Sunday, September 30, 2012

Top 5 Disney World Vacation Tips

I get asked about Disney World a lot.  I guess because I'm always posting about Disney World or a Disney Cruise on Facebook. 

I'm definitely not the world's top expert on Disney World, but I do have opinions based on my experience.  Here are my top 5 tips if you are planning a trip to Disney World:

1.  Timing is everything--go off season if possible, go on the "right" day for each park, go early. 

I've been to Disney World in January, April, May, June, July, August, September, October and December.  And I can honestly say that there is a BIG difference in the crowds and weather depending on when you go, and those 2 things can play a huge role in your enjoyment.

I think out of all the months I've been, September has been my favorite.  I've been twice in September and I've found the crowds are the lowest (school is just back in session, the Food & Wine Festival at EPCOT has not yet started).  It's still hot, but not quite as hot as summer.  As a kid I've also been in all the summer months, before fast passes were available, and I remember waiting in lines for 1-2 hours and feeling like I was going to pass out.  (Of course, as a kid I was just so excited to be there that I didn't care about the heat and the lines).

I highly recommend going when school is IN session.  It's cheaper (hotels and restaurants are cheaper), less crowded, and generally not as hot during those months.  I know not everyone is on board with pulling kids out of school for vacation, but we've done it once and I'll do it again as long as my kids are still in elementary school.

If you have to go when kids are out of school, I'd recommend early June or late August for summer times.  The week between Christmas and New Year's is the most crowded time of the entire year, so if you go during that time just prepare yourself for really, really big crowds and long lines.

In addition to the time of year, the traffic in each park on any particular day is also dependent on the activities in the park.  There are several websites and iPhone apps that can recommend which park has the lowest crowds on a certain day during the week you are there.

And another note about timing--I also think that at Disney, the early bird catches the worm.  Crowds are always the lowest in the first few hours after park opening, so it pays to get there early, right at opening.  You can easily knock out a few big rides with little to no lines during those first 1-2 hours.  I know not everyone has kids that are early risers like mine that may not work with your sleep schedules.

2.  Make reservations at sit-down restaurants 6 months in advance.

I like the sit-down table service restaurants at Disney World for a few reasons.  First, most are indoors and offer a nice respite from the hot or rainy weather.  Second, you can make reservations (ADRs--Advanced Dining Reservations) at the restaurants and therefore you can eliminate standing in long lines at the counter service options.  Third, some of the table service restaurants are characters meals and you can get photos and autographs right at your table instead of waiting in lines at various places around the parks.

You can make ADRs up to 6 months in advance, which sounds crazy, but many of the restaurants do fill up that early.

The table service restaurants are not necessarily more expensive than the fast-food options (although some are).  We've split some meals and still gotten plenty to eat at a reasonable cost.  And when I've gone with kids, it's been nice to not have to carry trays and try to scout out high chairs and a table for our group--that's all done for us at the table service restaurants.  I consider it a nice, cool break during our days at the park.

The table service restaurants menus are less expensive for breakfast and lunch (vs. dinner).

Lunch at the Crystal Palace character buffet--2008

3.  Consider staying in a condo/time-share instead of a regular hotel.

There are so many time shares and condos for rent around the Disney World area that are the same price as a regular hotel yet offer separate bedrooms.  This is a major plus if you are traveling with kids and are staying for more than a few days.  We rented a Disney Vacation Club room at Saratoga Springs in 2008 and in 2010 we rented a 4-bedroom condo at Wyndham Bonnet Creek (with extended family).  Both were nice and had separate bedrooms and a big kitchen area.

Not only was it nice having a bigger space to crash in after being at the parks all day, having a kitchen in our room also saved us a ton of money.  We were able to bring/buy some food to have around for breakfast, dinner (sometimes) and some snacks.

Many 2-bedroom condos around Disney World can be rented for less than $100/night.  Some offer free transportation to the parks.

Here's a few sites to check out:

Vacation Strategy

Windsor Hills Resort Rentals

Ebay, vrbo, and also have timeshares and condos available to rent.

4.  If you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel, book with a travel agent.

The price is the same whether you book the Disney hotel on your own or through a travel agent.  The big advantage with using a good travel agent is that they will modify your reservation if a better deal comes along.  When we stayed at Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort last June for a few days before our cruise, our agent was able to re-book our stay through a cheaper promotion and we saved over $100.  If you book on your own, Disney will not automatically apply a better promotion for you.

A travel agent can also take care of booking Disney's Magical Express for you and help you with other questions about your trip.  We've been pleased with Tracy at Travel on a Dream.

5.   Use the Fast Pass system.

Seriously, this saves a lot of time in the parks.  Here is a good summary of Fast Pass.  Instead of waiting 2 hours for Splash Mountain during the summer, you can get a Fast Pass earlier in the day and wait 10 minutes for the ride instead.

I'm always surprised at the number of people at the parks who don't know what this system is and don't use it.

It used to be a little more flexible, because they used to allow people to use a Fast Pass any time during the day after their window as long as it was still in the same day.  But now they are strictly enforcing the return times, which makes it a little more challenging.  Again, there are several websites and apps out there that can recommend a certain order of touring the parks combined with fast passes to optimize your waiting times.

So those are my top tips...what are yours?


  1. One of mine would be check out what you can do at no cost. Yes they have things to do for free at WDW. Campfire Program at Fort Wilderness has free movies, a sing-a-long, and Chip and Dale come to see you. Monorail rides are free and you dont have to go to a park. The Electric Water Pagent passes Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness, Grand Floridian, Polynesian and Contemporary every night. Most Disney resorts have kids programs including arts and crafts and pool activities. They also show nightly movies for free on a big screen. You can watch the fireworks from the Poly beach or Wilderness Lodge Beach. Enjoy free shows on the Boardwalk every night such as comedy and magic. You can also see some of Illuminations at 9 pm. Bob Jackson performs on Wed. through Sat. nights at the River Roost Lounge at Port Orleans Riverside. It is a kid friendly show and doesn't cost anything to attend.

    1. Excellent tips, Bret! We haven't tried out a lot of those activities you mentioned but I hope to on our next short trip.