The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Orlando and Disney World: Michelle Allen of Travel Magic.
The seemingly infinite array of hotel, activity, and dining options that Walt Disney World offers can overwhelm anyone—and don’t get us started on the Genie+ system. Michelle will 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. She continuously checks all rates to make sure you pay the lowest possible prices—even if a discount appears after you’ve booked—and maximizes your time at the parks by strategically planning your Park Pass reservations to align with requested meals, character meet and greets, and fireworks shows, all while minimizing hassle. Michelle arms travelers with customized itineraries that include tips and tricks 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, where you can also instant-message her 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, Michelle’s the ticket.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best bang-for-your–buck hotels
The Garden Wing rooms at the Contemporary Resort allow you to stay in the most expensive neighborhood at Disney, with access to the monorail line or walking path to 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 a deluxe resort at a lower cost.
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 mid-priced resorts, which can be twice as large. Kids 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 Disney Springs.
The Caribbean Beach Resort, also a moderate-category resort, offers the convenience of the new Skyliner/Gondola system to get to both Epcot and Hollywood Studios, and a tropical-island feel.
The Art of Animation Resort, a value-category resort, is also on the Skyliner line. The Family Suites sleep up to six people with two bathrooms and a separate master bedroom, and are themed after Cars, Finding Nemo, or The Lion King. Rates start at about $500 per night, which is a much better value than paying for two rooms.
Dishes to try
The newly refurbished Citricos, at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, has a slight Mary Poppins theme. The oak-grilled filet mignon, truffle mac & cheese, and smoked cauliflower are simply amazing!
The Indian-style bread service at Sanaa, in the Animal Kingdom Lodge, includes five breads with nine accompaniments. Amazing flavors 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.
The dining at options at Disney Springs will not disappoint (nor will the shopping, by the way). Jaleo by José Andrés offers Spanish tapas and an amazing décor. At Frontera Cucina, by Rick Bayless, the guacamole and homemade chips are not to be missed, and pair well with a “play with fire” margarita made with fresh lime juice, agave nectar, cucumber-jalapeno juice, and a hibiscus salt rim. Or, relax to a pianist accompanying brunch at The Boathouse; try the shrimp and grits and a mimosa or bloody mary.
Restaurants with a view
For a spectacular view of the Happily Ever Fireworks in the Magic Kingdom from the 15th floor of the Contemporary Resort, head to the California Grill at the Contemporary Resort.
Avoid the masses and watch the fireworks during a Seats & Sweets Dessert Party at Tomorrowland Terrace. With a roped-off viewing area where Tinkerbell flies overhead, this is a primo location away from the crowds.
Topolino’s Terrace at Disney’s Riviera Resort is another great option. Some tables by the window have decent views of the Epcot fireworks, but the terrace is the primo spot. The sea scallops here are divine!
Toledo, at the Coronado Springs Resort, offers a Spanish-inspired menu and great views as well.
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 (Grand Floridian). At the Animal Kingdom Lodge pool, you can even watch giraffes stroll by.
Of all the character meet-and-greets, encounters with Gaston (from Beauty and the Beast) or Cinderella’s stepsisters are especially memorable. 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.
Star Wars fans: Want to build a droid or lightsaber, or have a cocktail (alcoholic or not) at Oga’s Cantina? Michelle knows how to get you these highly sought-after reservations at Disney Hollywood Studios’ Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge.
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 in the Magic Kingdom (times vary depending on the season). The restaurants even dim the lights and pipe in music to heighten the spectacle. You’ll pay for your meal, of course, but the entertainment is free.
Having a sweet-tooth emergency? Check out the cupcake ATM at Sprinkles cupcake shop in Disney Springs!
Disney is in the business of making dreams come true, and Michelle can work with its special-events department to design marriage proposals, birthdays, and other celebrations, complete with actors, props, music, and other surprises. The experience is limited only by your budget. She recently arranged an intimate 50th-anniversary party in a private room at the Contemporary Resort with an elaborate (hand-chosen by the host) menu, personal photos and memoirs of the couple through the years, and a surprise visit from Mickey and Minnie. Price tag: $8,000.
Play a round of golf at the Four Seasons Resort Orlando, fish for bass on Bay Lake, or enjoy a massage at the Grand Floridian spa.
September (post-Labor Day) and May for the fewest people and the shortest lines (more time for fun!). Both months have the added bonuses of great weather, and September sees the start of Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party.
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, Columbus Day weekend, Veterans’ Day 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 is key. Michelle will work through the best plan for your family before you travel so you’re fully prepared. 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.
My Disney Experience is a free app that keeps track of your trip details and allows you to view confirmations for your hotel, meal reservations, the Genie+ system and so much more! 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!
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. Stop by your local dollar store before your vacation instead!
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.
A portable charger is a must. Given how much you’ll be consulting your phone while you’re there, you’ll be glad to have a charger in hand.
Grab a selfie in front of The Purple Wall, located near the entrance of Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom.
The classic Mickey ears, embroidered with your name in yellow along the back, are a Disney classic that never go 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.