Let me start out by saying that this is a HUGE property! With four individual theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot), two water parks, and two shopping districts, visitors are not limited in their options of things to do. I am not an avid Disney fan that must visit numerous times a year and follow every related discussion. Yet, I do enjoy the theming and quality that Disney tries to uphold and keep consistent. This was my first visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
(Image from WDWinfo, edited by me)
Walt Disney World is a bit different than other Disney Parks. The first and foremost difference is that you cannot visit it in one day. In fact, it’s a given that you won’t see everything on your first trip. Four days were enough for us but that’s only because we had been to Disneyland in southern California so many times. Due to similarities, we skipped Hollywood Studios and only did the bare minimum in Magic Kingdom.
Theming and attention to detail shine at Walt Disney World. Plus, the parks are impeccably clean. During our trip about 90% of the cast members (employees) were friendly and really seemed to enjoy their job. Just a side point, bring a pair of sneakers and a pair of sandals/Crocs in case your footsies need a break from one or the other. There’s no avoiding the fact that a lot walking is involved.
Julie at The Little Kitchen gave me a several ideas on good restaurants but we were just too pooped to travel out of the park most of the time. There are a ton of eating options there though. Some places are pretty good but most of the food is just ‘okay’. You can bring food into the park but usually you’re too exhausted to pack up each day. As for drinks, just ask the counter-service restaurants for ice water. It’s free and tastes good, except at Magic Kingdom where it was just plain gross. Prices at the park restaurants are high but if you only eat a snack and one large meal it’s still reasonable. For example, a decent sandwich at Earl of Sandwich in Downtown Disney is only $5.99 while a 1/2-meter pizza at Via Napoli is $28-36 and can feed 6-8 people.
I did A LOT of research before going, as I’m sure most do. It is very overwhelming since there’s just so much out there. Some was useful but it took a bit of digging to find information particularly applicable to my family and me. The two resources you cannot go without are MouseSavers (tips, deals) and WDWinfo (news, maps, dining menus, discussion boards). Thanks for passing on those links, Kas at Southern Bella’s Ways to Save. Here are some points I found helpful:
Tickets: Unless you are a Florida resident, the Magic Your Way tickets are the best deal. The more days you buy, the more you save. For example, buying a single day is $82.00 but buy seven days and it works out to only $35.29 a day. Adding a hopper (to visit more than one park on any given day) is a flat $54.
On-site lodging: There are perks to staying at one of the Walt Disney World Disney Resort Hotels. One of which is being able to take advantage of extra hours that only those hotel guests can be in the park. You can also take a nap in the afternoon when it gets really hot or to recharge. Is it worth it? Not sure since we stayed at a timeshare about 10 minutes away.
Character Dining: These breakfast, lunch, or dinner buffets are reservation-only and pretty expensive. If you really, really want your kids to have characters stop for five minutes at your table to say ‘hi’ and pose, this is the best choice. Meeting them in the park can be sporadic with long lines. For my 10-year-old daughter, though, she’s not really into the dressed characters (never was) so she was happy with the three autographs she got. In fact, she declined most of the ones she could have taken pictures with. I learned long ago not to force your child to take a picture with a costumed character – it’s scary, traumatic, and not a nice memory for ANYone.
Fast Passes: At the popular rides they have machines that, when you insert your park ticket, dispense a ride reservation with a return time. If the normal wait is 70 minutes, a Fast Pass wait may be as little as 10. You may get another one as soon as the initial return time printed on the ticket passes. Don’t worry if you do not ride before your time slot is up – cast member still consider them valid. Use them. Trust me, you’ll thank me later even if you only use one or two.
Rope Drop: They usually let people enter through the turnstiles before opening but only up to a certain point, sectioned off by a rope. The crowds are at bay until that rope is dropped and the park is officially open for the day. Some get there an hour or more before opening time to get in line. We missed the opening by about 15-20 minutes and we were still able to ride quite a few things with minimal wait times. It is definitely wise to get there early even if it’s not before rope drop. Crowds get significantly larger after the first 1-2 hours or so and you will regret not coming earlier when you are waiting in line for over an hour in one line.
Touring Plans: Several sites offer the option of putting a touring plan together or using one already prepared. These can be informative and helpful in orienting yourself and prioritizing rides/attractions. Be flexible though as much can put you off track. We traveled with two seniors, a couple, a single adult, and our family with one child. We all had different ideas of what wanted to do. We found that the touring plans were only good as a general guide and sometimes it was better to break off into interest groups depending on who wanted to do what. It did eliminate the time we usually waste aimlessly wandering around as we ask each other, “What should we do next?” Plus, since I looked at those maps a millions times, I basically had the layout of each park memorized. Yes, I’m a nerd and proud of it!
AAA Diamond Parking Pass: You still pay for parking but having this pass allows you to park in a separate parking lot that is MUCH closer. In fact, if you get there within the first hour of opening, you can get an awesome space about 3 minutes walking to the entrance. These complementary passes are usually given out to AAA members that book a vacation package through them. Some agents or offices will give them out to members by themselves but this is not the norm. You can always try to buy one from an online auction site (don’t bid higher than $5 if possible) and they are good for a year.
One thing I noticed was that almost every local we encountered (not referring to everyone living in Florida) moved surprisingly slow! It was probably the heat or the humidity, but I’ve never seen a Starbucks barista makes Frappuccinos in slow-motion! It could also be that I’m used to a faster pace growing up as a California girl but the people at restaurants, gas stations, ticket windows, etc. were driving me nuts. And, aside from the toll booth personnel, none of them smiled or gave a greeting. Very interesting. Is this typical?
Ultimately, we had a great time. Will I be planning another trip anytime soon? Probably not. I’m glad to finally see it but I’m happy with the west coast installment. That and I’m a wimp to the humid, hot climate there.
Been to Disney many times as a kid but heading their this winter with my kids for the first time. Thanks for the tips! 🙂
You’re welcome! Sorry it’s so long – hard to write about Disney World in 100 words or less 😛
I didn’t know about the AAA lot. I’m storing that up for future reference. One of the reasons I always stay in a Disney property is to get early admittance into the parks. Totally worth it!
I also always do one character based experience. It adds a lot to the trip for me.
Parking in that lot was FANTASTIC. Pay the parking and show the voucher. Then they’ll say follow the green (or blue) line. We were sooooo close to the entrance! Funny, figures that you’d like the characters 😛
I’ve always lived in Florida so I can’t comment on the “slow” thing (my perspective is probably skewed), but aside from Disney employees, I don’t think of Orlando as a generally friendly place. I think that the Gulf Coast tends to be more southern-oriented (people are more polite) while the east coast is faster-paced and has lots of Northern transplants. Orlando is no mans land 🙂
Haha, that’s good to know. Too bad, though, as Orlando is the typical tourist destination. I’ll have to visit the other parts of the state to get that more southern vibe then. Living in the SF Bay Area, slow service at Starbucks would illicit several angry tweets and tons of vicious customers waiting on their lattes 😛
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