Disney World is one of my favorite places on earth. But planning a trip there for the first time can be a bit overwhelming.
This article covers (almost) everything you need to know when planning your first trip to Disney World.
- The most important rule of Disney
- How far in advance do you need to plan a trip?
- Where should you stay?
- When should you go?
- How long should you stay at Disney?
- Do you need a car?
- The Parks
- The Fast Pass System
- Dining details
- What to wear
- Other questions
The most important rule of Disney
If you remember nothing else about this article, remember this: have a plan, but stay flexible.
Disney World is a big, busy place. If you don’t create a plan around the rides want you go on, places you want to eat, and which days you plan to be where, you’ll miss stuff.
But if you overplan and try to schedule every minute of every day, you’ll get frustrated and burnt out and have a miserable time.
Have a plan, but stay flexible.
Note: there will absolutely be things you’ll do on your first trip that you’ll wish you had done differently. That’s normal, it’s expected, and you’ll have a much better idea of what you’re doing on your next Disney trip.
How far in advance do you need to plan a trip?
I’ve booked Disney trips as little as three months out from when I’ve gone, but… I don’t recommend it.
Ideally, you want to book at least six months out from when you plan to go.
This will give you better availability of hotels and rooms (stuff books up at a lot of places pretty far in advance). It also gives you a better chance of booking FastPasses for the rides you want to go on (more on that later) and restaurants you want to eat at.
By three months out, a lot of stuff is booked or unavailable.
Disney only requires a small deposit to book, and it’s fully refundable up to 30 days before your trip. I usually book my flight separately to give myself more flexibility.
Disney also offers special ticket + room bundles that often give you better deals.
Their website is… kind of terrible to use. Sometimes, you can get better booking options by calling them directly than by using the website.
I’ve also found that phone rep quality can vary a bit, and calling and speaking to someone else sometimes gives me different/better results.
What about booking through a third party?
I’ve never done it, and I don’t recommend it.
Booking directly with Disney reduces the likelihood of unwanted surprised and gives you the most seamless “show up and go” experience when you get there.
Some people recommend buying timeshare points from Disney Vacation Club points reseller sites to get a nicer room at a lower price. That’s a totally valid strategy that adds a lot of complexity to the trip. For a first-time Disney trip, it’s overwhelming.
Where should you stay?
My general rules of thumb, if you can afford to:
- Stay on-site in a Disney resort.
- Stay in a resort that’s close to the Disney World park you think you’ll spend the most time in.
Why stay on-site?
Staying on-site saves you a ton of time and hassle getting in and out of the parks each day.
That lets you more easily get in earlier and out later to maximize your time in the park. If you want to take a break mid-day (I strongly recommend it in the warmer months), it also means it’s easier for you to leave and come back.
Staying on-site gives you other perks, too. You get access to special extended park hours at select parks on select days that general ticket holders don’t. You can also reserve Fast Passes a full month earlier than people who stay off-site (more on that later), making it more likely you’ll be able to go on the rides you’re most interested in.
Value vs. moderate vs. deluxe resorts
Disney has three tiers of resorts: value, moderate, and deluxe.
Value resorts are the lowest priced, and come with less in-room theming and amenities. In some cases, though, they’re actually bigger than the moderate and deluxe resort rooms. Their dining options are a more limited, and they lack “sit-down and get served” restaurants.
Deluxe resorts include more in-room and on-site amenities, richer theming, and lots of dining options. All of the resorts on the monorail loop are deluxe resorts, though not every deluxe resort has monorail access. Entry level deluxe resort rooms are often significantly smaller than value resort rooms, even though they’re much more expensive. They tend to be close to at least one of the parks.
Moderate resorts fall somewhere in the middle. They have sit-down dining and fun themes. They’re more expensive than value resorts but cheaper than deluxe ones. They’re not close any specific park.
Deluxe and moderate resorts have pools with slides. Value resort pools do not have a slide.
Which resorts are best?
This is a highly subjective question, and full disclosure, I have no stayed at a moderate resort yet.
