dinner here, I once got to witness a giraffe chasing a zebra at top speed. I shit you not.
-Downtown Disney has a number of great restaurants on the Dining Plan. The Earl of Sandwich has one of the best sandwiches I’ve ever eaten, Wolfgang Puck’s Cafe is always good, and kids love Rainforest Cafe. We’ve also heard great things about Raglan Road Irish Pub, built in Ireland and shipped to Orlando, which is said to have great food and Irish step dancing!
9. Plan your meals to coincide with special events. Certain resorts offer spectacular views of the nearby parks’ fireworks or the Electrical Water Pageant. Plan your dinner so that you can catch the show afterward. One of our most magical nights was spent on the beach of the Polynesian Resort after dinner, watching the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks explode right over our heads. We’ve also enjoyed watching the Electrical Water Pageant from outside the Wilderness Lodge after dinner.
Another longtime resort favorite is the Campfire Sing-Along with Chip & Dale, a free campfire show at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground every night at 7pm or 8pm, depending on the season. Afterward, a Disney movie is shown. This could be a fun after-dinner event for your family. There’s also a 45-minute wagon ride around Fort Wilderness Campground- Tickets are $8 for adults, $5 per child and they leave from Pioneer Hall at 7:00pm and 9:30 pm. No reservations are accepted and you have to pay cash.
10. Don’t ditch your car. Even if you fly to Orlando, it’s worth it to rent a car for your stay at Walt Disney World. Yes, I know there are shuttle buses that technically make driving unnecessary- but those buses are often crowded, have multiple stops, and force you to do a lot of waiting around/standing in line. Plus, it’s really not convenient to take a shuttle bus to dinner at another resort- and trust me- You will want to have meals at some of the other Disney resorts. Finally, if you’re staying at the resort, you can park for free at any of the parks. We often took the bus to a park in the morning, came back for a swim and a few hours of rest in the early afternoon, and drove back to the park for late afternoon/evening hours, when we could always find a vacated spot right up front near the gate.
11. Regulars at the resort decorate their hotel room windows with pictures, posters and stuffed animals. Let your kids create the decorations ahead of time and bring them with you to make your arrival more exciting.
12. Enhance your older children’s Disney experience by bringing along books with great insider info on the parks. You’ll see a ton of people at the parks toting the Hidden Mickeys book, while the The Imagineering Field Guide to Magic Kingdom gives you all kinds of background information and fascinating tidbits on the park and its attractions. These books can also be a great way to make those waits in line less boring.
ONCE YOU ARRIVE
13. Publix is your new BFF. Remember that car you brought with you? You’re definitely going to want to use it when you arrive to make a pit stop at the local Publix. (Address: 4870 S. Apopka-Vineland Road) There, you can get waters and snacks to store in your room’s refrigerator, along with beer and wine (It’s ridiculously expensive at the resort) and- best of all- SOUVENIRS.
Yes, friends, this Publix has nearly an entire aisle of Disney dolls, plushes, magnets, pens, autograph books, keychains, water toys for the pool, and other memorabilia- all at a fraction of the price you’d pay at the resort. Best of all, this Publix has Disney ponchos for a couple of dollars apiece. Get caught in a rainstorm at one of the parks and you’ll spend more than $8 per poncho. BUZZ KILL.
Other nearby options:
Albertsons: 8801 Conroy-Windermere Road
Walgreens: 12100 S Apopka-Vineland Road
Walmart (open 24 hours): 1471 E. Osceola Parkway
14. Sign up for a wake-up call and let Mickey or Stitch wake the kids each morning. This is an especially good idea on those mornings that you’re getting up extra-early for Magic Hours or a marathon day at the park.
15. Orlando has TWO Disney outlets with discounted/discontinued merchandise from the parks. This could be a great way to find souvenirs on a rainy day.
Character Warehouse: 4951 International Drive, Orlando, FL 32819 (Bonus: This is in Orlando Premium Outlets, one of the best outlet malls I’ve ever seen, with Neiman Marcus Last Call, Off 5th, Coach, Kate Spade, The North Face, J.Crew, and basically any other outlet shop you can think of!)
