A little over 5 years ago, we left Missouri and headed to Central Florida on vacation. At the last minute, we decided to spend one day at the “happiest place on Earth.” We drove the kids hard through the Magic Kingdom, trying to soak up every bit of Disney magic we could because we didn’t think we’d ever have the opportunity to bring all five of our children to Disney World again.
I never could have imagined in my wildest dreams that just two years later, we’d be moving minutes away from all the attractions and becoming “locals” where everyone else comes to vacation. Yet, here I sit, the go-to-girl for all of my Northern friends who can’t wait to make magical moments with their families.
Because I love them, and because I love you, here it is: Disney World – A Local Girl’s Guide to the Magic.
When my family visited Disney World for the first time, we just showed up, bought tickets at the Will Call booth (on a major holiday), and wandered our way through the park, standing in line for HOURS at every ride.
Don’t be like us.
Even the most fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants families truly NEED to do a bit of planning before visiting Disney. You don’t have to decide exactly where you’re going to eat every meal and exactly what you want to ride … but you certainly should make a few reservations!
Buying your tickets online ahead of time ensures that you can link your park tickets to the My Disney Experience website (also available as an app) where you can make reservations at Disney restaurants and make up to three FastPass+ reservations for your favorite rides each day. More on food and rides in a bit!
The My Disney Experience app is a must. You can manage your PhotoPass photos, FastPass+ reservations, dining reservations and even check on wait times for your favorite rides, all from the convenience of your smart phone. There’s also a map of each park to help you navigate through the magic.
The Walt Disney World Resort is comprised of four very fun and very different parks. Depending on how many days you are planning to visit, you may want to consider scheduling a hotel pool or beach excursion day in the middle of your trip, as even the most active of families tend to get worn out at Disney.
You don’t want tired toddlers or grumpy grandparents ruining all the magic! So check park hours, decide if you want to open and/or close the park (every park has special night time activities), and work a little down time into your itinerary.
The first decision you should make is where you want to stay. Local hotels, resorts, condos, vacation rental houses, and on-property Disney resorts all offer comfortable and convenient lodging options for Disney-goers. There are many pros and cons to each (which you can easily research on your own) with Disney resorts being the most magical but the least affordable.
That’s why you need to know about Shades of Green.
This resort is on Disney World property and is available only to military members and their families. Beautiful accommodations, park shuttles, and low prices are just a few of their perks. Guests staying at Shades of Green can also order their park tickets in advance at a discount. They can set up your MagicBands, as well, and you can start making those FastPass+ reservations 60 days before you come.
As expected, meals within the park are going to be more expensive than regular restaurant meals. Disney resorts and parks offer an amazing array of dining experiences ranging from food trucks to quick counter service options to fine dining and dinner shows or character meals. Depending on your budget, you may choose to eat outside of the park to save money or splurge on a royal feast in Beast’s castle.
Whatever you do, I highly recommend making reservations for at least one character dining experience. Disney does magic like no one else and character meals are the best of their best. You can have breakfast with Mary Poppins, lunch with Lilo & Stitch, or dinner with Cinderella and her entire royal family.
Right now the Bon Voyage character breakfast is one of the most popular with a menu of delectable delicacies and opportunities to meet Rapunzel, Flynn, Ariel, and Prince Eric. (Insider tip – bring a frying pan and a gold sharpie and both Rapunzel and Flynn will autograph it for you!)
Reservations are strongly suggested for fine dining and character meals (although you can always pop in and check to see if a restaurant has any openings). Many restaurants, such as Be Our Guest, fill up rather quickly. If you do make it into Be Our Guest, be sure to order the gray stuff – it’s delicious!
Food allergies are a hot topic these days, and Disney is ready to help. Be sure to make your server aware of any food allergies or sensitivities in your party, and they’ll take special care to make sure your meals are handled properly.
Still unsure? Ask to speak with the chef at fine dining restaurants or a manager at others. Most restaurants offer vegetarian, gluten-free, and low calorie options.
Now, for the fun part! Each Disney World park has amazing rides for guests of all ages, shows to see, and characters to meet. I’ll break the fun down by park and share a few of our favorite magical musts.
