Planning a trip to Disneyland Florida can be a daunting task. I know, because I’ve recently done it and I’d like to share a few tips to help make your trip run as smoothly as possible.
Are you going to go for a package holiday or book flights and accommodation yourself?
When we checked prices, we found a much better deal by booking separate flights and accommodation. Advanced planning meant that we booked everything a whole year in advance. Yes, you read that right, we booked as soon as we could get on there as that’s the only way to get the best deals.
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to hotels and villas in Orlando and around the neighbouring areas. Whether you want to stay on site or further afield is up to you and what sort of accommodation you are looking for. Disney hotel guests can get entrance into the parks an hour earlier than everyone else during what’s called ‘Magic Hour’, plus you can easily get to the parks via the monorail system or shuttle bus. Everyone else has to wait until offical opening times and if your accommodation doesn’t provide a shuttle transportation service, you have to make your own way there.
We stayed at the Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek. This is not a Disney resort, but is only a short 10-15 minute drive to the parks, depending which one you were going to (it’s nearest to Magic Kingdom). Apparently, the hotel is built on the only piece of land that Walt Disney was unable to purchase. I chose this hotel for the accommodation it offered, as well as the location.
As a family of five, we always struggle to find accommodation big enough. Many hotels only allow up to two adults and two children in one room and will not guarantee that a second room you book will be interconnecting. I will never risk booking anything if this is the case. I like to know what we are getting before we get there.
The Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek had a few options and we went for a King room, interconnecting with two Queens. This meant we had one room for us and the children in the other, with the girls sharing one bed and my son in a bed of his own. They had their own bathroom and we could shut the door between us so they could go to sleep earlier and we didn’t need to disturb them.
Overlooking a golf course, the setting is stunning and when relaxing by the pool, you feel a million miles away from the hectic theme parks. The hotel is ajoined to the Waldorf Astoria and between them, the two hotels have a number of different restaurants to choose from. Both have a pool, but the Hilton has a lazy river, particularly popular with the kids. In the evening, there was often a poolside Disney movie playing and during the day, craft activities. For the grown ups, the Waldorf has a spa.
The Waldorf is more upmarket, but the Hilton felt more relaxed and family friendly.
There is a shuttle bus that runs to and from the theme parks and the hotel all day. If you want to get a cab, it’s easy to pick one up right outside the hotel door (the concierge will see to this for you). Cabs are reasonably priced and we used them a number of times, given that we were so close to the parks.
If you stay near to the theme parks, you don’t need to hire a car. We had an airport transfer arrange for us by the hotel and we booked one ourselves for the return trip. We also booked transport to take us to the Florida Mall for an afternoon of shopping.
For going further afield, car hire would be a good option.
Take advantage of the ticket offers on this side of the Atlantic rather than waiting until you get there. It will be much cheaper that way. You can buy a seven day or fourteen day ticket to cover six parks (that’s four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios and Epcot, plus two water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach).
You’ll get an on-line confirmation, then on your first day, you can pick up tickets from the Will Call kiosks at the entrance to the parks.
This is probably the most daunting part of booking your trip. I like to know my trip is organised to an extent, but I don’t like the idea of every hour of every day being mapped out. It can feel as though you are doing that when planning your Disney trip, but I can assure you that any planning you do will be worth it to save the aggravation of queues.
First thing’s first – Download the My Disney Experience app
This will be your go-to app for the whole trip, believe me. You can link your Disney park tickets to this app, so it includes all your party’s details. Then you can use it to book FastPass+ tickets (more about those in a minute), dinner reservations and check queuing times, amongst many other useful things (location of characters, facilities and photographers).
Decide where you want to go each day
I initially had the idea that we would do one day in a park and one day off. I think that works well if you are staying further afield, but if you are closer, you might want to consider doing half days everyday, which is what we did. Here are the reasons why:
The time difference – being five hours behind meant that we were up and ready to go bright and early every morning and so able to get to the parks for opening time. This worked well to take advantage of the slightly quieter first hour. The disadvantage was that by lunch time, we were all shattered, so an afternoon lazing by the pool at the hotel was welcomed by all of us.
