It took me about two weeks to plan our ultimate trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando (which actually cost us 0 dollars). After the trip, I decided to write this guide and share all the tricks I know, so that you can save some time while preparing your own journey.
I also want to thank my wife for creating this great infographic, which covers the most important aspects of the article below.
Walt Disney World: tickets, dates, accommodation, tips and tricks
This guide consists of the following sections:
- Best time to visit Disney World
- Duration of your visit
- On-site vs off-site hotels
- 5 money-saving tips
- How to get the most of your stay
- Fastpass+ recommendations for each park
- Dining suggestions
Best time to go to Disney World
Deciding on when is the best time to visit Disney World depends on many factors, but I believe that price, weather, crowds, and seasonal festivities are the most important things most visitors care about.
If you don't have kids (or they don't go to school yet), you're open to more affordable options, which usually also have the least crowds and good weather conditions. If the price is an important factor, you should really stay away from Christmas and Easter. These days are not only the most expensive but also the most crowded!
It's also a very good idea to skip all the school breaks and national holidays like Martin Luther King Day, Veterans Day, Thanksgiving etc. January to mid-February, August through September as well as late October to the beginning of December usually have the lowest rates (and crowds!)
It's somewhat ironic, but crowds are highly correlated with prices: the more you pay, the busier it is gonna be there. Although I prefer staying at off-site properties (because I can pay for them using points), on-site Disney resorts may be a good idea, if you're coming during peak dates. The extra hours they offer can make a huge difference. If you don't come early enough, be prepared to spend more than 2-3 hours in lines for top attractions during crowded times!
Orlando may be extremely hot and humid during summers and fall. Even in the end of October, it could be more than 90 degrees, so plan accordingly. If you can't stand the heat, winter is the time to go as the climate is much more moderate. Otherwise, prepare for the heat and remember to stay hydrated!
Disney World offers a few great seasonal events. Christmas celebrations at the Magic Kingdom, Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, Flower & Garden as well as Food and Wine Festival at Epcot may provide quite unforgettable experiences. However, each comes with a price and you're expected to deal with bigger lines and prices during these times (especially during Christmas).
Personally, I'd recommend going there around Halloween, since you'll be able to enjoy both Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and Food and Wine Festival at Epcot as well as enjoy better weather, prices and not so long lines.
How many days do you need for Disney World?
The answer to this question depends on a few factors. Are traveling with kids? Is it your first trip to Disney World? For the first-time travelers without kids four days should be enough to visit each theme park (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios). Nevertheless, I recommend staying for at least five days. Choose the park you liked the most for the last day and spend more time there without being in a constant rush. Moreover, you usually can get the 5th day free, when you are buying tickets via 3rd party resellers like undercover tourist.
If you're traveling with kids, prepare to spend at least 7-8 days to see it all. Generally, I suggest to stay away from hopper passes since it is often not reasonable to switch parks during the day, but it may be a good choice for longer visits (I'd still stay away from them).
Where to stay at Disney World?
The main problem is to determine if you want to stay on-site at one of the Walt Disney branded properties vs off-site at one of the non-Disney hotels.
Each has pros and cons, but usually it is cheaper to stay off-site, especially since you can find a lot of great rates, book with points or even attend a timeshare presentation (if you are that type of person). Unlike other destinations, I recommend not to use Airbnb for a Disney trip. Off-site hotels are rather cheap and often offer complimentary transportation to Disney parks.
However, staying on-site may be beneficial, especially if you are traveling during extremely busy dates. In my opinion, extra magic hours, which allow guests who stay at Disney-branded properties to spend an additional hour before the park opens for general public or two hours after the park closes, is the main benefit of staying on-site.
