“All the world is made of faith, and trust, and pixie dust.”
– JM Barrie.
While Mr. Barrie could sound a little naive for today’s world, let me assure you that there is certainly one world that would truly meet his standards… and that is the World of Disney.
And please, let’s all be clear at something first. If you are an adult, and you are reading this, and you think Disney World is just a place for kids… You are right! It is a place for kids. But as Walt would say; “adults are only kids grown up, anyways”. And the magic of Disney Parks relies on the ability to take you to a world of fantasy, fairy tales and dreams that do come true, that even the most reluctant adult is able to reject.
From the moment you arrive to the parks, there is this atmosphere of excitement that will take over you. And the famous ¨Have a magical day!” greeting, that characterizes the Disney’s franchise, couldn’t be more accurate.
Planning a visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando is not as easy as it may look like. Of course, there is one approach where you get a hotel, buy the theme park tickets and that’s it. And if you decide to pursue that option is totally fine and you will certainly enjoy the trip. But there is a lot that goes on at Disney, and some attractions may need months in advance reservations. To take fully advantage of all the things there are to see and do, you need to have a plan. The Plan. And I hope this guide will help you out.
When to go to Orlando.
Sometimes this part of the plan is not entirely up to you, as you may depend on school breaks or work vacation leaves. When we booked our family trip, we knew that only the months of January and February were a choice for us, as the 2 youngest ones in the party are still at College and those are the months we go on school breaks here in Argentina. Between the 2, we opted for February, just because really.
The importance as to the “when to go” is to avoid crowds and long lines everywhere. If you are lucky and can be more flexible about this point, I leave you here on my Pinterest board an infographic showing you the best times as well as the best weather conditions to plan your holidays. Extra tip here: not all the water parks are open during winter season, so you may want to skip January and February if those theme parks are important to you.
How to get to Orlando.
To travel to Orlando, you can either book a direct flight, if that option is available to you, or you can fly to Miami and from there head to Orlando. For the lucky ones living in the states, flights to Fort Lauderdale airport are usually less expensive than going to Miami International, so you may want to check that possibility.
For the ones living in South America, you could fly out of Lima in Peru straight to Orlando with Latam Airlines.
If you head to Miami first, you have 3 different options to continue your journey to Orlando. These options include: flying, taking a bus or driving yourself. The car drive takes around 4 hours, always depending on the traffic, and with a gps is super easy. Today all rental cars can be rented with a gps, or you can previously download the google maps with the route on your phone and you wont even need your data service.
Where to stay in Orlando.
The question regarding accommodation at Disney World can get a little tricky. And let me explain you why.
Facilities can be separated into one of 2 groups: In-site or off-site. In-site, meaning you are choosing a Disney Resorts Hotel. The choice you make will depend solely on what you are looking for. If you are not strictly on a budget, and want to enjoy the whole Disney Experience immersing yourself in the Disney bubble, then the in-site hotel is best for you.
Staying at the Disney Resort Hotels will also include extra benefits that are exclusive for their guests:
– Disney’s Magical Express, the complimentary transfer from the airport to the Hotel.
– Complimentary transportation between parks and hotels.
– Extra Magic Hours, access to early openings or late closings at the theme parks.
– FastPass+ bookings with 60 days in advance. (for the rest, FastPass+ bookings will be 30 days in advance, and the most popular attractions may not be available by then)
– Disney Meals Plans.
– Magic Bands are included on your Park tickets, so you wont have to pay extra for them.
Of course not everyone is so addicted to Disney that once you are out of Magic Kingdom for the day, you still want to see Mickey’s face everywhere. Although this may not be totally guaranteed when staying off-site, as you are still on Disney World my friend, you do have more chances of saving yourself.
Like always, it all depends on your needs. Let me give you our trip as an example to see if it clears this out. In our case, we knew that our plan was not only to visit Disney Parks but also Universal Studios and leave a day or two for shopping. So, we were staying at Orlando for at least 8 nights, only going 4 days to the Parks at Disney World and the rest of the days we would for sure need a car to move around to Universal and the malls. Being a family group of 6, renting a minivan was our best option compared to the other one of staying in-site and using the complimentary transport when going to the Disney Parks and shuttle services or Ubers when heading to Universal or going shopping.
If you ask me, the only real thing from the in-site benefits I really wanted, were the magic bands. And those can be added to your tickets for a few extra dollars.
With all this listed into a Pros and Cons list, and with a few hotels and apartments suites in sight, we went for the off-site and confortable suites at the Staybridge Hotel in Lake Buena Vista. Because yes, when going off-site, Lake Buena Vista is one of the best locations to look for accommodation. There, you will be a few minutes’ drive from all the parks, both Disney and Universal’s.
What to do in Orlando.
Not everything in Orlando are Disney Parks, but yes, those are the biggest attraction. So, lets start with them, shall we?
First, we have the beautiful Magic Kingdom. Also known as “the most magical place on earth”, Magic Kingdom is the park that hosts Cinderella’s Castle and most of the attractions for the youngest ones.
When booking your FastPasses+, keep in mind that Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs, Peter Pan and Big Thunder are the most requested amusements, so my advice is to book those and start your visit there.
Also, at the entrance of the park, on Main St. you will find the meet and greet with several characters waiting to see their fans. If you are an early bird, I would definitely take advantage of that and start by greeting the most famous mouse on the planet when the lines are not that long yet.
One last tip; check at what time are the park’s night show and fireworks at the Castle. You will want to be at Main Street and close to the Castle one hour before the show starts to situate yourself on a good spot to enjoy the show. Trust me on this and thank me later, the night shows at the parks are totally worthy!