Character Warehouse: 8200 Vineland Avenue, Orlando, FL 32821 (This location is smaller, but closer to Walt Disney World)
Theme Park Connection: 2160 Premier Row, Orlando, FL 32809 (Not exactly an outlet, but sounds like fun nonetheless. This store features tons of collectibles from Disney and other theme parks. The shop will also buy your used Disney memorabilia for cash.)
GENERAL PARK TIPS
16. Not on the dining plan? Adults can order kids’ meals at Disney. They’re actually pretty filling for adults with a moderate appetite.
17. Get a button to show you’re celebrating a special event. Disney Cast Members will give you a birthday (or other special occasion) button- and you may receive special treatment from other cast members throughout your stay, ranging from birthday singalongs at restaurants to balloons!
18. Staying in the resort? You can have your souvenirs delivered right to your room free of charge, so that you don’t have to carry them around all day. Of course, I didn’t figure this out until AFTER I had been carrying around souvenirs all day! I will definitely use this option the next time we visit.
19. Walt Disney World counter service restaurants will give you a free cup of water if you ask for it. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but we used several snack credits for bottled water during our park visits, which we could have saved if we’d realized we could get water from counter service restaurants. D’oh!
20. If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan, you qualify for either a regular OR large fountain drink at counter service restaurants. You will get a regular drink UNLESS you specifically ask for large. This is another detail I didn’t learn until after our visit!
21. PhotoPass Cast Members will take a free photo of your family with your camera or phone. ANOTHER detail I wish I’d known when we visited. PhotoPass Cast Members are stationed at all the best photo op locations in the parks and they are great photographers, so now Mommy can FINALLY be in the picture, too!
22. As long as you are in line by the time the park closes, you will get to ride it, no matter how long you have to wait. So consider getting in line for one of the more popular rides ten minutes before closing- That way you won’t waste valuable park time standing in a long line for that particular ride. GENIUS.
23. Don’t panic if you’ve forgotten diapers/formula/baby aspirin. Each Disney park has a Baby Care Center– I got to tour the one at Magic Kingdom and it is amazing! Staffed by women in 1900s costumes, it included cool, quiet comfortable rooms for nursing and where toddlers can have some quiet time. There’s also a shop containing everything a baby or small child could possibly need, from baby food, clothing and diapers to children’s medicines. The Baby Care Center is also where lost children are taken.
24. Know your apps.
There are lots of invaluable apps that can vastly improve your Disney experience.
-We downloaded the My Disney World Experience app for the first time this year and used it quite a bit. The wait times, surprisingly, aren’t all that accurate, but you can also use it to quickly and easily change your Fast Pass+ selections and restaurant reservations- This is invaluable, because while you do need to reserve things six months ahead of time, we’ve found that often there are openings (even with “full” Fast Pass+ rides) at the very last minute. I also loved the interactive maps- Markers on the app’s maps showed me where I was and where I wanted to go. Lastly, I used it to figure out where various characters were giving autographs at any given time- The app lists their whereabouts in real time! BOOM.
-Many people swear by the Touring Plans Lines app, which is free to download but requires a $9.99 annual subscription and also includes apps for wait times at the Universal parks. Not only does it give you accurate wait times (according to what I’ve read and heard from park goers), you can tell it which rides you want experience and it will give you an itinerary showing you which ride to go on at what time- It changes throughout the day based on wait times. Gold!
-The Undercover Tourist app is also very popular- It analyzes which days are best days to visit each park, gives you attraction wait times, and includes full menus for every Disney restaurant.
25. The Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom? WORTH IT. I’ll admit it- I’ve always bypassed the Hall of Presidents at Magic Kingdom because… BORING. But over the years, I’ve heard so many people rave about it that I became curious. Last week during a rainstorm at Magic Kingdom, I convinced my family to head for the Hall of Presidents to kill time and stay dry.
