Orlando, Florida is the centre of the world when it comes to theme parks. And out of the 16 theme parks here, Walt Disney World Resort (WDW) is king. It is the crowning jewel in an impressive group which includes Universal Orlando Resort (containing The Wizarding World of Harry Potter), Legoland and SeaWorld Orlando Resort. With over 100 square kilometres, it is a big task to plan your first trip to Disney World.
Within WDW are 4 theme parks –
- Magic Kingdom – like Disneyland in California with Cinderella’s Castle in the middle, divided into six themed lands – Main Street, U.S.A.; Adventureland; Frontierland; Liberty Square; New Fantasyland; and Tomorrowland,
- Epcot – an international and discovery showplace with rides and entertainment showcasing 11 nations, as well as space and other scientific discoveries and innovation,
- Disney’s Hollywood Studios – a working film, TV and radio studio as well as a theme park, and
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom – it’s very “The Lion King” here with an open range zoo where you can take a safari, as well as rides and shows.
There are 2 water adventure parks too –
- Blizzard Beach, and
- Typhoon Lagoon
Also included in the complex are 27 themed resort hotels, sporting facilities, dining, entertainment and much much more.
While each park is not dissimilar in size to Dreamworld or Movieworld on the Gold Coast, the sheer number of theme parks to cover while you’re here makes for a busy trip!
When to go on your first trip to Disney World
One of Orlando’s biggest draws is the year-round sunny, mild weather. For most of the year (Sep-May) the temperature ranges from 22°c to 32°c. While in summer (Jun-Aug) the temperature stays up around the mid-30s.
For a weather forecast specific to your travel dates, I love the Weather Underground Travel Planner.
You really need to take the visitor numbers into account when deciding when to go to Disney World, because wait times on rides can get to a ridiculous level. On a moderate crowd day you may have 75-90 min waits for the most popular attractions, with 45-60 min on a light day and 120+ min on a heavy crowd day.
Check this Crowd Calendar to see when the busy times are. Just remember that the downside of going in low season is that there may be maintenance scheduled on some of the attractions. For instance, currently there’s scaffolding around Cinderella’s Castle, which spoils the effect a bit. Hopefully it will be down by the time we get there.
Where to stay at Disney World
The key question to answer is on-site or off? Disney Resort Hotels (on-site) are more expensive, but as well as completely immersing yourselves in all things Disney, they have the following benefits –
- Able to book FastPass+ at 60 days before your trip, rather than 30 days (the most popular FastPass+ just won’t be available at 30 days out)
- Extra Magic Hours – access to earlier opening or later closing hours at the theme parks
- Complimentary resort transportation between parks and hotels
- Complimentary airport transfers (I believe a taxi from the airport costs about US $70)
Full listing of Disney Resort Hotels here. We’ve chosen to stay at a Disney hotel for 4 nights of our time in Orlando. This will cover the 3 days that we plan to spend at WDW parks. We wanted to make our first trip to Disney World extra special!
When to book
For accommodation I’m going to go with as soon as possible. In October when we’re going the crowds are classed as Moderate, and at 6 weeks out most of the Disney hotels are fully booked. This is not the place to get a last minute deal.
But before you lock in your flights and accommodation, you should be aware of how ADRs (Advance Dining Reservations) and FastPass+ works.
ADRs – Advance Dining Reservations
You are able to book your ADRs from 180 days out. When I first read this I was like oh yeah like anyone is going to make a dinner reservation 6 months in advance. Well I was waaay wrong. So many people make bookings 6 months in advance that the most popular ones completely book out within days.
The most popular meals are mostly character meals. Here is a list of which characters are at which meals.
You make your dining reservations here.
Every meal is reviewed on several websites, but I quite like Undercover Tourist. For instance, Cinderella’s Royal Table is reviewed here. I cried when I watched the video. (Did I mention how much I love Disney?) That’s when I got serious about landing some of these highly sought-after reservations.
However, when I got my act together and was ready to make some bookings (more than 2 months in advance of our visit) there was next to nothing available for the very popular locations that I was after. The key bit of info that you should know is that bookings can be cancelled with only a day’s notice. So many people make lots of bookings as soon as they open up 6 months out, then cancel the ones they don’t want closer to their dates when they have a better idea of their plans.
