Just thinking about a vacation at Disney World conjures all kinds of images: Mickey Mouse, princesses, rides, parades, smiles, magic…big crowds, long lines, overtired parents, overstimulated children. Of course, you can have all of the good with none of the bad, but it requires some planning—and a lot of know-how. After a recent trip to Orlando, we’ve got you covered with our own tricks, as well as advice from our Trusted Travel Expert for Disney vacations, Susan Kelly, who can help ensure an all-smiles, no-stress trip with all the best activities and experiences (and oh yeah, she costs nothing to you; Disney pays her fees). Here are five foolproof ways to transform a Disney World trip from average to extraordinary.
1. Stay at the new Four Seasons
Disney World has a lot of really great hotels at a wide variety of price points, but the newest addition to the lineup really stands apart. The Four Seasons Orlando just had its grand opening this fall, and provides all the luxury and service you’d expect from a Four Seasons property—attentive staff, beautiful rooms, a full-service spa, customized beds—plus all of the official Disney services, thanks to its location inside park boundaries (e.g., free buses to parks and attractions, an on-site desk for tickets and reservations, discounts for Disney-property guests). “It’s still on campus, so you’re not giving up the location that you would have had to in the past to stay somewhere different—it’s really right there within,” Susan says. “And while Disney does deluxe, this is really luxury.”
The hotel’s best perk might just be the visual and mental break it provides from its over-the-top surroundings. After a day of crowds and craziness (or instead of one), the hotel’s nearly-mouse-free design, sleek adults-only pool, cocktail-carrying pool staff, and full-service spa are a welcome respite. Not that families are forgotten here—this is Disney World after all, and the hotel is a very kid-friendly home base with a complimentary kids club, two water slides, a lazy river, a zero-entry family pool, a rock-climbing wall, sand volleyball courts, and a splash zone water playground. There’s even a character breakfast.*
2. Splurge on a VIP Tour
We’re not saying this isn’t expensive, we’re just saying it’s a pretty failsafe way to make your time in Disney World more extraordinary. Hire a VIP guide and you’ll be picked up at your hotel and ushered into the parks of your choice through special back-lot entrances. Once inside, your guide will map out the most efficient way to hit every ride, parade, and snack spot on your wish list, FastPassing you to the front of lines and character meet-and-greets, scoring VIP seating at parades and fireworks, and dropping all kinds of Disney secrets and trivia along the way. Wondering who’s on those portraits in the Haunted House? Why there’s an intentional flaw in EPCOT’s Moroccan fountain? I was repeatedly impressed by how much my guide knew, and her narrative made my day more than just a series of rides. Apart from the fun of all that Disney geekdom, it’s the personalized attention that really makes a VIP Tour attractive: The stress of crowds, lines, far-far-away bathrooms, parking—they are all removed from the equation. At a price, of course: rates range from $1,890 to $3,000 for a six-hour-minimum tour, depending on the season and whether you’re staying at a Disney resort, and that fee does not include park admission. On the bright side, that fee is the same whether you’re one person or ten, so if you’re traveling as a family or two, the cost can be shared…or mitigated another way, as Susan has seen from her own experience: “There are some people who may stay at a moderate resort and put that money toward a guide instead,” she says.
3. Embrace technology
Thanks to the magic of the Internet, you can reserve three FastPass rides before you step foot outside the hotel (or even before you leave home). “It used to be that you had to get to the park before opening,” Susan recalls. “The rope would drop, you’d get a FastPass, hop on a ride, then run to the other end of the park to get another FastPass. But now you can reserve guaranteed board at Space Mountain between 10:30 and 11, so guess who gets to have a leisurely breakfast? You do.” Guests staying at a Disney resort can also use MagicBand bracelets, which are registered online and then used for various functions, including park admissions, FastPass reservations, Disney PhotoPass accounts, paying for food and merchandise, and even unlocking your hotel room door.
Tying it all together is the My Disney Experience app. From your phone, you’ll be able to check ride wait times, change up your FastPasses, make dining reservations, and find character greeting locations. Plus it has GPS, so you’ll be able to see where you are in relation to that Dole Whip you’ve been craving.
4. Go surfing… or backstage
Some of the parks feature special activities that really do make you feel special. Typhoon Lagoon offers surf lessons before the park opens to the masses. At Hollywood Studios, you can dine with a Disney Imagineer. And at Magic Kingdom, the Keys to the Kingdom tour lifts the curtain on the whole Disney show, bringing you to backstage areas, leading you through the secret underground tunnels used by staff to get around without being seen, and pointing out a ton of hidden Mickeys disguised all over the park.
5. Use our Trusted Travel Expert
Yes, yes, we’re tooting our own horn here, but we have no qualms about it. Booking a trip with Susan Kelly won’t cost you a thing, but booking without her most certainly will. You’ll end up paying in time, stress, and yeah, probably dollars because she can not only make sure you get access to great activities, she can also find you deals (and let you know when something simply isn’t worth the price). There’s just so much to navigate, reserve, and organize when it comes to planning a Disney vacation. Why do it alone? Read more about Susan’s background and her tips for Disney World.
*Disclosure: Four Seasons Orlando provided me with a three-night stay free of charge, and Disney provided me with a VIP Tour so that I could test it for our readers. In keeping with WendyPerrin.com standard practice, there was no request for or expectation of coverage on Four Seasons’ or Disney’s part, nor was anything promised on ours. You can read the signed agreement between WendyPerrin.com and the organizers of my trip here.