It was great! Seriously. Even my 7-year-old was riveted. Although the material is fairly dry, it is fast paced, the robots’ movements have GREATLY improved since we were kids, and when the curtains part and all of the presidents are standing there looking so creepily REAL, it’s awesome! I swear James Madison would not stop staring at me…
26. If you want pictures with Anna and Elsa from Frozen, be sure to reserve a Fast Pass+ to meet them in Magic Kingdom. This is literally the hottest ticket in Magic Kingdom right now, with wait times ranging from 80 minutes (on a very, very good day) to six hours! Fortunately, you can reserve a Fast Pass+ time for this attraction, but do it as soon as you possibly can- I have a feeling these Fast Pass times go fast.
27. If you’re in Magic Kingdom when it has two Main Street Electrical Parades, make plans to see the second one. We went one year when this was a case and during the first parade, the sidewalks were packed– It was a great time to ride rides, because the lines were shorter considerably. During the second parade, the sidewalks were a ghost town. We sat down and enjoyed the show- and we were one of only about five families watching the parade on our street!
28. Look for one of the six paintbrushes hidden on Tom Sawyer’s Island each day. If you find one, give it to a Cast Member and you’ll get free Fast Passes for your family for one ride! My kids can’t wait to search for those paint brushes the next time we visit. EDIT: A reader has informed me that this has been discontinued. 🙁
29. The first person to visit Tinker Bell each day at Magic Kingdom gets to wake her up. So if that’s your thing, go for it- Her meet and greet is inside the Town Square Theater, right beside the park entrance. (And when we went to visit recently, the wait was only 5 minutes, so she may be a great alternative to the longer princess lines in the park.)
30. Make sure your little princess is dressed accordingly when you visit Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom is filled with little girls who’ve gotten expensive princess makeovers at the Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique- so if you have a little princess, consider dressing her in her favorite princess dress and doing her hair and “makeup” when you visit Magic Kingdom so that she won’t think she’s missing out on something.
31. Cool down and beat the crowds by eating at Columbia Harbour House in Magic Kingdom. This is our go-to spot for a little R&R at the park midday. The food is nothing special, but it’s nice and cool and most people don’t know that upstairs is an enormous second dining room where you can ALWAYS find a table.
32. Bring plastic jewels for Mickey’s Philharmagic. There’s a scene in this can’t-miss attraction in which The Little Mermaid’s gemstones appear to fly out into the audience. Secretly bring some along and pretend to catch them with this happens! You can also do this at Soarin’ at Epcot with a golf ball- When Michael Eisner hits the golf ball (Did you know that was Michael Eisner?!), pretend to catch it. Your kids will be amazed! We can’t wait to try it.
33. Best Magic Kingdom dining options: I have to be honest- The food in Magic Kingdom is not great. Fortunately, there’s so much to do here that you don’t really care. We typically make a quick stop at Columbia House and/or Pecos Bill’s for a standard meal- and then move on. However, if you’re looking for something a little more, here are your best options…
Be Our Guest- This is a brand new restaurant inside the Beauty and the Beast castle in Fantasyland and it is gorgeous. It is also very, very popular. We tried to go there for the more casual lunch menu and they were at capacity and not accepting any more guests. Dinner is more formal and will require reservations well in advance. However, it looks delicious and the restaurant is getting great reviews- for Magic Kingdom, anyway!
Captain Cook’s, Contempo Cafe, Roaring Fork- Magic Kingdom regulars often leave the park and take a short monorail ride to nearby resorts for one of these 3 restaurants, considered to be the best counter-service restaurants in Walt Disney World. It’s not a bad idea, particularly midday when everyone needs to cool down and rest.
Sleepy Hollow Inn– I’m determined to try this counter-service restaurant in Liberty Square- People rave about its waffle sandwiches.
34. Save Spaceship Earth for later in the day. Every time we visit Epcot, we see long lines for Spaceship Earth in the morning- It is, after all, the first ride you encounter at Epcot. Those poor suckers. By late afternoon, the lines are non-existent.
