Everything you need to know about visiting Walt Disney World Resort
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Editor’s note: This is a guide that is updated over time as information changes and evolves.
Walt Disney World Resort spans a massive 40 square miles — almost the size of San Francisco — and is home to four theme parks, two waterparks, more than 140 restaurants, a couple of dozen on-site Disney hotels and endless shows, shops, characters, rides and attractions. No wonder planning a Disney family vacation can be overwhelming … even during normal times. Even though travel restrictions have started to ease, conditions are far from normal at Disney World right now.
Before you head to Central Florida, you need to do some homework if you want to get the most out of your Disney World vacation. During normal operations, you have to reserve your flight and hotel well in advance, but you likely also want to book several of your rides and meals — up to two months out for FastPass+ rides and 180 days out for meals. (Those who like to wing it may be a better fit at Universal Studios Orlando.) But right now, those timelines and offerings are, ahem, a bit altered. In some ways, the current system is much better for folks who don’t plan every detail in advance.
It’s admittedly daunting to plan your first Disney trip, but we’ve already done much of the research for you. This is the ultimate guide to visiting Walt Disney World, with all our tips on choosing the best on-site hotel for your budget, the top money-saving tricks, what’s worth splurging for and more.
How to start planning a Disney vacation
It helps to understand from the very beginning that you can’t do it all. (Remember: Disney World is the size of San Francisco.)
Navigating the four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom) is challenging enough before you throw in Disney’s two waterparks, almost endless restaurants, hotel resorts and the ever-expanding Disney Springs shopping and entertainment complex. While in line for the most popular rides, you may feel like an entire city is packed in front of you … and you could well be right.
That’s why it’s important to have a plan. When you’re starting to craft that perfect Disney World vacation, first consider the desired length of your trip and what you can afford. The price of theme park tickets may make you want to squeeze in every last minute in the parks, but you also need to know your family and your pace. Walt Disney said that it all started with a mouse, but a Disney World vacation most definitely starts with a plan. Get your pencils ready, and make sure you have an eraser. And some coffee.
Disney World is a planner’s paradise. Do you know what type of food you’re going to be in the mood for six months from now? That’s just one of the questions a vacation to Disney World poses. There are very few restaurants in the world without a Michelin star that require reservations 180 days ahead of time … and many of them are located in Orlando. (Note: dining reservations are currently only accepted 60-days out during COVID-19.) You might think that you can ignore “that whole dining thing” and figure it out later. Maybe, but that depends on your goals.
During normal times, if meeting all the princesses is a priority, splurging on a meal at Cinderella’s Royal Table may be just what you’re looking for. For now, most of the princesses have yet to return, though now Cindy does usually make a brief, distanced appearance during the meal.
But, if a special meal like that is on your wish list, you’ll be best served booking it the day it becomes available to you … otherwise, you may be left on the outside of the castle looking in. Historically, Disney opens dining reservations 180 days out from the first date of your vacation, though as of this update that timeline is compressed to 60 days from the first day of your vacation.
If Star Wars is your passion, you’ll need to plan to get up and constantly refresh the Disney app to fight the masses for a virtual boarding pass to experience Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, or brave the parks in the afternoon for the second wave of boarding passes. Your preferences (or, more likely your kids’ preferences) will help shape the sort of vacation you plan.
Related: Inside Disney World’s reopening day
Regardless of your specific choices, start with planning a budget, determining how long you want to stay and your absolute must-do trip goals. Those details will drive many of the next decisions.
Choosing the best hotel for your Disney World vacation
There are hundreds of hotels within a short distance of Disney World, most costing around $100 to $200 per night. Staying at a comparable on-site Disney World Resort can cost you at least double. Many off-site Disney-area hotels let you redeem hotel points for free award nights, making them an even better value in some situations.
So why pay so much more to stay on Disney property? Disney magic … and perks.
Disney hotels excel at theming, whether it’s a Lion King room at Art of Animation, the South Pacific island atmosphere at the Polynesian Village Resort or the Mediterranean vibe at the new Disney’s Riviera Resort.
One of our favorite benefits is the two-month window for making FastPass+ ride reservations (60 days instead of 30 for most guests). While we’re still hoping FastPass+ comes back soon, we’re also pretty excited about a new benefit called Early Theme Park Entry. This replaces Extra Magic Hours, which were recently retired along with Magical Express bus service later this year.
Anticipated to launch later this year, Early Theme Park Entry will give resort guests a 30-minute head start over everyone else at all four theme parks. For families looking to get an early start, the ability to enter any park early helps in two ways. First, you won’t need to plan ahead and research which park is opening early each day, the norm under Extra Magic Hours. And, with four parks opening early that should spread out the morning crush a bit. In the past, the park featuring Extra Magic Hours usually had higher than normal wait times that day.
That said, know that right now a stay at a Disney World resort hotel is a bit different due to the pandemic. Daily housekeeping is still on hold along with limited hours and closures of a number of hotel restaurants. Some of the Disney resort hotels are still closed.
Related: Best Disney World hotels
Thankfully, staying on Disney property doesn’t always have to cost an arm and a leg. The hotels cater to a variety of price ranges, from budget to deluxe.
FOR NO-COST ASSISTANCE WITH PLANNING AND BOOKING YOUR NEXT DISNEY VACATION, CHECK OUT TPG’S DISNEY BOOKING PARTNER, MOUSE COUNSELORS.
The best Deluxe Disney World resorts
The cream of the crop are the three resorts on the Disney monorail: the Contemporary Resort, Polynesian Village Resort and Grand Floridian Resort & Spa. They usually cost more than other Deluxe resorts, but the convenience may be worth it if you need to sneak back to your room in the middle of the day for nap time (for either you or your kids).
