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Four Decades Has Taught Me Much About Disney
So, you’ve just booked the vacation of a lifetime. You’re going to the ‘Happiest Place on Earth!’ The kiddos can hardly believe it and Dad is already making plans to work overtime for the next six months to pay for it. Walt Disney World, Florida — this is the stuff dreams are made of. There’s only one problem; you’ve never been there and have a ton of questions you wish you could ask Mickey himself.
Well, I’m not the famous Mouse, but perhaps the next best thing. You see, I’ve been going to Walt Disney World every year since 1976. But, it was an awfully long drive from Pennsylvania, so in November of 2000 I took the plunge and moved right next door to the Disney Theme Parks. (Okay… the Mouse was not the motivation for the move, but he doesn’t have to know that!) Can you guess the very first thing we did when we arrived in the Sunshine State? Well, you’re almost correct. The DMV was our first stop. Becoming a Disney Annual Passholder was actually the second thing we did — but only because we needed a valid Florida license or State-issued ID Card in order to get it! Hubby and I have been Disney Annual Passholders ever since, for the past 18 years. And after a hundred or so visits, we’ve stopped counting.
One of my favorite things to do at the Disney Parks is to talk to first time visitors. I love giving them tips to make their Disney experience more enjoyable. Certainly, I don’t know it all, but I have gained a ton of knowledge over these past 42 years of frequenting Disney. It’s my utmost pleasure, in this article, to share my Top 10 Tips For First-Time Visitors to Walt Disney World.
# 1 — Advance Planning Is Necessary!
At the Walt Disney World Complex you cannot possibly see it all in one visit. Seriously. Walt Disney World is HUGE! It covers 25,000 acres, contains 4 theme parks, 2 water parks, and 24 Disney-themed hotels. Doing your homework is vital to a well-planned visit. Decide beforehand what are the most important things you would like to see. Let everyone in the family have a say (yes, even toddlers can be very opinionated when it comes to their favorite Disney characters). Make a priority list and stick to it — everything else will be icing on the cake!
To help you plan, I recommend reading a variety of Disney-themed blogs, searching Pinterest and FaceBook for planning tips, as well as reading ‘The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2018.’ The book is an Amazon #1 Best Seller and an invaluable resource for first-time Disney World guests. The team of experienced researchers rank everything from hotels, restaurants, and attractions to rental car companies. This trusted resource is available for less than $10 on Kindle. And if you’re traveling with children, there’s a special edition for that: ‘The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids 2018.’
# 2 — You Don’t Need The Highest Priced Admission Ticket
As a seasoned Walt Disney World veteran, I strongly recommend that you consider the basic multi-day Disney Theme Park Pass rather than the Park-Hopper option. Park-Hopping simply means you have the ability to go from one Disney Park to another during the same day. First of all, the basic Disney Pass will save you money. Secondly, it will save you valuable time. Depending on the season and time of day, it could take a lot of time to get from one Disney Park to another. Once you use the free Disney Transportation System a few times you will agree. Whether you choose to transfer by monorail, boat, or bus, the lines can be very long. The wait time, during peak-season, could be 30-60 minutes. Then prior to entering the new Disney Park, you will have to wait in line all over again to go through the security check.
I’ve learned that everything at Disney takes longer than expected. Therefore, planning to do only one Disney Park each day will maximize your valuable vacation time.
TIP: If you happen to be a Florida resident, Disney offers special-priced annual passes for locals. Here’s the type of Disney Annual Pass that I’ve had for many years: The Disney Weekday Select Annual Pass. It’s saves me a ton of money, and is one of the best deals I’ve found for unlimited admission to all 4 Disney Theme Parks. Check out my full-length review here.
# 3 — Make Advanced Dining Reservations
This is a biggy! Whether you upgraded to the Disney Dining Plan as part of your vacation package or not, reservations are vital. (Many first-time visitors erroneously think that because they upgraded to the Dining Plan they can just show up to any restaurant they want. Not so! You are still required to have reservations.) Disney will accept your dining reservations up to 180 days prior to your arrival.
I can assure you the most popular restaurants book up many months in advance. For instance, the one shown in the photo below is called ‘Be Our Guest Restaurant‘ located in Fantasyland inside Beast’s Castle. Even booking 6 months early may not allow you to get into this one! On occasion, hubby and I have been turned away from certain restaurants (for both lunch and dinner) because we failed to plan ahead and make dining reservations. When you have walked the Disney Theme Parks for many hours and worked up an appetite (and you certainly will!) it’s very disappointing to be turned away. You may have to try several restaurants before finding an available table, which typically doesn’t occur until after 9:00 PM.