Magic Kingdom– This is the main park that showcases Cinderella Castle and iconic rides such as the Tea Cups, Space Mountain, and It’s A Small World. It’s pretty hard to do this entire Magic Kingdom park in one day, unless maybe you plan to open and close the park on one of its long days. Here’s a few of my best tips:
- Absolutely catch a Castle Show. A few times each day, a handful of Disney princesses along with favorites such as Mickey and Minnie will perform a song and dance show complete with wish-making and fireworks. It’s truly magical and makes me tear up every time. There’s nothing like seeing Mickey through your child’s eyes.
- Be Our Guest is our favorite table service restaurant but it’s often hard to get a reservation. If you do get in, you’ll be able to pick which room you get to sit in. While they’re all beautiful, we especially love the West Wing. This room is smaller and darker, but you’ll get to witness thunder, lightning, and the falling petals of the rose. Insider tip: If you don’t want to spend a great deal on this meal, you can just order dessert. You won’t be disappointed.
- While there are many great quick service options, Pinnochio’s is my personal favorite. They serve the yummiest flat breads and a view over It’s A Small World.
- Don’t skip over Mickey’s Philharmagic! This 3D show is so fun for kids, it’s filled with lovely cold air conditioning, and most importantly, it’s always a short line.
- There are several characters you can make a FastPass+ to meet at Magic Kingdom such as Mickey, Minnie, and Cinderella. Character spots are also air conditioned so enjoy it while you can. Other characters can be found throughout the park with shorter lines such as the Mad Hatter near the Tea Cups and the Fairy Godmother by the Carousel.
- Stay for fireworks and the castle projection show. It’s more than worth it, no matter how tired your band of travelers might be. You’ll end your day wishing on a star and believing in the magic of pixie dust.
Epcot– This park lays the world at your feet. There are two very different sections of Epcot: Future World and World Showcase.
- This side of the park fosters a spirit of becoming globally conscious and boasts a number of attractions that focus on energy, the environment, space exploration, and more.
- It’s most recognized by the large golf ball-like structure that is actually a ride called Spaceship Earth. Get a FastPass+ for this one as lines can be long, but everyone should go through it at least once.
- The Chevy Test Track is our family’s favorite ride where guests get to design their own race car and then hop in and test it out on a real track in a SimCar. Definitely worth a FastPass+ for this one, too.
- The Innoventions building is a great place for cooling off. Here guests can play on a whole smorgasbord of hands-on activities and games featuring the latest technology.
- Another great place to cool off is the Coke shop. Try Coca-Cola products from around the world for free. The most infamous drink there is the Beverly – everyone should try it once, just to say they did.
- While Epcot is becoming more and more kid-friendly, the World Showcase is the side that most adults love to visit. Guests wander through eleven different countries (Mexico, Norway, China, Germany, Italy, the United States, Japan, Morocco, France, the United Kingdom, and Canada), touring shops and restaurants at each one.
- Younger guests can stop at the Kidcot stations in each country to make a free souvenir to take home.
- Mexico is our favorite country to visit, mostly because of the large Mexican pyramid we get to explore. Inside you’ll find vendors, a restaurant, and the Gran Fiesta boat ride with Donald Duck and the Three Caballeros. (Another great place to cool off and relax!)
- The best ride you’ll find on this side of the park is Norway’s Frozen Ever After. It’s still considered a new ride, so lines may be long here, too.
- There seems to be endless restaurants, carts, and food vendors in Epcot, especially during the Food and Wine Festival each year when guests can eat and drink their way around the world.
Hollywood Studios– Quickly becoming our family’s favorite, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the park to go to for action and adventure.
- Star Wars. Need I say more? Undergo Jedi training, meet your favorite Star Wars characters, and check out interactive displays and props from the movies at the Star Wars Launch Bay. You definitely don’t want to miss the Star Tours ride, a 3D motion simulated “space flight” and by far, our favorite ride there. Beware of rebel spies!
- Toy Story Land! This part of the park is so new that we have only seen part of it, but the new rides promise to be amazing!