Apart from that you may expect
- free transportation from the airport as well as transportation between parks (although many non-Disney resorts provide free shuttles too),
- free parking (absolutely useless benefit if you're staying on-site because it doesn't make any sense to drive),
- package delivery (which is a convenient benefit, since everything you buy there is gonna be delivered to your room),
- complimentary magic bands for every guest (about $12 dollars a piece, but you probably don't need them when staying off-site),
- ability to purchase Disney dining plan (which you can also get for free if you're traveling during low-season dates),
- FastPass+ reservations for 60 days out instead of 30 (which is extremely useful to secure FastPass for Flight of Pandora at the Animal Kingdom, although everything else can be secured within 30 days window)
- Dining reservations for 190 days out instead of 180 (totally useless and doesn't make any difference).
Depending on how you value these benefits, it may be wise to stay in non-Disney properties, which are usually cheaper and can be booked with points.
If booking off-site properties, I'd strongly suggest you choose ones with complimentary transportation, since you'll be able to save on uber/taxi services, renting a car and parking at the park ($20 dollars a day). However, make sure that you check shuttle schedule! Unlike Disney properties, off-site hotels usually have very infrequent shuttle service (could be 1-2 trips a day to particular park) so make sure that this schedule fits your plans.
I'd also want to mention 3 properties, which are worth your attention:
Dolphin and Swan hotels can be booked with SPG points with 5th-night free benefit. However, after Swan was upgraded to Category 5 hotel, which requires from 12 to 16 thousand points for a free night, I strongly recommend staying at Dolphin for 10k points, since the difference between these two is negligible. Moreover, these properties are eligible for additional magic hours, which makes this hotel almost similar to Wald Disney branded resorts.
Sheraton Lake Buena Vista Resort is another SPG property, which is a hidden gem since it can be booked for just 3k points during weekends and 4k points during weekdays. It doesn't offer 5th-night free benefit since it is a category 2 hotel and does have resort charges of 24 dollars per night, but it still an awesome redemption for your SPG points. Plus you can opt into a Green Choice program by SPG, which give you 500 points for each night when you declined housekeeping. Moreover, If you have a Gold status the resort fee is only 12 bucks!
Almost forgot: free shuttle to the parks!
How to save money on a Disney World trip?
- If you are utilizing one of those Chase Coupons for 150/300/500 dollars for opening a checking account, make sure that you choose Disney design for your debit card. This card also offers additional 10% discount on select merchandise at Disney Stores, 10% off at select Dining Locations and some minor benefits including Character Experiences at Epcot with free pictures, additional discount for SPA/guided tours etc. In my opinion, this card is a much better card, then Disney Credit Card, which offers the same benefits except for 200 dollars statement credit after 500 dollar-spend, but requires a hard pull.
- Buy Disney tickets via reputable wholesalers like Undercover Tourist, Park Savers or Official Ticket Center. At the time of the review non-hopper 5-day Magic Your Way adult ticket cost $368 on Official Ticket Center, $375 on ParkSavers and $376.95 on Undercover Tourist vs $394.05 from Disney website. Despite having the highest prices among resellers, it is possible to save even more on Undercover Tourist with one of the American Express offers, which pop up pretty regularly and offer saving 30 of 150 purchase or 20 of 100. Since we have 8 Amex cards, we were able to apply 30 dollar discount for each ticket, plus additional 1% cashback from cashback portal resulting us in 47.55 dollars discount per ticket.
One important point to consider is that Undercover Tourist DOES count as travel for both Chase Sapphire Reserve and Barclay's Arrival+ credit cards. That means that you can utilize $300 annual travel credit or apply Barclay's Arrival+ $500 signup bonus to offset the cost of tickets!
- Consider buying discounted Disney gift cards. There are few ways to maximize your savings. As for today, you could connect your cards to Drop app and select Walmart as one of 5 stores to receive additional 1% cashback on all purchases. Then buy Walmart gift cards with Chase Freedom card, as it offers 5% back this quarter (4th quarter of 2017) and then buy discounted Disney gift cards (usually 5% off) at Sam's Club using Walmart gift cards. That will give you at least 11% discount depending on how you value Chase UR points. Another easy strategy would be to maximize Discover IT 5% category bonus during the first year since Discover matches all the cashback by the end of the first year (giving you effective 10% discount). And definitely, watch for sales! Good deals come and go every day. You can subscribe to our newsletter or just check our website from time to time since we regularly update it with the most lucrative deals and promotions!
