This insider advice on this page is from Wendy’s Trusted Travel Expert for Disney vacations: Susan Kelly and Michelle Allen of Travel Magic.
The seemingly infinite array of hotel, activity, and dining options that Walt Disney World offers can overwhelm anyone—and Disney’s in-house agents are focused on selling (and upselling) quickly, so they don’t get to know each family. Susan and Michelle, by contrast, design the perfect Disney vacation by learning the details of your group (which characters you want to meet, how scary a ride your kids can handle), sorting through the veritable banquet of choices, and helping you decide what to put on your plate. They continuously check all rates to make sure you pay the lowest possible prices—even if a discount appears after you’ve booked—and they maximize your time at the parks and minimize hassle by arranging all expedited passes as soon as they’re available (which Disney’s agents won’t do) and tackling other logistical concerns in advance. Susan and Michelle arm travelers with customized itineraries that include park maps and tips for everything from the best places to view parades and fireworks to where to meet a favorite character. And it’s all accessible as an app on your phone, including a feature that lets you instant-message them with any questions or concerns. Whether your plans involve Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Adventures by Disney, Universal Orlando, Aulani (the Disney resort in Hawaii), or Disney Cruise Line, they’re the ticket.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your–buck hotels
The Garden Wing rooms at the Contemporary allow you to stay in the most expensive neighborhood at Disney (the coveted “monorail” line, which is the closest to the Magic Kingdom) without having the most expensive house on the block. By not paying the premium to have a lake view or a theme-park view in the main Tower building, you can enjoy staying at a deluxe resort in one of the best-priced rooms.
The Port Orleans French Quarter Resort is in Disney’s moderate category, but don’t dismiss it. This sweet Dixieland-themed property inspired by the French Quarter has only 1,000 rooms, so there’s less competition for space at the pool and the food court than at other midpriced resorts, which can be twice as large. The kids will love the water slide at the pool, and the whole family will appreciate the direct buses to each of the parks and the option for a boat ride on the canals to Downtown Disney. Families enjoy the Family Suites at the Art of Animation Resort. They can sleep up to six people, have two bathrooms, and are themed after Cars, Finding Nemo, or The Lion King. You also get a separate room from your kids! Rates start at about $270, which is a much better value than paying for two rooms.
The tandoori chicken sandwich at Sanaa, in the Animal Kingdom, is topped with minted greens, onion, tomato, and cucumber all atop fresh naan. Amazing flavor combinations in every bite!
In the Italy Pavilion at Epcot, Via Napoli’s mushroom truffle pizza is exquisite. Also in Italy, Tutto Gusto is a hidden gem. It’s a no-reservation wine bar where you can enjoy authentic antipasti and a wide selection of wines.
Restaurant with a view
If you are looking for a little break within Magic Kingdom, the Columbia Harbour House is a great place to grab a counter-service lunch. Head up to the second floor for a peaceful oasis with grand views of the park. So many people jam into the first floor to eat that they must think the stairs are a prop!
Going to the Be Our Guest restaurant for dinner. We prefer eating breakfast and lunch there instead. Why? You can pre-reserve your meal 30 days in advance, pick your table, and your food magically arrives as soon as you sit down. It’s quick and efficient—and is a money saver compared with dinner. As an added bonus, if you book a breakfast time before park opening, you can get expedited entrance down Main Street and secure that coveted photo in front of the castle without thousands of people in your shot.
What to See and Do
The pools at the deluxe resorts are welcome oases from the theme-park scene. People often feel they need to spend every moment exploring the parks, but the pools are attractions themselves. How about a slide built into a volcano (Polynesian Village Resort), a sand-bottom pool and gently flowing river (Yacht and Beach Clubs), or a splash-and-play area for the younger set in the Alice in Wonderland–themed pool at the Grand Floridian. Last time I relaxed at the Animal Kingdom Lodge pool, I watched giraffes stroll by.
We enjoy all of the character meet-and-greets—but especially encounters with Gaston (from Beauty and the Beast) or Cinderella’s stepsisters. They are walking comedy acts! Challenge Gaston to a push up contest, or propose to one of the stepsisters; their reactions are priceless. Find out where and when to meet them through your My Disney Experience app.
Want to battle Darth Vadar with a light saber? Head over to Jedi Training Academy at Disney Hollywood Studios. Limited tickets for this popular stage show are released first-thing in the morning for ages 4-12.
