Article Contributer Jason Cochran
Pulling off a perfectly harmonious family vacation at Disney World may be harder than dislodging “It’s a Small World” from your brain. But follow these ten do’s and don’ts at Disney World and you may actually have—dare we say it?—a magical time.
Don’t: Insist on a Disney-run hotel.
There are perks to staying at one of Disney’s 31 hotels and resorts, including extended hours and free parking at the parks, one-stop booking, and heavily themed public spaces that will wow the kids. Tempting, we know. What Disney’s properties don’t offer, however, are the better value, nicer rooms, and tricked-out amenities that you can find elsewhere in town.
Instead: Shop around.
Orlando attracts a lot of conventions, and you’ll often find a higher-quality hotel experience at places that cater mostly to conventioneers rather than Mouseketeers. The Waldorf Astoria Orlando, for example, opened in 2009 near Epcot, and rates can be $100 less than at the Grand Floridian (Disney’s top-tier resort) and only about half the price at certain times of year. The Ritz-Carlton and JW Marriott in Grande Lakes and the brand-new Four Seasons Resort Orlando are also good options.
Don’t: Rely on Disney buses.
Disney’s extensive bus network will get you between its parks and hotels for free, but there is still a price: your time and patience. After a long day of waiting in line for rides and attractions, it’s a drag to wait in line for a bus ride—especially one that can be excruciatingly slow and uncomfortably crowded. The bus system locks you into orbiting exclusively within the world of Disney. Sure, you could take a taxi, but the fare adds up quickly.
Instead: Rent a car.
Because of mass visitor volume, Orlando has some of the cheapest rental rates in the country—as low as $25 a day. All of the usual suspects are represented at the airport (Hertz, Avis, Enterprise). Of course, the $17 daily parking fees at Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom do add up (parking is free if you stay at a Disney-run hotel). The low rental rates buy you a lot of freedom, though: Having a car lets you visit non-Disney theme parks, explore downtown Orlando’s thriving food scene, or even hit the beach.
Don’t: Overspend for tickets.
Disney pushes its Magic Your Way tickets, which are one- to ten-day passes valid for the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Given the steep discounts on multi-day tickets, the impulse is to buy tickets for as many days as you’ll be in Orlando. But if you have unused tickets at the end of your trip—say, if a rainy day keeps you away from the parks, or if you decide to do something that’s not mouse-approved—you can’t get a refund.
Instead: Play it by ear.
Since you can upgrade a Magic Your Way ticket and get the same multi-day discount, it pays to buy conservatively and add more days, if necessary. Note, too, that Magic Your Way tickets only get you into one of the four parks per day. The $54 Park Hopper add-on, which allows you to visit multiple parks each day, is worthwhile for many visitors—especially those who have only a few days in Orlando and want to cover as much ground as possible.
Don’t: Wait in line.
Patience is a virtue at Disney, where it’s common to wait in line much longer than the ride itself lasts. However, that doesn’t mean that you should resign yourself to wasting hours of precious vacation time. Dying to go on Splash Mountain, but not willing to brave the hour-long queue? There is a way around it.
Instead: Skip the line.
Dozens of Disney’s most popular attractions are now equipped with the FastPass+ system, which essentially holds your spot in line, leaving you free to explore other parts of the park. You can pick which attractions you want to use the pass for before you even leave home, then proceed there during your assigned time slot to leapfrog nearly to the front of the line. There are a set number of FastPasses per ride per day—and they do run out—so you’ll do well to get one for a ride on your must-do list as soon as you arrive at the park.
Disney has anticipated your every vacation want or need—it’s part of the magic. It’s also part of their genius: The transportation and ticketing systems are designed to keep you, and your money, within Mickey’s grasp; you could easily spend a week in Orlando and never see anything without ears attached to it. But getting sucked into the Disneyverse means that you’ll miss out on the more than 100 other attractions Orlando has to offer.
Perhaps you’ve heard of a little thing called the Wizarding World of Harry Potter? To experience the most talked-about theme park attraction of the millennium, you’ll have to defect from Disney and visit its rival, Universal Orlando. Potter fans should make a beeline for Universal’s Islands of Adventure park, and there’s also Universal Studios and Wet ‘n Wild. Also within a 15-minute drive of Cinderella’s castle is Gatorland, the sprawling reptile farm that put Orlando on the map 22 years before the Magic Kingdom opened. A bit further afield is the Morse Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of Tiffany glass and is a good option when the grown-ups tire of costumed characters and kiddie rides. And the biggest Legoland in the world is just 40 minutes away.