- If you are traveling with kids, consider buying pins in bulk from Ebay. You can get about 80-100 pins for 25 dollars and your kids will definitely have some extra fun while trading them in parks. It is a much better value than buying in Disney shops. The same idea works for different glow sticks, which you can buy for 10 for a dollar instead of 1 for 10 dollars at parks. When you are having a few kids, those savings really add up.
- You can save a lot on pictures if you have your own camera or even a good smartphone. Just ask those Disney photographers to take a picture of you with YOUR own camera and you'll pretty much get pro pictures at 0 cost.
How to get the most of your stay at Disney World?
I was pretty surprised to learn that many of my friends bought park tickets at the gates. That's the worst thing one can do since the prices are higher, you don't get fastpass+ or dining reservations.
Below are a few tips on how to get the most of your stay:
- You can make dining reservations up to 180 days (190 if staying on-site) in advance, so plan accordingly. You usually don't need that much time to secure good restaurants, but the earlier you'll be able to do that, the better. I'd provide more detailed dining suggestions in the following sections. Note, that you don't need tickets to make these reservations.
- Download My Disney Experience and link your account before the trip. It is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the app, as it is a vital tool for planning your day, making FastPass selections, tracking dining reservations and monitoring crowds at particular rides.
- Unlike dining reservations, you do need to have tickets (and installed My Disney Experience app) to make FastPass+ selections. If you're staying at Disney branded properties the booking window opens 60 days before stay and includes additional 10 days of your stay. That means that you have to count 60 days before your first day to be able to choose attractions for day 2 through 10, which is a nice perk since those who are not staying on properties can book rides up to 30 days in advance and don't have those 10 days of grace period. So, if you start booking exactly 30 days before your first day, you'll have to wait another day to make selections for your second day etc.
- FastPassed+ recommendations for each theme park are provided below, however, I strongly suggest booking them between 10 – 1 pm. This timeframe will allow you to visit some other crowded attractions early in the morning when the lines are smaller before using FastPasses. You are allowed to make up to 3 reservations a day, but the good news is that you can add additional ones after you use the first 3. The earlier you're done with your first passes, the more time you get for adding more for secondary attractions.
Note that you can make FastPass+ selections just for one park per day, which is another reason to stay away from hopper tickets!
- Check schedules and plan accordingly! Plan your days on the park hours. Opening and closing times of each park can vary throughout a week so try to get the most hours in each theme park on any particular day.
- Lines are much shorter in the morning, so make sure you're there by the time the park opens. Especially if you're traveling with kids. My Disney Experience has schedules of all parades, shows, and special events. Spend at least 10-15 minutes prior to your day to decide on which parades to see and what special events to attend, so that it doesn't conflict with your FastPass selections and dining plans. And definitely watch those night shows, since they are a huge part of the magical experience.
- Bring snacks! Not only it will help you to save some money on not so good snacks and fast-food from Disney World, but also give you more time and flexibility with your lunch.
- Don't shop until the end of your day. There is no need to waste your precious time and lug around all the bags during the day. Shops usually stay open after park closing times. By the way, packages from gift shops can be delivered to your room if staying on-site.
- The rides don't shut down at park closing times. If you are in a line before the park officially closes, you will still be able to ride even if the wait time is more than an hour. That may be extremely useful for the Pandora ride in the Animal Kingdom. The last time we were there, the wait-time right before park closing was just 70 minutes instead of 180-200.
- It may be a good idea to break up the days, since doing parks for 4-5 days in a row can be extremely exhausting. Try to have at least 1 rest/pool days between theme park days.