For now, the Polynesian Village Resort is wrapping up a pretty extensive renovation. The Moana-themed rooms are sure to be a hit. In the interim, you can still rent Disney Vacation Club points to grab a DVC room at Polynesian Village. Restaurant availability is still significantly restricted, and the monorail stop at the resort is still closed for renovations.
There are other Deluxe resorts with unique characteristics. They include Animal Kingdom Lodge, where you see native African animals right outside your window or Disney’s Beach Club, which includes a three-acre waterpark with a lazy river and a 230-foot slide from the top of a pirate ship. Talk about a hotel pool your kids can fall in love with! Capacity at Disney pools is limited right now, so plan your “beach” day accordingly.
These top-tier Disney deluxe resorts generally run from $300 to $500 per night, with rates occasionally dipping to the $200–$299 range.
The best Moderate Disney World resorts
For mid-level budgets, we like the Cabins at Fort Wilderness Resort.
If you are OK at a resort without a major dose of Disney theming, we also enjoy the new Gran Destino Tower, which is the only Disney Moderate resort with a club lounge option.
And while we don’t always love everything about Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, it’s a good example of what is available at a sprawling Disney Moderate resort.
The Moderate-level hotels usually set you back $200 to $300 per night during peak season.
The best Value Disney World resorts
For budget-conscious travelers who still want the full Disney experience, consider the Art of Animation and Pop Century. All the Disney Value hotels typically run around $100 to $200 nightly for standard rooms.
If you want to spend the night outdoors with Mickey, campsites and RV slots at Fort Wilderness start around $60 per night. Plus, Fort Wilderness has archery, pony rides, wagon rides, a stable, playgrounds, kayak and bike rentals and Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Campfire Sing-A-Long in the evening. During the pandemic, Fort Wilderness may be the closest to a “normal” experience, since most of the accommodations and activities already involve plenty of social distancing.
For the most part, you won’t be able to use traditional hotel points to cover your room costs at on-site Disney World properties (the Swan and Dolphin being the notable Marriott exceptions, along with the soon-to-open Swan Reserve. To cover the cost of staying on Disney property, consider a credit card that earns points at a fixed value.
Rent your way to a better room
Alternatively, to save money, you can rent points from a Disney Vacation Club member to stay in a Deluxe Villa on-site at Disney World. Typically, you can do this at a Deluxe resort for the price of a reservation at a Moderate-tier resort. The upsides are obvious. More space and a nicer room — plus all the benefits of being on-site at Disney World.
But while this can save you a bunch of cash, there are some potential downsides.
Since this is Disney’s version of a timeshare, you won’t receive full housekeeping services daily unless you’re willing to pay extra. And renting Disney Vacation Club (DVC) points typically restricts your ability to change or cancel your reservation without a significant penalty. You may have to work through an individual who owns DVC points to get your reservation confirmed, which requires a bit of trust. Some larger DVC rental services may give you a bit more comfort in the rental process.
Off-property hotels that still have some Disney perks
If you decide that a true on-property Disney resort just isn’t the best choice for you, but you still want some of the Disney perks (such as the 60-day FastPass+ bookings during normal operations), there is one other option.
There are a handful of resorts in the Disney Springs and Bonnet Creek area that aren’t Disney properties but have access to key Disney benefits at least through 2021. The on-property Swan and Dolphin also fall into this hybrid situation. You won’t get access to the Magical Express Bus at these resorts, but some magic is better than no magic.
In Disney Springs, hotels that currently offer select Disney resort benefits include the following:
- DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Orlando-Disney Springs Area
- Hilton Lake Buena Vista-Disney Springs Area
- Holiday Inn Orlando
- Best Western Lake Buena Vista
- Wyndham Lake Buena Vista
- Wyndham Garden Lake Buena Vista
- the Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace-Disney Springs Area
- B Resort
Most of these properties participate in popular loyalty programs, which means you can redeem your hard-earned points for free hotel nights on your Disney vacation.
In the nearby Bonnet Creek area, the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek (with a great waterpark and a 482-acre nature preserve) and the high-end Waldorf Astoria Orlando also both convey 60-day FastPass+ access and Extra Magic Hours. Either of those could be great spots to use the weekend anniversary award nights available with The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. The information for the Hilton Aspire has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Your hotel points and free night awards can be used at many of those properties, with Hilton points being especially useful for an off-property Disney vacation that still has some magical perks.
Disney hotel reviews
To help you find the best hotel for you, here are some of our first-hand Disney World hotel reviews:
Disney Deluxe Resorts
- Review of Disney Riviera Resort
- Review of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
- Review of Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Review of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Review of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort
Disney Moderate Resorts
- Review of Disney’s Gran Destino Tower
- Review of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
- Review of Disney’s Coronado Springs
Disney Value Resorts
- Review of Disney’s Art of Animation
- Review of Disney’s Pop Century
- Review of Disney’s Fort Wilderness Cabins
- Glamping At Fort Wilderness
Related: Is Disney Club Level worth it?
Types of Disney World tickets
Disney has many different ticket types.
There are standard tickets, Park Hopper tickets, party tickets (such as Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party) and the occasional special ticket offer that can save money in the right situation. After deciding on how long your trip will last, you need to decide whether you want to visit one theme park per day or multiple parks per day. (Note: we’ll cover some temporary Park Hopper changes shortly.)