The Park Hopper ticket option, which gives you same-day access to all four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios) is an expensive ($60) add-on that many people don’t really need. If you plan your time well, you may find that you can easily fill a day in a single park, eliminating the need for the Park Hopper option and saving significantly. If you’re reserving your trip online, the Disney Web site automatically defaults to upgrades you may not want—higher room categories, the Park Hopper option—with additional features like water parks added in. Review carefully before you click. Better yet, call us!
For bang for the buck, you can’t do better than timing your dinner at California Grill or Narcoossee’s so that it coincides with the spectacular fireworks show over you-know-who’s castle (times vary depending on the season). The restaurants even dim the lights and pipe in music to heighten the spectacle. You’ll pay for dinner, of course, but the entertainment is free.
Having a sweet-tooth emergency? Check out the cupcake ATM at Sprinkles cupcake shop in Disney Springs!
Check out these two nightly activities in Fort Wilderness: Travel under the moonlight on a 45-minute wagon ride (about $9/adult, $6/child); sing around the campfire and watch Disney movies under the stars; or enjoy a marshmallow roast with Chip and Dale. The latter two are free to all Disney guests!
Disney is in the business of making dreams come true, and we can work with its special events department to create marriage proposals, birthdays, and other celebrations, complete with actors, props, music, and other surprises. The experience is limited only by your budget. We recently arranged a private breakfast and a visit from Mickey for a family of 20 in the Animal Kingdom park before it opened for the day. Price tag: $5,000.
Play a round of golf at the new Four Seasons Resort Orlando, fish for bass on Bay Lake, or enjoy a massage at the Grand Floridian spa.
Our new favorite photo spot is from the upper deck of the train station at Magic Kingdom at night. With the lights of Main Street and the castle at the end, you can snap a keepsake picture above the crowds.
I have a soft spot for the classic Mickey ears, embroidered with your name in yellow along the back. It’s a Disney classic that never goes out of style. Pin collecting is hot! There are pins you can purchase (many are limited-edition) that represent attractions, characters, and resorts. Guests proudly display their pins on lanyards, hats, and anywhere else they can think to stick them. You can approach Disney cast members and trade to continuously upgrade your collection. For some, it is a sport. Pins are easy to pack and priced between $6 and $15 each.
September (post-Labor Day) and January for the fewest people and the shortest lines (and more time for fun!). September has the added bonuses of weather that is still plenty warm enough for swimming, and the beginning of the Magic Kingdom’s Halloween Party nights. Weekdays are always better than weekends, because attendance tends to be lower. If visiting Disney is like a dish of vanilla ice cream, then all the holiday merriment from mid-November through December (but not at Thanksgiving or Christmas, see below) adds whipped cream and a cherry on top.
Avoid major holidays—Thanksgiving weekend, Christmas week, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, Easter week, and Fourth of July weekend—unless you love crowds or have the patience of Job. It’s more expensive and less enjoyable to visit during these times because of the high-season hotel rates, long lines, and competition for prime viewing at the parade and fireworks. Get your holiday fix by visiting during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Not having a game plan. Walt Disney World’s four theme parks spread out across 40 square miles, so having a strategy that includes a meal plan, scheduled time for rest, and reserving Fastpasses (to cut waiting times for the most popular rides) in advance will allow you to have a far more relaxed and memorable—for all the right reasons—experience. If you wait until you arrive to decide what you’re going to do, you’ll be overwhelmed and stuck with whatever’s left after everyone else has snatched up the good stuff.
Assuming that a “free dining” offer is the best deal for you just because it’s “free.” A free dining promotion is only available when you pay full price for your room, but you may actually save more by taking advantage of a room discount and paying for your meals. Be sure to make a detailed price comparison before jumping to any conclusions.
My Disney Experience is a free app that keeps track of your trip details and allows you to view confirmations for your hotel, meals, and Fastpasses. It also provides maps, real wait times for attractions, and, thanks to GPS, even tells you what characters and events are nearby. The only problem with this app is everyone is now looking down at their phone instead of at what’s going on around them!
If you are taking the free Magical Express bus from the airport, think B for bus. Walk to the B side first and then take the escalator down to find it. Not the A side—the B side!
Rain gear, especially from June through October. If you have to buy Disney rain ponchos, you’ll be out $12 a pop and you’ll have a hard time finding one another because everyone in the park will be wearing the same thing.
Some smaller children don’t enjoy (okay, are terrified by) the loud boom of fireworks and some other attractions. Bring along some earplugs, just in case.