There’s a magnetic allure to Orlando’s Walt Disney World that eventually succeeds in pulling most of us into its mouse-imbued core. If you’re thinking about going to Disney, you probably know the basics: there are four parks that have been built over the last 40 years: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios (formerly MGM Studios), and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
A visit to the Disney parks can be both overwhelming and pricey, so the key to a successful trip is having a good strategy. Fully research what you want to see and do ahead of time and don’t necessarily hit every park your first trip, although Magic Kingdom and Epcot are somewhat obligatory. Above all, if you’re going to brave Florida’s most popular attraction, load up on insider tips like those that follow to get a leg up on the crowds and save some very valuable time.
5…Magic Kingdom: Do more in an hour than most will do all morning.
For most visitors to Walt’s playground, Magic Kingdom is their first and sometimes only stop. Although new rides and characters have appeared here over the decades, it’s classics like “It’s a Small World” and the opportunity to meet “the Mouse” where he lives that really makes this park really come alive.
To experience these moments like a veteran mousketeer, start your day by making a beeline to Mickey’s Toontown Fair – rope drop (or opening) there is 30 minutes after the Magic Kingdom opens; hop on the Walt Disney World Railroad as soon as you walk in the park’s entrance and you should get to Toontown in plenty of time to see Mickey make his grand entrance. After your photo op, head a few doors down to the Toontown Hall of Fame, where you’ll find all the classic characters ready for their close-ups including Goofy, Pluto, Donald, and “the princesses.” Knocking off all these characters at this attraction translates into a huge time savings compared to how long you’d have to wait in line individually for the characters when they roam the park.
Next, slide over to FantasyLand for “It’s a Small World.” This perennial favorite doesn’t use FastPass - the line-cutting timed tickets available at many blockbuster rides - so before you get on what should still be a short line, grab a FastPass for either Mickey’s PhilharMagic or Peter Pan’s Flight for aftewards. With this itinerary you’ll likely end up seeing more in an hour than many people will see all morning.
4…Animal Kingdom: Rise with the sun and see what many will miss.
Probably the biggest mistake first-time Disney park-goers make is sleeping late, especially at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Your reward for a crack-of-dawn wakeup call here will be alert and abundant animals throughout the animal habitats, especially on the Kilimanjaro Safari. The animals are also at their best and most active in the early, cool morning air and you’ll feel like you’re deep in the heart of the African bush. Come afternoon, or even late morning in the summer, animals become scarce as they hide from the Florida heat, just as the crowds who couldn’t resist the urge to sleep in begin pouring in to the park.
You can get even more up-close-and-intimate animal sightings if you stay at the on-property Animal Kingdom Lodge. A perk of being a guest on the Kilimanjaro Level here is the ability to book a Sunrise Safari in the park – you’ll have an exclusive 6:30am (!) entry and private guided Kilimanjaro Safari. Or, for a truly unusual animal adventure, anyone staying at the lodge can book the Wanyama Safari, where just a dozen people are taken on an open car tour of the private savannah areas surrounding Animal Kingdom Lodge and Villas at dusk. There’s an additional cost for both of these, but it’s worth it if you’re trying to get as close as you can get to a true African safari without mortgaging the house.
3… Hollywood Studios: Know how to get the VIP treatment.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios is a study in movie magic - for example: how forced perspective can make a one-story billboard look like a skyscraper; the way a 30-foot high roll of film in the children’s play area-can make a boy look the size of an ant; or how a stunt driver can make a decimated car look like it’s driving itself. Best of all, you can feel like a VIP here. But there’s a trick to it.
Here’s the scoop: come for the day, play, go back to your hotel and relax like the VIP you are. But before you come to Orlando, make reservations for the Fantasmic dinner package. Why? With the special dinner reservations at chic Brown Derby, Italian Mama Melrose, or buffet Hollywood & Vine, you’ll get a reserved seat in the VIP section at the super cool Fantasmic evening show at no additional cost. Unlike the massive overhead firework displays at Magic Kingdom and Epcot, the evening spectacular here is seated, and the queue for seats for the laser, water, and pyrotechnics show can be massive. But with your advance Fantasmic dinner package reservation, you’ll waltz right up to the special reserved section of seats with its own separate entrance. Hello VIP!
2…Epcot: Use the “secret” back door.
Sure, the main entrance to Epcot is pretty cool. It’s got that neat enormous silver globe thing…oh, and lines and lines of people coming through the front door. For our money, we prefer entering the park through the super-scenic World Showcase half of Epcot - the miniature United Nations that gives you virtual and literal tastes of global culture. To really immerse yourself in the illusion - and to skip the crowds coming in the main entrance - slip in through the back door by taking a boat from either the Swan and Dolphin Resorts or the Disney Board Walk area and its adjacent hotels. With virtually no lines and hardly ever any waiting, the back entrance lets you come straight in between the England and France pavilions for a very European welcome.
While in France, don’t miss some of the surprisingly authentic cuisine. Pick up an ethereal éclair, superb chocolate mousse, or authentic quiche at the Boulangerie Patisserie. Or, for even more French flair, book a table with a view at swank Bistro de Paris - easily one of the most romantic restaurants in the park. With a menu created by Michelin-starred chef Paul Bocuse, an extensive French wine list, and a view of the Eiffel Tower, you may just forget you’re in central Florida.
1…Try these first- and last-day strategies for maximum fun, minimal cost
Running low on cash and patience on your first or last day, yet you still have time to kill? No problem. It’s at times like these when Disney can really show you its best deals if you know where to look. First, regardless of where you’ve chosen to stay in Orlando, spend some of your non-park day checking out the amazing “deluxe” themed resorts. For example, at Wilderness Lodge, check out a grand tribute to the great National Parks of the American West and ogle the Native American totem poles in the lobby and the 120-foot geyser out back. Or, make s’mores with Chip and Dale at the nightly sing-along and campfire (a free event; s’mores kits are just $5).
Speaking of characters, if you’ve been yearning to have a meal with your favorites, some of the best are actually located outside of the parks’ main gates: the Swan and Dolphin’s reasonably-priced Garden Grove restaurant has characters every night at dinner as well as at breakfast on weekends, and you’ll find Mickey himself at the Contemporary and Polynesian resorts for breakfast.
In the evening, you can see the Electrical Water Parade and Magic Kingdom fireworks from Wilderness Lodge, the Contemporary, and the Grand Floridian. The Epcot fireworks are visible from most of the Board Walk area, and the Swan and Dolphin resorts, and you won’t need a ticket to enjoy the spectacle.