There are a LOT of “How To Do Disney World” articles on the Internet. I know this because I have read every single one of them. Ok, that’s a lie. But I’ve read a lot over the years. Most of them stress me out almost immediately. A lot of the Disney World suggestion sites just end up screaming, “YOU ARE GOING TO FAIL THIS VACATION, MICHELE!” because they focus on itineraries, FastPass+, reservations and basically before you know it, every single second of every single day you’re there is filled up.
Personally, I don’t enjoy planning a vacation within an inch of its life. I do that at home all day, every day. If I don’t plan my everyday life, while raising three little boys ages 4, 7 and 11, someone will miss a soccer practice or forget a lunch. Or, I’ll forget to pay the piano teacher and I’m a little afraid of the piano teacher. When I go away, I want to be free of a demanding schedule, because demanding schedules mean I will inevitably miss something and missing something makes me feel bad. Vacations aren’t supposed to stress people out. So these Disney World sites with all their information? They make me feel like a failure before I’ve even failed.
Let’s say you’re not really a Disney World fan but your kid is BEGGING you to go. Maybe you see Disney World as overcrowded, full of screaming kids, enormous turkey legs, and long lines. (It is!) Maybe you’ve been the person to say, “Why would anyone want to drop thousands of dollars on a vacation that screams consumerism and gluttony?” I get it. But! It doesn’t have to be that way. You can do Disney World your way. We visit Disney at least once each year. Sometimes twice. And I’m not sure we’d do that if we followed a “typical” Disney vacation itinerary. It’s far too overwhelming and therefore not at all fun (particularly for the grownups).
The list below took us years of mistakes before we figured out how to make our Disney vacations not just tolerable, but truly enjoyable as well.
Rule #1: Embrace Your Mornings at Disney World
I know this is easier said than done. I am an early riser. And I married someone who is ABSOLUTELY NOT AN EARLY RISER (like, my kids are often afraid to wake him up). And forget getting him out the door without at least three cups of coffee. But I stand by this rule. Try. It’s just for a week. Try and get up early.
Because when it comes to visiting Disney, the cliché is often true: the early bird gets the worm. (This will make more sense further down in this post.) That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a ton of fun stuff to do at night! But hitting the parks before they open (Yes! You can do this! We often arrive a full hour before a park opens.) is a huge benefit. I swear by it.
Rule #2: Plan Very Little But Be Strategic When You Do
Do not fill your days with FastPass+ and other reservations. Why? Because you have NO IDEA how you’re going to feel that given day and you don’t want to be tied to a packed schedule where you feel rushed and like you have to do something. That is not a vacation. That’s a job.
Also: since most of us visit Disney with kids and kids tend to have a mind of their own, with all different temperaments and sleep schedules, you have no idea when one of them is going to lose their proverbial shit. And you don’t want to be that guy in the park with the limp princess, covered in chocolate, snot and who knows what else. Trust me.
What we usually do on any given vacation is book a very few FastPass+ for rides that tend to have long lines. (Examples: Mine Train, Avatar Flight of Passage, Test Track, Soarin’, Slinky Dog Dash, Splashdown Mountain, Exhibition Everest). Keep in mind, however, you can only book one high-trafficked/popular ride per park. So, for example, you can’t do Avatar AND Exhibition Everest. But! You don’t need to! I explain a hack under Rule 7 (see below). So book one major ride in a park and book two less popular ones in that same park. In other words, we usually pick two to three (depending on the length of our stay) FastPass+ days. That means we will book one popular ride on a specific day and then two lesser popular rides as well. (When I say popular, I don’t mean by my standards. I mean rides like Avatar, Soarin’ and Mine Train.)
Rule #3: Go for at least 5 days, longer if you can swing it
If you’re flying to Disney World or driving there and it takes more than 8 hours, don’t go for less than 5 days. If you want to enjoy the trip, anything less will stress you out. Even if you don’t intend on over-planning the trip, you’ll end up doing so. It just happens. Because you feel like you have to. I don’t know if it’s parenting guilt or if it’s about trying to please the kids, but I have found that shorter trips to Disney tend to be the most stressful.
