As the doldrums of Winter set in, and I get more desperate for a warm getaway, I’ve been reading a lot of posts and articles about Disney. To my amazement, many of them have been kind of downers. “Avoid this”, “Don’t go here”, “I wish I hadn’t done that”. Please, don’t listen to these posts. The truth is, there is no perfect, one-size fits all way to do Disney!
What’s right for one traveler may not be right for you. But what I can say, as someone who’s gone to Disney more times than years under her belt (FYI, I’m 32), is try anything and everything your heart desires. If you don’t enjoy it, well, at least you tried, and you won’t do it again next trip! Here are some of the things that I’ve tried over the years and now do every time I vacation at Disney.
1. Staying on Disney Property:
As a kid my trips to Disney World never included staying on Disney property at a resort. We’d stay in Orlando or Kissimmee, and we’d drive to the parks each morning. I still remember waking up at the crack of dawn to secure close parking – don’t let the word close fool you, we still needed to take a tram from the parking lot to get to the park entrance. Or in the case of Magic Kingdom, a tram to the boat or monorail. Two forms of transportation before that beautiful castle comes into eye shot.
In the mornings, you’re too jacked up on excitement to register hopping from one form of transportation to the next. It’s at night, when you’ve walked miles around the park, run yourself ragged on rides, and eaten every turkey leg/Dole whip/Mickey-eared treat you can get your hands on, that your journey back to the hotel becomes a tortuous, never-ending, marathon. Que a flashback of teenage me laying on the floor of the boat from Magic Kingdom not caring how many feet had clomped across it.
So when my husband and I decided to honeymoon in Disney World, my one request was to stay on Disney property. Best decision I’ve ever made (Well, aside from marrying him). A handful of Disney trips later, we’ve never looked back! There are no bad resorts, and I whole-heartedly believe there is a resort that fits everyone. We’ve tried a few – Caribbean Beach, Saratoga Springs, Boardwalk, with the goal always being that we’d try them all. But we’ve fallen in love with the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and I don’t know as we’ll ever stay anywhere else.
We’re animal lovers, we love the grounds, and views of the savanna, and enjoy having Animal Kingdom as our closest park. This might not be your cup of tea, but that’s what’s great about the variety of Disney resorts – there’s one that will fit your wants and needs! Whether it’s a particular park that you want to be close to, a theme you’re looking for, or a price range you want to stay in, there’s a resort for you.
My suggestion is: make a quick list of your resort must-haves, and then do some research to see which resort best fits you. Disney’s site now has a great compare function that lets you select up to 3 resorts to see how they stack up against each other.
2. Food + Wine Festival:
The hubs and I generally planned our trips in the late Spring and Summer, and after our trips we’d get the “Come back soon” emails, tempting us to return with discounts and a line-up of what was coming up next at Disney, one of those things always being the Food and Wine festival. Now, one of my dirty secrets is that I am not a foodie. In fact, one might even say I’m picky. I’ve come a long way since my days of living on chocolate milk and mac’n cheese, but my palette is still pretty basic.
So I was hesitant when my husband suggested we plan a trip to Disney during the Food and Wine festival. Wine, I can do, but am I really going to try any of this food? I thought as I looked over the selections. Two Food and Wine trips later, I can say hands down, one of my favorite events at Disney World. I’ve never been so adventurous with food before, and I’ve started liking foods that I never imagined I’d like. I have dreams about Canada’s cheddar cheese and bacon soup, and I don’t even eat soup! (Don’t ask, it’s some sort of aversion to liquid food)
If you’re a food lover, and you haven’t been yet, you’re missing out! And if you’re a food non(?) lover, such as myself, give it a go. You won’t regret the food you try, even if you don’t end up liking it. There were several dishes I took one bite of and told my husband he’d need to finish it on his own. But you will surprise yourself with how many dishes you enjoy. The great thing about the festival is the variety of food that range from fun twists on basics (I’m looking at you loaded mac’n cheese with pepper bacon, cheddar, and leeks), to the exotic. And the small size of each plate is perfect for someone who never tries new things because they worry they’ll waste it by throwing it in the trash (bashfully raises hand).
