A magical first trip or a return visit to Walt Disney World Resort remains at the top of many families’ travel bucket lists. But navigating Disney’s Florida empire can be daunting, with its “big four” theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Plus, there are Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks to enjoy, as well as entertainment complexes and numerous themed hotels.
These 10 strategies will help you plan your trip and save you time and money so you can enjoy every moment of your getaway. You’ll even find some freebies!
1. Create your wish list
Before booking a trip to Disney World, ask everyone in the family to create a list of must-do experiences. Urge the kids (and join them) to explore some of the top websites chock-full of tips and insider anecdotes. Disney makes planning simple at its official Disney World site, and its popular parks blog lets you know what’s new. Lots of unofficial sites like the AllEars blog and the Disney Food Blog give insightful reviews and tips.
2. Book your trip via Disney planning tools
Vacation planning technology has come a long way at Disney, where you can create your own My Disney Experience online account and book a package that includes rooms and meals. On a budget? There’s a plan with moderate pricing for you. Ready to splurge? Luxury hotels and upscale dining are clicks away.
Here, you also can order a colorful MagicBand for each traveler. The band is customized and coded to include your park admission and hotel room entry, and you can use it to purchase merchandise.
3. Reserve special meals at least 6 months ahead
If happily-ever-after means dining at Cinderella’s Royal Table or meeting Mickey Mouse over eggs and waffles, don’t wait for a fairy godmother to make your dream come true. Disney lets you book reservations up to 180 days in advance; even then, you’ll be competing for prime meal times.
Call Disney (407-WDW-DINE) at 7 a.m. exactly 180 days ahead of your arrival if you prefer to talk with a reservationist, or use your My Disney Experience account.
4. Optimize your time in the parks
Don’t want to miss high-volume attractions, rides, parades, shows and character greeting experiences due to long wait times? Book limited FastPass+ short-wait entry reservations (no extra charge) at My Disney Experience or on the mobile app before you arrive. If preplanning seems too restrictive, each park has multiple FastPass+ kiosks where you can line up attraction reservations upon arrival. The earlier you book, the better chance you’ll have of confirming choices.
Parents with a combination of tweens, teens and younger kids can strategically split up to work around ride-height restrictions, then regroup for a snack or meal.
A special perk for Disney hotel guests is the Extra Magic Hours program that lets you enter certain parks early or stay late.
5. Don’t try to do it all
Thrilling as the various theme parks are, it can be exhausting spending all of your time there. Take a swimming break and let little ones nap back at your hotel. Or spend time at Downtown Disney to explore shops, dine at one of the many top-notch restaurants, take a tethered balloon ride or catch a show.
6. Maximize your fun when bringing tots
Parents with wee ones don’t have to miss out on thrill rides. Disney’s child-swap program allows one parent to board a ride while another waits nearby with the kids. As the first parent steps off and stays with the kids, the other climbs aboard.
Pack towels and a change of clothing in strollers for kids who may want to romp in a water play area.
Each Disney park has a Baby Care Center where moms can nurse and parents can change babies and feed toddlers in high chairs. Families can relax with a video and pick up needed supplies.
7. Find the freebies
A Disney trip can lighten your wallet considerably, so don’t miss out on free stuff. At Epcot, plan a stop in Future World at Club Cool next to Starbucks, where you can taste free Coca-Cola products from around the world.
At the Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland shop Castle Couture, a cast member will add “pixie dust” shimmer to children’s hair at no charge.
At Downtown Disney—Disney’s entertainment, shopping and dining complex set to become Disney Springs this year—children can play and build with LEGO bricks for free at the LEGO Store.
8. Make time for spontaneity
Too many planning constraints can put a damper on any vacation. Stay flexible and build breaks into each day to stop and smell the popcorn. A toddler’s happiest moment may be lingering over a hot dog and squealing at little brown wrens that flit among al fresco tables.
Put your Epcot trek on “pause” to enjoy live performances like the mesmerizing Matsuriza Taiko Drummers outside the Japan pavilion.
If you entered a park early, head to your hotel midday for a swim or nap, then return later for evening parades and fireworks.
9. Prep for easy park hopping
Start with a lightweight nylon backpack for each family member to carry tissues, sunscreen, lip balm, snacks, a rain poncho and water bottle. Disney sells designer bottle straps to wear across your chest or over your shoulder. They’re among the more useful souvenirs that families can use again and again.
Equip every child with an ID that includes your name and mobile phone number. Remind kids that if they get separated from you, they should look for a Disney cast member wearing a nametag. Your lost child will be happy to watch a video at the Baby Care Center while waiting for you to arrive.
10. Go during a festival or before the holidays
To see Epcot in a different light, visit during one of the two annual festivals it hosts that draw visitors from around the globe: the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival (early March through mid-May) and the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival (late September through mid-November).
Or consider visiting after Thanksgiving and before the Christmas holiday season crowds. Disney’s parks and resorts are in full holiday plumage and feature special holiday shows and parades, but crowds are smaller and the subtropical weather is usually delightful. It’s a great way to get more bang for your vacation buck.