Before our trip to Disney, I spent many nights researching the theme parks and uncovering the tried and true secrets of many resort fanatics. I downloaded the My Disney Experience app on my phone (a must!) and found a few websites like the Undercover Tourist to help me navigate our trip and get a feel for the many options we would have during our travels. I wanted to write my own tips for the trade now that I, too, have survived Disney and lived to tell about it. We learned most of these through experience and a few of them, mistakes, so take our advice so you don't make the same! And if you've done the Disney thing before and have your own words of wisdom for future travelers, I'd love to read your comments. For the life of me, I could not understand why the book store had an entire shelf devoted to 'how-to' manuals for Disney...that is until now...
1. Maximize Fast Pass:
I'm pretty sure my husband loves me a little bit more now that he's seen me work a fast pass at Disney. If you aren't familiar with Disney's new Fast Pass Plus program, you are allowed to 'reserve' three rides or attractions for each day you plan to be at one of the theme parks, prior to arriving there. Using your My Disney App, you can locate a listing of all the fast pass options, and reserve a 60-minute block of time to skip the stand-by entrance and get on the ride almost instantly. You can arrive at any time within your 60 minute window, scan your ticket on this magical little scanner, and feel like a VIP for a minute or two as you walk by all the hot, sweaty stand-by people and hop on a ride. It's great, until you are the hot, sweaty, stand-by person waiting as all the fast-passers move in front of you. We developed a name for these people as the day went on!
The key to fast pass is timing. I made our fast pass reservations for mid to late morning. If you plan to arrive at the park at opening, we didn't find lines to be an issue until about 10:00. I made our fast passes (Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios, and the safari at Animal Kingdom are the hot ticket rides) for 10, 11, and 12, and then we found a place for lunch. The other lovely feature I learned to take advantage of was the additional fast passes. After using your three up, you can go to a Fast Pass Kiosk located throughout the park. Here, you meet with a service representative who helps you reserve additional fast passes (one at a time). There are small lines for these kiosks, but one of us would wait while the other grabbed ice cream, took Cruz to the bathroom, etc. I would also deliberately find the kiosks close to rides we wanted to ride, then have Beau stand in the stand-by line for those while I waited for a new fast pass. This way, we killed two birds with one stone, so to speak. I don't want to brag or anything, but I scored an additional SIX fast passes during our day at Magic Kingdom, for a total of nine no-line rides. Also keep in mind that fast passes do run out throughout the day - by 4:00, Splash Mountain was sold out and Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios can run out even earlier. Book these ahead of time to ensure you get on them!
2. Be prepared for weather:
I knew it was 'rainy season' in Florida, but I never took into account the importance of being prepared for rain during our days at Disney. We talked to a few people that said it typically rains for 1-2 hours every single day in the summertime. When they proved to be right when it started pouring about 3:00 in the afternoon our first day there, my first instinct was to find shelter and pout. Instead, we seemed to follow the same pomp and circumstance of our fellow travelers - grab our ponchos from the bottom of the stroller, pull the plastic cover over Cruz's stroller, and either dart into a store to shop, or better yet, find a line to a ride that got a bit smaller with the downpour. It rained for a short while nearly every day we were there and in Florida I learned, you don't get a lot of warning. I would recommend you stick a couple of cheap ponchos in your suitcase, an over-sized umbrella, and most importantly, a positive attitude, and be ready to enjoy a cool off before the after-rain sauna that steams from the concrete after the rain passes!
3. Remember where you park:
If you drive to the park like we did, take note of the enormously sized parking lots as you are directed to your spot upon arrival. Then, take a picture of the sign of the cute character hanging from the light pole signaling where you parked. We did this at Magic Kingdom - I can still remember it as Goofy, Row 23. But for some reason, we forgot to do this at Animal Kingdom our last day at the parks. We were heading back to the parking lot to scoot on over to Hollywood Studios for our Toy Story Mania Fast Pass (one we definitely DID NOT want to miss) when we realized we had forgotten where we had parked. It was hot, we were on a bit of a schedule, and we were looking at the thousands of cars with no clue where ours was. After several walks up and down smoldering hot parking rows, many attempts to sound our rental's car alarm, and finally asking a parking attendant their order of parking for the day, we backtracked and found our white Murano amidst hundreds of other white cross overs. It was a mistake I'm sure we will never, EVER make again!
