Are you planning a visit to Disney World? For a stress-free vacation to the most magical (and crowded) place on Earth, discover the inside scoop on how to visit the Disney Parks like a pro. For the perfect trip to the Magic Kingdom, and to create long-lasting family memories with Mickey Mouse or your favorite Disney princess, toss on your ears and discover our top 15 tips and tricks for visiting Disney World:
1. Arrive at the Disney parks early and return to your resort mid-afternoon. We prefer to arrive at the parks when they open, avoiding the crowds and the humid Florida heat. After noon, we return to our hotel, have lunch, go swimming and relax. With older kids, you could definitely spend an entire day at the parks — but it's a good idea not to overdo it with children under 10. For early access to the Magic Kingdom, make breakfast reservations at The Crystal Palace before the general public is admitted into the park. This allows you to have the golden opportunity to wander through a practically empty Main Street USA and take photos without the crowds. After breakfast, walk through Cinderella's Castle and wait at the new Fantasyland rope to be the first in line for Enchanted Tales With Belle (see our video review below). If you're a space explorer, head over to the Tomorrowland rope and get ready for back to back rides of Space Mountain.
2. After you enter a Disney park as soon as it opens, head straight to the attractions that, later in the day, have extremely long waits. When the Magic Kingdom opens, we head straight to Enchanted Tales With Belle and then proceed to The Little Mermaid's Under the Sea — and there's usually little wait. At the Animal Kingdom, we do the same for the Kilimanjaro Safaris (and we always ask the cast member for the back-row, which offers amazing and unobstructed views of the savanna). After getting the popular rides out of the way, discover casual areas of the parks, like Main Street USA, or the Conservation Station at the Animal Kingdom.
3. Truly for the affluent, there's nothing more unique and magical than Disney's VIP Tour Guide Services. Each tour guide can take a maximum of 10 people around the parks — where, essentially, your Disney VIP Tour guide is an unlimited Fast Pass. Hiring a guide doesn't afford you the chance to skip directly to the front of the line, instead your guide is your free ticket to enter every ride's Fast Pass line as many times as you want (and repeatedly if you so desire).
4. Find accommodations on Disney property. For ease of use, to exploring all the parks, resorts, water parks, golf courses, or Downtown Disney, stay at a Disney resort. It's convenient, and you can find the right resort to fit your budget. We usually stay at the Grand Floridian, which is ever so magical. The Grand Floridian Afternoon Tea is offered in the Garden View Lounge from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m – this is a must, and a very classy way to experience the elegance of the resort's lobby.
5. You must get a cabana at the Grand Floridian's pool. After a day at the parks, it's a great spot to relax and unwind. Also, charter a pontoon boat ride from the Floridian. We watched the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the Seven Seas Lagoon – which is a fabulous way to watch the show in private. For other terrific spots to watch the fireworks, make dinner reservations at the Floridian's Narcoossee's restaurant — which offers a fantastic view and delicious seafood. You can also hop on the monorail and visit California Grill, located on the top floor of Disney's Contemporary Resort, which not only has an ideal panorama of the show but also has an outdoor observation deck with the soundtrack piped in (and ordering dessert at California Grill is a must!).
6. Renting a car is not necessary. Complimentary for guests staying at Disney resorts, your family can catch Disney's Magic Express bus to and from the Orlando airport — and they handle transferring your luggage. After arriving at your resort, there are frequent monorails and buses to the various parks and destinations.
7. Update: Anna and Elsa, from Disney's Academy Award-winning film Frozen, have moved from Epcot to Magic Kingdom Park. Starting April 20, they'll join some of their fellow Disney Royals at Princess Fairytale Hall, where Disney FastPass+ service will be available for this character greeting experience.
Elsa and Anna have also joined the new daytime spectacular "Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade" at Magic Kingdom.
8. At certain rides and attractions, make sure to select a FastPass+ — which could be best described as virtual queuing. It allows guests to avoid long lines at the attractions, freeing you to enjoy other attractions during the wait. Before arriving for your vacation, you are able to make FastPass reservations online for select attractions. FastPass+ is integrated with the new MagicBand bracelets that work like a wearable magic wand for guests visiting Walt Disney World Florida's four theme parks and two water parks. The band holds your park ticket, room key, dining plan, dining reservations, Fastpass + reservations and much more. Plans can now be changed on the fly as well using an app, My Disney Experience. From the app, you can see wait-times, change your Fastpass+ reservations, book dining reservations and view theme park maps.
9. Check with a travel agent for special offers. Depending on the season, there's non-published offers, like "stay three nights, get two nights free." Check around and do your homework before booking your reservation.
10. Make sure to pick up a "PhotoPass." It's easy. If you see a park photographer, ask them to take your photo. After clicking a few pictures, they will hand you a PhotoPass card (this service is also built into the MagicBand bracelets). When you travel to a different destination or park, just show your card or bracelet to the new photographer – and all of your photos from the different parks will be loaded up. You will be able to make prints at the parks, or online when you return home.
11. There are plenty of activities for your little princess or pirate. For girls, there's Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a beauty salon where little girls are magically transformed into little princesses. Within Cinderella's Castle, there's character dining at Cinderella's Royal Table – or visit the Norway showcase at Epcot to have lunch with all the princesses at the Akershus Royal Banquet Hall. For boys, there's the Pirates League, an interactive experience that transforms boys into their favorite pirates. There's also the Pirate Adventure boat ride, as young pirates scour the Disney resort waterways in search of pirate treasure.
12. Looking for the best spot to view Epcot's fireworks? Many restaurants around Epcot's World Showcase, including those located in England, Mexico, France and Japan, offer amazing views for the nightly pyrotechnic show, IllumiNations. Make dinner reservations in advance and ask for a window view of the show. If you want to watch the show outside, the World Showcase Plaza is also the perfect spot — just remember to arrive 60 minutes early and find your spot.
13. Discover fun activities and dining at the various resorts. We always catch the Spirit of Aloha Luau at the Polynesian Resort; it's a feast and an amazing show. Visit the Animal Kingdom Lodge to dine on African, Indian and Mediterranean cuisine at the restaurant Jiko. If you want to take a break from the kids, there's fine-dining at the Grand Floridian's Victoria & Albert's, a multi-year recipient of the prestigious AAA Five Diamond award.
14. Pull back the curtain and go backstage at Disney World. There are amazing backstage tours for the avid Disney fanatic at Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Animal Kingdom. We're big fans of Wild Africa Trek, a 3 hour privately guided VIP expedition at Animal Kingdom, and Disney's Keys to the Kingdom Tour, a 5-hour walking tour that uncover the hidden secrets of classic attractions at Magic Kingdom. You can also swim with the dolphins at Epcot or live out your fantasy of being a NASCAR driver at the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Disney's Speedway (learn more).
15. Book your reservations, especially character dining, very far in advance. To get reservations for Cinderella's Royal Table, which is a princess meet-and-greet held inside Cinderella Castle, call Disney's reservations line exactly 180 days in advance at 7 a.m. Orlando time. Also, Magic Kingdom's new Be Our Guest restaurant is extremely difficult to get into, and so is the small Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot's Canada pavilion. A few weeks before your trip, call and re-confirm your itinerary — or check your reservations online with the My Disney Experience website or app. To plan a stress-free Disney vacation, it's better to be safe than sorry. Lastly, relax and have a wonderful vacation with your family.