From money-saving tips to insider secrets, how to strategically get the most out of your Disney World vacation.

Cinderella's Castle at Disney World
Credit: The Walt Disney Company

For decades, a Disney World vacation worked this way: you bought tickets with money and then you rode things. Simple. This year, though, the Orlando-area Disney resort has adorned the classic amusement formula with a new, high-concept accessory: MagicBands

Embedded with sensors and linked to guests’ personal information, this bracelet works like a wearable magic wand as visitors roam Walt Disney World Florida’s four theme parks and two water parks. Wave it over sensors and it grants front-gate admittance, makes cashless purchases, opens locked hotel-room doors, and validates up to three reservations a day for the shorter FastPass+ lines at major attractions. Plans can now be changed on the fly as well using an app, My Disney Experience.

But if all this technological innovation sounds daunting to you—you’re not alone. Privacy concerns created a congressional kerfuffle about the MagicBands and revealed that linking up your personal information is optional, at the loss of custom Disney experiences. For example, you may miss a character calling you by name or a personal goodbye appearing on a screen at the end of a ride.

By bucking theme-park tradition, Disney’s new technological wrinkles have created a rabbit hole of advance research requirements that not even Alice would enjoy. But we have some insider tips to help.

For one, Matt Roseboom, publisher of Orlando Attractions Magazine, suggests downloading the My Disney Experience app and signing in long before heading to Orlando, especially if you're staying at an official Disney hotel. “You can book your FastPasses up to 60 days in advance,” he explains. “And if an attraction breaks down or the line is moving slower than you’d like, you can update the times for your next reservation.” Disney may have started with a Mouse, but now it’s running on a click.

For everything else—to trim waits, secure dining times, and enjoy a full dose of Disney’s famous pixie dust—just follow our streamlined planning advice, which goes a long way toward making a Disney visit as simple as it once was.

How to Dine with Cinderella

The most popular meal featuring Disney characters is unquestionably Cinderella’s Royal Table, which is a princess meet-and-greet held inside Cinderella Castle. Slots open up on Disney’s reservations line precisely 180 days in advance at 7 a.m. Orlando time. They are snapped up in minutes by fierce fans—so mark your calendar and warm up the speed dial.

Best Time to Visit Walt Disney World

Be flexible about what time of year you visit Orlando. Generally, these family magnets are busiest when school is out. If you don’t mind playing hooky with your kids for a few days, you’ll have a much easier time during the academic year. September is a golden period because prices are lower, the weather’s still warm, and kids aren’t deep into the curriculum yet. Early May, after spring vacation but before the school year ends, is another solid choice. Christmas week is a nightmare.

Dining: Reservation or No Reservation?

If there is a certain restaurant you desperately want to dine at, make reservations as soon as possible: in-demand tables fill up weeks early. For instance, Magic Kingdom’s Be Our Guest is notoriously difficult to be a guest at, and so is the tiny Le Cellier Steakhouse in Epcot’s Canada pavilion.

If you can’t preplan, some restaurants might be able to work you in, but your chances improve dramatically if you’re willing to dine at off-peak times such as the minute meal service begins, which varies per location but is usually around 11:30 a.m. for lunch and 4 p.m. for dinner.

Using the My Disney Experience App Without a MagicBand

MagicBands are currently available only to people who opt to stay in the 20-plus Disney-branded hotels, so for guests staying off-property, the My Disney Experience app can still be used for preplanning, but FastPass reservations can only be made the same day. Pick up passes at in-park MyMagic+ kiosks that function a little like the ticket booths at an old-time fairground midway. Just be warned: lines can get long.

Keep to a Budget with Disney Dollars

Limit spending by buying Disney Dollars, an in-park private scrip equal to the value of the U.S. dollar. Use them to set a budget and give kids an allowance. They’re charged as a purchase, not as a cash advance, so they’re also handy for avoiding ATM fees. Just don’t order them ahead of time, though, or you’ll pay $15 in shipping fees.