Standard tickets allow entry to one park per day and start at a bit more than $100 a day on the most off-peak of dates. Peak dates start north of $150 for a one-day ticket. The price for a single-day park ticket varies based on when you’re visiting and which park you want to visit (the Magic Kingdom costs the most on a one-day ticket), but most folks visit over several days. You begin to see your per-day price really drop at five or more days. For example, on a five-day ticket, the fifth day only costs about $35 on top of the four-day pass.
Disney World will give you a few days of cushion to use up your multi-day tickets. For example, you have eight total days to use up a five-day ticket, but you can’t save unused days for a trip next year. That does help though if you want to go to Disney for a week but will need some built-in downtime during that week. When deciding on how long to visit, there’s no question that one longer trip to Disney World is less expensive than two shorter trips when you factor in ticket prices.
Are Park Hopper tickets worth it?
If your goal is to do everything Disney World has to offer from sunup to sundown, that’s when you should consider Park Hopper tickets. For around $65 to $85 more, the Park Hopper add-on to any multi-day ticket lets you go from park to park as often as you’d like that day.
That’s not a huge cost in the grand scheme of Disney, but the fact is most families — especially those with little kids — don’t need access to more than one park per day even when this is an option again in the future.
Amidst the pandemic, Park Hopping got even more complicated. There used to be no limitations on how many parks you could visit, or what times you could “hop”. Currently, you need to start with a park pass reservation for one park and enter that park. Park Hopping officially begins at 2 p.m. each day and is capacity controlled. If time permits, you can hop to a third or fourth park assuming those parks have capacity as well.
To find out if there are any restrictions on Park Hopping, guests can call 407-560-5000 to check availability. Yes, in 2021 the most reliable way to check availability is to pick up the phone and listen to a recording. Additionally, Disney has announced they will send push notifications to the My Disney Experience app if there is limited capacity. While 2 p.m. is the official start time for Park Hoppers, there have been sporadic reports of guests getting into a second park earlier. The downside is that you’ll need to visit your second park in person to check for early availability. And, if you’re hoping to snag a boarding group for one of the hottest rides, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, you’re out of luck. Park Hoppers are not eligible.
Before you dole out that extra cash, be sure you and your family have the stamina for it: You can walk eight to 10 miles per day at Disney World in just one park. Generally speaking, older kids or adults without kids benefit more from Park Hoppers, but even then it’s not essential. You can also hold off on the decision until you get there and simply have guest services help you upgrade to Park Hoppers if needed.
Park Hopper Plus has returned and can be an incredible value on longer trips. For about $20 total on top of the Park Hopper price, you can add one “Plus” activity for each day: either a visit to a Disney World waterpark, a tee time at Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course or a round of miniature golf. As of now, only one of the water parks has reopened: Blizzard Beach. When you consider a single-day waterpark ticket is $69 plus tax, $20 for Park Hopper Plus is a steal.
Realistically, it’s hard to do both a waterpark and a theme park on the same day — we’ve tried. The better play here is to schedule a day exclusively for hitting up a waterpark instead because the Disney World waterparks are awesome. You could also work in miniature golf or a trip to Disney Springs and then return to the parks the next day. This plan works best if you’re staying at least five days and have time to venture beyond the main theme parks.
Do you have a reservation?
Another wrinkle in planning your Disney World vacation arrived during the pandemic but is poised to stay through at least early 2023: reservations. When Disney World reopened last summer they also rolled out a system where you were required to have a reservation for a specific park to enter that day.
Disney World has increased the visibility of the reservations system when you’re buying park tickets. Many dates are already sold out in some of the parks at Disney World months in advance, especially due to the approaching 50th anniversary celebration.
If you already have hotel reservations and park tickets, Disney World has a webpage dedicated to making your park pass reservations. Currently, there are three different buckets of availability for park pass availability:
- Guests with park tickets and a Disney World resort hotel reservation
- Annual passholders
- Everyone else (essentially people with standard park tickets but no Disney World hotel reservation)
These three buckets can overlap. For example, an annual passholder who has a Disney World resort hotel reservation will fall under that bucket. Historically, onsite guests have seen the largest park pass availability since the system was rolled out roughly a year ago. However, in those cases where an annual passholder with a hotel reservation might find better availability if they weren’t staying onsite, the system won’t allow them to choose that bucket to make reservations from.
Park pass reservation availability can be extremely fluid. We’ve experienced first-hand dates where a specific park was long since sold out (looking at you, Hollywood Studios), but we were magically able to switch our reservation from another park to the sold-out one once we checked into our room. However, this was only possible once we were physically onsite. Obviously, your Mickey mileage may vary.
If you only take one thing from this section, check what parks are actually available for your dream vacation before purchasing tickets. Once a park is sold out of reservations there’s no guarantee Disney World will release more space. We do expect Disney World to increase capacity later in 2021, but there have been no announcements on a timeline for that. We’d hate to see you get shut out of the attractions highest on your priority list, so plan accordingly.
Which theme parks should I pick?
With park pass reservations in play, you’ll need to pick all of your parks (and what days you want to visit) ahead of time. Each park is unique, just like you and your children. Yes, Magic Kingdom is great for little kids — but it’s also fun for older kids and adults with the three ‘mountain’ rides (Space, Splash and Thunder), and it’s hard not to love Pirates of the Caribbean and Mine Train. Meanwhile, Hollywood Studios is currently the park with the newest, coolest attractions. This is where Star Wars fans go to geek out, and you’ll find the one and only moving attraction at Disney World dedicated to everyone’s favorite mouse. But, Pandora at Animal Kingdom is also pretty special.
