Courtesy of Disney
March 14, 2017

Walt Disney World can be a dream vacation destination for families, couples and friends alike—but visiting this Orlando-based theme park without knowing the lay of the land is challenging. As restaurants fill up six months in advance and rides can be booked sixty days before arrival, “just winging it” is not the move at Disney World. Thankfully, you won’t have to stick your nose in guide books for the next year to survive, as we’ve made everything as simple as possible with this definitive Disney guide.

There’s no need to spend time on message boards or frantically Google which attractions to FastPass. Consider your questions answered, your trip planned, and your Disney vacation officially set, thanks to all this free expertise:

Walt Disney World, in a Nutshell

Whatever you’re envisioning, think bigger. With four theme parks, two water parks, multiple golf courses, a sports complex as well as 25 hotels and countless restaurants, it’s less a vacation destination and more of a city sprawl with Mickey Mouse as mayor, as ends of the property span as far as a half-hour drive. Unlike Disneyland, this theme park behemoth is impossible to conquer in one day, so prepare to pace yourself.

What to Do

Each of the four main parks have a distinctive theme. Magic Kingdom is the “most magical place on earth," home to the soaring castle, princess power, and all the nostalgic classics. Epcot is two parks in one, with technology and future-focused attractions as well as an around-the-world dining and drinking bonanza. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is fully movie-centric, as well as the place for all things "Star Wars," while Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a combination animal reserve, international experience, and otherworldly wonderland, thanks to the new Pandora: The World of Avatar expansion. If you don’t have tickets to the parks or water parks, explore the Pixar-themed worlds of resort hotels and well as Disney Springs, the revitalized area formerly known as Downtown Disney and Pleasure Island that has shops, entertainment and activities open to the public.

When to Visit

Busy season tends to overlap with when children are out of school, but certain weekends and holidays, like Labor Day, are reliably slower. Though the crowds tend to surge at the end of the year, the park is pure magic around Halloween as well as the holiday season (early November to early January), when no expense is spared on decor.

Planning

Booking a Walt Disney World vacation is a lot like planning a wedding: there are tons of moving parts, endless options for all kind of budgets, and you’ll want to be weary of cancelation deadlines. We rounded up plenty of advice for first-timers as well as an extra list of pointers, but whether you’re a Magic Kingdom-bound newbie or veteran, we recommend following our Disney Planning Checklist to ensure every portion of your vacation goes smoothly. Hotels and admission can be purchased separately or together, so consider taking time to explore Disney’s discount page and weigh pricing options to see which works best for you. Most importantly, sign up for My Disney Experience, the virtual planning guide that organizes your dining, hotel, and ticket hotel reservations and book FastPass+ choices in one convenient place.

Hotels

Picking a property doesn’t have to be stressful. This convenient comparison of every Disney-owned resort and shortlist of the very best non-Disney hotels worth staying at will make your selection a breeze. The main difference to note is that Disney-operated hotels offer exclusive benefits like Extra Magic Hours, which grant additional time at the parks each morning or evening, as well as early FastPass+ booking, complimentary MagicBands, and Disney’s Magical Express airport bus transportation, while external properties can often be either more cost-effective—or, in the case of the impeccable Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort, much more luxurious. Many hotels are near Disney parks, but only a few are walkable: Disney’s Contemporary Resort offers a pathway to the Magic Kingdom, while Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, Yacht Club Resort, Beach Club Resort, and the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin have a pedestrian entrance at Epcot’s World Showcase.

Admission

Walt Disney World sells two formats of theme park tickets: single-day and multi-day, which lasts two to 14 days. Both can become “park hopper” tickets for a fee, allowing guests to visit multiple theme parks each day, or “park hopper plus," which offer additional admission to water parks and golf courses. (These add-ons can also be purchased separately.) Don’t forget to check for current special offers or feel the need to have a ticket on days you arrive late or depart early; there's plenty to do without paying for admission.

The Disney Difference

Prepare for smiling faces, waving hands, and a greeting of “Welcome home!”, even if you’ve never been before. The staff is extra-friendly, helpful, and willing to answer questions at any time. If problems do arise, Guest Services centers throughout the parks can fix nearly any issue. Walt Disney World is truly its own little world, complete with lots of lingo that first-timers may be overwhelmed by, so consult our Disney Glossary for translations and definitions of all Disney terminology.

Dining

From popcorn stands to AAA Five Diamond Award recipients, Walt Disney World truly offers every kind of culinary experience. All four theme parks have quick service options, table service restaurants, and character dining options where royals, movie characters, and Mickey Mouse himself roam the restaurant to greet guests individually. Disney Springs, too, has become a theme park for food with more new restaurants and food stalls than anywhere else in Orlando. Don’t miss the incredible range of dining experiences outside the parks at Disney-owned hotels just because you’re not staying there—it’s practically a must. Restaurants begin taking reservations 180 days in advance and require a credit card guarantee; no-shows and same-day cancelations will incur a $10 charge per person. If any of it seems overwhelming, Disney World vacation packages offer a Disney Dining Plan option, allowing guests to pre-pay for their meals in exchange for dining credits to use each day. Disney parks are also extremely accommodating of food restrictions and allergies, so if needed, be sure to inquire upon arrival.