If you’re still unsure about whether the Food and Wine festival is for you, I suggest planning your next trip during a period that coincides with the festival. It runs from the end of August until November, great months for a visit, that way the festival will be going on, but you’re not planning your entire trip around it.
3. Days Off:
Days off? What do you mean, I came to do the parks all day, every day! You may be saying, but believe me, there are so many perks to taking a day or two off during your trip. I too used to be an all-out park goer; every day was a park day. Until I noticed this magical voucher for mini golf in my trip package. When would we possibly have time for mini golf, when we’re at the park all day? Our solution was to plan a day off.
No parks, sleeping in – and by sleeping in I mean not waking up at 6:00am, and just a day of rest. It was probably one of the best vacation decisions we’ve made yet. We loved it so much, we now plan 2 days off. One of the days is a more active day, mini golf, shopping at Disney Springs, a meal at a different resort than the one we’re staying at. The other day off is pure leisure; wake when we want, walk the resort grounds, lounge by the pool, eat at the sit-down restaurant on site, and early to bed.
When we first planned a day off, I thought I’d go crazy, that I’d be so anxious to be at a park that I wouldn’t enjoy the day, but it’s been a life saver. Maybe it’s that I’m getting older, but I was finding after a few days in a row at the parks, I was burnt out. There is so much physical and emotional energy that goes into a day at the park, it can start to wear on you. The day (or days) off are rejuvenating. It’s a way to re-energize and prepare yourself for another couple of days at the parks refreshed, as if you’ve just started your vacation.
Give it a try, for your next trip, schedule in a day off smack dab in the middle of your vacation. It’s a great way to break up the parks, do some exploring, and make your vacation feel extended. Your feet will be thanking me!
4. Getting to the Parks Early:
I’m not necessarily a ‘morning person’. I wake up early for work, and on the weekends I try to get myself out of bed by 9am, but functioning first thing is not my specialty. However, there is something magical about a Disney park first thing in the morning. It’s pristine, it’s quiet, it just feels very intimate. Don’t get me wrong, there are still a lot of people entering the park with you, but far less than you’d expect, and it’s easy to spread out and not get stuck in a crowd. There are far more people who trickle into the parks throughout the day, so to get in early and on rides before the park really fills up is a big perk of getting there early.
We even take advantage of the morning Extra Magic Hours, a perk of staying at a Disney resort, which get you into the park a whole hour earlier. Another benefit of getting to the park early, is leaving whenever you want and not feeling guilty. When my husband and I first started vacationing in Disney, we would be at the park from open until close. Rope drop to fireworks, as they say. Which was fun, but also quite exhausting. We’ve since mellowed out, and we’re okay with getting to the park before it opens, doing everything we want to do, and then leaving when we want, even if that’s 5pm.
If you’re staying at a Disney resort, there are so many things to enjoy once you get back. A nice dip in the pool, or lounging in a hot tub, or even just enjoying your room, before getting ready for the next day. Take advantage of early mornings at the parks, and relaxing evenings at the resort, you’ll be glad you did.
5. A Sit-Down Meal a Day:
I know lots of people who feel sitting down for a meal while you’re at the parks is a waste of time, but I think otherwise. I feel it’s one of the best ways to take a breather from the hectic park atmosphere and take an hour to regather yourself while enjoying some delicious grub. This suggestion may not be for you if you’re going to Disney World on a budget and not getting a dining plan (which I highly recommend you do).
If, on the other hand, you have a decent budget set aside for meals, or you’re on the dining plan, take the time to do a sit-down meal a day. It’s worth it! My husband and I have tried the majority of restaurants at the parks, a good portion at Disney Springs, and we’re starting to make a dent in the ones at the resorts. We have our favorites, but we also make an effort to try a few new ones every time we visit, and we’re never disappointed.