Rule #4: Pack VERY little.
We have mastered this. Each of my kids takes one backpack. My husband and I pack one, carryon-sized suitcase. Disney World properties have laundry. Some rooms have a washer and dryer, but if they don’t, all the hotels on property have coin-operated laundry machines. It’s a godsend.
I have seen parents in the airport wrangling far too many items and suitcases and it just adds to the stress. Less is more. You will feel better having less stuff. I promise. You also don’t need nearly as much as you think you do. Plus, the less you have going in, the more room for souvenirs which your kids will beg you for.
Rule #5: Book A Disney World Property
This is one of my biggest suggestions to people. While it may be more expensive to stay “on campus” you will like the ease of getting to and from the parks. The buses, boats and monorails make it super easy to get around. Just getting onto Disney property from hotels outside of Disney can take up a decent amount of your time. Here’s the way I like explain it to all those who haven’t visited Disney before: if you take a trip to NYC, you don’t typically book a hotel in New Jersey. People book hotels in Manhattan or Brooklyn so they can get around easily. Relying on driving to and from NYC from outside, cuts into visiting time. Staying at Disney World is similar. The free transportation is quicker and getting around doesn’t cut into your Disney time.
Also: if you stay at a Disney hotel, you automatically have access to the Extra Magical Hours, which give you an extra hour in the morning (from 7 AM until 8AM) as well as in the evening, after the park closes. These hours vary so be sure to check their website ahead of your trip to find out which parks have what day. (Please note: there are a few hotels in the greater Orlando area that also include Extra Magical Hours, such as Hilton Orlando and Holiday Inn Lake Buena Vista, but I still feel the ease of getting to and from is worth it.)
Lastly, you don’t have to pay for parking if you stay at a Disney World hotel, which is between $25.00 (Standard Parking and $50.00 (Preferred Parking) per day.
We also book rooms that come with kitchens. While rooms with kitchens tend to cost a little more, it also helps us save money as we always have groceries delivered to our room the day we arrive. We tend to eat in our room a lot. I’ll also pack sandwiches and snacks for the parks. If you are interested in having groceries delivered, we’ve used Garden Grocer numerous times.
Rule #6: Don’t visit more than one park per day*
It’s best to keep your visits to one park. Park-hopping takes far too long. It’s a great idea in theory, but you waste so much time commuting to and from, I have found it’s best to stick to one park, explore it and head back to the hotel.
Rule #7: Take Advantage of the Extra Magic Hours (especially in the morning) and Do The Opposite of Why Everyone Else Is There
All the parks have what is called an Extra Magic Hour, whether it be in the morning or at night. (Please note: you have to be staying at a Disney property or participating property to use these– see above). So, say Animal Kingdom opens at 7 AM on a Thursday morning. Get on a bus at 6 AM (or whenever they start running) and as everyone runs toward Avatar Flight of Passage, go in the other direction. You will be able to ride every other ride in that park before billions of people finish up with Avatar. It’s amazing. My son and I walked on Exhibition Everest and rode it three times in a row.
We rode Kali River Rapids twice. We went on the safari ride, Primeval Whirl and had quiet breakfast all before the lines started. This also has the added bonus of not getting super stressed out fighting the massive blob of humans oozing their way toward Avatar. You can watch them all push and shove one another as you take the road less traveled.
Rule #8: Leave the Park Before 1 PM and Hit Hotel the Pool
Whenever I tell people to do this, they often give me that skeptical, side-eye look. Like, wait. What are you saying to me? Why would you tell me to do that? I just spent a small fortune on Disney World park tickets and you’re telling me to leave at lunchtime?
Yes. Yes, I am. For so many reasons. And I learned this after years of messy trips: Go in early. And then get out. Arrive at opening, ride some rides and then run. Go back to the hotel and relax at the pool. Take a nap! Watch some TV. Basically, decompress. My kids love to swim and every hotel we’ve ever stayed offers daily poolside activities. They love the activities. Eat lunch. Chill out. Enjoy the serenity as everyone else deals with the midday heat, long lines and crowds. You can always go back in later that evening.
