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Planning your first trip to Walt Disney World can be confusing. When is the best time of year to go? How many parks are there? Is a park hopper ticket essential? Do not let the questions overwhelm you! You can have a good time on your vacation if you follow these expert recommendations and Disney World tips for first timers.

Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom

First Visit Important Facts

Walt Disney World is a vast and expansive property. Unlike Disneyland resort in Anaheim, California, the two closest Walt Disney World parks are a 20 minute walk from one another (Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios). The entire property spans 43 square miles. Traveling from park to park, or from your resort to a park, can take time. Be prepared to walk a lot, and plan more time for travel than you think you will need. First timers cannot truly fathom how big the Walt Disney World resort is until they actually visit.

View of Main Street USA from the Disney World Train Station

The names of the different areas of Walt Disney World property are just as important as knowing where they are in relation to your hotel room. There are four main parks that have popular rides and attractions. Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom are known as “the big four.”

Entrance of Disney's Hollywood Studios

Additionally, there are two water parks, Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon, and Disney’s Blizzard Beach, located near the popular shopping and dining district known as Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney). It is a good idea to know these distinctions so you don’t get turned around driving on property or take the wrong Disney bus to a location you didn’t mean to go to.

Family photo at Blizzard Beach Water Park

Disney Vacation Planning Tips

First time visitors absolutely MUST research while in the planning process of their Walt Disney World vacation. Gone are the days of just “showing up” and winging it. This is especially true if you or a family member has not visited the parks in several years.

Disney World can be a full day of fun or a full day of headaches if you are not prepared. A travel agent is a crucial part of this process. Travel agents are experts with the knowledge to navigate the My Disney Experience app, get popular dining reservations, and know which Disney hotel is best for your group.

Mary Blair mural in Disney's Contemporary Resort

One of the best ways to have an amazing Disney vacation is to work WITH your travel agent instead of depending on them for everything. They, usually, cannot vacation with you, so it will be imperative for you to know how to use your magic band or how to make the most out of Disney Genie or how to mobile order food and skip the line at restaurants.

Ride sign for Dumbo the Flying Elephant

Only you and your group can decide what are the most important things to accomplish on your Disney vacation. Do you have favorite attractions you must do? Would you rather spend a lot of time enjoying your hotel amenities? Deciding on these plans ahead of time sets expectations for a vacation with so much fun potential.

Tips for Disney Theme Park Tickets

Another consideration for Disney vacation planning is travel time. Extra time needs to be built into park days to accommodate for the spaciousness of the Walt Disney World property. As such, decide for your group if add-ons to your tickets are really the best deal for you.

Park Hopper tickets allow guests to visit more than one Disney park during the course of one day, but they are an extra cost on top of regular ticket prices. Also of note, park hopping is not allowed until after 2pm each day as of this article’s publishing.

Box of solid Magic Bands for Disney World.

A crowd calendar is typically helpful in assessing how busy the parks will be when trying to determine a great time for your family to visit as well as whether or not you will be able to realistically park hop. In recent years, crowd calendars have not as helpful as they used to be due to all the changes to procedures and protocols since early 2020.

Timing is Everything

Time is the most important factor in a first timer’s Disney vacation. No one wants to spend their vacation in long lines or waiting on Disney transportation to take you across Walt Disney World property. One of the biggest time wasters, currently, is forgetting to make park reservations. Tickets are no longer a guarantee for park admittance. Guests must make a reservation for the park they wish to visit ahead of their visit. This is done through your My Disney Experience account on the Disney World website, not the app.

Disney Genie screenshot from Disney Parks Blog

During peak times, some parks may not be available. Resort guests receive preference over ticket only guests. If the park you wanted to visit is not available, don’t despair! Keep checking back, even on the morning of your visit. Cancellations happen, and you’ll want to secure your park pass reservations first thing before you plan out your day.

Disney Hotels vs. Good Neighbor Hotels

While on property hotels used to have lots of perks, there are not as many anymore. However, the remaining perks may be of benefit to you depending on your vacation situation.

Current resort guest perks are discounted prices on solid colored or specially designed Magic Bands, room charging privileges, and complimentary merchandise delivery to your hotel. Additionally, while parking in the hotel parking lot is not free, resort guests do receive free parking at Disney parks. Parking is always free at Disney’s water parks and at Disney Springs.

Wyndham LBV pool deck

As of this article’s publishing, Early Theme Park Entry replaced Extra Magic Hours on October 1, 2021. Early Theme Park Entry happens 30 minutes before each theme park opens for the day, and it includes every Disney resort guest and other select hotel guests. Additionally, guests of Disney Deluxe or Deluxe Villa Resort hotels will be able to enjoy extended evening hours on select nights in select theme parks. This offering begins in “early October with specific dates and parks to be shared at a later time.”

While Good Neighbor Hotels occasionally offer significant monetary savings, their distance from the parks might mean you’ll spend too much time using their free transportation or driving around the property instead of on the popular attractions you’ve been wanting to try.