35. Want your kids to be as enthusiastic about visiting the countries in Epcot as you are? Buy them World Showcase Passports at an Epcot gift shop (or help them make their own ahead of time) and challenge them to get stamps on their passports, available at the Kidcot Stations in 11 different countries. Some of the stations are harder to find than others, which makes for a fun scavenger hunt.
36. Frozen fans will enjoy the new film exhibit in one of the houses in Norway. My kids were fascinated by the Viking artifacts Disney has on loan right now for this tiny museum, and my daughter read all of the historical background on Norway that influenced the movie. They loved it so much that they agreed to a delicious (though not all that kid-friendly) counter service lunch at the Kringla Bakery og Cafe, and they watched the entire Norway movie that plays at the end of the (now sadly closed) Maelstrom ride! I think we may be the first people ever to have watched that entire film!
37. Sample international sodas for free at Flavors of Club Cool, a Coke-sponsored exhibit. This is a great way to cool down, rehydrate, and taste some unusual beverages. The list includes:
38. The best way to meet most of the princesses is to make Princess Storybook Dining reservations at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in Norway at Epcot. Many families make reservations to meet the Disney princesses at Cinderella’s Royal Table in Magic Kingdom, but insiders know that the easier/cheaper way to get those autographs and photos is to make reservations for princess character dining in Epcot. The atmosphere is more relaxed, the food is Norwegian and delicious, and if you’re on the Dining Plan, it’s only one table service credit, as opposed to two credits for the Magic Kingdom experience.
39. Save your spending money for Mitsukoshi Department Store in Japan at Epcot. Y’all. This place is AMAZING. Founded in Japan in 1673, the Epcot version is your one-stop shop for literally thousands of awesome Japanese imports, from silk kimonos to candy to hard-to-find Pokemon and Hello Kitty collectibles. Our kids now save their souvenir money specifically for Mitsukoshi (this year, most of their funds went to Pokemon!)- It’s a great place to shop because it really does have something cool for any budget.
By far, the most popular spot at Mitsukoshi is the Pick-a-Pearl station, where you choose an oyster from a water tank and a cast member opens it in front of you. You get to keep the pearl inside and can have it set in a ring or other jewelry if you want. The Mitsukoshi employees have turned this experience into a fun show that always draws a sizable crowd.
40. Epcot is the best spot to get autographs and photos from Mickey and his friends. I love Epcot’s Character Spot. Love. It. You wait in one fairly brisk line to get autographs with Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto. Do this and Princess Dining and Voila! Your kids’ autograph books are well on their way to being filled.
41. Best Dining Bets:
Kringla Bakery Og Cafe- We happened upon this bakery/cafe in Norway at Epcot and loved it. Not only were the sandwiches and Norwegian baked goods heavenly (be sure and try one of the school house rolls), but there was no line whatsoever. Be warned- The kids’ menu consists of an Uncrustables sandwich meal- and that’s it- but our 7 year old was perfectly content with that option.
Le Cellier Steak House: Located in Canada, this signature restaurant is a resort favorite and requires reservations well in advance.
Teppan Edo- Located right above Matsutoshi Department Store in Japan, this hibachi grill is a treat for the whole family. The kids had a blast watching the chef perform on the grill at our table and the food was very, very good! This is definitely going to become an annual tradition for us.
Bistro de Paris- Located in France, this replica of a Paris bistro serves French fare (obviously) and it’s one of the most popular restaurants in Epcot. I’ve eaten there several times- I’d call it good, but not great.
42. Look for the key at Muppet Vision 3D. If you go to the muppet “ticket office” while you’re waiting for the show, it says that it’s closed– but a sign says “Key Under the Mat.” Look under the mat and you’ll find a key!