TIP: Disney dining reservations can be made online here on their official website, or by calling (407) WDW-DINE or (407) 939-3463.
# 4 — Use Disney’s Free FastPass+ System
The FastPass+ is another time-saving option. This is also something you can do from home prior to your trip — up to 60 days in advance. FastPass+ is available via the ‘My Disney Experience App‘ or online at My Disney Experience. Your selections are stored on your MagicBand and redeemed by swiping the MagicBand against an RFID reader located at the FastPass entrance to your selected attraction. (A few years ago, Disney replaced the old-fashioned ‘plastic’ admission tickets with the MagicBand, which is conveniently worn on your wrist. Now, we simply swipe it to enter the Disney Theme Parks and also swipe it to enter our FastPass+ attractions.
Additionally, if you’re staying at one of the Disney hotels or resorts, there is an option to attach a credit card to your account which will be stored in the MagicBand and therefore eliminate the need to carry credit cards while anywhere on Walt Disney World property! How super convenient that is! (One year I lost a card inside Disney’s Magic Kingdom Park.) The system allows you to schedule 3 FastPass+ attractions per day. (On January 12, 2018 Disney initiated a new pilot program to allow certain Disney guests to purchase additional FastPass+ selections for $50/day.)
If you’re not familiar with FastPass+, here’s how it works. You choose your top 3 must-see attractions or shows and schedule a time-slot in advance. You will have a 1-hour window in which to show up for the attraction; for example, between 1:00 and 2:00. After swiping your MagicBand, you proceed to a special FastPass entrance, bypassing those who are waiting in the regular entrance line. Usually, you will not have to wait more than 5 minutes to enter the attraction. Sometimes, you are able to walk right into the attraction with no wait time at all! This is where a little pre-planning and a daily itinerary can save lots of time. And at Disney, more time equals more attractions, like the opportunity to see The Little Mermaid pictured below!
# 5 — Disney PhotoPass Photographers Will Take Pictures For Free!
PhotoPass Photographers are strategically stationed throughout the Walt Disney World Theme Parks, in front of icons and other photogenic scenery. It’s true, the Disney Photographers take the pictures for free — but downloading and printing them is not! For example, the Memory Maker Photo Package will cost $199, or $169 in advance.
BUT, here’s what I’ve learned… Those same PhotoPass Photographers will take your picture with your own camera (or cell phone camera) at no charge. All you have to do is ask! (Of course, you won’t have the ability to add all those magical special effects to your pictures.) I paid $33.90 ($16.95 each) for two photo downloads — the ones shown below, with my grandson. That’s pretty pricey, don’t you think? So unless you’re really interested in adding special effects, just ask the Disney PhotoPass Photographers to take your family’s picture with your own devise and save a boatload of money.
# 6 — Keep It Simple With The Shoes!
Okay… confession time. I’ve learned this little tip the hard (and painful) way! I love shoes — I don’t think a woman can ever have too many. I love shoes with bling, I love shoes with crazy colors, I love designer one-of-a-kind shoes… get the point? I love shoes! But when it comes to Disney, leave the fancy footwear at home. Comfort, not cute, is the unspoken rule.
Once, many years ago, I opted for the ‘cute.’ Once! By the time I was leaving the Disney Park (it happened to be Epcot), I had taken my shoes off and was walking barefoot back to the car! I had acquired blisters upon blisters, that lasted for weeks. I have never done that again. Now, I wear the most comfortable shoes that I own. Put your pride aside and pack those ‘oldies but goodies!’
TIP: If you just can’t resist the urge to buy some new shoes for your Disney vacation, there is good news. Many shoe manufacturers that have a great reputation for quality and comfort have now incorporated Disney-themed shoes into their brand. Famous names like CROCS, Keds, VANS, and Esquire all have a stylish Disney line.
# 7 — Schedule A Character Meal
This tip may not apply to everyone, but it could help those with children. When it comes to Disney Character meet-and-greet sessions the lines can be very, very long — sometimes longer than the most popular attractions. It’s not unusual to wait 30 minutes or more just for one photo opportunity or an autograph from your favorite Disney Character. For example, Disney has added a ‘Frozen‘ meet-and-greet at Epcot in the country of Norway. The wait times are longer than anything else in that Disney Park!
Recently, during a visit to Epcot with my best friend Ms. Lucy, she insisted on meeting ‘Mary Poppins.’ I reluctantly agreed, and we ended up waiting about 40 minutes. Remember, most of the Disney Character meet-and-greets are outdoors… with no shade! A better alternative, in my opinion, is to schedule a Disney Character Meal and have the Characters come to you while you eat. This is an easy way to meet many Disney Characters all at the same time. You can choose between breakfast, lunch, or dinner options at various restaurants in the four Disney Theme Parks and Disney Resort Hotels.