Busy time of year – we went at Christmas and although not too bad in the mornings, by lunchtimes the parks really did fill up and it can become a bit unbearable.
The weather – although unseasonably hot, we were experiencing weather in the high twenties/early thirties. The mornings started out cloudy, but warm and when the sun burnt those clouds away by lunchtime, it was hot, hot, hot – not conducive to traipsing round a theme park with children in tow.
Half days means you can spread out your visits over two days, so it’s less hectic/stressful/tiring. We had ten days altogether and here’s what our ininery looked like:
Day 1: Magic Kingdom
Day 2: Magic Kingdom
Day 3: Animal Kingdom
Day 4: Animal Kingdom
Day 5: Magic Kingdom (For a couple of hours, as it was Christmas Day – it was heaving though)
Day 6: Hollywood Studies
Day 7: Hollywood Studios
Day 8: Epcot
Day 9: Day off
Day 10: Home
As you can see, we only did one day in Epcot because we were getting ‘theme-parked out’ by then. We managed to do all the rides we wanted to do in the time we were there. One day was enough for us in this park. We also didn’t fancy going to the water parks. One was closed for refurbishment anyway, but we had a lovely pool with lazy river at our hotel and that was enough for all of us.
Look at the park maps
You don’t want to book three FastPass+ tickets that have you trailing from one side of the park to the other and back again, so plan to book them within the same area. For example, Magic Kingdom has four areas: Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Adventureland and Frontierland. If you look at a map of the park, you will see that it makes sense to split it in half, meaning that you can do Tomorrowland and Fantasyland on one day and Adventureland and Frontierland on the other.
Do the same with the other parks by picking out three rides or attractions that are close together.
Make a list of all the things you want to do in each park. Remember, you can book FastPass tickets for shows and even for seeing characters (in Magic Kingdom only).
Booking FastPass+ tickets
You can book up to three FastPass+ tickets per day. Each ‘ticket’ gives you an hour’s slot for a ride of your choice. Turn up at any time during this hour and you bypass the main queues. This service doesn’t cost anything and it is well worth doing, especially if you have young children.
This is another advantage to visiting a park over two days. You can book three FastPass+ tickets for each day and by doing so, you can cover most of the rides or attractions that you want to visit.
Book your FastPass+ tickets up to one month before you go
Set your alarm on your phone to make sure you remember to do this. Tickets go quickly, especially during busy periods like Christmas and once they are all dished out, that’s it. Using the Disney app, you can pick out your three rides or attractions and it gives you time slots to choose from.
If you have a lot of rides and attractions you want to do, my advice would be to book your three FastPass tickets from around 10am and do some of the rides you haven’t booked tickets for before then. Getting in at opening time and heading to the back of the park first, will ensure you get on a ride with minimal wait times and without a FastPass. We did this at Epcot with a ride called Soarin. When we got to this ride, the wait time was ten minutes and by the time we came out from the ride, the wait had gone up to 45 minutes.
These are an optional extra, but well worth it, in my opinion. When you go to the Will Call kiosk on your first visit to one of the parks, you can purchase Magic Bands for each family member (around $12 each) and get all your ticket and FastPass+ information put on them.
Entrance to the parks and all the rides requires scanning of tickets or Magic Bands and for ease (and reducing the risk of losing tickets) the Magic Bands fasten securely around your wrist and all you need to do is touch it to the scanning machine. Each family member wears their own band, which contains all their ticket and ID information. You can use them on subsequent visits too (if you ever decide to go back), for up to ten years.
The Magic Bands also have another use. If you get any photos taken in the park, or on the rides, you can scan them to your band and keep them all in one place. At the end of your stay, you can purchase any that you want to keep, which leads me to another pre-purchase option – the Memory Maker.
