If you’re thinking about taking your kids on their first trip to Walt Disney World but have absolutely no idea where to start, then this post is for you! With four parks, two water parks and over 20 hotels, as well as a huge shopping and dining district and multiple golf courses, it’s a lot to take in.
Fortunately I have been to the parks over 100 times, stayed at every single Walt Disney World resort hotel, and have 20 of the best Walt Disney World planning trips to make your first trip to Disney World as magical as you hope it will be.
Note: some of these features may be currently unavailable due to the pandemic. Please check the Walt Disney World website for updated travel information and current safety guidelines.
BEFORE YOU GO ON YOUR FIRST DISNEY WORLD TRIP
1. Plan your trip in advance
It is almost impossible to go to Walt Disney World without planning in advance and if this is your first trip, I would absolutely recommend doing as much planning as possible as soon as you’re ready to get started.
Dining reservations can be booked 60 days in advance, hotel rooms can book up well in advance at busy times of the year and any discounts that might be offered can sell out quickly.
The sooner you can begin making preparations for your trip, the better and one of the first things to do is setting up your My Disney Experience account to keep track of all of your reservations and plans for the trip.
This would also be a good time to familiarize yourself with the Disney Genie system. This is a personalized itinerary planning tool, where you can input the attractions you most want to experience, any dining you’ve booked, and even your interests (such as Star Wars or the Disney princesses) and a customized itinerary will be created for you.
Even if you’re taking a solo trip to Disney World and think you’ll have more flexibility in when you go and what you do, you still want to do as much pre-planning as possible so you’re prepared before your trip.
2. Choose the time of year carefully
It may be that you’re tied down to one particular time of year for your first Walt Disney World trip, and if you are then that eliminates one thing to worry about! But if you have some flexibility, give some consideration as to when you might want to visit.
Certain times of the year are going to be busier than others; all of the major holidays including Christmas, New Year, Easter and Thanksgiving, as well as minor holidays like Memorial Weekend and school vacations will make for much busier parks and more expensive tickets (Walt Disney World tickets are priced depending on the date – take a look at the pricing calendar for more information).
As well as crowds, it’s worth thinking about the weather. Florida is a tropical climate so weather is generally hot and humid, but it can vary year round.
If you come in the summer you are guaranteed very hot weather, but you are also almost always guaranteed afternoon thunderstorms every day and even the threat of a hurricane coming through later on in the season. November through March the weather can be all over the place, with temperatures fluctuating from 30 degrees to 80 degrees in the space of a week.
Central Florida also gets its cold snaps and temperatures can and do get down below freezing, which isn’t ideal if you want to sit by the pool or visit the water parks (which can even close if it gets too cold). While it’s impossible to predict exact weather, it’s a good idea to think about what kind of weather you’re hoping for when booking your trip.
3. Look into discounts
Walt Disney World is an expensive vacation, there’s just no getting around that – but that doesn’t mean you need to pay full price for everything.
Discounts are offered almost all year round to some extent; they can be anything from a small discount on a package to the wildly popular ‘free dining’ offer that sends guests into a tailspin when it’s announced.
If you have the dates you’d like to travel picked out but you don’t see any discounts popping up, then it’s worth waiting a little while to see what becomes available – but be ready to book as soon as you see something, as discounts are limited and will often sell out.
Top tip: the best place to hear about the best dining discounts is actually not from Disney itself; watch social media and Disney forums since they’ll be the first to know when discounts come out as well as how the availability looks.
4. Decide whether to stay onsite or offsite
There are several factors to consider when deciding if you want to stay onsite or offsite at Walt Disney World.
Onsite provides the convenience of using complimentary Disney transportation to get around and allowing you to stay firmly fixed in that Disney bubble. The resorts are also beautiful with amazing themes and if you stay at certain times of the year you get to see them with additional decorations, such as the fantastic Christmas decorations.
Onsite hotels are typically more expensive, however, and you’re paying for the location rather than the amenities that come with the room. Offsite hotels and villas can offer more affordable options, are a great option if you plan to see more of Orlando or take a day trip from Orlando, and offer more options for larger families who might be more comfortable in a villa where they have more space.
5. Decide how you’ll get around
If you’re staying at Walt Disney World and plan to spend most of your time onsite then there is very little need to rent a car.
Walt Disney World has complimentary transportation between all of the parks and resorts including buses, boats and the Disney Skyliner.
If you’re staying offsite or you just want to have a little more freedom then you can of course rent a car, however bear in mind that not only do the parks have daily parking fees but the Disney resort hotels have a nightly parking fee as well.
6. Do your research and book your dining reservations
One of the first things you’ll be able to book for your first Walt Disney World trip are dining reservations. These can be booked at 60 days out for everyone, whether you’re staying onsite or offsite (you don’t even need to have a reservation booked at all to make dining reservations!)
While it might seem a little crazy to be booking where you’re going to have breakfast months in advance, it is worth putting in the effort to do this ahead of time if you know you’re going to want to eat at particular restaurants.
Some of the Walt Disney World restaurants are extremely popular and book up right at that six month mark so do your research and look at menus online to see where you think you might like to eat ahead of time.