A few of the most popular bookings are for –
- Cinderella’s Royal Table – dining inside Cinderella’s castle with all the princesses visiting your table for hugs, photos and chats,
- Be Our Guest – a Beauty & the Beast-themed new addition with the Beast visiting at dinner only,
- 1900 Park Fare – with the Mad Hatter, Mary Poppins, and Alice at breakfast and Prince Charming, Lady Tremain, the Stepsisters and Cinderella at dinner,
- Chef Mickey’s – the only place you can meet five of the most popular Disney characters without waiting in traditional meet and greet lines – Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto.
- Tusker House – a safari-themed buffet restaurant at Animal Kingdom with Mickey, Goofy, Donald and Daisy Duck
If you think there’s any possibility that you might want to go to one of these, then book 6 months in advance.
It is best if you have a plan of which theme park you are going to visit on each day, because to dine in a restaurant in a park you need an entry ticket for that park. BUT, you don’t need to have all your tickets and accom booked to make a dining reservation, so if you want Chef Mickey’s but you’re not sure which day, then book them all! The only proviso is that Cinderella’s Royal Table is prepaid. You can still cancel a day in advance and get a refund, but you will have to pay on booking. Anyone can register on the Disney World site and make a dining reservation, so don’t delay!
Don’t give up! Times can become available the day before the meal. I can’t attest to this myself, but I have heard that you can get bookings if you ring the restaurant the day before. You get penalized $10 a head if you don’t cancel at least a day in advance and don’t turn up, so plenty of people wait until a day or two before to cancel.
Fastpass+ at Disney World
Disney FastPass+ service allows you to reserve access to some WDW attractions, entertainment and character greetings in advance. It is basically your ticket to bypass the queue. There is no cost to use FastPass+ service. Unlike Disneyland where FastPass is a paper ticket system that you can’t get until you enter the park on the day of your visit, WDW FastPass+ is electronically linked to your entry ticket and is available for booking from 60 days in advance of your visit if staying on-site, or 30 days if staying off-site. You can book 3 FastPass+ per day.
If the FastPass+ you want is not available, then regularly check availability on The Dibb – Disney with a British Accent. You need to register on the site to access it (free) – FastPass+ Availability. If you click on that link it will give you today’s FastPass+ availablity. But if you then click on the attraction that you’re interested in, a box will pop up and show you availability for the next few months (I find this doesn’t work super well if you’re viewing on a mobile).
The most popular attractions are the Anna & Elsa meet and greet (A&E) and the 7 Dwarves Mine Train (7DMT). You will see that there is no availability for the next 60 days. Occasionally people change their fast passes and availability will pop up (briefly). This is how I got fast passes for these two popular attractions. So it’s useful to check regularly if there’s something in particular you’re after.
Disney World Resources
The good thing about Disney World being so massively popular is that there is endless information available about it. Search on Pinterest especially and you will find page after page of tips and tricks. If overwhelm threatens though, head straight to my Disney World Pinterest board where I’ve pinned the best articles I can find.
Get familiar with Disney-speak. Everyone speaks in acronyms on-line, so you might need to print this list out.
If you’re just thinking about a trip and want to get a feel for how seriously people take their planning, then join a Facebook group or two. Sometimes there’s even one specific to the month you’re travelling, like for ours – Disney World October 2015 Planning Group. This group is choc-full of valuable info. Even if October 2015 is not your travel time, then I would still recommend joining it just to browse through all the questions that have been asked and answered.
Other on-going useful groups are –
If you’re starting to toss around dates or want to delve a bit deeper into what’s on offer, then these sites are brilliant –
- Official Walt Disney World planning site – from booking your hotel, reading about the various parks, ticket prices, dining reservations and fastpasses, to creating your personalised park/ride/dining itinerary once you go ahead and book
- Undercover Tourist – This family has reviewed every attraction and restaurant in every park. Endless great info here.
- WDW Prep School – Anything you want to know, just search this site. She does regular podcasts too if that method of information delivery suits you best. I particularly like her 6 step process starting at choosing your travel dates.
If all this detailed planning sounds insane and completely opposite to the way you think about your holidays, then I agree with you. If I was going to Europe for 3 weeks I would have my transport and accom booked, but just take a guidebook on the plane and use that super long flight to roughly plan the day to day aspects of the trip. I had intended to take the same approach with this trip, but the more I read the more I realised that I had better get my act into gear. We’re taking the kids out of school and spending a lot of money on this trip, so I wanted to make sure I had bookings for the things that are important to us.
Read about our trip here –
Want to save this to read later? Just pin the image below –
Have you ever been to a Disney park?