43. On the dining plan? Definitely do the Mama Melrose Fantasmic package. Mama Melrose is one of our absolute favorite restaurants at the resort- and if you eat there (meals are one table service credit each), you’ll get tickets for priority seating at Fantasmic. This is the best show at the resort, and the priority seating allows you to sit in the main section of the ampitheater- and on the evening we went, the priority seating area was far less crowded than the rest of the seating sections, which meant that we could sit as close as we wanted.
44. Sit in the Splash Zone at Fantasmic. If you dare! Signs state that you will get wet if you sit in the first couple of rows, and they are accurate- You will get very, very wet! You will also feel the intense heat from the fire on the water. For us, sitting in the front row really heightened the whole experience. If you have kids, they will love the Splash Zone!
45. Pull on the rope over the well near the entrance of the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular. You’ll hear a voice from inside the well. You’ll also find crates hidden in the bushes that say “Do not open.” OPEN THEM.
46. Take a photo under the Singing in the Rain umbrella. It’s located in the Streets of America section across from the Lights, Motors, Action! Extreme Stunt show. Pull on the umbrella’s handle and it will ‘rain’!
47. Try to make a funny face right when your limo takes off on the Rock n’ Roller Coaster- That’s when your picture will be taken!
48. Put a penny on your lap when you ride the Tower of Terror- Watch it float when you drop!
49. Best dining bets:
Mama Melrose’s Ristorante Italiano- We LOVE this place- It’s the kids’ favorite restaurant in the resort. The Chicken Campanelle is absolutely fantastic and is definitely one of the top meals we’ve had at WDW. The minestrone is surprisingly delicious (and ordinarily, I don’t even like minestrone!), and the kids go crazy for the pizza. This restaurant is a required stop for our family. Advanced reservations are strongly encouraged.
Sci-Fi Dine-In- The food isn’t great, but the experience of sitting in a simulated drive-in, watching a 50s sci-fi movie, just might be worth it for your family.
The Brown Derby- This is by far the best restaurant at Hollywood Studios, but it is also expensive and requires reservations. If you are looking for an elaborate old Hollywood dining experience, this is it.
50. Consider making breakfast reservations here before the park opens– This way, you can be first in line for the most popular rides.
51. Got little ones? Arrive early and head to the Tree of Life– That’s where 15 minutes before the park officially opens, Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy arrive, board a truck, and head into Harambe Village to start the day.
52. If the entrance is crowded, head to Rainforest Cafe. There’s another entrance to the park at the back of the gift shop!
53. Get a Fast Pass+ for Kilimanjaro Safaris and Expedition Everest as soon as you can. You can typically reserve your Fast Passes 60 days before your visit- and the popular rides run out of Fast Passes quickly, well before the day of your visit.
54. Make advanced lunch reservations at Tusker house for between 1pm and 4pm and you’ll receive priority seating for the 3:15 Nemo show.
55. More animals come out on the Animal Kingdom savannah when it’s raining. This makes it a great time to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris.
56. If you can’t get a Fast Pass+ for a ride, save the ride for the last hour the park is open. Many people visit Animal Kingdom the first half of the day, then leave for another park, so the lines are typically much shorter just before closing.
57. Look for the “secret path.” This path is open to the public, despite appearances to the contrary! You can find it as you head for Harambe Village. Look for the last path on the right after the Tree of Life and before the bridge to Africa. It is surrounded by lots of plant life, so you might have to look hard, but once you’re on it, you’ll have some great up-close views of the Tree of Life.
58. Animal Kingdom is a great place for character meet and greets. There are generally lots of Disney characters here and the lines are considerably shorter than they are at other parks.
59. Don’t miss the Lion King show. It is awesome.
60. Best dining bets:
Flame Tree Barbeque- Known as the best counter-service restaurant in Animal Kingdom, the food is solid but not extraordinary. The ribs are good and the barbeque salad was hearty and filling.
Tusker House- Called a ‘little Boma,’ this restaurant is an Animal Kingdom favorite and features a buffet of African specialties.
Plan ahead– and have fun!
Oh, and I welcome your best tips in the comments– After all, THE MORE YOU KNOW…