Getting the Best Seat in Theater Attractions

When you see one of the theater-based attractions such as Muppet*Vision 3D (in Disney’s Hollywood Studios), Mickey’s PhilharMagic (in the Magic Kingdom), or The American Adventure (Epcot), don’t elbow others aside to get into the auditorium first. Cast members move incoming audiences all the way down each row, so if you want seats toward the center, follow a large group of guests. They’ll be at the end of the row and you won’t.

Best Times to Visit the Park

Get to the park at opening time and be there until closing. The parks are the least crowded in the mornings, as many guests are still waking up, and evenings, after many have tired. “If you need a break, head back to your hotel in peak afternoon for a nap,” says Roseboom.

Guests at Disney-run hotels are admitted during “Extra Magic Hours” that fall outside of times available to the general public, and the lighter crowds translate to much shorter waits—a price versus convenience factor to consider in your hotel reservations.

Easier, More Affordable Character Meals

Meals where kids can meet their favorite Disney characters are hot tickets inside the park gates, so for an easier—and a little bit cheaper—option, book one held right outside the gates instead. Chef Mickey’s, under the monorail that zooms through the Contemporary Resort; the Supercalifragilistic Breakfast at the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa; and ‘Ohana Character Breakfast at the Polynesian Resort are all a quick monorail jaunt from the Magic Kingdom. Even easier, cheaper character meals to book are found at hotels not connected by the monorail.

Picking the Best Seat on Epcot’s Soarin’

Epcot’s Soarin’, one of the resort’s most popular rides, features sets of benches that leave the ground and hang in front of a screen. The best seats have no dangling feet from another row obstructing the view. Get one by asking for a position ending in 1 (A-1, B-1, C-1). The row ending in 3 is the lowest to the ground and therefore best for those afraid of heights.

Picking the Best Seat on Kilimanjaro Safaris

Animal Kingdom’s centerpiece is Kilimanjaro Safaris, a 32-person Jeep ride through authentic-looking African veld. Head there immediately upon the park’s opening, before it gets hot and the animals run for shade. More important, jockey for a seat in the back rows, where views aren’t obstructed by the cockpit, and negotiate with your seatmates for a position on the end, where the camera angles are clearest.

Best Place to Take a Break

Feet throbbing? The Walt Disney World Railroad is the only ride that doesn’t force everyone to disembark after making one circuit, which takes about 25 minutes. If you’re tired, you can enjoy the round trip that girdles the Magic Kingdom for as long as you want.

Best Time to Watch the Parades

On most days, the Magic Kingdom mounts several parades. Steer clear of the daytime ones, when the heat and the crowds are at their peak, and favor the evening ones when it’s much cooler and less crowded. The one at night is often illuminated, too, and the park’s lights are dimmed to magnify the ooooh factor.

How Not to Get Trapped During a Parade

Stay out of Adventureland and Frontierland starting 30 minutes before parade time. The parade route cuts them off from the rest of the park, and crowd-control measures make it difficult to cross its path. If you’re accidentally stranded, there are only so many times you can ride Pirates of the Caribbean before you’re saying “Arggh,” too.

No Fingerprint, No Problem

Park entry is paired to each guest’s identity with a fingerprint scan. The company promises that prints aren’t kept on file—this isn’t CSI: Disney—but if you’re still uncomfortable, it’s an unpublicized fact that you don’t have to supply one. Just tell gate attendants you’d rather use a photo ID.

Be Savvy with Your FastPass

Don’t waste your FastPass! Use the line-skipping system only for attractions that actually have the longest lines—the Tip Board in the hub of each park lists the current waits, and so does the My Disney Experience app. Splash Mountain (Magic Kingdom), Toy Story Midway Mania! (Hollywood Studios), and Test Track and Soarin’ (both Epcot) are sure bets for meaty queues. “Some of the choices for FastPass are for attractions that are usually a walk-on,” says Roseboom. So don’t waste one of your three daily chances on the likes of Mad Tea Party or “it’s a small world.”

Be Strategic with Your Ride Route

At Epcot, skip Spaceship Earth until the evening. Most guests, abuzz with excitement, instinctively head to the first attraction they encounter, and at Epcot that’s Spaceship Earth. Lines are long in the morning, but if you come back to it in the late afternoon or evening, you’ll barely break step between the sidewalk and ride vehicle. At the other parks, guests should make a beeline for the hottest rides first thing in the morning (such as Toy Story Midway Mania! at Hollywood Studios or Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom), even though they’re in the back of their respective parks.