FastPass+ recommendations for theme parks at Disney
FastPass recommendations depend on many factors (personal preferences, traveling with kids etc). Below are my favorite suggestions, but you're free to choose your own!
My top three choices at the Magic Kingdom would be Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Space Mountain. Depending on what parts of park you want to discover in the morning, you may also consider adding Peter Pan's flight, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin or Pirates of the Caribbean
Epcot is different from the Magic Kingdom because it has two tiers of attractions. You can only get one FastPass for either Frozen or Soarin' or Test Track. I'd choose Frozen as my group A FastPass and then will probably add Mission Space and Spaceship Earth from group B. It will also be a good idea to start your day from riding Test Track early in the morning if you want to ride together. If you don't mind going on a single rider line (which is MUCH shorter), go to Soarin' for your first ride instead.
Avatar Flight of Passage! That should be your top priority to get FastPass for this ride. Wait times could be more than 180 minutes during crowded days and you should try to book this far in advance. Depending on when you're going, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Everest, Kali River Rapids and Dinosaur maybe good choices for FastPass too. Keep in mind that lines are very short in the morning (everyone is in line for Flight of Passage), so you should be able to ride quite a few times if you arrive early. I'd also recommend you going on Safaris in the morning. The animals are much more active during that time of the day.
Hollywood Studios also has two tiers, so you'll have to make a choice between Toy Story Mania and Rock ‘n' Roller Coaster. Personally, I'd pick Toy Story Mania since it doesn't have any age/height requirements and will always have bigger crowds then Roch ‘n' Roller. Apart from that Tower of Terror and Star Tours are the only viable options you should consider for that day.
Disney Dining Reservations
Magic Kingdom: For the Magic Kingdom there are just two just two main suggestions: Cinderella’s Royal Table and Be Our Guest restaurants. If you want to have this special experience, I would try to book them 180 days in advance. Cinderella's Castle for lunch and Be Our Guest for dinner would be probably my choices.
Epcot: Most of my friends, who are true Disney World fans, believe that Epcot has the best food in Disney parks. “You can try all the food from different parts of the world there!” I do agree that Epcot has some decent options and that the food is not bad, but I'd still suggest you visit some other countries (that's not difficult since you're reading travelhackrz.com) since you'd be able to get much better experience for much less money. The food is not bad, but as everything in Disney, those restaurants are tourist-oriented. They don't really care much about the quality of food, but the prices are high anyway.
Nevertheless, Le Cellier Steakhouse in the Canadian part of the park may be worth booking for dinner, while Via Napoli may be a good fit for lunch (especially if you're a pizza lover). Both of these places require advance reservations, but they are not that popular as Be Our Guest restaurant. You should be able to book those places easily within 10-30 days (but once again, the earlier, the better). Expect to pay around 150-200 for a dinner for 2 in Le Cellier Steakhouse and at least 35-40 dollars for lunch in Via Napoli.
Hollywood Studios: While I can't justify prices in Le Cellier, I really enjoyed food at Hollywood Studios. I strongly recommend you make reservations for 50's Prime Time Cafe for lunch and probably to Sci-Fi for dinner. Both of the places have pretty decent food for reasonable price, moreover, they provide you with awesome experiences. 50's Prime Time though can be hit or miss though since the experience highly depends on a waiter.
Animal Kingdom: As for Animal Kingdom, the only place I'd consider for reservation is Tiffins restaurant. The prices are reasonable and the food is pretty good. But in the Animal Kingdom I usually prefer to eat at some quick service restaurants or food courts like Harambe market in Africa zone.
A few more tips
If you're staying at Disney hotels, you can link your Magic Bands to a credit card, which has good earning rate on travel expenses (like CSR), since all purchases will be coded as travel.
Some people get good value by booking Disney Vacation Club properties. It's somewhat similar to timeshares, where owners allow you to rent their points and stay at their villas. You can get a pretty good deal if booking early (like 9-10 months in advance).
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