Disney World – A prep guide for First-Timers

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“We are going to Disney World.”

The statement elicits excited gasps and cheers from children and adults alike.

There is something in Disney World for everyone. The key is keeping your trip under budget. I’m here today to help with just that!

How do you navigate Disney World as a first timer?

The Basics: Getting to Walt Disney World

Traveling to the park

You have several options for getting to Disney World.

Mainly, these are the following:

  1. Driving (if you’re close)
  2. Buses
  3. Trains
  4. Flying (for those further away or where cost isn’t an issue)

If you live in Florida or a nearby state, driving by car is probably your best, cost-effective option. Plan out your route (and a few alternatives in case you run into traffic or constructions), pack your chosen bags and go!

If you are a little farther away, check out Greyhound Buses. Yes, busing takes a little longer (and you’re probably impatient) but it also helps with your bottom line. Better still, you don’t have to worry about getting lost and you won’t arrive at the first day of your vacation tired from driving.

The third option is taking a Train.

From many Northeastern US cities Amtrak has coach fares. Trains go to Orlando, Kissimmee and Sanford. Each of these have taxi connections to Disney World. Sanford is the farthest and unstaffed. You can find a reclining seat or pay for a sleeper compartment. Bring snacks in a cooler or insulated duffle and a blanket for comfort.

Note: airfares MAY be less than a train depending on the time of year so check both recognizing that train increases your travel time.

The most popular option for getting to Walt Disney World is flying, typically into Orlando International Airport (MCO). Some airlines including Delta and Southwest offer vacation plans that you can roll into your flight for better deals.

These packages include potions like theme tickets, FastPass service, accommodations, rental cars and activities. Get yourself on the E-mailing list for new offerings.

Tip: review the new guidelines for carry-on bags. Airlines have recently changed the size regulations.

How to prepare for a Disney World trip

What city is Disney World located in?

Walt Disney World is located in Lake Buena Vista, Florida near Orlando and Kissimmee. The property covers nearly 40 miles (yes, really!).

Over this expanse you’ll find theme parks, water parks, theme resort hotels, golf courses, entertainment venues and outdoors shopping.

Disney Florida Parks–What’s What?

There are four main parks in Walt Disney World.

The first one built was the Magic Kingdom. Within this realm you find Fantasy Land, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Main Street USA, Adventureland and Tomorrow Land. Attractions here have a strong focus on younger visitors in that rides like Small World and Jungle Cruise don’t have height restrictions. There are also daily parades and fireworks.

Next you have Epcot, which is divided into two sections: The World Showcase and Future World, the latter of which is where you find Spaceship Earth.

The World Showcase has country-themed centers with shows, dining, and shopping. Come hungry if you love global cuisine (my favorite part).

Otherwise bring a snack pack. While Disney Dining Plans have various levels and food options, snacks help calm picky and impatient eaters.

On to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This park looks like it popped out of a 1930s movie set. Trivia buffs can learn about Disney Animation history here.

Other visitors may flock to performances, character appearances or the Honey I Shrunk the Kids playground where you can see the world from a bug’s eye view.

Rounding out the excitement we have Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park, sectioned into Africa, Asia, Dinoland, Discovery Island, Camp Minnie-Mickey and Rafiki’s Planet Watch. There are 250 (plus) species of animals here along a Safari ride, Island trails and rides like Expedition Everest.

Tip: Don’t miss Pandora-the World of Avatar.

Beyond these key parks you also have:

  • Blizzard Beach Water Park
  • ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex
  • Fantasia Gardens and Fairways Miniature Golf
  • Oak Trail Golf Course, Fantasia
  • Typhoon Lagoon Water park
  • Winter Summerland Miniature Golf

Whew! This is why planning ahead and choosing your priorities is so important!

Tip: As you travel around you’re bound to snag some great souvenirs. The attendant can have these shipped straight to your room. While small items are fine in your day-bag, bigger things are tough to lug around. Or, if you want, they will even mail your treasures.

Checking out Disney World

Disney – it’s not Just Florida!

Got the travel bug?

There are Disney Resorts all over the world for your enjoyment. In the US, there is Disneyland in California. This park has Cars Land and a California Adventure that both get outstanding reviews, along with the World of Color and acclaim-worthy evening shows.

In France there is Disneyland Paris. This is a basic park with two unique rides, Crush’s Coaster and Ratatouille (the adventures of Remy).

Tokyo Disneyland is very much like the Magic Kingdom kicked up several notches. Tokyo DisneySea is lovely, offering legendarily yummy food and all the attractions people know and love.

Hong Kong Disneyland is unique in that you can see this whole park in one day. Great for people who want the Disney experience without so much walking.

Finally, Shanghai Disneyland has details that make Disney enthusiasts thrilled. It’s visually stunning and rich in details.

Getting your tickets

The phrase “buy before you fly” comes to mind.

Take time reviewing your ticket options. You can choose how many days you want theme park access, and if you want to add the Park Hopper Plan.

