We somewhat recently returned from a week and a half long anniversary trip to Disney World that encompassed two holidays, the end of the Halloween season and then the very beginning of the Christmas holidays. No joke, we left the Magic Kingdom around 1 am November 1st after spending the evening attending Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, and by park opening eight hours later, all of the Fall decorations had been removed and nearly all of the Christmas ones had been added. Two days later the entire park was “done,” up to and including Queen Elsa’s Griswold-worthy lighting job on Cinderella Castle and the giant, towering Christmas tree in the entrance hub. Disney decorating services move lightning fast.
But impressive work on the part of the decorating team aside, I think the truly impressive feat is that we got through 11 holiday days at the Happiest Place on Earth without incurring a mountain of vacation debt, or suffering hideous sunburns, or eating anything truly appalling, or losing our sanity and murdering one another. I mean, we came awfully close on that last one, but we pulled ‘er back (I kid; Mr. Finger Candy and I travel remarkably well together.)
Also, this was our fourth trip to Disney World in a year; it’s almost like we know what we’re doing now! Here’s a few things we’ve learned along the way – I hope these practical tips and tricks from a couple of nerds-in-the-know help you maximize your time and enjoyment on your next Disney trip. 🙂
Set a fun vacation challenge for yourself: It may seem counterintuitive to add to-dos to an already packed and stressful vacation schedule (yes, Disney’s loads of fun, but it can occasionally feel like a death march. With churros.) But we’ve found that adding a side mission of sorts – like, say, bridging two holiday seasons by attending Mickey’s Not So Scary on Halloween and then Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party a week later – keeps us on task and ups the fun quota significantly by giving us silly little challenge parameters to goof around within. Or maybe I just like looking down at my list of to-dos for the day and seeing “Ride every roller coaster after dark” or “Eat nothing but snacks.”
Be prepared for every weather eventuality: Again, how helpful, my advice here simply being BRING EVERYTHING. But the only predictable thing about Orlando weather is its unpredictability, and if it’s not 90 degrees and humid like it was every stinkin’ day we were there, it’s raining. And sometimes it’s both! So pack a travel umbrella and a poncho and maybe even a pair of flip flops that you can throw on in the event you’re caught in a ferocious downburst while sitting at the outdoor Fantasmic amphitheater at the very back of Hollywood Studios one evening. True story.
Wear sunscreen and stay hydrated: Based on the number of people I saw spackling themselves and their kids with spray sunscreen, I probably don’t need to preach my lifelong gospel of sunscreen (does a Celtic body good!) Well done, Disney travelers. But I also know there are a ton of people who run about the parks all day long powered on nothing but sugary soft drinks and desserty coffee concoctions (shout-out to the utterly befuddled Southern woman aghast that one establishment “ain’t got no Coke!”) Man cannot live on Powerade alone! So go grab yourself a water. But if you’re not down with paying $3.50 for a bottle of Dasani (geez, who is?) simply roll on up to any counter service location and ask for a couple of cups of ice water, and they’ll give them to you gratis. Last thing Disney wants is for you to face-plant in front of the Carousel of Progress, so drink up.
Find the good air conditioning: Disney attractions are notorious for ending in a gift shop. But the gift shops are air conditioned! As are the rabbit warren of shops that line Main Street in the Magic Kingdom – you can actually traverse the entire length of Main Street without ever going outside. Duck into these air conditioned cold spots as often as you can for a quick refresher (fun discovery? The very best AC in the Magic Kingdom is directly over the oil paintings in The Art of Disney store on Main Street.)
If it makes you sick, don’t ride it: This is advice we only just heeded this past trip, and I think our vacation experience was all the better for it. Typically we soldier on through rides that have proven to disagree with our old ass constitutions (Space Mountain, Everest, Flight of Passage, Star Tours) and then feel like sweaty, nauseous butt for the next 30 to 90 minutes. This time we just eschewed those attractions altogether, choosing instead to double or triple up on some kinder, gentler rides (or sextuple – that’s totally not a word – in the case of my beloved Haunted Mansion.)
Work those FastPasses: Three of these express passes are available to every guest every day either physically, in park at a kiosk, or virtually through the My Disney Experience app. Save the extremely popular, always-slammed attractions (Slinky Dog Dash, Flight of Passage again, the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train) it’s relatively easy to schedule and obtain these passes. Yet based on the amount of grumbling I heard from the standby line as I zipped past in the express line at my designated time, few guests know about this awesome perk. So download the free app or show up in park and schedule a day’s worth of FastPasses so you don’t spend more time than necessary waiting – and grumbling – in line.
Make advance dining reservations: The immense popularity of the Disney Dining Plan, a pre-paid food plan not unlike the ones you may have enjoyed at college, means getting a walk-up table at virtually any restaurant in any of the parks is a real chore. So if there’s somewhere you really want to dine, make an advance reservation. Disney allows you to book your dining up to 180 days out from your trip, which is generally overkill unless you’re talking about Be Our Guest, in which case it’s not enough kill; that place is wildly popular. We certainly love it, and we make it a point to eat there at least once per trip.