Sitting down for lunch or an early dinner in the parks always helps us with what’s next, whether that’s grabbing a fast pass for our next ride, deciding where to do some shopping, or planning which shows to see and when. We also love doing sit-down meals on our days off and it’s been a great way to explore other resorts (I’ll talk about that more later). If you think a sit-down meal a day is for you, you’ll need to do some work. It’s not difficult to get good reservations, but it takes patience and persistence – especially if you’re like me and you plan down to the second.
Some reservations are easy to come by, but for the more difficult ones (cough, ‘Ohana, cough, Le Cellier). I recommend doing a reservation search once or twice a day, and you may need to do that right up until your trip. For our most recent trip in September, I searched every day and finally scored the perfect ‘Ohana dinner reservations the week before we left. And in all my trips, I’ve never not gotten a reservation I was looking for. So if you’re having a hard time, don’t get discouraged, keep trying, it’ll work out.
6. Waiting in Lines:
I know, this one sounds crazy, but hear me out. We utilize the heck out of Disney’s FastPass+ system, to the point where I’ve gained the nickname “the FastPass Master”, and I’ve been known to coach others in the park on how to make the most of the system. After we use out initial 3 FastPasses, I hop on my phone, pop open the My Disney Experience app, and find our next FastPass+. I have so much success with getting us FastPasses for whatever our next thing is, that there is usually just enough time to walk across the park to the ride before it starts.
And I highly recommend that you do your research and perfect this technique so you can make the most out of your time in the parks and get to everything on your wish list. The lines can be long, like really, really long. If you don’t have a FastPass+ for rides like Seven Dwarfs Mine ride, Avatar Flight of Passage, or Soarin’, you’re going to be waiting around for an astronomical amount of time. It doesn’t have to be this way though! When you’ve gotten the hand of the FastPass+ system sometimes waiting in a line can actually be enjoyable.
Still not sold yet? Okay, so here is a great example of why we enjoy an occasional wait in line. As I said early, the hubs and I get to the parks early, so on a typical Magic Kingdom day we’re usually up and moving at 6:30am. We grab a coffee at Starbucks at the Main Street Bakery, climb the Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse, do a round on the Jungle Cruise, take a splash on the Pirates of the Caribbean, sit in on the Enchanted Tiki Room show, and then hit our first FastPass+ on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. By noon when we sit down for lunch, we’ve usually hit all the major rides and walked the entire park, but the day is still young, and there’s still plenty to do, but we can turn it down a few notches. (Even though I prep myself in advance with months on the treadmill, my legs are usually screaming at this point).
That’s why a strategic wait in line can be just the thing we need. So we hop on our phones and check the wait times, and generally, if Space Mountain is under a 60 minute wait, we head on over and park ourselves in a nice, dark, air conditioned line. I don’t recommend choosing a ride that’s line is primarily outside for this, like Seven Dwarfs Mine ride, Haunted Mansion, or even Splash Mount – although you at least get a nice cool splash at the end. Space Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean are our go-to lines at Magic Kingdom. The next time you’re hot, tired, but still really want to keep going at the park, try this trick out.
On top of not being a foodie, my second dirty secret is I’m no photographer. In fact, I kind of suck at taking pictures. So much so that I’ve made it a habit to not take photos. Most of my vacations go undocumented, or I have a few out-of-focus, “what the hell is that?” type pics to show off at the end. On the second to last day of our honeymoon, the hubs and I went on Splash Mountain, we were in the front, so the picture was the two of us, holding hands and screaming as we dropped to our not-so-doom. Just adorable, a wonderful memento to commemorate our honeymoon.
And we went to buy our photo, and the lovely women at the counter explained to us that if we were going to all the parks and riding the rides we should purchase Memory Maker, and we’d get every picture taken when we went on rides, and we’d have access to all the photographers around Disney. If only we’d known sooner, I’d probably have a bunch of wonderful honeymoon pictures to show you… but I don’t. Since then, I have purchased Memory Maker for every Disney trip I take, and I have an abundance of great pictures! Not just rides, pictures from wonderful location in the parks, in Disney Springs, even inside the photo study that’s located in the Springs.
