Editor's Note: Disney Week was last week on Go Ask Mom, but I knew I just had to extend it when I heard from Courtney Licklider, a Wake Forest mom who has been to Disney 50 times over the last 30 years. She offers this Disney primer today. Thank you, Courtney!
Planning your first trip to Walt Disney World Resort? It can be a little overwhelming, especially if you didn’t grow up in “the world” yourself. Here are a few things that can help you as you consider planning for this fun family destination.
1. Walt Disney World: Not just a castle!
What I find that many people who haven’t been to Walt Disney World don’t know yet is that Walt Disney World encompasses a full 40 square miles, roughly equivalent to the size of a major city like San Francisco. In that area, there are four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom), two water parks, a sports complex, more than 25 resorts, and a plethora of shopping and dining options. Did I mention golf courses, mini-golf, and bowling?
One of the biggest decisions you have to make about your trip is where you will stay. There are, as mentioned, more than 25 resorts on Walt Disney World property. There are several different options in a variety of price ranges for on-property lodging, such as campsites, value resorts (the cheapest hotel-like option), moderate resorts, deluxe resorts, and home away from home resorts (Disney’s equivalent to a timeshare that can also be rented on a nightly basis). In addition, there are a number of hotels that are nearby, as well as various condos and vacation homes. It is important to consider that staying at one of the Walt Disney World-owned properties may be a little more expensive, but comes with a number of “perks” that may make the costs worth it.
Some of the perks of staying on property include:
- Free transportation from the Orlando airport to your Walt Disney World Resort hotel by bus
- Early admission, or extended nighttime hours, at one of the theme parks daily
- Free parking at the theme parks
- Early access (60 days prior vs. 30 days prior) to FastPass+ reservations
- Ability to book dining reservations for your entire trip starting at 180 days prior to arrival (Off-property guests can book at 180 days, but then have to book daily for each day after the first day. This can be really helpful for the more in-demand restaurants)
- Included MagicBands mailed to your home prior to your trip
FastPass+ is basically Disney’s way of keeping you from waiting in long lines for every attraction. There is NO CHARGE for FastPass+. Typically, you will sign up for your FastPass+ time online prior to your trip, then, during your assigned time block, you go to the attraction and, instead of going through the “stand-by” line, you go through a much shorter line with typically almost no wait. Now, this is certainly more effective on some attractions than others and more valuable for some rides than others, but it can definitely be a very helpful way of minimizing your wait time. At this time, you can register for 3 FastPass+ times per day at a single park. When you have used all three of your original FastPass+ reservations, you can then visit a kiosk in the park to obtain another. You can continue this cycle until the end of the park day.
4. Ticket Structure
It is important to understand the ticket structure prior to purchasing your ticket media so that you don’t buy more tickets than you need. Especially if you buy a ticket package from Walt Disney World, sometimes the ticket that the package is automatically set for is more ticket than what you actually need.
The “base” ticket is a ticket that includes admission to one park per day for the number of days you purchase. Base tickets are available from 1 to 10 days. For our family, I buy base tickets for the number of full days we will be there. For example, if we are spending six nights, I purchase five-day base tickets since the day we get there we do other things, such as explore our resort; hang out at the pool; or visit Disney Springs, a shopping, dining, and entertainment district on property. I also don’t plan for us to visit a park on the day we leave. The per day cost decreases significantly with each day added to the base ticket.
Disney offers two “add-ons” to their base ticket option, both of which can be used separately or together. The first is park hopping, which allows you to visit multiple parks in the same day. This is not something our family uses, but a lot of families enjoy going back to their resort for a mid-day break, then returning to a different park in the afternoon. The second option is called “Water Parks & More,” and this includes admission for the same number of times as your base ticket (so a five-day base ticket would give you five admissions on the Water Parks & More option) to either of the two water parks, as well as a few other options. Your cheapest option is always going to be the base ticket without the add-ons.
What are these MagicBands? OK, so here’s the deal. MagicBands are rubber wristbands equipped with an RFID chip. You have the option of equipping your MagicBand with your ticket media, room key, dining plan (if you purchase one), charging privileges, FastPass+ selections, and Photo Pass (Disney’s photography service).
If you stay on-property, you can customize your band online prior to your trip by choosing the color and putting the name on the inside of the band. Then, the bands will be delivered to your home about 30 days prior to your trip. Basically, the MagicBand is your key to the magic. Use it to get into the parks, your room, and to make purchases.
Our family really likes them and considers wearing them to be part of the fun. Now, if you don’t stay on-property, you do have the option of purchasing the bands, but you really don’t need to. All ticket media is now equipped with RFID, so you can just scan your actual ticket at entry, FastPass+ attractions and for Photo Pass photographers. Personally, I would not pay extra for them, but I do enjoy the ones we receive as a part of our resort stay.
I know a lot of people hear about Disney planning and booking dining reservations (Disney calls them ADRs-Advanced Dining Reservations) 180 days out and find this a little overwhelming. I do too!! Is it really necessary? That depends. If you know that you want to eat at one of the more in-demand restaurants, then yes. If you aren’t worried about where you will eat and just want to go with the flow, that can work too. You have to think about your priorities for the trip. If a meal at Be Our Guest, the Beauty & the Beast themed restaurant at the Magic Kingdom, is a must-do for your crew, then definitely make the reservations as soon as possible. If you’re fine with eating counter service (AKA fast food) for the trip, then don’t worry about it. Disney has definitely been upping their counter service game over the past few years with a larger variety of options rather than the standard burger and chicken nugget fare commonly associated with theme park dining. On our most recent trip, I booked a total of three ADRs for a six-night trip. We had a great time, and my crew, consisting of myself, my husband, two little boys (5 and 3), and my father, had very few complaints. We ate when we were hungry at a place nearby. I kind of enjoyed this more flexible style of travel. Decide what your traveling party’s priorities are and plan accordingly.
I hope this helps you as you start planning your Walt Disney World vacation! If you need more information and help planning your trip, there are a lot of resources available to you. I enjoy several Disney-themed podcasts, such as the DIS Unplugged, WDW Today, and WDW Radio.
Courtney Licklider, a school psychologist, lives in Wake Forest with her husband and their two sons, ages 5 and 3. She started going to Disney World at the age of 3 and goes as often as she can convince her husband to go.