10 Lessons for a Magical Disney World Vacation

Are you among the thousands of Canadians who will be headed for a Disney World vacation in Orlando, Florida, this spring? Then this list is for you! My family recently spent eight nights in the Disney World “bubble,” where we stayed at two gorgeous hotels and spent five days at Disney’s four parks. I spent hours researching and planning this trip (seriously, wars have likely occurred with less planning) but despite those efforts, there were still lessons to be learned once we arrived in Florida.

So, I’m passing my top 10 lessons onto you. I’m skipping information about selecting hotels, flights, how many park days to book, all things that you’ve already sorted out if you’re heading to Disney this spring. (You’ve booked your park reservations, right? If not, make sure that your desired dates are still available; Disney isn’t a drop-in kind of place anymore.)

Our trip had its challenges, especially since it involved a three-year-old (ed note: Disney with babies and toddlers is a whole topic on its own) but ultimately it was a fun, memorable trip that I know we’ll cherish for years to come. Hopefully yours will be even more successful!

Disney World Vacation Tips - SavvyMom
I swear she’s enjoying herself | L. Kneteman

10 Lessons for a Magical Disney World Vacation

Spend Some Quality Time with the My Disney Experience App

The My Disney Experience app will be your best friend while you’re at the parks so get familiar with it now. It lets you easily search for specific attractions or dining options and quickly see everything from ride height restrictions to menus to dining availability (and yes, you can reserve and even order food right from the app).

Be sure to familiar yourself with the map of the parks. While it defaults to ride wait times, it also shows you the location of everything from food to restrooms to Photo Pass photographers (more on them in a minute). Tap the menu icon (the three horizontal lines) to discover even more information including the very useful Future Plans section. There you’ll find your park, dining, and on-site hotel reservations as well as any attractions that you’ve decided to add to your day (note that doing this isn’t creating a reservation or guaranteeing you a spot, it’s just a tool to organize your day). Once you’re at the park, any photos taken on rides or by Photo Pass photographers will show up in the Photos section while the My Day tab, accessible from the home screen, will let you see your day at a glance.

Princesses at Disney World - SavvyMom
Dining with the princesses at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall | L. Kneteman

Don’t Give Up Hope If You Didn’t Initially Score That Dream Dining Reservation

Dining reservations open 60 days in advance, and guests staying at a Disney property can book on day 60 for the length of their stay (up to 10 days). Competition for certain hot spots—including Cinderella’s Royal Table in Magic Kingdom, Topolino Terrace at the Riviera Resort, and ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort— is fierce and available slots often book up almost immediately. But don’t worry if you weren’t able to secure your dream dining spot. Some people essentially hoard reservations and ultimately end up canceling some or even most of them. Because you now only need to cancel two hours prior to when your reservation is set to occur to avoid a $10 per person no-show fee, day-of availability isn’t unusual. To save yourself the effort of having to continuously check the My Disney app for availability, consider using one of the many free or paid services that will alert you when your selected dining experience has availability.

I used the Stakeout app’s free option to land a dinner at the previously sold out Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, where we got to dine with five princesses and enjoy some delicious Norwegian food (I’m still thinking about the cinnamon butter).

Germany Epcot - SavvyMom
Sometimes you have to put your plans on hold and watch the trains at the Germany pavilion | L. Kneteman

Rent/Bring a Stroller

If you have kids under six, this decision is probably a no-brainer. But you have an older child, you might be tempted to ditch the stroller. Don’t do this; you will regret it. Disney is exhausting, even for the most energetic child. Everyone’s life will be significantly easier if you just have a stroller there for your six/seven/eight maybe even nine-year-old. Plus, a stroller means a place to store all your stuff (you do not want to be wearing a giant backpack in 30-plus degree weather). If you don’t want to lug a stroller down to Florida, there are many rental options. We rented a City Mini Double from ScooterBug, as it’s the only company that’s authorized to drop off and pick up strollers from the resorts without meeting you. Despite its size, the stroller was easy to maneuver, folded quickly, and was used more by my seven-year-old than by my three-year-old.

Photo Pass Walt Disney Vacation - SavvyMom
Thanks to PhotoPass, all of the members of your family can be in your snapshot | L. Kneteman

And Get Memory Maker

Disney’s PhotoPass service features over 100 locations where your family can pose for a shot of you all at the Happiest Place on Earth. These locations include everything from rides to character meets to just scenic spots around the park. To find a find a PhotoPass photographer, just check the map in the My Disney app (the photographer also all wear a uniform though the exact design varies from land to land). While you can buy photos individually, or buy them all once you’re back home, it’s cheaper to buy Memory Maker, what Disney calls your collection of photos, in advance. For $169 USD, you’ll get access to all your photos, plus some standard shots of key landmarks (great for photo books) and even a few cool little videos. The quality of the photos can vary (and the Florida heat and humidity doesn’t help) but overall, it’s worth it to have access to dozens of photos of your entire family.