I still like to take some blurry pictures that I can’t identify after the trip, but at least I have beautiful, professional pictures to also remember each trip by. Memory Maker is $169 if you buy it 3 days before your vacation, and $199 for non-advance purchases. Well worth the price of some great photos to remember your trip by, I think.
8. Resort Hopping:
Resort hopping has become one of our favorite Disney activities. It started when we first stayed on Disney property at the Caribbean Beach resort and wanted to scout out our next potential resort. Even now that we’re addicted to the Animal Kingdom Lodge, and never staying anywhere else (my husband still hasn’t realized this yet), we still plan trips to other resorts to see what they’re like.
I touched on this a little bit in the sit-down meals section, but one of the best ways to see the other resorts is by eating at their restaurants. We’re frequent eaters at ‘Ohana, and love to get to the Polynesian Village resort early, even just to have a drink in the lobby or look out across the water at Magic Kingdom. It’s nice just changing up the atmosphere.
If you’re not interested in a dining experience, you can still visit a resort! There are plenty of other things to do besides eat, like picking up souvenirs in the gift shop, walking the grounds, or pampering yourself at one of the salons and spas (although you won’t be able to use the resort’s pool or fitness center). It’s a fun way to see which resort you’re going to stay at next!
9. Splurging on Behind the Scenes Experiences:
If you’ve ever been on Living with the Land at Epcot, and halfway through the greenhouse you notice a group of people, not in a boat, examining the lovely growing vegetable. That’s the Behind the Seed tour, and someday I will convince my husband that we need to go on that tour. It’s one of the many Behind the Scenes offered in the Disney Parks. You may have also seen some brave individuals, all harnessed, crossing that rickety bridge over the crocodiles on Kilimanjaro Safari, or divers in the big tank at Epcot Sea Adventures, those are also Behind the Scenes tours.
Each park offers their own tours and behind the scenes experiences, and they are worth every penny! This latest Disney trip we decided to go on the Caring for Giants tour, which was the highlight of our vacation. Surprisingly, we were the only ones who showed up and were treated to our own private tour. While it’s not a hands-on experience, it gets you much closer to the elephants than the safari does, and you get to talk with a keeper and a representative from Africa, who can speak to the conservation efforts that Disney is helping with.
The tour itself is $30 a person, but really, it was priceless. Both the keeper and representative were so passionate about the elephants, and loved telling us about each individual, their names, their quirks, who their favorite was. I would absolutely go on this tour again, and because elephants are living creatures with minds of their own, every tour is different.
These experiences book up quickly, so if you’re thinking about doing one, I recommend calling to find out what availability there is. Many of these tours have a limited number of seats, and rarely have cancellations. Up Close with Rhinos at Animal Kingdom is a great example of this, I have never been able to score a reservation no matter how hard I’ve tried (someday though!).
10. Trying New Things:
This is going to seem very meta in a blog post about what things we’ve tried and ended up loving, but one of the things we love… is trying new things. I don’t tend to stray from my usual routine in day to day life, but something about being in Disney World makes me feel like a kid again, and I want to try everything. I want to try the foods, I want to try the rides, I want to try all the experiences and shows. And I’ve never regretted anything I’ve tried, even though there are some things that I won’t do again (sorry, Mission Space, you’re not for me).
The next time you find yourself in Disney World, do me a favor, forget everything you’ve read about what to do and what not to do, and just try everything. Be adventurous. Be spontaneous. I promise you won’t regret the memories you make.
You’ve heard all about the things that I love doing while vacationing in Disney, but don’t just listen to my advice. Go and experience it for yourself! (And, no, I’m not getting paid by the mouse to say that, though I’d love to be on his payroll.) And when you get back, let me know what you tried and loved! And things you tried and wouldn’t do again!
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