Keeping the movie theme, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is completely movie centric. Previously known as MGM studios (and yes, my first time at Disney World it was still MGM), the park takes its inspiration from the heyday of Hollywood in the 1930’s and 1940’s.
The attractions to keep an eye on are: Star Tours, Toy Story, Aerosmith and The Tower of Terror (aka the bloody elevator that drops you from the top of the building. And I think from that statement you can tell I didn’t enjoy my ride). Frozen’s Sing Along show is also strongly recommendable if you liked that movie, as it invites everyone to let it go and join Elsa and Anna singing for a while.
EPCOT center is a 2 in 1 theme park, with its technology and future focused attractions as well as an “around the world” area full of shops and dinning places. EPCOT actually stands for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, and was inspired by a concept Walt actually never got to realize.
FastPass+ recommendations here include: Test Track, Sourin and Mission Space. This last one has 2 different choices when entering: the green mission or the orange mission. The orange mission is a centrifugal motion simulator that is not up to everyone to experience. Obviously, I went for the green mission as I wanted to remain alive to visit the rest of the park.
Again with the Frozen story, if you are looking to see Elsa and Anna and take a photo or two with them, you will find the princesses at Norway in EPCOT Center.
Last but not least, we have Animal Kingdom which is a zoological theme park. Many will argue Animal Kingdom is not worth your time, although now that the park has their newest attraction “Pandora, The World of Avatar” they may change their minds. Other activities to take advantage of your FastPasses+ might be: Everest, Kilimanjaro, Dinosaurs and River Rapids.
Among their parks, Disney World Orlando also includes 2 water parks that are open during the summer season. Last February only one was open (February is winter season at Florida), but we decided to use our time to visit Universal Studios instead.
With its theme been the entertainment industry, specially focused on movies and television, Universal Studios invites you to “ride the movies” with its attractions and shows. Divided into 2 parks, Universal Studios and Island of Adventures, you can jump from one to the other with your park-to-park passes. If you ask me, I strongly advice everyone to take two days to fully enjoy Universal as there is so much to do there.
Since The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened to the public, this attraction became one of the most popular ones and the most amazing for me as well. From visiting Hogwarts, enter into Gringots or taking the Hogwarts Express ride, you will feel like you are part of the Harry Potter’s world for real. Please note that to be able to ride the Hogwarts Express you will need to hold a park-to-park pass and it will be requested before boarding the train.
Other attractions you shouldn’t miss are: Transformers, Despicable Me (go early to this one as the lines can go for more than an hour of waiting), Jurassic Park, Dragon Challenge and Hulk. The last two are roller coasters and obviously recommendations from my family, as I waited for them on the safe side of the park.
Universal Express would be the Universal Studios’ version of the Disney’s FastPass+. But in this case, while at Disney you have the FastPass+ included in your ticket, at Universal you have to purchase them for an extra fee. In our case, we did the parks without taking advantage of this and with no problem at all. Just keep an eye on waiting times and know on advance what are the attractions you are most interested on and which ones are the busiest ones and you will be fine.
Useful Information about Disney World.
As I told you at the beginning of this guide, there are certain tips and tricks that combined with good planning can make your trip to Disney World so much easier.
First, you will want to download the Disney app into your phone. Trust me again on this one. Even if you don’t travel with data service on your phone, Disney parks offer great WIFI service so you will be able to take fully advantage of the app during your visit. You can download “My Disney Experience” from your app store and create an account. Once you sign up and link your park tickets into it, you will be able to make reservations, access your FastPass+, and most importantly, it shows you all the attractions available and the waiting times for them! This will be your ace up the sleeve to move around the park, avoid crowded games and change FastPass+ when needed. When I said its all about the Plan, I was being serious about it.
Once you have your app and your Disney Experience account set, its time for the super mentioned FastPass+. This service allows you to reserve access to select attractions, shows and meet and greets in advance so you don’t have to wait on long lines. Its included on your park admission and super easy to book. You will only need a little of strategy gaming in here. You can only book 3 FastPass+ in advance, 30 days prior to your visit (60 if staying on-site), and once you are at Disney Parks and you used your 3 passes, you can start booking more FastPass+ 1 by 1. That’s why having the app is such a great asset, instead of having to look for the kiosks at the Parks you can do it directly from your phone at any time. The secret relies on knowing which are the main attractions, which are the most important to you as well, and then decide where to start early and how to continue.
Another great service available at Disney World is the PhotoPass. This one has an extra cost, but you can purchase only one pass per group traveling together. I will be honest and admit I booked it after a friend sword me I would regret it badly if I didn’t. And she was damn right! As the name says it, it’s a pass with which you purchase all the photos taken of you at Disney Parks by the the PhotoPass photographers that Disney has everywhere capturing the highlights of your vacation. Every time they take a picture of you, they will ask for your PhotoPass information that you can keep on your magic band, for example, and the photos will be added to your Disney Experience account in a matter of minutes. We were amazed at the wonderful memories they took of us, not to mention if you have kids, the beautiful pictures you will get of them with the characters at the greetings.
One last tip, there are two parks to which I would strongly advice you on taking an extra change of clothes. Those are Magic Kingdom and Universal’s Island of Adventures. At the first one, you may end up needing it if you go on Splash Mountain. At Universal’s there were 3 attractions involving water, one of them being Jurassic Parks’s and the other 2 I will leave it up to you to find out and let me know how it turned.