The parks and resorts have everything from character buffets to fine dining to quick and casual locations, so I would recommend spending some time looking all of the options over.
Of course you don’t have to book every single meal in advance if you don’t want to. If you’re not picky about where you eat or happy to try some of the more underrated Disney dining locations, and if you’re fine with just grabbing quick service meals, or if you’re going during a slower time of year then you can wait and see what you feel like closer to the time.
Booking a dining reservation requires a credit card but in most cases that will just be to hold the reservation (some places such as Cinderella’s Royal Table do require payment in advance) and as long as you either show up for that reservation or cancel at least 24 hours in advance, the card you use to hold the reservation won’t be charged.
Top Tip: Due to this cancellation period, 24-48 hours before you’re looking to eat is actually a great time to find some of the harder to get dining reservations since people are finalizing their plans and changing things around.
7. Book your park reservations and decide if you’ll use Genie+ or Lightning Lanes
Park reservations were introduced in 2020 when the parks reopened after their closure, and it looks like they’re here to stay. You can make your park reservations on the My Disney Experience app.
You can check park availability before purchasing your tickets, but then as soon as the tickets have been purchased, I would recommend reserving the park you want to visit. Reservations can fill up, especially during busy times.
If the park you wanted to visit it all booked up for the day, then don’t panic. Just make a reservation for a different park, and after 2pm, you can hop to a different park (as long as your ticket has the park hopper option) and go to the park of your choice. Just make sure you check in at that first park before hopping to the second one.
Once you have your park reserved, you can decide if you’re going to purchase Genie+. This is the system that replaced the fastpasses, and although return times can only be reserved the day of your park visit, Genie+ can be purchased in advance. The cost us $15 per ticket per day, but you don’t have to purchase Genie + for every day of your vacation, you can pick and choose.
Separate from Genie+ are Lightning Lane individual attraction selections. These can’t be purchased until the day of your park visit, but it’s still worth deciding in advance if you’re going to use them so you can work that cost into your budget. Lightning Lane selections will be available for the top tier rides at Disney and prices will vary by date.
8. Decide if you want to book any extra activities
There are plenty of add on options and extras to book at Walt Disney World that you might want to look into, with everything from dessert parties to additional hours events at the parks to backstage tours and family portrait sessions.
These are changing all the time and are sometimes seasonal options so check the Walt Disney World website to see what is available at any given time and keep an eye on the Disney Parks blog for announcements on anything new and exciting.
9. Consider purchasing Memory Maker
Walt Disney World provides hundreds of amazing photo opportunities and if your family is anything like mine, trying to get the whole family in the photo is sometimes difficult. This is where Memory Maker and the Disney Photopass system comes in!
Disney Photopass photographers are available all over the parks to take photos in some of the most iconic spots as well as with the Disney characters – you can even get photos on the rides! These photos will go straight to your My Disney Experience account where you view and edit them, and then either purchase one photo at a time of a whole package.
If you think you’re going to want multiple photos (and you probably will) then consider purchasing Memory Maker, which offers you the option to download all of the photos from your trip for one price. This is something you can buy onsite once you’re at the parks, but there is a discount if you buy ahead of time so it’s worth thinking about it in advance.
10. Decide what to bring with you on your trip
There are multiple amazing Disney packing lists out there that cover all of the basics for any vacation as well as specific things you might need for your first Walt Disney World trip. As well as all of the usual things you might think you need, there are more unusual things to pack for Disney that you might be forgetting so checking out these lists from avid Disney fans is definitely a good idea.
While chances are almost anything you forget will be available for purchase in or around the parks or can be delivered to your resort, it’s probably cheaper to take it with you!
ONCE YOU ARRIVE FOR YOUR FIRST DISNEY TRIP
11. Dress wisely
It’s tempting to simply want to dress yourself and your family in your cutest outfits for your trip – after all, there will be so many pictures being taken. But nothing looks cute about blisters or sunburn or everyone crying because their feet hurt!
Check the weather the morning before you leave the room, and dress appropriately (also checking to see if things might change later and you need to pack a poncho or sweater for later in the day). Make sure you and your family all have the best shoes for Disney that can tolerate miles of walking and will be comfy all day long – this is not the time to try new shoes out for the first time, so break them in ahead of time!
You also want to wear make up that isn’t going to slide off your face at the first sign of the famous Florida humidity, or cause break outs a few days in. Take a look at my recommendations for the best make up for Disney World.
Top tip: if you arrive at Walt Disney World and realize you need something like a sweater or some better shoes but don’t want to pay Disney prices then take an Uber or Lyft to a nearby Walmart or Target to pick things up for a fraction of the price.
12. Use rope drop to your advantage
There’s really no such thing as the slow season at Walt Disney World these days, but that doesn’t mean you need to fight crowds all day.
Arriving at the parks as early as possible is the best way to beat the crowds; ‘rope drop’ refers to the time the park opens for the day and if you want to be first in line, you need to be at the park at least 30 minutes before opening time.
