Every other summer, our family makes the 20+ hour drive to Orlando to visit Disney World (for road trip ideas, click here). My husband’s parents have been members of Disney Vacation Club since 1995 and we have been blessed to visit many times over the years.
I am in no way affiliated with Disney nor am I a travel agent, but, after having the opportunity to go so often, I feel like I have a good grasp on realistic ways to have a great time at Disney without spending my retirement money. Whether you are a Disney rookie or someone who has been in the past, there are tips below which can help when planning your vacation. We head out in a few weeks and I’ll do a follow-up when we return with anything new we’ve learned.
Also, I apologize in advance for the length of this post. There is so much to say about planning a Disney trip and I wanted to include everything I thought would be useful to someone.
1.Staying on Disney property
Being DVC members, we always stay on-property. We have the opportunity to try new places, but we always stay at Old Key West, which is our “home” property. There are many room options (studio, 1, 2, and 3-bedroom villas) and they are all very spacious. All except the studio include a washer/dryer and kitchen. The rooms are very clean and are all pretty close to a pool (there are multiple pools at Old Key West).
The Disney pools are all pretty amazing, with most offering some sort of a feature (slide, spray area, etc) and daily activities. At Old Key West, there are also “neighborhood” pools that are much quieter and allow my kids lots of space to swim without there being much of a crowd. We always spend our first day (after the 3:00 check-in) at the pool. This gives us a chance to release some energy from the car ride and to gear-up for parks the next day.
Rumor has it that DVC members can also pool-hop at many of the resort pools. We have only done this one time as we pretty much love our home pool, but that is a fun extra for vacation club members.
Also, if you stay on property, you get free transportation to and from the parks and other resorts/attractions. If you are not staying at a Disney resort, parking is $20+ each day at the parks.
If staying on-property, you also get complimentary Magic Bands.
I’ll be perfectly honest. This whole band thing overwhelmed me before we left for our last trip. It seemed confusing and more planning than I was willing to do. I was wrong. The bands are great. You can link your tickets, FastPass, and photos to the bands. They also serve as your room key and you can charge things at the Disney restaurants and shops using them. It is such an easy way to keep everything together. You control the band through the website and through the My Disney Experience app (more info below).
Disney resorts can be pricey, but the benefits are pretty great. Other amenities include free wifi, Extra Magic Hours, early access to FastPass planning, and the opportunity to purchase the Disney Dining Plan.
2. Navigating the Parks
Because we are able to visit Disney so often, we focus on one or two parks a year. On our last trip, we spent one whole day at Magic Kingdom and hopped between Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom on our second park day. We enjoy all of the parks (including both water parks), but our favorite is Magic Kingdom and we always plan to spend at least one day in this massive park.
We love to relax on vacation and sleeping in is great, but don’t do it on a park day. You need to be there when the park opens or you will miss so many opportunities to ride things with not much wait time. Last time, some family friends came on the trip with us and they didn’t make it to the park until after 10 AM. I later asked what they rode and they were only able to hit like 5 things before evening. What?! We rode 5 things in the first hour we were there. Get there early and be flexible with your plans.
Many people go with a ride/show itinerary (there are tons available online) and they are afraid to veer from it. I do think it is smart to go in with some idea of where you want to be at specific times, but if your goal is to get the biggest bang for your buck, you need to be willing to chill a little. We always start at Fantasyland because we have kids and they love it there. This year, we plan on doing the Seven Dwarves Mine Train first because that tends to get crowded and have really long wait times and then, honestly, we’ll go to whatever is close and has a short wait–which is where the app comes in handy.
The My Disney Experience app is, in my opinion, the best thing to use to have a successful trip. You can manage your Fast Pass (add, delete, change) and dining reservations, see show times, find which characters are out and where they are located, and see wait times for everything in the park. After each ride, I get my phone out and look at the rides in that specific area and we just head to whichever ride/show is close to us with the shortest wait. In June 2015, we went to Magic Kingdom on one of the busiest days of the month and our longest wait was maybe 30 minutes. If we want to stay in a certain “land,” but have a FastPass somewhere else, I check to see if we can change times for that ride. That doesn’t always work out for us, but it usually does. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for this trip!
Even though we don’t love waiting in lines, I do make sure each of our kids gets to ride their #1 pick for each park before we leave. It takes lots of money and planning time to do a Disney trip, so I want my kids to get to visit their favorite thing at least once. One time we rode Splash Mountain…five times in a row…and I was pregnant. It was interesting to say the least, but my daughter was happy as that was her favorite. Haha!
3. Eating at the Parks
I’m definitely not a Disney dining expert, but we do eat at the parks. We have never done the dining plan, but I know many people do and enjoy it. Normally, we eat a quick breakfast in our room (cereal, breakfast bar, fruit) before heading to the bus stop. I also usually pack a few small snacks in our cinch sac or small backpack that we take to the parks (granola bars, pbj sandwiches cut up) for the time in between breakfast and lunch. For lunch, we hit up a counter-service restaurant for some good Disney food. They all offer different things and can be pricey (maybe $10 or $12) so we share two or three meals and call it good.
In the afternoon, we usually take a park break and head back to hang out at our resort pool or nap. We snack a bit there and go back to the parks for dinner, more rides, parades, and fireworks. If you don’t already have dinner reservations, you can use the app or just hit another quick-service restaurant, which is what we normally do.