Memory Maker – all your photos in one place
We bought this via the Disney app before we left the UK and at first, I wondered whether I had done the right thing. However, we ended our trip with over 300 photos, so I think I can safely say it was worth it. You can scan every photo from the rides you go on, plus in every park you’ll find official Disney photographers stationed at various points. If you don’t go to the first one you see as you walk in, you will find another one within a few minutes’ walk where there’s little or no queue and you can get a photo souvenir of you and your family. Every character photo taken can also be scanned to your band and linked to the Memory Maker.
I don’t know about you, but it’s not often that we get many photos of all five of us when we go on holiday. Usually, it’s one of us taking the photos of the other four, so in that sense, it was a great opportunity for lots of family portraits. Making use of the Memory Maker also meant that we got some surprise shots like this:
I come to this section with a particular emphasis on catering for food intolerances. Regular readers will know my youngest can’t eat gluten and dairy. Whenever we go away, I spend a good deal of time researching suitable places where we can eat. You don’t need to worry about that when you go to Disney I’m happy to report.
We only ate in the parks once, opting instead for snacks, before heading back to our hotel. We found a ‘free-from’ kiosk in Animal Kingdom (opposite Starbucks, just before the bridge going in to Africa) and on the occasion we did eat, at the counter service eatery ABC Commissary in Hollywood Studios, I was able to order a gluten and dairy free children’s meal for my son.
The quick service eateries in the parks are fine if you don’t mind fast food. If you want to eat in one of the restaurants though, it’s best to book in advance, particularly if you want to experience a character meal.
Eating in the parks isn’t cheap either. If you can, take your own water and snacks. You can always refill your water bottles at one of the water fountains.
Where to eat
Disney Springs (formerly known as Downtown Disney) has a range of restaurants to suit all budgets and tastes. Undergoing extensive development, this area is set to double in size once it’s finished.
We ate here a number of times and anywhere we went to, we were asked if there were any special dietary requirements amongst our group. Following this, the chef (usually the head chef) would come to see us to talk through what we could have and help our son with his order. It was all very easy, never an issue and made eating out a relaxed and enjoyable experience.
My top picks
- Bongos Cuban Cafe
- Rainforest Cafe (there is another one in Animal Kingdom if you have difficulties getting into this one) – fun themed restaurant, where you are surrounded by sounds of the jungle
- T-Rex – Dinosaur themed restaurant. Not for those wanting a quiet meal!
- Paradiso 37, Taste of the Americas
- Erin McKenna’s Bakery NYC – if you can’t get dessert in your restaurant, treat yourself to something from here. You can even pre-order your baked goods to be delivered to any restaurant in any of the parks. We also ordered a gluten and dairy free birthday cake from here, which was delivered to our hotel.
Our hotel did a good job of looking after my son when it came to eating. On our first day, one of the chefs from the Harvest Bistro sat down with us and went through everything. They couldn’t have been anymore accommodating.
There are so many great moments, that it would be impossible to list them all. Here are a few of our favourites from each park.
- Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
- Tomorrowland Speedway
- Space Mountain
- Peter Pan’s Flight
- Under the Sea – Journey of the Little Mermaid
- Splash Mountain
- Thunder Mountain
- Primeval Whirl
- Kilimanjaro Safaris
- Festival of the Lion King
- Expedition Everest
- It’s Tough to be a Bug
- Lights, Motor Action – stunt show
- Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular
- Beauty and the Beast – Live on Stage
- Toy Story Mania
- Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster (a favourite of my eldest daughter)
I swear, you have no control over your face when this ride sets off (it’s that fast!)
- Star Tours – The Adventure Continues
My youngest son loved this. He also enjoyed the Jedi Training Academy
- Spaceship Earth
- Test Track
- The Seas with Nemo and Friends
- Project Tomorrow: Inventing the World
Of course no trip to Disney would be complete without meeting your favourite characters. We have shots with Buzz and Woody, Cinderella and Rapunzel, the Jungle Book crew, Monster Inc, Sophia the First, to name but a few. Our favourite had to be this pair though:
This has been an epic post, but it was an epic trip and deserved a full-featured write-up. If you have any tips you’d like to share, please let me know in the comments section.
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