This allows you to walk onto some of the more popular rides with little to no wait, which is a great option if you weren’t able to get a FastPass for a particular ride.
13. Take a break in the middle of the day
While this is especially important during the summer months, this is something I recommend to people all year round. The excitement of the parks along with all of the walking involved can be exhausting and taking a midday break is a great way to allow everyone to cool off and recharge.
I always suggest taking a break at the hotel to nap, use the pool or even just decompress in the room, and then head back to the parks in the evening when temperatures are cooler, summer storms have been and gone, and everyone is refreshed and ready for more fun.
14. Stay well hydrated
Dehydration happens very easily in the Disney parks; temperatures in Central Florida can reach 100 degrees in the summer and with everything the parks have to offer it’s easy to forget to drink enough.
Walt Disney World parks offer free iced water at all of their quick service locations and have water fountains throughout the parks so you don’t need to spend any money keeping well hydrated, although I also bring reusable water bottles for all of us so we can keep water on us at all times throughout the day.
As well as drinking enough water it’s a good idea in very high temperatures to add electrolytes with things like Smartwater and Powderade, both of which are available for purchase in the parks.
Although hot weather makes it hard to have much of an appetite, it’s also important to eat enough so I always carry small snacks like dried fruit, granola bars, and pretzels to snack on.
15. Get your spots for fireworks shows early
Magic Kingdom and Epcot have a nighttime fireworks show, and you’ll want to plan in advance for these.
Some offer dining packages with guaranteed seating, some offer dessert parties with special reserved seating areas, and some have a limited amount of space so if you arrive late, you can’t see them at all.
If there’s a show that is a must do for you then I would definitely recommend looking into a dining packages or a dessert party if those are being offered since these not only come with food but with reserved seating.
Otherwise, just be sure to be where you need to be to see the show with plenty of time, especially during busy times so that you can get a good spot and have a great view.
16. Pick your souvenirs carefully
There is no shortage of amazing merchandise available at Walt Disney World and I guarantee you will not come home empty handed!
You can find almost anything at the parks, from generic Walt Disney World products like shirts and mugs, to more specialized items found in unique locations, to completely unique Disney souvenirs to remember your trip, there is something for everyone.
If you want to browse and look at a little of everything then World of Disney at Disney Springs is a great place to start, and the Shop Disney app is great for location certain items if you know what you’re looking for.
If you see something you know that you want then my advice would be to buy it then and there since it’s hard to know if you’ll be back to that place later in the trip, and there’s a chance they might sell out of popular items.
17. Check out the seasonal offerings
If you’re visiting the parks in fall or winter then you might want to consider the after hours parties at Magic Kingdom. Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party generally runs from August (yes, August for a Halloween party!) through October and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party runs through November and December.
You’ll want to think about these parties for two reasons: firstly, the parties sometimes sell out so you may want to buy tickets in advance and secondly, Magic Kingdom closes early on party nights meaning your Magic Kingdom day might be a lot shorter than you want it to be.
If you don’t have party tickets you’ll be politely but firmly herded out of the park at 6pm and there will be no fireworks that night for non-party guests. Due to this, nights when there is no party Magic Kingdom can be quite a lot busier.
There are other fun seasonal activities during the year so keep an eye on announcements to see what might be on offer during your trip.
18. Slow down and take it all in
Walt Disney World really excels in the little details, but you’ll miss them all if you’re running from ride to ride! As tempting as it might be to pack activities into every minute of your trip, it’s worth spending some down time just walking around the parks and resorts to look at the themeing and the attention to detail that Disney does so well.
Also take the time to stop and talk to the Cast Members; they’ll often have some great Disney trivia for you about the area they work in (and be sure to thank them for making magic!)
Top tip: looking for Hidden Mickey’s is a great way to force yourself to slow down and look around a little bit more carefully. A Hidden Mickey is something in the shape of a Mickey head (three circles together) that can be found anywhere throughout the parks.
There are guidebooks and websites that list all of the locations of the Hidden Mickey’s in the parks, but I think it’s more fun to just keep your eyes open to see what you can find (Cast Members will often be able to give you some hints!)
19. Don’t overdo it!
After telling you about how important it is to plan as much as possible in advance, it’s somewhat contradictory to say after all that not to try to do too much – but it’s super important!
Unless your first trip to Walt Disney World is going to be a few months long, you are just not going to be able to see and do it all in one go. There are too many rides and attractions, too many places to eat and things to do, and if you try to do it all you’re just going to come back from the trip thoroughly exhausted.
Pick and choose the things that are most important to you, be flexible and willing to change plans if things come up and most importantly, remember that it’s a vacation and you’re supposed to be having fun!
20. Book your next trip!
Hands up if you know someone who went on a ‘once in a lifetime’ Disney trip -and has been back every year since! The fun and excitement of the parks is addictive and chances are you’ll be ready to book your next trip before your first is even over.
Luckily Disney anticipates this, and there are bounce back offers for those who book another trip while staying onsite that usually offer a pretty good discount. Not only does this save some money, but it means you won’t be as sad to leave after your first Disney World trip since you know you’ll be coming back again one day!