Transportation Options

Unfortunately, Disney’s Magical Express is no longer a free transportation option from Orlando International Airport to Disney property. However, there are cost effective options to get you to from the airport or just around property in general.

Ride Shares and Shuttles

Ride share services like Uber and Lyft are allowed to operate on property. They may not be able to get you right to the park entrance, but they are one of the cheapest options for transportation if you don’t have your own vehicle.

Last time, my family really enjoyed interacting with the Cast Member who drove the Minnie Van (operated through Lyft) we rode in around the property. These fun vehicles have not been in use since 2020. I am personally hopeful they will bring them back soon as they had just started serving the guests at the airport too!

Transportation with Kids

Young children need special accommodation considerations in most vehicles. Make sure you have an appropriate car seat or booster for small children either through the transportation company or on your person. The good news is, once you are on Disney property, car and/or booster seats are not necessary on Disney buses and the monorail system.

3 kids waiting to ride in a Minnie Van at Disney World

Most families I share tips with don’t really want to drive to or around Disney World. If you have a special advanced dining reservation or a desire to “rope drop” a park (i.e. be there for the opening), being in charge of your transportation from the first day of vacation might be the right choice for you.

Tips for Rides and Attractions

When it comes to deciding which park to visit and when, this is where a general knowledge of the parks comes in handy. First time visitors may not know that “it’s a small world” is located in the Fantasyland section of Magic Kingdom or that the best place to watch the parades and cavalcades is not always Main Street U.S.A. Below is a basic overview of what you can expect in each park:

  • Magic Kingdom: the “original” Walt Disney World park that opened in 1971; contains the most family friendly attractions such as Dumbo the Flying Elephant, Jungle Cruise, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Peter Pan’s Flight.
  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios: where Star Wars fans can get their fix; also home to favorite rides such as Tower of Terror, Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and Slinky Dog Dash.
  • Epcot: more hands on activities than rides, especially in the World Showcase area; home to rides like Mission: Space, Soarin’, Frozen Ever After, and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure.
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom: see wild animals up close and in person; Pandora: The World of Avatar is part of this park as is Dinosaur, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safari.

Utilize Rider Switch or Child Swap

One way to minimize wait times is to take advantage of rider switch. Traveling with small children means they may not always meet the height requirement or they may be afraid to ride. At Disney World, up to 2 guests can utilize the rider switch function. This allows one adult and participating children to go through the line, or Lightning Lane, while the other adult waits with the younger child.

Alien Swirling Saucers Ride in Toy Story Land

Note: Each guest who wants to ride using Lightning Lane must pay for Disney Genie+ or the Individual Lightning Lane attraction. While the children will get to ride more than once, each paying adult may only use their Lightning Lane entitlement once.

First Time Character Meeting Tips

Socially distanced character meet and greets are still occurring. However, it is not difficult to make plans to meet princesses and even Mickey Mouse himself. My biggest tip for first timers is to book at least one character meal during your vacation.

Kids meeting Pluto at Chef Mickey's

This is a great way to enjoy good food and a quick character meet without spending precious park time in yet another long line.

Disney Dining Plan Options

Finally, like many other things mentioned in this article, the Disney Disney Plan has not yet returned for guests to utilize. Coming up with your own personal Disney Dining Plan may sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Mobile ordering is one of my favorite things to do to save money and time while at Disney Parks. Restaurants, and some snack locations, that accept mobile orders do not require reservations, which keeps dining from taking up too much of those precious, sometimes limited park hours.

Looking for a way to save since you’ve splurged on other aspects of your vacation? Consider bringing your own food to the parks (yes, that is allowed) or cooking in your hotel room if you have a kitchen. You paid for the larger accommodations, so take advantage of access to more than just a mini-fridge!

Kitchen in Boulder Ridge Villas at Wilderness Lodge

Personally, my family does not think the previous version of the dining plan was worth the cost. The portions at Walt Disney World are very generous, and we often found we got a better deal by splitting meals, especially if we had enjoyed individual snacks during the day.

FAQs for First Time Visits

I wanted to end this article with some tidbits of help that may be a little random and, thus, don’t really fit anywhere else in the article.

Pin trading is a fun activity that guests can participate in with other guests or Cast Members. First, you must purchase your own “starter” set in order to trade with others. Find pin trading starter sets online or at official Disney Stores. You can also purchase individual pins. It is not a make or break part of a Disney vacation, but simply a fun extra that some guests enjoy experiencing.

Mystery Pin Trading at Disney World

Guest Services is the place to go if you have any issues in the park. They are located at the front of every park, but they also now have blue umbrella stands set up throughout each park to assist guest. Cast Members working in these positions can help with app issues, ticket issues, dining questions, and even praise for their fellow Cast Members (referred to on social media as a “Cast Compliment”).

Disney World can be an exhausting vacation. Plan a rest or hotel day and enjoy your hotel pool or other fun activities.

The best time of year to visit is whenever you can go. There are no longer “slow” times at Walt Disney World. Manage expectations before you arrive, and everyone will leave the happiest place a little happier than when they arrived.