4. Ask questions:
We were amazed with the hundreds of friendly Disney employees available and happy to answer our questions or direct us to the right place. We didn't waste much time trying to find a place of interest, but would rather ask an attendant as we waited in line for a ride, a waiter or waitress, or our bus driver. We asked how to get to various rides, where the best place to see fireworks was, or where we would best spend our time. Striking up conversations with the employees was how we found out about the parade one afternoon, and how I scored two additional fast passes at Magic Kingdom. It's also how we scored chicken nuggets and french fries at a restaurant for lunch, even though it wasn't on the menu! After all, it's the place dreams come true. :)
5. Rent a stroller off site:
This was one of the best decisions we made all week. Because I didn't want our good stroller to get destroyed at the airport, we decided to rent one when we got to Orlando. After doing some research, I rented one off-site from Kingdom Strollers. For $10 a day, they delivered a City Mini Single to our hotel room, complete with a small cooler for water bottles AND a plastic rain cover that kept our little boy dry more than once at the parks. The stroller was in excellent shape, comfy enough for Cruz to sleep in, and we didn't have to wait in line at the park to rent their awkward plastic ones when we got there. We turned our stroller in to the hotel front desk our last night and didn't have to worry about it again.
6. Do you research ahead of time:
The My Disney App. allows you make a tentative plan for your day by creating an online itinerary of events. The itinerary will include your fast pass selections so you avoid double booking, and give you options for reservations around your scheduled bookings. I also love that the app. includes a listing of current wait times for various rides and attractions. Before deciding on our fast pass selections, I would check the wait times throughout the day to see what the longest rides were. Then, I made our selections based on where it seemed we would be waiting the longest.
I also made one dinner reservation and was pleased with the decision. While we wanted to go-with-the-flow as much as possible, it did feel amazing to have a guaranteed spot at an air-conditioned place to eat our last day at Disney. We loved our dinner at the Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater Restaurant and were so happy to have a reservation ahead of time.
7. Bring enough, but not to much:
You can bring as much as you want into the Disney theme parks, and we did see many families with coolers full of picnic food to save a few bucks and forgo waiting for a table at a restaurant. A lover of picnics myself, I did contemplate buying some groceries after landing in Orlando, but we decided we would be better off traveling light and spending a few extra bucks for the chance to sit and rest our tired feet in the air-conditioning. For us, this ended up being the right decision. We were only traveling with one child and it seemed like we had so much to keep track of! We brought a few bottles of water, our wallets and spending money, my DSLR, a bottle of sunscreen, ponchos and an umbrella, sunglasses and hats, and Cruz's Disney autograph book, and that was plenty for us, especially when it did start raining and we had to keep everything dry. And because you end up 'parking' your stroller so often, I would recommend a lightweight bag to store your belongings in during wait times and ride times. Fortunately, for photogs like me, you can bring your camera on most rides and don't have to abandon it in your stroller. And, while we could have saved some money and eaten cheaper by bringing in our own food, we enjoyed our retreats to the air-conditioned and didn't find the food terribly expensive. $40 seemed to be the going rate to feed our family for lunch and dinners.
8. Get there early, especially for main attractions:
It's not as hot, the lines aren't near as long, and you can score seats on some of the most popular attractions without wasting a fast pass. Our best example of this was at Animal Kingdom. We made our way to the safari as soon as the gates opened and we got on without a wait. The animals were up for the morning, checking out the commotion and giving us quite the show, and by the time we exited the ride, the stand-by line was up to a 45 minute wait. A few hours later, 70-90 minutes!
9. Stay positive!
And go with the flow! When 'technical difficulties' are announced just a few minutes before getting a seat on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (after waiting 45), stay positive. When lightning shuts down the rides in the middle of the day, stay positive. When the rain drips off your poncho hood as you await the Wishes Fireworks' Spectacular, stay positive. Choose the teacups instead, dart in the indoor Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor to escape the rain, and dance your heart out and splash in those puddles with your boy, keeping in mind that while you may be in the most magical place on earth, it is you who controls how you see it.
10. Do your shopping off site:
Beau rolled his eyes at me and accused me of being somewhat hasty when I decided to buy (several) souvenirs on our very first night in Downtown Disney. Turns out, I didn't buy a single additional item (besides a take-along Olaf) at the parks. Partially because of #7, and mostly because there were so many other things to do, I didn't do much additional shopping at the parks. Every shop, whether at Downtown Disney, any of the theme parks, or in some cases, your hotel's gift shop, seem to carry the same merchandise and I LOVED the 12-room Disney store in Downtown Disney.
There you have it! Would love to hear your stories or pieces of advice in the comments below if you feel so inclined! And of course, a few more pictures of our travels. :)