On a budget, I love the Art of Animation value resort.
It has fun theming around Finding Nemo, Cars, the Lion King, and the Little Mermaid. With the exception of the Little Mermaid rooms, they’re all suites with a separate bedroom, two full bathrooms, a kitchenette, and a kitchen table. They have tons of room for luggage, strollers, and so on. They’re a great value.
My favorite hotel is the Contemporary deluxe resort. Unfortunately, it’s also the most expensive.
It’s right next to Magic Kingdom, which is my favorite park. It has a walking path into Magic Kingdom that is hands-down the fastest way to get into the park. The walking path has it’s own security line that has almost no wait.
You can also easily take the monorail there, or to Epcot (with a transfer). I love walking around Epcot at night, so I spend the second most time there.
The rooms are quite tiny, though!
Looking for something else?
And if you want something super luxurious, the Grand Floridian deluxe resort is pretty amazing, with tons of great food, spas, and monorail access.
You don’t spend much time in your room
At Disney, your hotel room is where you spend the least amount of time.
I personally think picking a hotel that’s near the parks you plan to spend the most time in is way more important than how nice or big the room is.
If you’re looking for more luxury amenities, though, or bigger rooms, the suites and villas in a deluxe resort might be more your speed. And if you just want to maximize space for your family and all the stuff that comes with family travel, the suites at Art of Animation are great.
When should you go?
With a Disney trip, the two things you want to balance are heat and crowds.
Disney World in the summer is miserably hot and crowded. Disney World in the fall is more comfortable, but leaves you subject to hurricane season.
My favorite time to go is in the spring, when it’s not too hot and generally not as crowded (if you avoid school vacation months).
I use WDW Prep School’s Crowd Calendar to plan my trips. If you scroll to the bottom, there’s an overview of the full year with daily crowd levels and average temperatures.
If you can, book for when crowds are expected to be “lightest” to “moderate.”
How long should you stay at Disney?
Seven days, five in-park.
You can absolutely have great trips that are shorter, and great trips that are longer. But I’ve found that a seven day trip with five in-park strikes just the right pacing and balance.
I like to arrive on a Sunday, getting settled in, and have a relaxing dinner. If there’s time, I might hit up the hotel pool or explore the resort beforehand. It’s great to ease in to the trip.
I go to parks Monday through Friday, when the crowds are the lowest.
You can do four days in the parks with a “break day” in the middle if you want, but I prefer to spend five days in the park but do less each day. I just get way too exhausted and burnt out otherwise. The extra day also means you’ve got an extra chance to catch a ride you missed or go on your favorites again.
Friday is a “take it easy” day for me. I usually pack that night and fly out late Saturday morning.
Do you need a car?
We rented one the first two times we went, but don’t anymore. Disney now charges you a parking fee every night that you’re there. And honestly, getting in and out of the parks with a car is a hassle.
You’re better off taking one of their public transport options.
There are Disney buses that will take you from any resort to all of the parks. You may have to wait 20 to 25 minutes between buses, though, and if they fill up (as they do during busy times), you’ll have to wait for the next one.
You’ll also need to collapse your stroller (if you have one) before getting on, and they’re often standing-room only, so that can be a real pain if you have little ones in tow.
Buses do not go from one resort to another. Taking a bus from one resort to another (for a dining reservation, for example) requires you to take a bus to a park, then hop onto another bus to the desired resort.
The Disney World monorail is awesome, and reminds me of my childhood.
It runs a loop from Magic Kingdom to the Polynesian, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary resorts. It also stops at a transfer station where you can jump on another monorail to Epcot.
They arrive every few minutes, are much faster to load an unload than buses, and strollers can be rolled right on and off.
The biggest downsides are that they sometimes breakdown and aren’t running, and only go to Magic Kingdom and Epcot from select resorts.
Disney has a new Skyliner gondola system that runs from the Art of Animation, Pop Century, and Caribbean Beach resorts to Hollywood Studios.