  • The Base plan gives you admission to all four Walt Disney World Theme Parks but only one per day. Truthfully even one day isn’t enough for experiencing each park. This doesn’t include water parks, but is the most cost effective choice, especially if you are staying over four days.
  • The Park Hopper means having access to all four of the Walt Disney parks every day of your trip. Just remember that moving from one park to the next can take up to an hour, depending on the second destination.
  • The Park Hopper Plus includes the golf courses and water parks (this is less expensive than buying single water park admissions).

Tip: If you are staying on Disney properties there are plenty of places for cooling off. So, buying tickets to water parks is optional.

Getting Discount Tickets

Members of the US Military and Florida residents are both eligible for discounted tickets directly from Disney World. For everyone else, there are various options.

Certain groups or corporations like AAA offer discounted tickets through their broker or travel agency.

Online, look to Undercover Tourist or Mouse Savers. They both have a solid reputation you can trust.

If you’re in Florida, nearby Wal-Marts sometimes have deals too (not to mention souvenirs at far better prices than the parks proper).

Tip: Once you get your tickets photocopy or photograph both sides. If you lose a ticket, Disney can then “fix it” by reissuing. Otherwise Disney is not responsible for misplaced, lost or stolen tickets.

Where NOT to Buy

Having said that, there are places you should not purchase Walt Disney World tickets.

It might seem tempting to purchase a partly used multi-day admission, but it’s illegal. There is also no such thing as a legal discounted 1-day ticket.

Avoid Craigslist. It’s filled with scammers that seem legitimate, but the tickets are typically worthless.

Then there are the clever sales pitches for attending time share lectures. Now, you can get those tickets at the advertised price if you’re willing to sit through a two-hour presentation during your vacation time. I’m not a fan of this kind of high-pressure situation just to save some money (and so many end up spending more than they would have saved on something they didn’t need, like a time share)!

That choice is up to you.

Finding the best deals for Disney World

Disney FastPass+ – The Secret to Having a Great Time

If you want to reserve your access to a Walt Disney World attraction in advance, the FastPass+ is the way to go, and it comes with the cost of your theme park admission.

It’s honestly a requirement for enjoying the park, at this point, given how crowded it can get!

If you’re an early bird, you can make those selections starting at 7:00 AM (EST) up to a month before you arrive.

Register online at Disney and link your park admission. Then select the times and dates for the experiences you desire. When you get to the parks, the FastPass+ entryways are prominently marked. Once inside, you can use FastPass+ kiosks for same day selections within that specific theme park ONLY.

Tip: You can only make 3 FastPass+ choices in advance, and you can cancel at any time. Once you redeem those, you can make another selection up to the time the park closes.

Money & Time Saving Tips

Some travelers prefer staying off Disney World property vs the on-site hotels.

Yes, Disney hotels have higher price tags but you don’t have to worry about parking and being in the heart of everything offers other advantages. These include Magic Bands that act as park tickets and Extra Magic Hours when parks open earlier or close later.

If you like this idea, look to the value hotels like the All-Star Movies or Pop Century.

If choosing off-property, see how much you save. It may allow you to increase your stay by a day, making things far more relaxing.

Off Peak Travel

Avoid crowds and save money by timing for off-peak seasons. Holidays are beautiful in Disney, but the cost difference is considerable. Look at expected weather for those non-peak periods too. That can be a determining factor for some guests (rain, heat, etc.)

On-Site Freebies

Remember that some activities at Disney World are free. Chip n’ Dales offers evening sing alongs around a campfire along with outdoor movie screenings. Or create a Lego castle for yourself at the Lego Store in Disney Springs!

Food & Beverage

Disney offers an all-inclusive meal plan, but you can bring your own food to the resorts and parks. The best part is avoiding long lines at restaurants and food kiosks! Fill a little carryall and enjoy!

Forget buying bottled water. Just bring an empty water bottle. All quick-service restaurants provide ice and water for free (no purchase necessary).

STAY HYDRATED.

Add-Ons

Everywhere you go in Disney there are overwhelming options for “add ons”. You can get a Memory Maker photo pass for all kinds of snapshots. But most people have their own camera, so save money and say no.

Character meals are another option. You can see characters anywhere in the parks. This cost-saving option probably doesn’t apply to those travelling with children. That moment may turn into a lifelong treasured memory.

Prepare

Being in Disney World has a staggering immediate impact, particularly for first-timers. The lines, the people, the shows and shopping. Preparation takes a lot of headaches and stressors out of the equation.

Tip: Download the Disney App. This tracks wait times for rides, allows for making dinner reservations, helps you manage your FastPass+ and provides maps of the parks.

See the fireworks at Disney World

A Day at the Walt Disney World Parks

Planning a day at Walt Disney World begins at home when choosing clothing, comfortable shoes, accessories and suitable bags.

If you know you want some “hands free” days, have a smaller pocket belt or fanny pack that holds your tickets and IDs. Also, plan for weather changes. An umbrella and inexpensive pocket ponchos are a must.

What to Pack for Disney World Park?

We’ve already mentioned food, beverages and snacks. There are several grocery stores near Disney. Hop an Uber or Lyft and grab budget-friendly favorites for your day.

Move the umbrella and ponchos from the suitcase into your day bag. It often rains in FL for about an hour then clears up. You want those at the ready.

