There’s nothing more magical than a Disney vacation… unless you find yourself waiting in seemingly endless lines for rides and character greetings, and trying desperately to get dinner reservations at theme park restaurants that have been booked for months. Here is a “how-to” guide for making sure your next Disney vacation is enjoyable for the entire family. (If you’re traveling without children, try the New York Times Grown-up Guide to Walt Disney World.)
When to Visit
One of the first – and most important – decisions you’ll need to make is what time of the year to visit. If you have school-age children, you are likely stuck visiting at the most crowded and expensive times of the year – Winter Break, Spring Break, and Summer vacation. Expect heavy crowds and long lines – some tips to help are offered below. If your school system lets out a few weeks earlier or starts up a few weeks later in the summer than most, one of those weeks could be a good option. The LA Times offers a detailed guide on when to visit in order to best avoid long lines.
Where to Stay
Next, you’ll need to decide where to stay during your vacation. Staying in one of the hotels associated with Walt Disney World or Disneyland can be more expensive than staying further away from the parks, but there are some important advantages. In Orlando, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge offers shuttle transportation to all of the parks and a ferry to the Magic Kingdom, while the Contemporary Resort offers shuttles, a ferry to the Magic Kingdom, and Monorail service (that runs right through the middle of the hotel!). Disney’s Grand Californian Hotel and Spa even has its own separate entrance to the Disney California Adventure Park. Nearly all of the resort properties will offer themed pools, dining options, and easy transportation to the parks – the ability to return to your hotel for a visit to the pool or a nap in the afternoon can be a lifesaver for families dealing with cranky children tired of standing in line at the parks. Other advantages to staying in a resort property is that you’ll get early access to FastPass (more below) and will get extra time (extra “Magic Hours”) in one theme park each day. If you’re looking for reasonably-priced options offsite, the Mousesavers site has great tips for saving money on lodging (and everything else). For military families, Shades of Green is a great – but inexpensive -hotel located on Disney property.
Where to Eat
You may not know that you can bring your own water, sodas, and snacks into the parks, which can help you save some money. In addition to food trucks and carts throughout the parks, Disney generally offers two different types of dining experiences, “counter service” or take out and “full service” meals. Another advantage of staying at a Disney resort hotel is that you can purchase a dining plan that will allow you to choose from a mix of counter service and full service options. If you are interested in trying any of the full service restaurants, you should definitely make a reservation. Online and telephone reservations can (and should) be made up to 180 days in advance, especially for popular options like the Beauty and the Beast themed Be Our Guest Restaurant.
What to Do
When you purchase your tickets to the parks, you’ll have to decide whether you want the “Parkhopper” option that allows you to visit more than one park in one day. If you’re staying for multiple days, you can probably save some money on tickets by declining this option – you lose quite a bit of time traveling between parks, so it can be more efficient to try and do everything in or near one park in one day. Don’t forget to make your FastPass reservations for rides and attractions before you go – ticket holders can make three FastPass reservations up to 30 days in advance, while those staying on Disney property can make theirs up to 60 days in advance. Finally – have a magical time making unforgettable memories!