I haven’t had a chance to try this one out yet.
I mentioned that you can walk from the Contemporary to Magic Kingdom. This is my favorite way to get around!
Disney’s Minnie Vans are powered by the Lyft app.
You can get a private ride in a pink polka-dot van anywhere on Disney’s property. Unlike traditional lifts, they can drive right up to designated drop-off areas near park entrances. They also carry two car seats at all times so you can safely ride in them with your family.
They’re a bit pricey, and hard to come by during park opening and close, but are a great option during the day if you don’t mind paying a bit for the convenience.
Disney Magical Express
Disney offers a free shuttle to and from the airport called the Magical Express.
The biggest downside to using it is that you’re transported in a large group of other guests, and it may take a while to get to your resort as it loops around the property dropping people off.
I tend to grab a Lyft or cab to and from the airport (you can also take a Minnie Van, I think).
Which parks you go to (and spend the most time in) completely depends on your interests and the demographic of your party.
I recommend getting Park Hopper tickets so that you can jump from one park to another in the same day.
Not all parks warrant a full day, and if you go to a park and hate it, you have the flexibility to leave and go somewhere else.
Some park recommendations
I personally love Magic Kingdom, and spend at least two days there whenever I go. It has some nice roller coasters, lots of rides that make me nostalgic of my childhood, and is the most “pure Disney” park.
It’s got a little something for everyone.
Epcot has some cool technology stuff, but is pretty light on rides. I typically go there just at night after spending a day in another park.
I’ll visit a few characters, eat at one of the amazing restaurants in World Showcase, and then just walk around and take it all in. World Showcase at night is a magical place.
Hollywood Studios is my least favorite park, but if you’re into Star Wars, it may well be your favorite. A bulk of the cool stuff there is Star Wars related.
Animal Kingdom has some interesting attractions, but not enough to really keep me there all day. I usually stay there until early afternoon, then duck back to my hotel to spend an hour or two in the pool before going elsewhere for dinner.
Which days should you go to which parks?
Disney offers something called Extra Magic Hours, where certain parks are open earlier or later than normal on select days.
Avoid those parks on Extra Magic Hours days.
While they’re open longer, they also draw much larger crowds, so the number of rides you can go on per hour decreases greatly. It’s a much less enjoyable experience. The other parks will have lower crowds and you can pack more in while you’re there.
If you get a Park Hopper ticket, you could also go to an Extra Magic Hours park later in the day for the extended hours and avoid the daytime crowds.
The Fast Pass System
Disney’s Fast Pass system lets you book a few rides in advance for specific times.
When its time for your Fast Pass Reservation, you can go to a much shorter line that jumps you much closer to the front. There’s a short wait, but for rides with really long wait times, it means you don’t spend your whole day waiting in line to ride just three rides.
How it works
For each park day of your stay, you can book up to three Fast Pass reservations in advance.
All three rides for a particular day must be in the same park. Rides also fall into Tier 1 and Tier 2 buckets. You can only book one Tier 1 ride in advance. Magic Kingdom is the only park without tiers.
Fast Pass reservations are linked to your Magic Band. When it’s time to go on your Fast Pass ride, you’ll scan your Magic Band in the Fast Pass line.
Booking your fast pass reservations.
If you’re staying on-site, you can book 60 days in advance. Off-site reservations can book 30 days in advance. The most popular rides book up really fast, so staying on-site gives you a huge advantage here.
Booking opens up at 7am US Eastern on the day you can start making reservations.
Set an alarm, get up early, and book right at 7am. Trust me. The best stuff fills up early.
Getting the most out of Fast Pass
Most rides (except for the super popular ones) don’t have long lines before 10am.
I try to book fast passes from 10am on, and head to some moderately popular rides early before the lines get long. Showing up for a Fast Pass reservation and finding that the regular line has no one in it feels like a waste of a Fast Pass.
After you’ve used up your first three Fast Passes for the day, you can book one more using the My Disney Experience app on your smart phone.