If you are going for a week, we recommend visiting all four theme parks. If you only have a long weekend to work with, you’ll have to pick and choose based on the preferences of your group. It’s hard to generalize, but if you have to play favorites, little kids shouldn’t skip the Magic Kingdom but may not miss Epcot quite as much.
Consider an annual pass
If you are planning a longer Disney World trip, or think you will have two trips within 12 months, it can make sense to seriously consider a Disney World annual pass — at least for one member of the family. An annual pass can cover the cost of admission for the passholder, but also unlock discounts on dining, purchases, resort stays and more for the whole family.
Examples include Memory Maker, the popular photo system used by the roving Disney photographers throughout the park. A large group traveling together can link their My Disney Experience profiles to share all their pictures. Frequently, annual passholders also enjoy discounts on dining and merchandise — both things that can save money for a larger group.
Alas, annual pass sales have been paused by Disney since Disney World closed last year due to the pandemic. While annual passes aren’t on sale now, we expect their return eventually (unlike Disneyland, which ended their annual pass program during the pandemic). Our crystal ball is a bit cloudy at the moment, but we wouldn’t be surprised to see some form of annual pass sales resume in 2021.
Disney party tickets
If you visit Disney World in August to December, there may be some special parties going on during select nights at the Magic Kingdom. Namely, August to October normally brings Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween party and November to December brings you Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas a few nights each week. Neither event has been confirmed for 2021, though we do expect increases in park capacity that will allow both events to happen.
These party tickets are a different type of purchase than your regular park admission, but they can save you money in some ways because you can enter the Magic Kingdom using a party ticket starting at 4 p.m. that day without needing to use up a day of regular admission even though the party doesn’t officially start until 7 p.m. The party tickets generally start at around $85 per adult, so they are cheaper than typical one-day Magic Kingdom admission tickets.
Discounted Disney tickets
You can also save some money on Disney World tickets by buying them from a third party. There are a few reputable sources for Disney World tickets that we trust. Our go-to is Undercover Tourist. One of the best ways to save money with Undercover Tourist is when Disney World raises ticket prices, which is usually at least once per year. Undercover Tourist will typically have some existing ticket stock available at the old prices for a few days, though they go quickly. Get Away Today is another solid choice to check for discounts on Disney World and Disneyland tickets. Keep in mind you’ll still need park pass reservations if you buy tickets from an outside source. Be sure to check the availability calendar for the parks before buying tickets.
Best time to visit Disney World
Disney World has evolved into a destination where there’s always something going on, so there is no true off-season.
On top of the rides, shows and characters to occupy your time, there are festivals, marathons, water parks, more festivals and holiday parties. The best time to visit Disney World is going to be highly dependent on what you want to accomplish. If holiday decorations are your thing, you might think that December around Christmas is the time to visit Disney World. But, that isn’t necessarily the case.
If you want decorations without the crowds that come with the Christmas holidays, know that Disney World usually transforms the Magic Kingdom from Halloween to Christmas the night after Halloween. Not all of the decor across the parks and resorts is finished on Nov. 1 or 2, but much of it is up by the second week of November. You’ll generally find the parks a bit quieter in November (other than Thanksgiving week) and early December compared to the true holiday season.
Related: Guide to Disney World at Christmas
If you’re an adult, the festivals in the spring and fall at Epcot are a great way to eat, drink and “adult” your way around the world in a leisurely way. Those who enjoy running and races will want focus on January as marathon season, including themed runs for popular characters such as princesses or Star Wars characters.
The price of a Disney World vacation varies greatly not just in what you choose to experience, but also when you plan to experience it. September is when you’ll generally find some of the lowest ticket prices. Conversely, the days around Christmas and New Year’s are priced the highest of the year (and feature the biggest crowds by far). Hotel pricing at Disney World resort properties generally follows the same trajectory as the ticket prices.
Ticket prices are a good indication of crowd volume, though sometimes they can be deceptive. The days right after the marathons can be very high-volume days in January. There’s usually a lull in early December between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And any Florida school holiday is sure to bring the crowds out. Using a crowd calendar, such as the one maintained by Undercover Tourist, can be a good tool to know what to expect.
The 50th anniversary is coming
Starting October 1st, 2021, Disney World will begin celebrating the 50th anniversary of the park opening. This is sure to increase demand for hotels, park pass reservations and pretty much everything related to Disney World. Disney has already announced that Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, a much anticipated new attraction at Epcot, is set to debut on October 1st. Along with the normal increase in traffic for the Food & Wine Festival, expect Epcot to be even more crowded than normal.
All the parks will have celebrations going on for the golden anniversary. Magic Kingdom has already started to get a castle makeover ahead of the big date. The celebration is scheduled to last into 2023. That means you’ll have plenty of time to plan your trip. Since park pass reservations are already in a sold-out state for the start of the celebration, you may want to wait a bit if you’re trying to avoid crowds and increased pricing on hotels.
How to reduce your time in line at Disney
Standing in line is just about the least “fun” thing you can do in a place as great as Disney World, even in a non-pandemic world.
Disney does a good job of themed elements while you wait in line, even if they’re not the best at protecting you from the hot Florida sun on some attractions. Standing in line is a fact of life when it comes to theme parks (or at least it was in a pre-coronavirus world), but some strategies can reduce your wait. As Disney World has evolved and added items like virtual queues (for Rise of the Resistance), the optimal strategy has also evolved.
But, keep in mind that things are different right now.
There have been plenty of curveballs thrown at Disney World operations since the pandemic started. The suspension of FastPass+ and Extra Magic Hours were just a few of the changes. Outside of Rise of the Resistance, which does still require an advance boarding group, the rides are all operating with old-fashioned (but socially-distanced) lines.
