Once we drove into Florida and were Orlando bound, we knew that at some point we would want to head over to Disney World. We had previously taken the older 3 kids 2.5 years ago, and knew that once they saw the signs that they would be asking to go. All told, we love Disney World as much as the kids and couldn't wait either! We held off for almost a week, enjoying our time at the campground and making new friends, but once I had something firm and solid for my next job assignment, we went ahead and made plans.
We originally planned to spend 10 days at Disney World in January of this year, with a few weekend trips this winter/spring and another extended visit before we leave Florida later this spring/summer. A delay with my start date for my next project meant that we were afforded the opportunity to double our time at Disney for only the cost of extending our Fort Wilderness campsite reservation 3 nights! What follows are some of our tips and tricks for making Disney World as fun and affordable as possible.
The biggest and most overarching thing that I can say about heading to Disney World is to MAKE A PLAN. This is not a place that you head to on a whim and all willy-nilly. Putting in the time beforehand can save you many headaches, a lot of money, and make the whole experience a lot more pleasurable for everyone. When we came in 2010, we spent months planning our trip, and it paid off. We were able to reuse much of that research this time around, which is what allowed us to be ready to go with only a week's notice. If possible, I recommend to start planning 6-12 months before your trip, especially if you have never been to Disney World before or if it has been a long time since your last visit.
I will break this up into separate posts to address each specific theme park. Breakdowns on visiting each park are in follow-up posts.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Continue reading this post to see our tips for theme park admission, lodging, transportation, and general theme park navigation.
Passes: Depending on where you live and how long you plan to be at the parks will determine what passes you will get. Florida residents receive discounts on passes, but most Florida residents know about these. I will point out that they usually have a great deal for Florida residents on a few day pass. For out of state residents, if you are getting a pass for so many days, there are several add-ons that you can upgrade you ticket with, such as park hopping, adding water park visit, or no expiration. Many sources will sell these tickets, from the many businesses along Rte. 192 outside the resort to Walmart to AAA. It can take some looking around, but once you have determined what you are looking for in your pass, then you can search the different sources for the best deal. Disney will also offer some package deals for a discount, especially during the off season. If you are looking for the complete Disney experience, this may be the best deal for you.
We purchased annual passes through AAA, which gets us into the parks for a full year--and saved us over $150 for our family's passes--more than paying for our annual AAA membership alone! We settled on this route because of being in the Orlando area for almost a full month, and then staying in Florida for the next several months due to my job. In doing the math, this was the most cost effective way for us to visit Disney. Some perks to an annual pass are that there is no parking charge ($14 a day at each park for a passenger vehicle--more if you're driving your RV) and that it allows us to park hop. Additionally, there are some discounts available to annual pass holders on other Disney attractions such as water parks and mini golf, merchandise in many of the stores on property, at some restaurants, and on lodging that are not available to the general public. This is how we added a week at Fort Wilderness campground for less than the cost of a week at other surrounding campgrounds when we needed to spend a week out of our membership campground in Orlando. There are different options for annual passes as well. We decided to not add the unlimited water parks admission option on ours, since we could swim at our campground.
Lodging: The first question with lodging, on grounds or off? Each has its pros and cons. If you decide to stay on Disney property at one of their resorts, you most likely will bundle your admission tickets along with it. Staying on grounds allows you to purchase the Disney Dining Plan, which can be a money saver if you plan your meals right and come with an empty stomach. If you plan to reserve any character meals or eat more than a couple of table service dinners in the parks or resorts, the Disney Dining Plan is hard to beat. This will be covered more in the sections on each park, since each one has its own unique dining experiences.
Staying on grounds also gives you access to Disney's transportation system, allowing you to never have to drive around. They provide buses, boats, and monorails to shuttle you around between the resorts and parks. The down side to this is that you may be waiting awhile for the next shuttle, or have to make a few transfers, but it is helpful if different members of your party want to go different ways.
The other option for lodging is to stay off grounds. Choices include hotels, rental houses, vacation communities, and campgrounds. When we came in 2010, we rented a house in a vacation community which was only 10 minutes away. Staying off grounds can be a money saver, if you have a car with you, since there are many places to choose from. However, quality can go down quickly. Staying off grounds means that you are driving to and from Disney property.
This time we are staying at campgrounds, since we brought our house with us. We did both methods this past month, staying at a campground off Disney property that is part of a campground membership that we belong to, and also staying in Fort Wilderness, the campground on Disney property near Magic Kingdom. By booking our Fort Wilderness stay during the Value Season and at the last minute, and since we needed to spend a week out of our Thousand Trails park before we could return again, we were able to book our Fort Wilderness stay at AAA and Annual Pass Holder rates that were even lower than comparable campgrounds nearby Walt Disney World. We were able to take advantage of the pros of each method (and deal with the cons), but staying off property is my preference. It's nice to be able to get away if you want to.
Transportation: As I have mentioned, the ways to get around Disney are to use their buses, boats, or monorails, or to drive your own vehicle. Some people enjoy not having to worry about getting from point A to B, and the on property transportation works great. Others, like myself, prefer to drive themselves around. Driving on Disney property is a blissful experience. It took me no time at all to learn my way around, and since there is not all of the commercial 'clutter', the drives are scenic and the only signs are ones directing you to your destination. Traffic can be a little busy at times, but Disney has done much research into moving people efficiently and quickly. This is evident by the flow in their parking lots.
Speaking of parking, if you purchase your tickets through AAA, a member perk is their Diamond Preferred Parking pass, which allows you access to a reserved (and sometimes limited) row of spaces next to disabled parking. We have found this to be a bonus because we don't have to wait for the trams, which means that there is no folding of strollers and loading/unloading the kids. The parking is close enough to walk right into the parks (note: you are still in the parking lot, and will have a several minute walk to get to the gate. Don't think that it turns into curbside service. Even the buses aren't curbside service). Once you pay your parking fee, show your annual pass, or show your on-site lodging reservation information at the booths as you enter the parking lot, follow the blue line for disabled parking and the attendants will let you know where to park.
Visiting a park: As I mentioned earlier, go in with a plan. Do not walk into any of the parks and not know what you would like to do for that day. Also, do not walk into a park and think that you are going to do everything in one day, unless everyone in your group is capable of doing a triathlon. Each park has its major attractions, its mid level ones, and its quiet standbys. Try to tackle a few from each category each day. There are books, websites and iPhone apps out there that give suggested touring plans based on how many days you have for a park and the groups interests (young kids, kids, adults). We have found these to be a helpful baseline, but we have readily modified them to our interests. The general idea is know where you are going in the park and in what order. This may (and should) involve some cris-crossing of the park, but it is to your benefit. A little more walking can mean a huge difference whether you are standing in lines more or getting to enjoy more attractions. Keep in mind that you will need to be flexible in your plan. Rides go down. Lines are longer than expected or that you want to wait in. Shuffle things around, use the fast pass system, come back another day if your schedule permits.
Allow time to enjoy where you are at. This is Disney, there is a lot to miss if you aren't paying attention.
(Coming up next...tips and tricks for each of the 4 theme parks...)