A One Page Guide to Disney World for Beginners


Disney World is a theme park focused on capturing your imagination and a willingness to live in a land of pretend is key to truly enjoying it. It can be the most fun you have ever had as a family with rides, shows, characters, beautiful grounds, treats, and fun shopping at every turn. It can be a place where lifelong memories are made. However, it is also completely exhausting and perhaps overwhelming for some given the crowds, time spent waiting in line, the sticker shock, and the general hassle of getting to/from the parks. Don't go there expecting to relax and renew; this is a place for all out, kid-centered, non-stop activity. That being said, I absolutely love taking the kids to Disney World.  

 

Disney World consists of four separate parks: The Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios. The Magic Kingdom is the main park and what people typically think of when they think of Disney World.  It is probably where you will spend most of your time, although all of the parks are worth a visit. At a very general level, The Magic Kingdom has the most rides; Epcot is more slow-paced and educational; Animal Kingdom is basically an over-the-top zoo; and Hollywood Studios is centered on movie themes. As a family, we tend to have the most fun at Epcot because we are a slow-paced, nerdy type family that doesn't necessarily crave high-thrill rides, but that is obviously not true for all families. 

 

Given my propensity to research places, I feel like I have a really good handle on how to do Disney World, but the following is of course my personal opinion. I have tried to really pare the information down to the very basics.  If you know these few things before you go and nothing else, you will be alright!

The Planning Essentials


  • Touringplans.com is the BEST website to use to organize your day at the parks, and it IS worth it to spend some time making a game plan for the day (or I can do it for you!). They have collected years worth of data on wait times and crowd levels and you can build personal touring plans for the parks. It is easy to do and they will optimize the plan so that you have the shortest wait times possible. It also has a detailed description of every single ride, show and restaurant if you are trying to figure out if something is appropriate for your children. 
  • Generally, unless you are staying on the monorail, transportation to/from the parks is not exactly difficult but it IS time consuming. This is the single biggest thing to consider when picking a place to stay. If getting to/from the parks quickly and simply is your number one priority, stay at a hotel on the monorail. If you can live with taking between 20 minutes and an hour to get door-to-door from hotel to parks you have SO many more affordable options for places to stay and I would recommend looking into them. (See more about where to stay below).
  • Arranging your FastPass+ reservations ahead of time is crucial. Seriously, it must be done! They really can make/break your day. I didn't make them for our first day on our most recent trip and we only lasted until noon and then went back to hotel to swim instead. You can reserve them 30 days ahead of time on the Disney website if you are not staying on Disney property and 60 days in advance if you are.  Pick the rides you are most excited about and schedule them as soon as you can. You can build the rest of your day around those times, it isn't as annoying as it sounds.  Ones to focus on first are the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Peter Pan, Thunder Mountain, Space Mountain and The Haunted Mansion as those lines are especially crazy.
  • The Dining Plan is not worth the money and in general, the food at Disney is nothing special. Bring in as much of your own food as possible, stock your hotel/condo with groceries and don't plan on being wowed by the cuisine. You can order groceries to be delivered to your hotel/condo on the day you arrive through Orlando Grocery Express. Of course, if you don't intend to buy any groceries or pack any snacks, then do the meal plan.
  • You need to make dining reservations for any sit-down meals you want to have in the parks or hotels. Make them as early as possible. Pick just a few and otherwise eat your own food or quick service. The ones to try to get a reservation at are Be Our Guest in the Magic Kingdom; California Grill at the Contemporary Hotel; the Sci-Fi Dine In Theater and The Brown Derby in Hollywood Studios; and any country in Epcot, we really like Morocco. If you need to do a quick meal in the Magic Kingdom, the Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland is your best bet.
  • There is SO much walking involved that if you have a child under the age of 6 and you are on the fence about whether or not to bring a stroller, bring it (or rent one)! You will use it.
  • The shows, parades and fireworks are a huge part of the fun, don't skip them!
  • Set a plan ahead of time to establish the rules for buying toys/presents for the kids or the spending will quickly get totally out of control. We promised one from us and one from the grandparents for the whole trip; some people do one thing per day or something similar.
  • Unless your kids are absolutely dead set on meeting a particular character, standing in line to meet characters and princesses (and character dining) is a waste of time. Instead, excitingly point them out as you walk by them - smile, wave and be on your merry way.