After you’ve used that Fast Pass, you can book another one, and so on, throughout the day.
If you have multiple tiny humans in your party, and one of them is too small to go on a ride, you can get something called a “Rider Switch” pass (even if you didn’t use a Fast Pass).
One parent stays with the kid who’s too small to ride. When the ride is done, that parent can go on the ride using the Fast Pass line and bring the kid who was big enough with them.
It’s a great wait to get an “extra” Fast Pass ride for your kids favorite rides.
You’re going to burn a lot of calories at Disney. Food is an important part of the trip.
Here are the key things to know:
- Book dinner reservations in advance.
- Play lunch by ear unless there’s somewhere really specific you want to eat.
- A meal plan will cost you more than its worth unless you plan on doing a lot of character meals and buffets.
You can make meal reservations well in advance of your trip, but you may have to move some of them around depending on how your Fast Pass reservations work out.
I like to book dinner reservations for every night I’m there, but pick a random place to each lunch at the park I’m currently in.
If you need to cancel or change a dining reservation, be sure to do so at least 24 hours in advance or they’ll charge your card anyways.
Meal plans are often a waste of money
Meal plans come with a lot of caveats, and you have to think about them a lot if you want to actually save money with them. I find that, unless we’re doing a ton of buffets and character breakfasts, it’s actually cheaper to just pay a la carte.
Save money by stopping at Publix on the way in
On our way to the resort from the airport, we like to stop at Publix to grab snacks (granola bars, fruit, and so on) and water bottles that we bring to the park throughout our trip.
It’s way cheaper than buying those things in the park.
Disney World handles food allergies better than any place I’ve ever been to in my life.
When booking reservations, you can note allergies in your party (and who has them) in advance. When you’re seated, they’ll bring over a specific menu with only allergen-safe meals on it.
Every restaurant (including grab-and-go places) has an allergen chef on staff who can help you choose food that safe to eat or make something special for you.
There are tons of great places to eat at Disney, and a bunch of crappy ones, too.
Here are my favorites:
- 1900 Park Fare in the Grand Floridian resort has the best buffet at Disney, period. It’s character dining, and it’s pricey, but the food is really good!
- We usually end our trips with a character breakfast at Chef Mickey’s at the Contemporary resort.
- Garden Grill in Epcot is another character dining experience that we really enjoyed. The restaurant spins around, which is pretty neat.
- The Liberty Tree Tavern in Magic Kingdom is my favorite place to eat at Disney. So damn good!
- Also in Epcot, Teppan Edo is a habachi restaurant that’s super delicious.
- Epcot’s World Showcase has some amazing restaurants, and another favorite of mine is La Hacienda de San Angel, which serves authentic Mexican food. This isn’t TexMex, and it’s very good.
- If we get to Magic Kingdom before rope drop, we like to eat breakfast at the Plaza overlooking Cinderella’s Castle.
- For a casual “fun for the family” dining experience, dinner at Whispering Canyon Cafe in the Wilderness Lodge resort is very good.
A lot of folks like the California Grille in the Contemporary. It was a bit too upscale for my taste, and felt overpriced for what it was.
The worst dinner I’ve ever had at Disney was at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant. My area of the US has a ton of amazing Italian-American restaurants, and the bar was just too high for this place to ever reach.
What to wear
Most of the year, Disney is pretty damn warm. One time when we went in December, though, it was 45 degrees at night, and we had on jeans and fleece jackets and we were still cold.
Check the forecast before you leave and pack accordingly.
The most important thing: comfy shoes. You’re going to be walking a lot, and blisters are a great way to ruin the trip.
Wear shoes that are most like what you wear today. I spend most of my life barefoot or in flip-flops, and the first time I went to Disney, I wore running shoes and socks. The socks caused my toes to rub together and I got massive blisters.
Now, I wear a mix of Allbirds without socks, flip-flops, and boat shoes. Also, changing shoes before dinner is a good way to keep your feet happy.
Is there anything you want to know that I didn’t cover in this guide?
Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. I love to chat Disney!