Drinking

Though Walt Disney World is intrinsically tied to childhood, the options to imbibe on property are unparalleled. The resort not only prides itself on having one of the most impressive sommelier programs in the country, but creates interesting cocktails, unique beer lists, and wide-ranging wine menus for its properties. From a tiki bar to a tequila cave, there are a multitude of wonderful watering holes, and if you haven’t been in forever, Epcot’s World Showcase is essentially a worldwide bar crawl. Many Disney World drinks are cult favorites, and as of recently, alcohol is (technically) served at all four theme parks. The Magic Kingdom was famously dry, but a selection of wine, champagne, or beer is now offered to customers dining at certain table service restaurants.

Attractions

Disney World offers low-key attractions for young children and the action-averse, but there is plenty for thrillseekers, too, with rides featuring massive drops, hairpin turns, serious G-forces, and even inversions. Unlike traditional amusement parks, there’s something here for everybody, and it’s easy to get the very best seats or skip the wait. Many attractions offer FastPass+—Disney’s program allowing all guests to “skip the line” on multiple rides each day. Plotting out which rides to FastPass in advance is more of an art than a science, but our definitive FastPass+ guide makes it easy.

Entertainment

It’s not just boat rides and roller coasters—between the stage shows, evening entertainment, and “streetsmosphere," there’s plenty to see, most without even having to wait in line.

Daily performances of Festival of the Lion King at Animal Kingdom and Mickey’s Friendship Faire at Magic Kingdom are wondrous sights, as are taking to the streets to see Star Wars’ stormtroopers at Hollywood Studio’s March of the First Order or a fire-breathing dragon crawl down Main Street, USA in Magic Kingdom’s Festival of Fantasy parade. When the sun sets, Disney World comes alive, with three nightly fireworks shows and entertainment at nearly every park. Shows like Epcot’s IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth and Fantasmic! at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are classic crowd favorites, and that same park’s bombastic Star Wars-themed fireworks display can’t be missed. By Spring 2017, Magic Kingdom will unveil a new fireworks and projection show and Animal Kingdom will host new nighttime entertainment, bringing with it extra excitement, even if you’ve been before.

Packing

If you’re flying to Florida and traveling without a rental car, be sure to bring all your necessities, as there is no drugstore or grocery market accessible by Disney transportation.

Hotel gift shops carry a limited amount of toiletries, dry goods, and medicine, but Disney experts often ship necessities like water bottles and diapers directly to their Disney resort in advance of their arrival. (Expect a $5 handling charge per package.) Comfortable shoes are a must—you’ll walk more than you ever have in your life—and the weather shifts often, so toss in extra layers for nighttime and ponchos in case of rain. No spare room in your luggage for souvenirs? Disney gift shops can ship your purchases home, no problem.

Getting There

Orlando International Airport is the main airport servicing Walt Disney World and its surrounding areas. Guests at Disney-operated hotels are given free round-trip coach bus transportation to and from the airport, also known as MCO, on Disney’s Magical Express; the approximately 40-minute drive can be up to $75 via taxi or $65 in an Uber. UberX pick-ups at the Orlando airport are not currently available, but drop-offs for departing flights are.

How to Get Around

Walt Disney World Transportation shuttles guests between Disney hotels and theme parks every 20 or so minutes, with drop-offs just a short distance from the front gate of each park. Because of this, Disney World is entirely doable without a car, yet some families prefer one for convenience. Standard parking costs $20 each day at theme parks, which can be used at all interchangeably. (Note that Magic Kingdom’s parking lot is at the nearby Ticket & Transportation Center, which requires an additional ferry ride to reach the park; taxis and Ubers conduct Magic Kingdom pick-ups and drop-offs from here as well.) There are options more scenic than cars, like the Disney Monorail which shuttles guests between the Magic Kingdom and Epcot or boats which operate between Epcot and Hollywood Studios. (Transportation to the parks via both methods is also available from select hotels.) As for Uber, Disney parks have become lenient to the ride-share service, but integration across the property is not yet seamless. If you’re trying to find your way through the parks themselves, the My Disney Experience app offers reliable walking directions and arrival times.

Make Your Trip Your Own

We’ve created travel guides to help everyone from skeptical parents and VIPs with money to burn to budget-conscious visitors and those who haven’t been to Disney World in decades. Whether you’re hoping to plan your dream Disney wedding, take a perfect honeymoon or simply go on a romantic couple’s trip, there are plenty of ways to tone down the family aspects and make Disney nothing short of sentimental. And, no matter if you visited last year or last century, you can make your Disney trip a little more special with our expert’s advice and in-the-know tips that will make any trip extraordinary.

What's Coming in the Future

There is plenty heading to Walt Disney World in 2017, but once Pandora — The World of Avatar opens at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in May, the next major Walt Disney World expansion will be Toy Story Land, a movie-themed area with rides and larger-than-life props slated to open at Disney’s Hollywood Studios sometime in 2018. There are plenty more hotel expansions, dining locations and nightlife debuts to come, but the most noteworthy opening will be Star Wars Land, which will open in 2019.

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