Sure, it’s novel to eat or drink your way around Epcot’s World Showcase, and some Disney restaurants are very good (if expensive), notably the jacket-required Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian and Monsieur Paul at Epcot’s France Pavilion. But dining at Disney isn’t exactly synonymous with gourmet cuisine. Venture just outside the park gates and you won’t fare much better—unless you’re really into chain restaurants.
Away from its touristy drags, Orlando has a flourishing culinary scene—driven, in part, by one of the largest Vietnamese communities in the country. At Colonial Drive and Mills Avenue, about 20 minutes north of Disney World, there’s a cluster of more than a dozen Vietnamese restaurants, each with its own specialty. Phở Vinh roasts its own barbecue pork, while Anh Hong (pictured) is known for its fried tofu. Go 20 minutes east for Bruno’s Italian Restaurant, run by a real Italian from Puglia (ask if his succulent braciole is on the menu). And the family-run Havana’s Café, near Downtown Disney, serves the best Cuban dishes this side of Miami.
Don’t: Succumb to squabbling.
The combustible combination of sky-high expectations, an unreasonable touring agenda, and the exhaustion that a Disney vacation so often generates can make marriages splinter, friends chafe, and toddlers melt down with uncharacteristic ferocity. You came to Orlando for fun and togetherness, right?
Instead: Remember, this is the Happiest Place on Earth.
Each year, thousands of families with ill children stay at the 70-acre Give Kids the World Village, a Fantasyland of its own with a miniature train, the world’s largest Candy Land game board, and a Hasbro-themed Winter Wonderland party every Thursday. The operation needs more than 1,000 volunteers each week to dish up breakfasts, scoop ice cream, and staff parties. A day spent lending a hand there will definitely make fighting over whether or not to ride Space Mountain again seem even sillier.
Don’t: Give attractions equal weight.
Disney purists will object, but the truth is that not every attraction is worthwhile and not every park deserves a full day of your attention. (There’s no shame in skipping out early—we won’t tell.) And given the disproportionate number of amusements for young children, that’s especially true if you have teenagers in tow.
Instead: Prioritize your time.
The Magic Kingdom and Epcot each merit a full day, and maybe more. But you can cover the Animal Kingdom’s highlights in just over half a day—even if it’s your first visit—and indefatigable guests could hit Hollywood Studios in the same day. The shops and restaurants in Disney Springs are skippable, unless you are in the market for Disney Christmas ornaments or dying to eat at a Rainforest Café. Keep in mind that Disney’s various shows tend to eat up more time than they are worth once you factor in the wait; Magic Kingdom’s two parades are the only ones that shouldn’t be missed. And repeat visitors shouldn’t revisit rides they’ve taken before. Because, really, once through It’s a Small World is enough.
Don’t: Overdo it.
Hope you brought comfortable shoes. Disney’s four major theme parks and two water parks make up 1,100 acres of ground to cover. Add in the Universal Orlando parks and you can feel the blisters already. There’s no way you can see it all in one trip, and trying will only make you miserable.
Instead: Take a day off.
In the rush to see and do everything, it’s easy to forget about Florida’s original tourist attraction: the sun. Every Orlando hotel has a pool, and some of these water wonderlands compete with the theme parks themselves in terms of lavish design and family-friendly fun. Guests of Disney’s Yacht Club Resort or Beach Club Resort can while away an afternoon at Disney’s marquee hotel pool, Stormalong Bay, a three-acre complex that includes a beach and lazy river. The pool at Universal’s Hard Rock Hotel is outfitted with underwater speakers that blast tunes to submerged sun-soakers as well as a sandy beach of its own, while the Nickelodeon Suites Resort’s two multi-level slide-and-splash fun zones just might make the kids forget about the Magic Kingdom altogether for a couple of hours.
Don’t: Go during school holidays
When school is out of session anywhere in the country—actually, anywhere in the world—flights to Orlando book up, room rates peak, and lines are excruciatingly long. Consider, too, that summer break coincides with the hottest, muggiest, most insufferable weather Florida has to offer. And during the Christmas/New Year’s break, Disney has been known to close the park gates to control capacity crowds. Sound fun?
Instead: Let the kids play hooky.
In September, the throngs have departed and prices have dropped, but the summer sunshine is still out and the water rides gush at full throttle. October and mid-January are also prime off-peak times to visit. The prospect of skipping school is sure to elicit gleeful promises to hit the books during downtime. And if you don’t think about it too hard, you can convince yourself that visiting Epcot is educational.