So for now, just check the wait times in the Disney app and get ready to stand in line. We’ve found that wait times are usually at their lowest as soon as the park opens and then again later in the afternoon. Because of lowered capacity due to the pandemic, generally even the most popular attractions have shorter lines than they traditionally would during busier times.
FastPass+ is still on vacation
Disney World typically features one of the most innovative ways to give all guests a chance to experience some of the most popular attractions without wasting hours of time in line. FastPass+ is typically included with all Disney tickets.
It’s a unique system that allows guests to grab guaranteed reservations for attractions ahead of time so you can skip most of the line. FastPass+ is a planner’s paradise.
Alas, it’s currently still on vacation from COVID-19. When the parks reopened last summer, FastPass+ did not return due to a plan to use the queue areas for FastPass+ as overflow for the longer standby lines. This didn’t come to pass. Without getting overly nerdy, the theories behind this are because FastPass+ would actually reduce the total capacity of parks right now, something that Disney World is carefully managing. Without FastPass+, less popular rides have longer lines than normal. The most popular attractions have long waits as well, though the average wait is more related to any capacity restrictions on the attraction itself due to COVID-19 (think of the shoulder-to-shoulder seating typically found on Jungle Cruise).
We still expect FastPass+ to return, but when it does is still anyone’s guess. For now, Disney is keeping quiet on any return date.
MagicMobile is a future time-saver
When FastPass+ does return, you likely won’t need a MagicBand to use the access points. Along with MagicBands, the new MagicMobile service will allow you to use smartphones and watches as a virtual ticket. For now, MagicMobile is pretty limited. It only works on Apple devices, though Disney says to expect Android capabilities soon. Along with park entry, you can use MagicMobile to connect PhotoPass photos to your account and to access your virtual boarding group for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. In the future, expect to be able to use MagicMobile for payment and other sorts of transactions in the parks. We wouldn’t be surprised to see MagicMobile used as some sort of replacement for the Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom activity that was retired recently.
Start early, ride often
Extra Magic Hours are no longer, soon to be replaced by Early Theme Park Entry. For families with young children who have one or more very special attractions that they can’t miss, Early Theme Park Entry will actually be a blessing compared to Extra Magic Hours.
As mentioned earlier, Early Theme Park Entry will provide on-site resort hotel guests a 30-minute head start at each of the four theme parks every day. There are two advantages to this as compared to Extra Magic Hours. First, you will be able to pick any park you want on any day. Extra Magic Hours were generally only featured at one park per day. Second, because Extra Magic Hours were only at one park, that park usually saw higher crowds the day they had extra hours. That led to the sometimes counterintuitive strategy to actually avoid a park on the day it featured Extra Magic Hours.
Early Theme Park Entry strategy will be pretty straightforward. You’ll want to line up early, make sure your shoelaces are tied and the brakes are off the stroller wheels. When your chosen park opens, you want to make a bee line for the most popular attraction that’s also high on your list.
For example, little princesses in training may love meeting Cinderella. However, that line is bound to be a lot shorter than Seven Dwarfs Mine Train once the park opens to everyone else. First thing in the morning, making a bee line for Mine Train is probably the better strategy.
You might think a 30-minute head start will only score you one ride with a short line. But, keep in mind the size of Disney World parks. Once the gates open, it can take a solid 10 minutes of brisk walking to reach the furthest corners. You may be able to use that geography to your advantage when planning a second or third ride before the masses descend on the parks.
Similarly, Frozen Ever After and Test Track should be high on your list at Epcot. At Animal Kingdom, Avatar Flight of Passage is where you should head at a brisk pace (Cast Members will remind you not to run).
Slinky Dog Dash and Star Wars: Millenium Falcon-Smugglers Run are your targets at Hollywood Studios, along with the lovable Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. The selection of incredible new rides is a big part of why Hollywood Studios is currently the hottest theme park. That’s before you even consider Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, one of the few attractions Early Theme Park Entry won’t be able to assist with.
Saving time when the sun sets
Don’t worry, there are opportunities for night owls as well. One of the easiest ways to save time in the evening is to focus on the fireworks. The crowds will gravitate toward the primary viewing areas, such as Main Street at Magic Kingdom before the fireworks. That will thin some of the lines out. Then, right as the fireworks start, the wait times on many rides will plummet. We scored a 15-minute wait on Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a ride where the wait can easily stretch past two hours. Then, just before closing, hop in one final line. As long as you are in line before the official closing time, Disney lets you finish your wait and ride the attraction. The wait times in the My Disney Experience app are notoriously inaccurate around closing time, usually overestimating your wait time.
If you want to map out your perfect day at Disney World, check out Touring Plans, an organization tool with a lot of free resources (for $14.95 you can get an exceptional level of detailed planning). We used Touring Plans for our crazy ride-every-ride-at-Disney World charity fundraiser. When you consider how much you’re spending for your Disney vacation, the additional $14.95 to maximize your time can be a wise investment.
Use mobile ordering to skip food lines
Rides and shows aren’t the only places where Disney has created a way to skip the line — it’s true for some food orders, too. While mobile ordering was a suggestion prior to the pandemic, it has become virtually the only way to order at many Disney World restaurants now. That may change when pandemic restrictions are lifted, but there really is no better time to familiarize yourself with ordering food from the My Disney Experience app.
Pretty much all quick-service restaurants offer what’s called mobile ordering through the My Disney Experience app. (Disney classified a quick-service restaurant as basically any Disney restaurant that isn’t sit-down or a snack cart.)
