10 Disney Vacation Tips and Lessons Learned

By Staff

This past February, the Frugal family loaded up our SUV and headed south to Disney World in Orlando, FL. Even though our kids are a little older than most first-time visitors, we looked forward to their reaction. Fortunately, we located a few good Disney vacation tips ahead of time, and while there, we learned a few lessons of our own. Now we are fully educated on things like the Disney Park Hopper passes, fast passes, the dining plan and a few other Disney secrets.

10 Disney Vacation Tips (and a Few Lessons Learned for Next Time)

1. Fast passes rock, if you can get them. We didn’t really get into the Fast Pass system until the second day, but wished we had figured it out sooner. Basically, with Fast Pass you can get a ticket for each member of your party at a particular ride and return during the time window on your ticket to be ushered past the people in line and right up to your ride. We didn’t spend more than 10 minutes waiting on rides for which we had a Fast Pass.

Couple important notes. All members of your party must be inside the park for your park tickets to dispense a Fast Pass. I learned this the hard way when I got up early to get Fast Passes for the ride Soarin’.  After waiting for the park to open, and nearly sprinting with hundreds of others to the Soarin’ ride, I found out Fast Passes cannot be redeemed unless the owner of the park ticket has entered the park that day. Bummer.

Fast passes go quickly for the most popular rides. Pick one or two rides you really want to get to in each park and try to get a Fast Pass, else you’ll be waiting an average of 90 minutes in line to ride.

2. Rides dump you out at gift shops, hold on to your wallet! Walt Disney World has marketing down to a science. It was no surprise that most major rides dump you out in a gift shop. While we did spring for a magnet or two, and even a family picture on one of the roller coasters, most times we tried to make our way out as fast as possible!

They should give the following post-ride instructions to frugal folks, “When exiting the ride and entering the gift shop, hold on to your wallets, keep your heads down, hands in your pockets and run!”

3. Be ready to walk, and walk, and walk. I forgot to pack my pedometer for the trip, and refused to buy another, but I’m guessing we easily walked five miles a day looping around the parks, walking to and from shuttle pickups, hotels, etc.

One excellent tip a friend shared from their Disney vacation was to catch a few sit-down shows in the various theaters, even if you don’t think you’d be interested. The theaters are air conditioned, have comfortable seating, and offer a 15-20 minute break from standing and walking. We particularly enjoyed “It’s Tough to Be a Bug” in Animal Kingdom and the Monsters Inc “Laugh Floor” in Magic Kingdom.

4. Bring something to occupy kids while in lines. This counts as a lesson learned, because it isn’t something we prepared for ahead of time. Disney involves a lot of waiting. Waiting for rides, waiting for food, etc. Consider letting kids take along a portable game system (Nintendo DS, for example), music player, book, etc. Boredom is highly contagious while waiting 70 minutes for a ride.

5. Consider purchasing the Disney dining plan. I did not keep meticulous receipts from our meals (after all, we were on vacation), but I am convinced our decision to purchase the Disney Dining plan was a good one. With my mother-in-law included, our family of five would have had to pay around $65 for quick service meals, and close to $200 for buffets and restaurant meals.

6. Make reservations at sit-down restaurants, unless you enjoy burgers, chicken fingers, and mini carrot cake desserts every meal. Speaking of restaurants, we quickly grew tired of the quick-serve menus. Sure, burgers and fries, or chicken fingers, make for a decent lunch on the run, but after a while they get hard to stomach.

We only made reservations for three or four meals, and I wished we had done more. We enjoyed the Beirgarten in Epcot’s Germany section, Ragland Road Irish Pub in Downtown Disney, and Tutto Italia, also in Epcot (now this was authentic Italian food – delicious!).

The Rainforest Cafe, just outside of Animal Kingdom, offered the most unique dining experience (this wasn’t on the Disney plan, but served as our “splurge meal”). While it didn’t require reservations, Pizza Planet was a big hit for lunch with the kids in Hollywood Studios (Toy Story fans will recognize this one).

7. Staying inside the park may not be worth the premium price. When I visited Disney as a child, my mom and I stayed outside the park. However, when planning for our family’s first trip, many people told us how nice it is to stay inside the park. Sure, logistically it was nice to be close to the park entrances (we stayed at the Beach Club, a five minute walk from Epcot), but it came at a premium.

The inside-the-park resorts are very expensive, and we found that our family of four plus my mother-in-law were too wiped out to enjoy any “Magic Hours” when Disney resort guests could stay past regular closing hours. If we go back to Disney, we’ll look for somewhere to stay outside the park with a more frugal price tag.

8. Watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks show at least once. The fireworks show over the castle was one of the highlights of our trip. If you want to get close to the castle, arrive early. However, there is an advantage to viewing from afar – as soon as they are over, you’ll be closer to the exit when thousands of visitors make their way for the gates.

We made the mistake of camping out right next to the castle, which was nice for the show, but it took forever to work our way through the crowds to the exit. And it got very claustrophobic for my son (6) who doesn’t like being “squished” as he calls it.

9. Bring along disposable ponchos and a hat. Even though we left in February, there were a couple days where the temperatures climbed well into the 70s. I wished I had thought to bring along a hat, but fortunately we did pick up a few disposable ponchos before we left for those afternoon Orlando thundershowers.

10. Consider visiting in early spring or early fall. Both times of the year are cooler than summer months, and early fall was often cited as the best time to visit – right after older kids go back to school in September.

Bonus Tip: Disney World allows visitors to bring along a backpack. All bags are searched upon entry for security. We packed bottled water and a few snacks, ponchos, hand sanitizer, baby wipes, a small first aid kit (pain medicine, band-aids, etc.), a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Disney World 2010 (this was by far the best book we read on all things Disney). This pack served as our bug out bag while at Disney.

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For those of you who have visited before, what favorite Disney vacation tips can you share with fellow readers?