Note: Disney Character dining options are not cheap, but they are a major time-saver! Here’s a review I did for Chef Mickey’s Character Dining in the Contemporary Resort. I took my grandson there for his 3rd birthday, and for him it was the highlight of his special day!
# 8 — Hydrate To Avoid The Hospital!
Today, as I write this article, it’s 95 degrees with the heat index at 105 degrees. I’m sure I do not have to tell you it gets hot in Florida. Dangerously hot! I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to Walt Disney World in the summer months. Since I’m local and can attend the Disney Parks anytime I wish, I choose to go during the cooler months or coolest times of day. I realize, however, many vacationers do not have that option.
I cannot stress to you enough the importance of hydration. Yes, it’s true, Disney has its own Hospital, but how many of us build that into our itinerary? At Disney, most of your time is spent either waiting in line in the hot sun or walking from ‘A to B’ with the sun reflecting off the super-hot pavement. Every day at Disney people are carried off on stretchers because of heat-related illnesses. Be wise, and wet your whistle regularly!
Here are some little known (and unadvertised) facts about water at Disney. Did you know you are able to bring your own water into the Disney Parks? (Actually, Disney allows you to bring your own food too, but that’s even more of a secret!) I recommend bringing at least one bottle for each member of your family. After that, you don’t have to pay for water if you’re okay with drinking tap water. Most counter service restaurants will give you a cup of water for free. Bottled water at Disney costs around $3.
TIP: The Disney Cast Members may give you a bit of attitude about this, but Florida Law states that if a company serves food, they must give free water if someone asks!
I also like the idea of a collapsible water bottle. It requires almost no space when packing and is reusable. In addition, I highly recommend bringing some Gatorade G2 Powder Packs (or something equivalent) that are easily added to your water and provide necessary electrolytes for hydration. Another great item for hydration health is the Brita 24-ounce Water Filter Bottle (especially if you’re drinking tap water).
# 9 — Pack A Travel Size First Aid Kit
This one is a money-saving tip. Purchase a travel size first aid kit (from your favorite Discount Store). It doesn’t have to be much larger than a deck of cards. Then fill it with these invaluable items in advance of your Disney trip: pre-cut moleskin or band-aids (remember those painful blisters I had?), pain relievers, packets of wet wipes for your skin, packets of Shout wipes for your clothes, safety pins (trust me, you will need this one for something), dramamine (or other motion sickness medication), immodium/pepto/gas-x strips, allergy meds, antacids, and hair bands. Be proactive — these items will be costly to purchase on Disney property if you need them. By bringing this small, fully stocked first aid kit means you do not have to carry all those full-sized items around with you.
Two additional items that will not fit into the first aid kit are an absolute must. Ponchos and Sunscreen! Ponchos because when it rains in Florida… it pours! I mean torrential, tropical-like downpours. Oftentimes, these brief afternoon storms come with little warning. I cannot tell you how often I was at Disney in the rain — unprepared. The ponchos you bring from home will be better quality and far less costly than those available in the Disney Parks with Mickey’s name on it. Also, sunscreen is essential. Remember, you’ll be spending a huge amount of time in the hot Florida sun. Even on a cloudy day the sun’s ultraviolet rays get through. It breaks my heart every time I see a sunburned baby or child at Disney. We have a saying here in Florida that goes like this: ‘You can always tell the locals from the tourists; the tourists are the ones with the sunburns!’
# 10 — Remember, You ARE On Vacation!
Years ago I can remember some of our Walt Disney World vacations that didn’t feel like a vacation at all. By the time we got back home to Pennsylvania, I felt like I needed a vacation. The whole time we were at Disney, we would go, go, go. We would try to squeeze in as much as possible, which didn’t leave much time for rest. There are a plethora of beautiful benches (like the one at Epcot in this photo) just waiting to be found!
Walt Disney World can be physically exhausting! Make sure you plan for some down-time to recharge your batteries. Spend the afternoon at the hotel pool or water park. Explore some of the slower off-the-beaten-path places that Disney properties have to offer. You may be pleasantly surprised with these dazzling diversions. Slow down… you ARE on vacation, after all!
DO YOU HAVE A RECOMMENDATION FOR FIRST-TIME DISNEY GUESTS? PLEASE SHARE YOUR DISNEY TRAVEL TIPS IN THE COMMENT BOX BELOW. OUR READERS WOULD LOVE TO KNOW!