We aren’t much of a late night family as my kids love night swimming, and two of them hate fireworks. (“TOO LOUD! TOO LOUD!”) However, the firework displays at Disney World are SPECTACULAR. They aren’t to be missed. So, if you’re heading back into the parks, I would go after dinner, say around 7 or 8 PM. Bonus if the park is open late. Sometimes they stay open as late as 11 PM or midnight. So if you’re a night owl, I might suggest taking a late nap with the kids and heading back as late as 9 PM.
Rule #9: If traveling with kids under 10, book dinner reservations for early in the day
We call this Linner or Dunch. (I know. Original!) We usually feed our kids at around 3 PM that way we’re back at the hotel before 5 – 6 PM hour when my kids tend to become insane. This also means actually getting reservations (as they fill up later in the day). This way, you don’t have to book so far in advance.
We love Teppan Edo in Japan at Epcot. The kids love watching the chefs cook the food in front of them. They’re super entertaining. We usually eat there twice each trip because the kids enjoy it so much. It’s by far their favorite place to eat in Disney World.
Another restaurant we usually always book a reservation with is Rose & Crown in Great Britain at Epcot. We love the food. The staff is always friendly. And we just love the whole vibe. Plus, they have outdoor seating right on the lagoon.
We have also enjoyed the Biergarten Restaurant in Germany. They have live music and dancing. It’s not a quiet meal! It’s buffet style and you sit at long, wooden tables. It’s an absolute hoot for the kids. Plus: beer.
Otherwise, we don’t book too much and wing it other days. However, if there’s somewhere you absolutely MUST try, definitely book in advance just so you don’t miss out. I will say this much: we haven’t ever not been able to find somewhere to eat while visiting Disney. There is always something to choose from. And we love the spontaneity above all else, much more so than having a plan.
Rule #10: Put Aside AT LEAST One Non-Park Day
Depending on how long you’re visiting, set aside at least one if not two or three days where you don’t step foot in a Disney park. As mentioned earlier, Disney hotels offer up a ton of activities, most of which are FREE. This is the little hidden gem that not a whole lot of folks use and they tend to be the most memorable for my kids. We’ve made tie dye t-shirts, painted pottery. We’ve played pool and hit the game room. We’ve learned about Africa while staying at Kidani Village which is a part of Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas (also includes a kitchen and an a great pool.) We’ve played board games, taken part in trivia challenges alongside other guests. There are art workshops, scavenger hunts, and beaded challenges. You can rent motorboats or bicycles. It’s well worth the time to simply chill out together.
People joke about needing a vacation after visiting Disney. I believe that’s because they overdo it. Don’t overdo it. You can’t see everything. It’s impossible. Spend time doing what you can and throw the rest aside for the next visit.
Rule #11: Visit Disney World During Off-Peak Times, If You Can
While it’s absolutely beautiful, the holiday season tends to be the busiest and therefore the most expensive. If you don’t want to break the bank, avoid anything after mid-October. January is a great time to go as it’s much cooler.
We often go in the summer, and since it’s Florida it is very hot. (Incidentally, this one of the reasons way back when that we started to leave the park midday, now we do it almost all the time because it just makes sense for our family.) While summertime isn’t ideal due to the heat, it’s when everyone has off from school. We’ve also found some pretty sweet deals when it comes to rooms, especially if you tend to book last minute like we do. We’ve gotten some last minute rooms that are relatively inexpensive as Disney World is looking to fill them.
Rule #12: Don’t Read any “How To D0 Disney” Articles.
Just don’t. The more articles you read about “how to do Disney,” the more overwhelmed you’ll become. The only article worth reading before you go is this one. Just kidding!
Lastly, if you’re a runner Disney throws some killer races. I have run several half marathons as well as the full. They are amazing. It’s a flat race and they know how to party. It’s also one of the few times you can have your picture taken with the characters without having to wait in a long line. All you have to do is run 13.1 or 26.2 miles! But, I mean, that’s so EASY! Easier than waiting in a 2 hour line, amiright?