So maybe you’ve been to Disney World before, maybe not. Maybe you went as a kid in the 80s or 90s, but haven’t been back since. I was in that boat myself up until 2006. I had been as a kid on 3 separate occasions, but up until 2006, I hadn’t been to Disney World since 1997 as an 8th grader, and I had never stayed on property either.
Brian and I lived in South Florida for a year in 2005-06, and we decided to go in February 2006 to celebrate our birthdays – he was turning 27 and I was turning 23. Our birthdays are only 2 days apart, so we got birthday pins and ran around in the rain visiting all 4 parks, including our first ever visit to Animal Kingdom. We had a lot of fun, and were treated really nicely by the cast members for our birthdays, but still didn’t get that full dose of Disney magic because we stayed off property.
In June 2006, we returned to WDW with a friend of mine who came to visit us in Florida. We stayed on property for the first time at the Port Orleans French Quarter and we were really impressed with the resort. But we didn’t really eat at a lot of Disney restaurants, other than a few in the parks, and we still weren’t getting the full “Disney treatment.”
Then, we got engaged in January 2008. We were tossing different ideas back and forth for the honeymoon – California wine country and a Caribbean cruise were the two choices we were thinking of the most. But then in fall of 2008, I got an e-mail from Disney World touting a "Buy 4 Nights, Get 3 Nights Free" deal, and I brought up the idea of a week at Disney for our honeymoon. Brian really liked the idea, and we decided to book at Port Orleans Riverside with the regular dining plan (more on that later).
Over time we ended up switching to the Caribbean Beach Resort to get a king room (none were available at POR). But then we got a huge surprise from our Best Man – he was going to pay for an upgrade to a Deluxe resort as part of our wedding present! (Brian’s parents were already paying for the rest.)
We ended up booking at the Animal Kingdom Lodge and somewhere along the way we decided to upgrade to a Deluxe Dining Plan as well – the best choice we could have ever made!
We had an absolute blast on our honeymoon being immersed into the whole Disney experience – not just the theme parks, but the excellent dining and the excellent resort. I highly recommend staying on Disney property so that you can take advantage of the perks, like the Disney Dining Plan (which can only be used if you’re staying on Disney property) and free parking at the theme parks.
Something we researched while booking our honeymoon was crowd levels. To me, crowd levels and weather are absolutely key to enjoying your time at Disney. I could go fall, winter and spring, but you would have to pay me to go during the middle of summer, during spring break (mid-March-mid-April), the week of Christmas or the week immediately after. Those are the absolute peak times because kids are out of school.
Personally, the only times I would go to WDW are September-mid December, mid-January-beginning of March, and late April-end of May. The weather is great during these times, school is in session, and there are great special events – the Flower & Garden Festival at Epcot in the spring, the Food & Wine Festival at Epcot in the fall, plus the decorations for Halloween and Christmas are out of this world.
Something I really liked about staying on Disney property is the Key to the World card. When you check in at a Disney resort, you receive your card, which stores your park tickets, dining credits, and also acts as your room key. It’s great to have it all in one spot – just don’t lose it!
A lot has changed at Disney since the 1990s. My favorite innovation is the FastPass. The FastPass is something Disney thought of to give park visitors a more enjoyable experience with less time spent standing in lines. The way it works is this: There are machine kiosks at all the most popular rides. Insert your park ticket or Key to the World card into the machine, and you get a ticket printed and spit out back at you that gives you a 30-minute window of time to return. You can then go ride other rides, go eat, do whatever until your 30-minute window. Then when you return, you present your FastPass and are ushered into a “VIP” line that gets you to the ride very quickly.
My advice with the FastPass is – when you arrive at a park, go directly to your favorite ride of choice that tends to have long lines. Get your FastPass right away. Rides that tend to have very long lines are:
Magic Kingdom: Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mtn Railroad, Splash Mtn. and Peter Pan’s Flight.
Epcot: Test Track and Soarin’. Sometimes Mission: Space as well.
Hollywood Studios: Toy Story Mania, Rockin’ Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror.
Animal Kingdom: Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids (especially in the late afternoon), and Dinosaur.
The absolute WORST wait is at Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios – if you plan on riding that, go get your FatPass right away. When we were there last year, FastPasses for that ride ran out around noon.
Don’t waste your time getting a FastPass for something with less than a 30-minute posted wait time. We found that lines were almost always shorter than the posted time.
My favorite parks are the older ones -- Magic Kingdom and Epcot. Magic Kingdom is a no-brainer for me -- I like to start and end our vacation there. It's just plain magical! I love pretty much every ride there, especially Pirates of the Caribbean, the Haunted Mansion, Splash Mountain and Space Mountain. It's a Small World is always a classic, along with the Jungle Cruise and the Tiki Room. Mickey's Philharmagic is my favorite new attraction, it is the cutest thing ever. We're also excited to check out the Hall of Presidents, which was closed last year to make room for Obama. And I absolutely LOVE the nighttime fireworks show, Wishes. It makes you feel like anything is possible.
As for Epcot, it's an adult paradise. All the rides and attractions at the front of the park have been updated, and my favorite by far is Soarin'. And I lovelovelove the World Showcase. I could spend all day just looking through the shops, riding Maelstrom at Norway and eating and imbibing my way through every country. And the IllumiNations fireworks is AMAZING -- so unique and inspiring -- and wonderful to watch after a dinner at Le Cellier or San Angel Inn (both are our dinners at Epcot this trip).
Not to rain on Hollywood Studios' or Animal Kingdom's parade -- they just don't hold the same amount of magic for me. My favorite attractions at Hollywood Studios are the Great Movie Ride, Toy Story Mania, Muppets 3D and the Tower of Terror. I was also pleasantly surprised by the Voyage of the Little Mermaid stage show on our last trip, and I plan on seeing the Beauty and the Beast stage show this time. We saw Fantasmic for the first time last year, but are opting to skip that this year in favor of dinner at Ohana at the Polynesian Resort with a view of Wishes at the Magic Kingdom.
We decided to use our 7th ticket for our upcoming trip for Animal Kingdom, for the day we arrive. We're going to go for a few hours and devote our time to seeing the animals and walking the trails toward the back of the park. Then when we go later in the week, we'll visit our favorite attractions -- Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids, Dinosaur!, and the safari. The It's Tough to be a Bug show is cute, as well as the Finding Nemo stage show, but both are a little kiddie. Note that there is no nighttime show at Animal Kingdom and it usually closes around 6 p.m., so if you're park hopping, be sure to visit in the morning and end our day at one of the other parks.
So, speaking of park hopping – to Park Hop or not to Park Hop? For me, this really depends on the length of your visit. If you only have 1-3 days at Disney – absolutely get a Park Hopper. If you’re staying for 4 days or more, save your money and savor a full day at each park. This is how we do it since we are getting 7 days of park tickets.
Lastly, there are a ton of great Disney Web sites out there to get you acquainted with Disney World, and they’re absolutely filled with tips and tricks on making the most of your time there.
Here is just a sampling:
allears.net (their newsletter is great)
There are seriously a million Disney sites, but those are just some of my favorites. I hope y'all found this informative! My next post will be on Disney resorts, followed by Disney dining.