What We Learned from Our First Trip to Disney World

Last month, we took the plunge and headed to Disney World. I hadn’t been since about 1986 and wasn’t quite sure what to expect. While I have almost no memories of that trip from the 80s, I’m pretty sure that we just showed up at the gate, bought tickets and then explored the park. This spring I started asking around about some planning advice and was shocked by how much more preparation goes into current Disney World trips. 

It seems like people have really great luck using Disney planners, but we were staying off property – with a total of 13 people – which meant the free planners weren’t available and I wasn’t ready to pay the prices to hire a planner. So, I read a bunch of blogs; went old school and checked out a Disney travel book; talked to a lot of people and spent lots of time working through the “My Disney Experience” site. 

All in all, we had an AMAZING time and can’t wait to go back (we’ve penciled in a return trip for the fall of 2020). While there is no shortage of resources about Disney, and I am obviously no expert, I still wanted to share some of what we learned from the trip. Here are some of the things that went well and some things that we’ll do differently next time. Hopefully these tips will help other first time Disney World travelers plan a successful week! 

Disney World Successes – Things We’ll Definitely Do Again

Staying off property. Because of the size of our group, we stayed off property. It wasn’t a strategic decision, but ended up working out really well. We stayed in a community called Storey Lake in Kissimmee. It was a true 15-20 minutes from Disney, depending on which park you were going to, and was an easy drive with basically one turn. 

The house had six bedrooms, two large common spaces, a big kitchen and dining room and a pool. Plus, the rooms were Disney themed, so the kids felt like they were really living the Disney dream – our kids slept in the Mickey Mouse room and we were in the Star Wars room. The Storey Lake community had a large pool and a water park (that, I feel compelled to add, had a poolside bar and ice cream hut). While there are a lot of great things that seem to come from staying on property, staying off property was great for us because: 

  • it was a good way for our big group to stay together. We were traveling with extended family, and we came from four different places. The primary purpose of the trip was getting time together, and the house was great for that. 
  • it made the trip affordable. The houses in this community – and many others like it – rent for an average of $275 a night (this varies some based on the time of year). And that’s for a 6 bedroom house with a bunch of amenities. Plus, throw in the fact that you have a full kitchen and don’t have to eat every meal out, and all of the sudden a Disney trip becomes less painfully expensive and much more accessible for lots of families. Especially if you’re traveling with a group. 
  • it was great for “off days.” Although it was only 15 minutes from the Magic Kingdom, once you turn into the community, you escape the crowds and energy of Disney. It added a nice relaxation component to the trip, and the water park and pool made it a great, slow-paced spot for a couple of non-park days during our week in Orlando. 

Doing at least one character meal.  Since we were staying off property, we ate breakfast before we arrived and brought a lot of snacks with us. (I think we went through about a box of Uncrustables as day.) But, we did decide to do one character meal. They’re expensive – particularly when you consider how little my 2 and 5 year old eat – but we all thought it was worth every penny. Besides having a magical character encounter – we did Winnie-the-Pooh and Friends – the food was great and it provided us a good opportunity to sit down – in the air conditioning – and refuel a bit. We did it right after the parade – at 4 pm – and this was a great time of day to help us reset, eat some real food and get a second wind for the evening. 

Powering through until the Fireworks. Our kids are young and usually in bed at 7:30. Our first day at the Magic Kingdom we left around 7, but the second day we started a little later and decided to stick it out until the fireworks. I have to admit that at 8 pm I was sure that we’d never make it and said we should go home. My husband wisely said we should try to stick it out. It was completely worth it and a truly magical experience. While it was almost 11 by the time we made it home, every one of us thought it was well worth the one-time bedtime disruption to get to be a part of this. Both kids continue to talk about the fireworks on a daily basis. 

Going for the magic bands for kids. Note: Magic Bands are like bracelets that link to your ticket – rather than having to scan your park ticket to enter the park or to enter a Fast Pass ride, you just scan a bracelet; they also link to pictures and if you’re staying on property they work as a room key, link to meal plans, etc.

Since we weren’t staying on property, I figured we didn’t need the magic band. But a couple of friends suggested getting them and our neighbor, who had just returned from Disney, proudly wore hers weeks later. We ended up getting one for our 5 year-old. She LOVED having it and it made FastPass entry easy and fun. Plus, she was so proud of it and it’s a great souvenir. Definitely worth the $14!

Disney Fails – Things We’ll Do Differently Next Time

Planning in time to visit Cinderella’s Royal Table. In keeping with the one character meal discussed above, next time we definitely want to visit Cinderella’s Royal Table. When we started planning logistics in March, it never occurred to me that this was MUCH too late to visit Cinderella’s Royal Table, but I now know that those reservations open up 180 days before your visit and fill up fast. We’re particularly focused on doing this character experience because you get to meet a bunch of the princesses AND you get to go in the castle. My kids were taken with Cinderella’s castle and desperate to get in. Next time, I’ll be making the reservation exactly 180 days out! 

Being more strategic about FastPasses. Quick FastPass overview: with your ticket, you get to FassPass 3 rides each day. You can reserve these Fast Pass times 60 days ahead of time if you’re staying on property or 30 days ahead if you’re not. When you FastPass a ride, you’re given a 60 minute window to enter the FastPass line for that ride, which cuts your wait time down significantly. (We never waited more than 10 minutes with a FastPass.) Once you’ve used all of your FastPasses for the day, you can add one more at a time based on what’s available. 

I did a bunch of research about different rides and planned our FastPasses based solely on what we wanted to do the most. I didn’t do any research about which rides are the hardest to get Fast Passes to or which ones you should save to add to your FastPass lineup once you’re there. Next time I will be more strategic about what I FastPass ahead of time.

For example, everyone wanted to do Small World, so I FastPassed that. A lower priority was Peter Pan’s Flight, which I didn’t FastPass – it wasn’t in our top 3 choices, yet it was in our top 6. But, Small World was consistently available for day-of FastPasses whereas Peter Pan’s Flight wasn’t.  The result was that we got to ride Small World about 5 times – which, to be fair, was great and my kids loved it – but we didn’t ever do Peter Pan’s Flight (wait time was always at least an hour and no Fast Passes available). 

There are a lot of resources that can help you to be more strategic about what you Fast Pass and next time I’ll take advantage of them!

Packing rain gear. We got at least one good rain shower each day we were at the park. I packed an umbrella and a change of clothes for the kids, but not rain gear. They sell ponchos at the park, but they’re like $10 a piece (for basically a garbage bag). We just got a little wet and got over it, but next time I’ll bring a poncho for each of us and, if we have a stroller, something to cover it so it doesn’t get soaked.

Avoiding the summer if possible. The crowds were really manageable, but the heat was tough. Since we had family coming from different areas with different breaks, it made sense to do June. And, if we do another trip like this again, I would definitely take on the heat to have extended family all there. It was doable and we still had a blast. THAT SAID, if you can go in the fall, winter or spring, I’d highly recommend it. We live in a warm place and are in the heat a lot, but it was tough being out in the sun and heat all day. If you’re just picking a time to go, I’d recommend avoiding the summer just to make the trip that much more comfortable and enjoyable. 

All that to say, amidst some failures and wins, we had a GREAT time at Disney World. Everything went smoothly, and both the kids and adults had a wonderful time. We can’t wait to go back. Whether you’re a Disney expert or a first-timer like me, please share any tips, advice or successes/failures that you’ve had. We’d all love to learn from them and use them to plan the next trip! 

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