Best Spot to View Epcot’s Fireworks

Many restaurants around Epcot’s World Showcase (including in France, Mexico, and Japan) book up for the nightly pyrotechnic show, IllumiNations. However, not all tables have a guaranteed window placement, so don’t count on a definite view. You can always try being extra nice to the hostess—or lying about an anniversary. Or you can just belly up to the lagoon’s edge like everyone else does.

Turning Too-Short Children to Your Advantage

If your child’s too short to ride something—height requirements are on the guide map, and there are rulers before every queue entrance—ask the nearest cast member to give you a voucher that enables them to cut the line when they grow tall enough. For Splash Mountain, they’re dubbed a “Future Splash Mountaineer,” and on Space Mountain, they’re handed a “Mousetronaut Certificate.” Many other major rides have their own versions.

Best Place to Watch Magic Kingdom’s Fireworks

There are no places to watch the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks inside the Magic Kingdom from a waiter-service dining table. But California Grill, on the top floor of Disney’s Contemporary Resort next door, not only has an ideal panorama of them but also has an outdoor observation deck with the soundtrack piped in. Book weeks ahead and ask the phone agent to seat you at the correct time; they have each day’s park schedule handy.

Saving Money on Meals

You can knock $2–$3 off the price of a counter-service meal by ordering it without potato chips or French fries. By default, cashiers charge for them, and the set meals on the visual menus don’t lead you to believe you can order main dishes à la carte—but you can, so ask. While you’re at it, stretch your dollar further by telling them to hold the ice; Cokes are poured chilled to prevent frothing and keep service quick.

Quickest Way Through Ride Lines

On some of the blockbuster rides (including Epcot’s Test Track and Animal Kingdom’s Expedition Everest), look for the Single Rider Line, which fills empty seats that crop up among larger parties and often moves much faster than the regular line. If the wait for a ride looks excruciating but you’d be heartbroken to miss it, zip through as solo riders. Everyone in your party will wait together but may not ride at the same time—how much talking do you do during a three-minute ride, anyway?

Best Time to Visit Fantasyland and the Magic Kingdom

The lines for the rides that are most popular with toddlers tend to thin out after dinner when the littlest ones nod off. That means once bedtime arrives, many of Fantasyland's attractions (such as Peter Pan’s Flight and Dumbo the Flying Elephant) see their shortest wait times of the day—and grown-ups can have more fun being kids again.

Another way to find shorter lines: don’t go to the Magic Kingdom on a Monday. That’s its busiest day of the week—and noon to midafternoon are its peak hours.

Getting the Best Seat on Tower of Terror

The free-fall thriller the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios is one of the best rides in the resort, and the best seats in its 22-person cars are in the front row, where’s there’s an unobstructed view of the special effects and the sky-high panorama. To get those, ask for a position numbered 1 or 2 while you're being assigned spots in the pre-boarding area. When you’re boarding, it will be too late to switch.

Save Money on Stroller Rental

Disney rents strollers, but they’re expensive ($15 for a single, $31 for a double), they’re made of hard plastic (so they won't recline or collapse), and they can’t be taken outside the gates (so you’re on your own in those mammoth parking lots). A few companies deliver decent models to the Disney-run resorts at a less pricey rate, but the cheapest solution for a multiday visit is to buy a basic model (around $20–$30) when you arrive in Orlando.

Embrace the Rain

Rain is a blessing at Disney World. People tend to flee the parks when it pours. What they don’t know is that in Florida, cloudbursts may last for less than an hour, so dress for wet and use a deluge to take advantage of shorter lines.

Easy Ways to Stay In-the-Know

Getting up to speed and being strategic on your day at Disney World is easy if you know where to look. Tip Boards at the heart of each park are updated with wait times for the major attractions. The My Disney Experience app also posts wait times. Cast members carry schedules for the entire day’s entertainment, so anyone can tell you when to find parades, fireworks, or live performances. Hotel clerks can access the schedule for any park, too.