The process is simple: When you’re starting to get hungry, load up your My Disney Experience app, order food at the quick service restaurant of choice and then pick up the food at the counter when it’s ready. You order and pay in the app and never have to wait in line for your Dole Whip from Aloha Isle, BBQ from Regal Eagle Smokehouse, hot dogs from Casey’s Corner or breakfast wraps from Ronto Roasters.
The only downside to mobile ordering is that some discounts, such as annual pass dining discounts, can be difficult (if not impossible) to redeem when ordering food through the My Disney Experience app.
Related: Guide to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
Best Disney World splurges
For some families, Disney World is a once-in-a-lifetime trip. A VIP experience can take a basic Disney holiday to the next level.
Sure, you can hire a true private Disney VIP guide, and if that is in your budget, then have a blast and don’t look back. But, you don’t have to spend a few thousand extra dollars for a taste of the VIP world.
Now, before you get too excited, it’s important to note that with the exception of the VIP tours, the rest of these park experiences are currently on pause. However, based on the popularity (and likely profitability) of these special ticketed events, we expect them to return soon.
When it’s available, one of our favorite Disney splurges is Disney Early Morning Magic (not to be confused with Extra Magic Hours, which was retired during the pandemic). Early Morning Magic will cost extra, but it gets you into the park before most other guests and even includes breakfast. The Fantasyland version grants access to some of the most popular rides in the Magic Kingdom before the park officially opens, including Mine Train, Peter Pan and more — and you can score some fun pictures with minimal crowds.
While it is temporarily unavailable, during normal operations, Early Morning Magic costs $89 for adults and $79 (plus tax) for children three to nine, in addition to the cost of a park ticket for that day. This may be the best money you can spend at Disney World, as you get unlimited access to “it’s a small world,” Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Princess Fairytale Hall, Peter Pan’s Flight, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, Under the Sea — Journey of the Little Mermaid and Mad Tea Party from 7:45 a.m. to 9 a.m. This package includes hot breakfast at Cosmic Ray’s.
Hollywood Studios has had a similar package that allows you to experience the most popular rides in Toy Story Land without the outlandish waits for around the same price. However, tickets for that package are not currently on sale.
The best Disney World splurges for night owls
If you have the budget for some VIP experiences but don’t like early mornings, Disney World still has you covered.
Ultimate Night of Adventure VIP Tour at Animal Kingdom: To avoid both lines and FastPasses for Pandora and other Animal Kingdom rides, spend $249 per person to get expedited FastPass+ access to Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Dinosaur the Rivers of Light nighttime spectacular and, most important, Avatar Flight of Passage. This four-hour evening tour also includes snacks and a specialty nonalcoholic or alcoholic beverage.
Rivers of Light Dining Package: Choose breakfast, lunch or dinner, and score premium seats to the Animal Kingdom nighttime light show. Packages start at $50 for adults and $26 for children.
Fantasmic! Dessert and VIP Viewing Experience: $39 per person ($19 for children) will get you a buffet to satisfy your sweet tooth and VIP seating at Fantasmic!, the nighttime spectacular at Hollywood Studios.
Frozen Ever After Sparkling Dessert Party: If your little princess or prince loves the Frozen ride at Epcot, get a great seat for Illuminations! — the nighttime fireworks show at Epcot — a buffet of sweets and afterward, do Frozen Ever After without waiting in line. The experience is $99 for adults and $59 for children.
Don’t forget dining splurges
This may surprise you if you haven’t been before, but Disney World has some world-class dining.
But before we get into our favorites, know that dining at Disney is a little different right now. While many Disney restaurants have reopened, some are still closed. The character meals are also operating in a different (though we’d argue better) manner than before. So, while we’ll talk about our all-time favorites below, do a little research directly with Disney to determine which restaurants will be open during your visit.
In the mood for some of the best sushi in America in a quaint, quiet dining space away from all the crowds? Yes, Disney World has that. Takumi-Tei, relatively new to the Disney World dining scene, made our list of the best eats at Disney World. It’s not cheap, but you’re guaranteed to be blown away. Just….not right now. Most likely due to the relatively small size and quaint nature of the space, Takumi-Tei has yet to reopen. We absolutely, positively promise it will be worth the wait.
If you don’t have young children in tow (or have a designated babysitter), Victoria & Albert’s has some of the best food at Disney World. Expect to bring a dress or a dinner jacket and a few hundred extra dollars if you want to enjoy a meal at this Grand Floridian mainstay.
California Grill at Disney’s Contemporary Resort offers a another really good meal in a slightly more casual setting than Victoria & Albert’s. You’ll get a great view of the Magic Kingdom, so time your dessert to finish up during the fireworks (you know, when there are once again fireworks). Like Takumi-Tei, there is no scheduled reopening date for Victoria & Albert’s. It does seem that it will be open in time for the 50th anniversary celebration in October, but we don’t expect it to reopen before then.
If you have kids — or just want to meet characters without waiting in a line — consider a character meal as a splurge. The food at those restaurants isn’t usually as great as some of the others on our list, but the draw to these is the experience more than the meal itself.
Some of our usual favorite character meals include Breakfast at Ohana with Mickey, Stitch and friends (in Hawaiian garb), Cinderella’s Royal Table for princesses inside Cinderella Castle, brunch with Mickey and friends at Chef Mickey’s in the Contemporary, dinner with Snow White and the Evil Queen at Artist Point in Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, and for a new experience, try breakfast at Topolino Terrance at the Riviera with Mickey and friends in fancy outfits.