Where to Stay?!


As I pointed out earlier, convenience to the parks is the number one differentiating factor when picking a hotel. For that reason, these options are listed in order from most convenient to least convenient which directly correlates with most expensive to least expensive (except the Bonnet Creek can sometimes be cheaper than Floridays depending on the dates).

 

If convenience is priority #1: The Grand Floridian

If you are only going to Disney World once EVER: The Grand Floridian

If convenience is priority #1 but you can't (or won't) afford the Grand Floridian: Disney's Wilderness Lodge

If you're flexible on convenience but still want "all Disney all the time": Disney's Caribbean Beach Hotel

If spacious accommodations are priority #1: The Wyndham Bonnet Creek Orlando

If spacious accommodations are priority #1 but the Bonnet Creek is booked: Floridays Orlando Resort

 

The Grand Floridian is a 5 minute ride on the monorail to the gates of the Magic Kingdom and a ~10 minute monorail ride to Epcot Center, with very little wait time as the monorail runs continuously. This will minimize walking and the general hassle of getting to the parks as much as possible.  It really doesn't get better than this place in all aspects! It is breathtakingly beautiful with great restaurants, an awesome pool and top-notch service. The other hotels on the monorail, The Polynesian and The Contemporary, are just as convenient but for various other reasons (mainly food and decor) I strongly prefer the Grand Floridian. Sharing beds is a necessity unless you can book multiple rooms.

 

Disney's Wilderness Lodge is excellently themed and offers boat rides direct to The Magic Kingdom.  They aren't as quick as the monorail, but it is certainly the next best option.  Stay here if you are so tempted to stay on the monorail but you just can't bring yourself to spend the money.  We have had so much fun at the pool and the restaurants there.  They offer rooms with bunk beds for the kids, so sharing beds isn't an absolute given, which is a huge bonus in my book.

 

Disney's Caribbean Beach Hotel offers very frequent, ~20-30 minute bus rides to all of the parks.  It also has very nice grounds and a fantastic pool, although many feel it is too spread out so be careful if you have very little ones with no stroller or other family members that need to minimize walking.  We personally did not feel this way at all; our children were young and we made sure to put our stroller to good use. I enjoyed the lush, quiet walkways around the property. Sharing beds is a necessity, but it is much more likely that you can afford multiple rooms here as opposed to the two hotels above.

 

The Wyndham Bonnet Creek Orlando is a non-Disney owned hotel ON Disney property.  IF you book through Vacation Strategy, you can find incredible rates at this hotel as they resell people's timeshare points at discounted rates.  I have no association with Vacation Strategy but I have booked through them and can verify that there were no strings attached and no sales pressure or weird meetings to attend.  Accommodations vary from one to three bedroom condos with full kitchens and a living room.  They are spacious, updated, and clean units. There are several pools on the property, including a small lazy river and a spray ground. The grounds and pool are nicely appointed and landscaped, while not being quite as "themed" as the Disney pools and grounds.  There are also decent restaurants on the property; better than the food available at The Caribbean Beach in my opinion and certainly more variety.  Because it is on the property, the time en route to the parks is about the same as from the Caribbean Beach hotel, BUT the shuttles don't run as frequently (so not quite as convenient on the whole) and are not complimentary with your stay at the hotel. It cost $5 pp when we were there and it could have gone up since then. Our family found that it was a toss up between taking the shuttle and taking an Uber at The Wyndham, while it was always best to take the shuttle at the Caribbean Beach Hotel.

 

The Floridays Orlando Resort also offers multi-bedroom condo units at very affordable prices.  It is the furthest from the parks and can take up to an hour door-to-door if you only utilize the free shuttle as opposed to an Uber.  You can see my detailed review of the hotel on Trekaroo, but in general I only recommend this hotel if the Wyndham Bonnet Creek is not available (which is how we ended up there).


Again, this is minimal information on Disney World, but enough to get you through if you are not a planner by nature.  Email me if you have specific questions, I am happy to give my two cents.