We all love a good Disney treat so make time to get one (or many!) of those. My kids love the ice cream bars and sandwiches and I go crazy for a Dole Whip. I’m not too particular on when we get treats. Sometimes we get them in the afternoon before we head back to the hotel, but we pretty much always have something around time for fireworks.
Disney drinks can take up a good portion of money we worked hard to save, so we are smart about not buying sodas and bottled waters all day long. We go to Disney in June and it is hot, so I take some empty water bottles (you can find cute Disney ones at WalMart) and fill them up at water fountains. You can also get free ice water pretty much anywhere they serve food.
Character meals really deserve their own post so I will just say this: they are expensive, but worth it if you want your kids to have some character time. Also, the food is good. You should plan to do at least one if your kids are little.
4. Dress Accordingly
I always applaud people when I see their cute photos and they are wearing nice clothing at Disney. I’m not sure how they do it. Again, we go in June and it can be pretty steamy, especially after the afternoon rain showers. I’m positive you will not catch me in anything with a button or zipper or made out of some non-breathable material. If I’m at a Disney park during the day, I have on a t-shirt or tank top and athletic shorts. If you ride Splash Mountain in the morning and have to spend the rest of your day in wet denim, you will not be happy. Trust me on this. Get a cute Disney tee and break out your black shorts. You will be comfortable and still cute. Promise.
Also, wear tennis shoes. You will walk so much at Disney. I tried to wear flip flops once and was mad at myself about halfway through the day. The kids wear tennis shoes also, unless we are just back for fireworks and are leaving again.
If you MUST wear cute clothing, maybe put those on after a mid-day break. That is kind of my plan for this year. I’d like to get some nice pics where my hair isn’t in a messy bun. We’ll see if that happens…
5. All of the extras
Fireworks and other nighttime shows
At the evening shows, Disney sells all sorts of fun glow-in-the-dark items. I’m pretty sure I’ve bought a few of these overpriced things in the past. One year, we saw a smart family pull out their bag of dollar store glow sticks and I watched their kids happily showing off the things that cost them $19 less than what we had. Guess what. We take the dollar store glow sticks now. Haha. I hit up Target a few weeks ago and got some glow necklaces and bracelets for my kids and nephews. My kids have never felt like they had something less than the kids who have the expensive glow toys. Plus, there are always kids around us who don’t have the items either and it gives my littles the opportunity to share because we always have extra.
We try to be really practical when it comes to souvenirs. I want my kids to have something to help them remember the experience, but I don’t like them asking for everything they see. When my oldest was really little, we started them on a souvenir budget. They take some of their own money, any money grandparents have given them, and a little from us (we save change all year, take it to the bank, and split it into thirds) and that is their souvenir money for the entire trip (including the beach part that comes after Disney). This eliminates so many problems for us. If they ask for something, I tell them they have to pay for it. Enough said. Sometimes they want a larger item (like the build-a-dinosaur at the T-Rex restaurant), but mostly they just want a cup or some little figurine. Whatever is left at the end of the trip is theirs to keep. If you are looking for cheap Disney items, there is a WalMart close to the Disney properties that has aisles and aisles of things at bargain prices. We always hit it up before we head out of Orlando to get gift items for friends back in Oklahoma.
While at Disney, I’ll use my cellphone to take most of our pictures and turn them into a photobook when we return. Disney does offer Photopass which means they’ll scan your MagicBand (or park ticket) and take photos throughout the day. You can see these photos on your account on the Disney website and purchase the ones you want OR you can buy MemoryMaker ($169 for advance purchase, $199 for immediate use). MemoryMaker allows you to purchase all of your digital images for one price. The Disney photographers have great locations at which you can stop and take your pics, but you also get ride pictures and videos. After you get off of the “big” rides (Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, etc), you will go to where they post the pictures. When you see your family, scan your MagicBand and those photos will link to your account. We bought this service on our last trip and were really pleased with our pictures.
They even add little extras (see Olaf above) and you get some stock photos of characters and rides. You can also link MemoryMaker to the accounts of your other family members, meaning you can SHARE photos. We split the cost among three families so it seemed well worth the $169 to have good, fun photos. Because we are only doing one Disney park this year (we are venturing out to Universal), we aren’t going to purchase MemoryMaker. However, I highly recommend it for people who are doing multiple days at parks and/or have friends or family who can split the cost.
If you are traveling from far and don’t want to hassle with bringing a stroller, Disney does offer stroller rental for like $15 or $20 a day. We rented a stroller once, but found that a cheap umbrella stroller worked just as well for us. If you are doing five days of parks, that is almost $100 just for stroller rental.
Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
This boutique will transform your child into a beautiful princess or a heroic knight, with packages for the girls starting at around $65. Yikes. I couldn’t do it. Unless this is an experience you just can’t pass up, pack your own princess dress, put your girl’s hair in a bun, and put some spray glitter on her. She won’t even know what she is missing.
Want to know what the experts say?
Before heading to Disney each year, I consult some real experts for updates or reminders about certain parks. My favorite website is WDW Prep School. It’s the best, but can be overwhelming because there is so much information. Take in a bit at a time and you will learn so much while planning your vacation.
I also consult books. I use this one, but there are many on the market. You can purchase from Amazon or find one at your local library in the travel section.
Anything I’m missing? Post in comments and I’ll add to my Disney follow-up.