Ohana has yet to reopen during the pandemic. Cinderella’s Royal Table is open, though only with the occasional cameo appearance by Cinderella. Chef Mickey’s is welcoming guests and does have characters, though from a safe distance. Story Book at Artist Point remains closed, though Topolino Terrace is open. Other character meals that have reopened include Garden Grill, Be Our Guest (though it’s just the Beast) and a once-per-week brunch at the Four Seasons.
Related: Best restaurants at Disney World
How to save money on your Disney World trip
A quick search of the internet and you’ll find exhaustive lists of the best tips for saving money at Disney World. There are so many different ways to plan a Disney vacation, and there are plenty of ways you can save money on certain aspects of your trip, too. We’ve summarized some of our favorite money-saving tips below.
Renting a stroller from a local Orlando company can save you money and time versus renting them in the parks. If you want the convenience of having your stroller dropped off at your Disney World resort hotel prior to your arrival, you’ll need to use ScooterBug, the official “Disney Featured Provider.” Where many companies used to be able to drop a stroller off and pick it up without you being there, Disney has now limited this process to one provider, much to the chagrin of many parents.
While we haven’t tested ScooterBug just yet, their pricing does seem competitive with other third-party stroller rental companies. Companies like Kingdom Strollers and Magic Strollers have come up with other delivery and pick-up methods, including pick-up at Orlando International Airport as opposed to your hotel. This is generally only an issue if you stay on-site at Disney World. Many other hotels will accept stroller drop-offs prior to your arrival.
Renting from one of these companies as opposed to Disney World can save you $5 to $15 per day, and you’ll get a comfier stroller. Unlike the hard-shell plastic strollers Disney rents within the parks, these strollers recline into beds for your little ones to sleep in. They’re cushioned and have plenty of room for storage. You’ll pay less and get a better stroller that you can use outside the parks, though you will have to haul it around with you.
Keep in mind Disney World now has some restrictions on the type and size of strollers you can bring into the parks. The good news is that many popular strollers fit into these restrictions. Just be sure to double-check before you rent or bring your own from home.
Grocery delivery is a huge money saver at Disney World. You might think it’s complicated to order groceries for a vacation like this, especially if you don’t have a rental car. But the grocery delivery companies make it easy and relatively affordable to stock up on basics with minimal effort.
Staying in a room with a kitchen? Pick breakfast items to feed the family before you head to the parks, and bring your own drinks and snacks in a backpack to save money during the day. A family of four could easily drop $50 for snacks and drinks on a hot day in the parks.
The savings on a case of bottled water will more than cover any delivery fees. And some services can deliver in as little as two hours. Don’t worry: Disney will allow (non-alcoholic) beverages and your own snacks into the parks.
Disney Memory Maker advance purchase
Disney Memory Maker advance purchase will save you a few bucks if you intend to purchase Disney photos taken by Disney photographers. You’ll get access to unlimited pictures taken throughout the parks, as well as unlimited digital downloads if you want this package. Purchase Memory Maker at least three days ahead of time, and you’ll spend $169 instead of $199.
Request free ice and water
Disney World is well aware of the temperatures in Orlando and adding masks to the equation certainly doesn’t make it any cooler. (Pro tip: Bring a neck fan!) The restaurants at Disney World are always happy to hand out complimentary cups of water and ice. You’ll even find restaurants serving ice water outside on the hottest days of the summer.
Free Disney Dining Plan
The Disney Dining Plan has passionate supporters and detractors. Whether you’re a fan or not, it’s hard to argue that free is a darn good price.
While the dining plan is also temporarily suspended, generally once or twice a year, Disney World offers a promotion where they include a free Disney Dining Plan for your entire party if you book a stay at a Walt Disney World Resort and purchase park tickets. They rarely advertise this promotion ahead of time, so keep your eyes peeled for news of its return, and then book your stay and dining reservations ASAP.
Purchase discounted Disney gift cards
There are a host of other ways to save on your trip to Disney World. In addition to saving money on tickets via Undercover Tourist, you can save on Disney gift cards at Target. You’ll get 5% off when using your Target REDcard with additional savings available periodically throughout the year.
Another popular way to save at Disney is by visiting Sam’s Club, where they sell discounted Disney gift cards year-round. You’ll only save about 4%, but that can add up — especially for families. Plus, you can stack savings from occasional Amex Offers to Sam’s Club. Apps like Dosh and Dash can add extra savings at Sam’s Club and similar stores. Periodically, you can also use your Chase Freedom Flex to earn 5% cash back at wholesale clubs (up to the first $1,500 spent on purchases each quarter), which means stacking bonus points with discounted Disney gift cards! Combine all these gift cards to purchase park tickets, packages and merchandise.
Don’t panic: Step-by-step instructions to combine the gift cards exist.
Rent DVC points
We’ve mentioned this already, so we won’t dig too deep into it here, but if the idea of a studio villa at a Deluxe resort such as Animal Kingdom Lodge from just $152 per night during off-peak days sounds worth exploring, we have a guide on renting DVC points to save money on a trip to Disney World.
How to get around Disney World
When it comes to transportation, Disney World has a network of options (most of which are free) to move you around between the parks, resorts and Disney Springs. Over the years, most vacations to Disney World started and ended with Disney’s Magical Express. Magical Express provides a free ride to and from Disney World from Orlando International Airport (MCO) for those staying at a true Walt Disney World Resort. Unfortunately, Disney World announced that Magical Express will cease operations at the end of 2021. Mears, the company that operates the buses for Magical Express, has announced they will launch “Mears Connect” to mimic Magical Express, though at a yet-to-be-announced price.