- The best thrill rides are also in this park. The Tower of Terror and Rockin’ Roller Coaster do not disappoint.
- Want to feel like you’re on the set of a real movie? Check out the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular. We’ve seen it a handful of times and are awed every time we see it. These stunt men and women are the real deal, and you get to see things up close that you only get to see in the movies.
- Take your favorite princes and princesses to see For the First Time in Forever. Two funny characters retell the Frozen story complete with a sing-along and snow flurries. Brings tears to my eyes every time. Only Disney can make that kind of magic.
- There are several amazing restaurants in this park including a Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant but our favorite is the 50’s Prime Time Café where guests are seated in their own 1950s kitchen, complete with waiters and waitresses who jokingly harass you.
Animal Kingdom– Disney World’s newest of the four parks, Disney’s Animal Kingdom brings guests around the world to the most exotic animals of the most exotic regions.
- If you have a family of animal lovers, this is your place to be. This half zoo, half amusement park used to be this non-animal-lover’s least favorite park, but the addition of Pandora- The World of Avatar has completely changed my mind. Pandora is unlike anything I have ever walked through in my entire life. I haven’t even seen the movie, but I felt like I had been swept away to another dimension … and I didn’t want to leave.
- The Flight of Passage ride in Pandora is, by far, my favorite ride/attraction in all of Disney World. Perched on a simulated banshee, guests get to fly like a dragon through the world of Avatar, feeling the rush of the wind and the spray of the waves as they go. There is truly nothing like this experience in the world. It is definitely worth a long line, but I highly suggest getting a FastPass+ if you can as this ride currently has wait times of 3 hours or more.
- The Kilimanjaro Safari is a definite must for animal lovers. Guest pile into an open air bus and tour the African savanna, getting up close and personal with giraffes, rhinos, and other wild creatures.
- Expedition Everest is the only roller coaster in this park, and it’s a great ride for guests who enjoy moderate coasters without turning all the loops and corkscrews.
- By far, our favorite show at Disney is the Animal Kingdom’s Festival of the Lion King. The audience gets to be a part of the show as Timon, Pumba, and Simba share the story of the Lion King, complete with trapeze flying monkeys, aerialist birds, and some of the best singing and dancing in the parks.
- Located at the front of the park, the Rainforest Café is a super fun place to eat. Be sure to watch for the volcano’s eruption!
- Stick around for the night time water show, River of Lights. Disney does the most amazing things with water, lights, and color. It’s simply breathtaking.
Disney Springs– Formally known as Downtown Disney, this bonus park is not really a park at all, but that doesn’t mean that it’s not full of Disney Magic! Restaurants, shopping, and lots of pixie dust make Disney Springs a great place to relax, shop, eat, and enjoy the sunshine.
- The biggest reason we love Disney Springs is because it’s FREE! No where else in Disney World can you park for free and enter for free.
- World renown chefs such as Art Smith, Erin McKenna, and Wolfgang Puck have made their way to Disney Springs among 56 total eateries. Our favorite quick service place is Blaze Pizza where you can create your own delicious pie. Insider tip- download their app for a free beverage on your first visit and stop in around 11am for lunch or 4pm for dinner to beat the crowds. For some crazy fun, enjoy Celtic dancing while scarfing down some amazing Irish tavern dishes at Raglan Road, but do make a reservation as it is a crowd favorite.
- Try some of Disney Spring’s unique modes of transportation such as the floating cars, the hot air balloon, or the ferry boat.
- Swing by the Ghirardelli shop for a free sample of chocolate.
- Visit the Coca-Cola store and head to the rooftop bar where you can enjoy adult beverages and other Coca-Cola products. Feeling adventurous? Order a Coke Flight or an Ice Cream Soda Flight and try out a variety of fun flavors.
Disney fanatics have written large volumes and step-by-step guides to Disney World parks, so I won’t pretend to come even close to covering all that Disney World has to offer, but I hope this local girl’s guide makes your next Disney trip a little easier to plan.
Stay tuned for my next post, featuring inside tips and tricks that many local Floridians don’t even know of Disney’s best kept secrets.