Take screenshots of your FastPass plans and dining reservations: The My Disney Experience app is a great resource for the more technically-minded Disney traveler, but it is a battery killer, particularly when you’re calling up the app every 15 minutes to see which ride or restaurant you need to dash off to next. Take a screenshot of your plans and make it the temporary wallpaper to your phone; now your plans are available at the quick touch of a barely-battery-draining button.
Consider becoming annual passholders: Every family’s break-even point is different, but generally speaking, if you’re going to be in park for 12 or more days a year, like we were in 2017 and 2018, it makes the most financial sense to become annual passholders. APs also enjoy some nice little passholder-only perks, as well as discounts on food, merchandise and accommodations, and unlimited access to the Memory Maker photo service. It’s a pretty decent deal, and we’ve been really pleased with our first year as annual passholders.
Add funds to a reloadable gift card: Not only will this keep you mindful of your budget (it’s easier to track your spending when it’s in pre-paid, round dollar increments) but it’s a fuss-free way to pay at merchandise shops, counter service dining locations and all of those little booths at Epcot’s International Food and Wine Festival.
Stay flexible: Rides go down, the app crashes (repeatedly), your bus doesn’t show up on time, weather concerns cancel the fireworks – these things happen all the time, and the best you can do is just roll with the punches. Allow yourself lots of time to get to your reservations, engage Guest Services when technical or weather problems derail your plans, move on if the going gets tough, and always have a plan B. And don’t snipe – or worse – at the cast members for things that are beyond their control. I’ve yet to meet a CM who could control the weather. Unless the Thor who strides about the Norway pavilion in Epcot actually is the God of Thunder! In which case, I think he is quite underpaid.
Don’t be so serious: Cast members love us because we’re polite and will do literally anything for a laugh, whether it’s gossiping about Gaston’s purported addiction to manscaping (seriously, when we met him he was SO waxed!), pretending to Force choke each other in a goofy lightsaber battle or posing for an every-park series of cheesy prom pics.
You’re at Disney! Live a little and snuggle up to that dinosaur statue already. 🙂
Remember that there is so much more to Disney than its rides: I’m always a little dismayed when I overhear other guests planning their entire Disney vacations around the rides. Sure, Disney attractions are groundbreaking technological marvels, but there is SO much more to Disney than the rides. So take in a musical show (or four) at Hollywood Studios. Hop on the monorail and explore the deluxe resorts across from the Magic Kingdom. Take a scenic boat ride over to the Boardwalk for ice cream and tequila (preferably separate, but hey, you do you.) Spend a day playing Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a free-to-play interactive card game. Enjoy a special meal at one of Disney’s incredible themed restaurants. Spend the evening bopping around Disney Springs. Have your picture taken with a favourite character. Take a behind-the-scenes tour of one of the parks. Or…
Attend a fireworks viewing party, one (or both!) of the holiday parties or some other special event: Some of the most fun we had this trip was at Mickey’s Not So Scary and Mickey’s Very Merry. Having attended a Not So Scary earlier in the season, we didn’t feel pressured to cram in a bunch of gotta-dos, preferring instead to explore the Magic Kingdom at our leisure, riding rides, meeting cool characters, explaining our costumes to people who didn’t know who we were (and fanboying out with the people who did) and pulling down some serious loot on the trick-or-treat trails.
Mickey’s Very Merry was a first for us this year, although we caught quite a bit of the entertainment – the stage show, Elsa’s castle-lighting and the parade – last year when we were actually at Disney on Christmas Day itself (and yes, it’s every bit as busy as everyone says it is and you fear it will be!) We enjoyed all of those attractions this year, including the beautiful and moving Holiday Wishes fireworks and projection show, some cool character meet-and-greets, cookie and cocoa-collecting and a whole mess of walk-right-on attractions.
We also started off that day with the first ever seating of breakfast at The Plaza Restaurant on Main Street, which was utterly, utterly delicious; a month on I’m still thinking back fondly, and often, on the delectable lobster Eggs Benedict (on fried green tomatoes) I enjoyed. It was such a special dining experience – as Ice Cube might say, it was a good day.
But the best day had to have been the evening we attended the Jingle Bell, Jingle Bam Holiday Dessert Party at Hollywood Studios. What fun! We had such a blast! And it had nothing at all to do with the fact that we both got pretty tipsy on generously poured holiday cocktails and attempted to eat our combined weight in cheese fondue and naan bread, nothing at all. 😉 Jingle Bam, the Prep & Landing-themed fireworks show that closes out the night at Hollywood Studios, is an awesome show; I love its odd mix of P&L, the Nightmare Before Christmas and schmaltzy holiday standards.
We really got our merry on at the dessert party. I also danced quite a bit, which I showed off in this video I made for our YouTube channel that I have posted before, but hey, one more time for the cheap seats in the back.
These were all super fun events that yes, we paid extra money to attend, but I think the payoff was worth it for these incredible experiences. Sometimes you just have to treat yourself, you know?
So there we have it, tips and tricks from a couple of semi-pros on how to have your best Disney vacation. Although hey, you’re at Disney, so isn’t every vacation really the best? 🙂