Without Magical Express, parents will be faced with more decisions on how to get their family to and from Disney World if they’re flying into MCO. All the major car rental agencies onsite have car seats available, though usually for an extra charge. Some Uber and Lyft drivers have car seats, though scheduling one with car seats ahead of time can be tricky. There are also a number of car services that offer car seats and scheduled service to and from the airport. Some even include a grocery store stop at no extra charge, which can help offset the cost of a private car service.
Beyond the ride from the airport, getting around Disney World itself may seem complicated at first, but you’ll get the hang of it quickly. That said, there are a dizzying number of ways to get from A to B.
Disney bus network
There’s a Disney World bus network that connects dozens of dots on the Disney World map. This is available to all Disney guests, not just those staying at the resorts. All the hotels are connected directly with each of the parks. Plus, some buses go between the parks and to Disney Springs and the waterparks. Disney has now added monitors at many bus stops that will let you know when the next bus departs, and the Disney app will also give you up-to-date information on bus departures.
As we mentioned earlier, a handful of hotels sit right on the monorail loop to the Magic Kingdom. The monorail stops at the Ticketing and Transportation Center, where guests can catch a separate monorail to Epcot. The Epcot monorail service is still suspended during the pandemic, and the Polynesian Village Resort monorail stop is currently closed for renovation.
There are also two main boat networks, one serving Epcot and Hollywood Studios and another moving people from Fort Wilderness, Wilderness Lodge and Polynesian Village to the Magic Kingdom, as well as providing overflow between Ticketing and Transportation and the Magic Kingdom. Disney World also recently opened an additional pedestrian bridge connecting the Grand Floridian Resort and the Magic Kingdom.
The Disney Skyliner
Disney’s newest transportation checks a lot of boxes. Since you can only get so many buses into one area, Disney went up. Like, 50 feet up. The Disney Skyliner brings a new, free transportation method to three on-property resorts that previously only had buses — Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort and Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort — and also connects to Disney’s Riviera Resort. The proximity of these resorts to Epcot and Hollywood Studios makes an option like Skyliner perfect.
Guests can board a gondola at one of three stations that will take them to two theme parks. Along the way, they get a whimsical, sky-high view of Disney World and some recorded narration of what they are seeing from a unique perspective.
The best credit cards to use at Disney World
Disney World is a pretty expensive family vacation, but there are ways to use credit card points and bonuses to make the trip more affordable. The best credit cards to use for a Disney vacation may surprise you.
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a popular way to earn and use flexible points for a Disney Resort vacation. The card comes with 100,000 bonus miles when you spend $20,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening (or still earn 50,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months). That can be used for up to $1,000 toward travel charges on your Disney vacation.
The Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card program allows highest-tier members to earn 2.65 cents per point on all purchases and use those rewards as cash to cover the cost of virtually anything, including Disney World vacations.
Using Chase Ultimate Rewards points used to be one pathway toward Disney World Resort stays and tickets, but sadly that is no longer the case. However, using your Chase Sapphire Reserve, Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Citi Premier® Card to pay for your Disney Resort vacation will still earn bonus points for the travel charges.
It’s entirely possible to knock up to $1,000 in expenses off your Disney trip with the right credit card (or two).
Disney also has its own credit card, though it may not always be the best option to cover the cost of your Disney trips since there are better cards for everyday earning. However, some families could benefit from the promotional APR of 0% for six months on select Disney packages purchased with the Disney Visa (then 15.99% variable APR applies). Additional cardholder perks include character meet-and-greets and in-park discounts on merchandise, food and tours.
The information for the Disney Premier Visa has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Is it worth going to Disney during the pandemic
Throughout this guide, we’ve mentioned lots of changes and suspensions due to COVID-19.
At Disney World, there are currently no fireworks, and many special events, hotels, restaurants and more are also currently suspended. All guests ages two and up have to wear a face mask and have their temperature checked before entry into the parks. There’s no FastPass+, Extra Magic Hours, character meet-and-greets or Minnie Vans.
Visiting Disney World right now is undoubtedly a very different experience than normal operations. If you are considering a big “once in a lifetime” visit, then now may not be the best time since you won’t get the full experience. If you are especially concerned about being around others in public or can’t tolerate a face mask in the Orlando heat, then you should definitely wait to book your trip.
But, if you take proper precautions and go in with reset expectations, then in some ways Disney World is even more enjoyable than before. It’s generally now enjoyed at a much slower pace — you won’t be going sun-up to sun-down due to shorter hours, you need less planning and strategy and you’ll see the park emptier than you’ve probably ever seen it before.
I can’t tell you if now is a good time for you specifically to visit Disney World, but I can tell you that my daughter and I felt safe during our July 2020 visit and really enjoyed the parks in their temporarily subdued reality.
No guide to Disney World would be complete without the most important tip of all: Remember to have fun.
It’s OK if you end up canceling your dinner reservation or don’t make it to all the parks. Your goal isn’t to do everything in one swoop — it’s to enjoy the magic.
Disney World can be overwhelming, even if you have been to other theme parks. Think of planning for your trip as investment research, because you’re investing an awful lot of money in a Disney vacation and the research will make a big difference in your trip experience.
But once you’re there, enjoy a Dole Whip, watch your kids smile and don’t stress the small stuff. You can always come again and do the things you missed the first time. And next time, you’ll be a veritable Disney pro.
FOR NO COST TO YOU ASSISTANCE IN PLANNING AND BOOKING YOUR DISNEY VACATION, CHECK OUT TPG’S DISNEY BOOKING PARTNER, MOUSE COUNSELORS.
Featured image courtesy of the Walt Disney World Resort.
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