What else?

  • Cell phone and charger
  • Clothing (a spare for children in case of accidents be it food or otherwise)
  • Credit card
  • Fan or spray misting bottle for the heat
  • Flashlight (a small one is helpful for evening events)
  • First Aid kit: any medications you need for the day, a few bandaids, tissues and wipes
  • Photo ID
  • Insect repellant
  • Jacket, particularly if travelling between October and March
  • Maps of the park
  • Sunglasses
  • Sunscreen
  • Toys for children (you will wait in lines, have something that occupies time)

Disney World Backpack or Other type of Bag?

In reading that list it’s obvious that your everyday bags aren’t necessarily going to work for a day at Walt Disney World Parks. So what are your options?

Well, Slingbags are lightweight and sturdy and they double as carry on luggage if you wish. Soome have anti-theft pockets and water bottle holders.

There’s the traditional backpack, or go hi-tech and get one with USB charging port and hidden compartments. Make sure the shoulder straps are COMFORTABLE.

Still confused? I’ve got an entire post about choosing a backpack for Disney World and amusement parks here.

Tip: Disney allows you to bring your bags on all rides.

What NOT to bring to Disney World

The Walt Disney World website has quite the extensive list of dos and don’ts.

Two biggies: no bringing alcoholic beverages or glass containers into the parks.

Likewise, you cannot carry pepper spray, any toy that looks like a weapon, noise makers, remote control items, skateboards, and any bags/containers larger than 24x15x18, folding chairs, and flags/banners.

Please review the website to avoid any difficulties during your stay.

Other Tips for Surviving the Park

Disney World has a host of experts on site, all of whom are ready, willing and able to assist you.

Just ask!

You’ll not only get a great answer but also probably a nifty tip that will make your stay even better.

Extra Magic Hours

If you don’t like crowds avoid the Extra Magic Hours. Those are the busiest time of the day. Now, if only ONE park is offering those hours on a given morning, plan to go to another!

Single Rider Lanes

For those exploring alone, there are single rider lanes for you. That cuts your wait for rides down by as much as half!

Food on the Go

Haven’t packed lunch and hate lines? Disney has Mobile Food Ordering through the My Disney experience App. Place your order and go to your window at the designated pick up time. Yum!

Take Breaks

Walt Disney World is big (I mean enormous). Catch your breath. Sit down and drink some water. Kick your shoes off.

This is a vacation, remember?

Honestly, I think this is the #1 thing to remember. You’re supposed to be having fun. If you’re at the point where you’re not having a good time, it’s good to take a rest and regroup!

Background: Who was Walt Disney?

So who is this Walt Disney guy, anyway?

Walter E. Disney was born on December 5, 1901. He became an honored pioneer in the American animation industry, particularly in producing cartoons. I’m sure you’ve seen them!

As an individual, Disney earned 22 Oscars for his work in films.

Walt Disney held others to a high standard of work and overcame a rather insecure personality in his engaging public persona. He lived till the age of 65, one year before EPCOT opened.

Why did Walt Disney make Disney World?

While visiting Griffith Park with his daughters, Disney yearned for a clean park where parents and children alike would have fun.

Using his own money, he hired “Imagineers,” who traveled the U.S. Analyzing amusement parks to see what worked, and what didn’t.

Construction for Disneyland (CA) began in 1954 and the park opened in 1955.

After only one month being open, the park received 20,000 visitors daily! It would be 10 years later that the construction of Walt Disney World began as an extension of Walt’s vision.

Disney World Timeline

The Disney journey has been a remarkable one.

Looking at only Walt Disney World Florida, we have the Magic Kingdom opening in 1971 along with Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Village and Fort Wilderness Resort.

Here are some other highlights:

Opening Date / Project

1975 Walt Disney Village Marketplace

1982 EPCOT

1989 Disney MGM Studios & Typhoon Lagoon

1990-1997 Numerous Disney Resorts, including Disney World Swan, Port Orleans, BoardWalk Villas and Coronado Springs

1998 Disney’s Animal Kingdom

2012 Phase One Fantasyland expansion

2015 Disney World Speedway

2017 Pandora the World of Avatar

2018 Toy Story Land

2019 Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

Walt Disney World Attendance

In 2010, Walt Disney World saw over 47,000,000 people (that’s a lot of zeros!). That number went up by 3,000,000 in 2012, by 6,000,00 in 2016 and in 2017 the overall attendance came to nearly 56,000,000!

This is why all of the preparation we discussed in this article is so important (particularly the FastPass+).

Walt Disney World Future Plans

There seems to be no end to the creativity that Walt Disney World designers have up their proverbial sleeves.

Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge is due to open in Hollywood Studios in August 2019. Come Fall of 2019, Disney’s Skyliner service begins in gondola style for transportation.

Micky and Minnie’s Railway replaces the Great Movie Ride in early 2020, and in 2021 new attractions that feature Ratatouille and Guardians of the Galaxy arrive!

Walt Disney World has so many wonderful offerings.

Do your research, plan and pack your bags. Get ready for a wonderful adventure!

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