Being the resident “Disney Expert” amongst my family and group of friends, I get asked a lot of questions about WDW vacations. Most of them are definitely beginner-level questions, so I thought I’d put together a two-part-post with my usual answers to these foundational inquiries.
Please note that, for a Disney vacation veteran, there are many more levels in planning a trip to see the mouse. I plan on doing an entire youtube series where each video goes into a little more depth on a specific topic. For this post, I’m just touching on the vital elements for someone who has done very little planning.
At the bottom of this post I’ve placed an infographic to help with the vitals on each Disney World Theme Park
When people are quizzing me on where to eat or what park to go to first, I’ll ask “when are you going?”… Mostly the answer is “next week” or “the end of the month”. For the Disney planner, this is WAY too late to start planning the details… But the reality is, you can have an amazing vacation whether you plan or not, but just knowing the following details will help:
1. Before You Go
If you are just days or weeks away from your trip, there are a few things you missed.. but it’s ok!!
- Dining Reservations.. it’s getting harder and harder to just walk up to a Disney restaurant and even wait for a table. You’ll often hear, “we are reservation-only tonight”. Disney allows Dining reservations up to 180 days in advance and losers like me jump on the reservations for where I want to eat IN SIX MONTHS.
- Fastpass Reservations.. If you haven’t been to Disney World in 5 years or more, the Fastpass game has changed. You used to walk up to a ride and get a printout of when you could come back later and go in a Fastpass line (just a line with a shorter wait time than the normal standby queue). Now everything is done electronically. You can reserve your fastpasses 60 days in advance if you are staying on property or 30 days in advance if you aren’t (you also must have a ticket purchased in order to reserve a fastpass).
- If you haven’t done these things, don’t panic. You can usually find fastpasses even up to the morning of… just maybe not some of the more sought after attractions. Also look for dining reservations at some Table service restaurants. Many people cancel in the days leading up to their reservation to avoid a late (24 hour window) cancellation fee.
- All of this will be done on the “My Disney Experience App”… Go to your App Store and grab it. It can also be done on Disney’s website.
2. Theme Parks
Definitely, the majority of questions from Disney vacation beginners center around the four Disney Theme Parks. The answers to these questions vary greatly depending on the makeup of your party, so I’ll try to quickly describe each theme park to give you an overview:
- This is what you think of when you think of Disney World. In fact there are still people in my family who call this park “Disney World”. Cinderella’s castle, Tomorrowland, It’s a Small World, Peter Pan, Splash Mountain… There is an insane amount to do in Magic Kingdom. If it were my first time, especially with kids, I would do two days in Magic Kingdom before I even considered another park. Several real thrill rides and many tame experiences. Amazing for the whole family.
MK Dining: The dining is the weakest part of Magic Kingdom. You’ll find yourself eating mostly “quick service” which are mostly the same throughout the park (Columbia Harbour House is a nice change of pace). If you want to upgrade, try to get a reservation at Be Our Guest, or walkup to the new “Skipper’s Cantina”.
- The 2nd Disney World Park opened in 1982 and has two main sections: Future World and The World Showcase.
- Unfortunately, Future World has become quite dated and I’m sure it was more attractive when it opened in the 1980s. Still there are some big name attractions (Spaceship Earth, Soarin’, Test Track) that are a must on an Epcot Day. “The Seas” and “The Land” are a decent place to spend your time.
- The other side of Epcot is “The World Showcase”. There are 11 countries depicted with architectural recreations, food and drink, and historical/cultural presentations to represent each nation. The theming is spectacular and each country is worth exploring. The “Illuminations” fireworks display each night is not to be missed.
- The simplest way to put it is that Epcot is not the best destination for kids. If you are on a 5-7 day trip, then absolutely include it in your plans, but if you are there for a shorter time, take the kids to another park. On the other hand, if the trip party is made up of adults, go have a party for multiple days exploring the world showcase!
Epcot Dining- Dining is one of the major strengths of Epcot. Each country has at least one restaurant, mostly consisting of sit-down, table service. I’ve found over the past couple of years that you really need to try and get a reservation or you may be left wanting at dinner time! If you need a dining option in Future World, definitely check out Sunshine Seasons as it’s one of the best quick service restaurants in all of Disney World.
- The third Disney park to appear on the scene, Hollywood studios (formerly “MGM Studios”) has gone through a couple of different iterations and is currently undergoing an overhaul to add major Star Wars and Toy Story additions. In 2021 this is going to be a phenomenal theme park.. right now, it’s a hard sell.
- Hollywood Studios was created with the idea of giving a glimpse of how the movies are made. From “backlot tours” to Disney animation, you get to see behind-the-scenes… and also become immersed in some really cool storylines.
- There are two “big boy” rides at Hollywood Studios. “…The Tower of Terror” and “Rock ‘N Roller Coaster” (Both right next to each other). They are great and are definite musts for folks who can tolerate these sorts of thrill rides.
- The most popular ride in the park is “Toy Story Midway Mania” and is a fun ride for the whole family where you are gently carted around and play a really cool arcade style game. You MUST have a fastpass for this ride or you’ll be regretting the wait.
- Fantasmic is an outstanding show that happens almost every night. Make sure you don’t miss this show on your HS day! note: I like using a Fastpass for Fantastic because people get in line early and often for the show!! Spend your time elsewhere and then show up a little before showtime!
- I would place Hollywood Studios in the same category as Epcot. Definitely do it if you are at WDW for more than 5 days. Consider skipping it this time if you are on a shorter stay.
Hollywood Dining- Dining in this park is feast or famine. The Brown Derby is a higher end (expensive) restaurant. Hollywood and Vine is a decent buffet with characters but will hurt the wallet for what you get. Probably the best experience is the Sci-fi Dine In Theater that shows cheesy old sci-fi movies while you are seated at a table that looks like a classic convertible… and the food is good. Try to get a reservation there if possible. Backlot Express is my recommendation for a quick service lunch or dinner.
- Finally, Disney’s most recent park opened in the 1990s giving vacationers another magical spot for their itinerary.
- Animal Kingdom is great for the whole family. It definitely feels (and is) smaller than Magic Kingdom or Epcot, but don’t believe those who tell you this isn’t a “full-day-park”.
- The thrill seeker will want to ride “Expedition Everest” which could easily be described as the biggest thrill-ride roller coaster in all of Disney World. “Kilimanjaro Safari” is a great use of a Fastpass and may very well be one of the most memorable rides of your trip!
- Nemo and Lion King themed shows are excellent productions that shouldn’t be missed.
- The Dinoland area is a little cheesy and feels a bit out of place, but it’s a great place to have parents sit down and let the kids go on the play area or “The Boneyard” dig pit.
- As you can tell, this park gets a 2nd place for me if you have small kids with you.
Animal Kingdom Dining- Quick service dining is very strong in Animal Kingdom. My top two recommendations are Flametree BBQ and Yak and Yeti quick service restaurants.