Visiting Epcot - SavvyMom
We lucked out with some amazing weather | L. Kneteman

Genie+ Isn’t as Complicated as It Seems

Genie+ is a paid service that lets you access rides through a shorter line. You buy it each day, starting as early at midnight, and pricing varies depending on the crowd level. The cheapest it gets is $15 a day, and yes, everyone in your party who wants to use Genie+ needs to buy it, so the cost adds up. But trust me, it’s worth it. While it doesn’t mean you’re going to walk right onto each ride, we found that it noticeably lowered our wait times and let us pack in more attractions. While we opted not to get it for Animal Kingdom, which has fewer busy attractions, we wouldn’t want to do the other three parks without it.

Genie+ is handled through the My Disney app and you can book your first ride starting at 7am. There is a bit of a learning curve but it’s not as complicated as some Facebook groups make it out to be. For more details this service, watch this video. Just note that not all rides are covered by Genie+. The most popular ride at each park can only be accessed by standing in line or by purchasing what’s called an Individual Lightning Lane (ILL). These rides open for purchasing each day via the app at 7am for people who are staying at a Disney resort, while everyone else can buy an ILL starting at when the parks open (and note that different parks open at different times). These rides can and do sell out, so always try for your ILL selection first. You can read all about ILLs here.

Then there are the virtual queues which, as of time of publication, exist for Guardians of the Galaxy in Epcot—personally my favourite ride—and will be in place for the set-to-open-in-April Tron: Lightcycle in Magic Kingdom. Virtual queues are free but have a limited number of slots. They open at 7am through the app and you’ll want to prioritize a securing a virtual queue space over a Lighting Lane space. If you don’t get a queue spot, you can try buying an ILL for these rides, if that option hasn’t sold out. I can sense your confusion; try watching this video for clarification to learn more about ILLs and virtual queues.

Slinky Dog Dash - SavvyMom
This is why you want to tie long hair back | L. Kneteman

Dress & Pack Appropriately

Oh, your family is outfitted in coordinated T-shirts? That’s great but those shirts aren’t going to help you when you’ve been on your feet for nine hours and it’s over 30 degrees. You need to treat your day at Disney like an outdoor adventure: Wear socks and comfortable shoes, coat yourself in sunscreen and bring extra, have easy access to Band-Aids, wipes, ponchos, and
essential painkillers and other OTC medicine. If you’re sensitive to the heat, consider adding portable fans and cooling towels to your arsenal.

Disney lets you bring in all the (non-alcoholic) drinks and food you want so be sure to pack reusable water bottles (you can get free ice water at any quick service restaurants) and plenty of snacks. While Disney is known for its plethora of delicious snacks, their cost adds up quickly, as does the resentment when you find yourself buying a $7 pack of gummies that maybe would cost $4 in the outside world.

Also, if you have long hair, consider tying it back. This isn’t just a heat and humidity thing (though it helps with those problems). I left my hair down and as a result, my face is partially or mostly obscured in some ride photos. Even worse, it totally blocked out my son’s face in our Slinky Dog photo. Sorry buddy!

Magic Teacup Ride - SavvyMom

The Buses Are Fine

Our first resort, the Polynesian, is one of three that lets you take the Monorail to either Magic Kingdom or Epcot. But to get to Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, or Disney Springs (Disney’s shopping area), we had to take a bus. I was initially dreading this based on certain comments I’d read online but it turned out to be fine. Honestly, if you’ve ever taken a TTC bus during rush hour, you’ll find Disney transportation to be a breeze. Because we finished our trip at Animal Kingdom Lodge, which only uses buses, we ended up taking this form of Disney transportation multiple times. It was never full nor did we even wait more than five minutes for a bus. Just note that strollers do need to be folded, which means you’re going to need to empty the bottom basket of most of its stuff. To make this task a little easier, we brought along a big tote bag that served as a catch-all for whatever was in the stroller basket.

Buy the Popcorn Bucket

You can buy a reusable popcorn bucket for $13 USD and then refill it for $2.25 USD a pop, as many times as you want, or you can be like us and buy boxes of the same popcorn for $5.50 over and over and over again. I initially shunned the popcorn bucket because there are so many other treats, why would we want mediocre popcorn? But on day three, the only food my toddler wanted was popcorn, so we grabbed a box but not a bucket because surely this was a one-time snack, right? No, no it wasn’t because my son loved the popcorn. Learn from our mistake; buy the bucket. (ed note: Also buy the coffee cup)

With Elsa at Walt Disney World - SavvyMom
90 minutes in line for this moment | L. Kneteman

Everything Will Take Longer Than You Planned

I understand the urge to pack everything into a carefully choreographed schedule for your Disney World vacation but save your sanity now and don’t do that. Yes, create a loose schedule where you highlight your absolute must-dos, but realize that pretty much everything at Disney takes longer than expected. Allow extra time around ordering food and transportation (which, to be fair, can sometimes be quick); character meet and greets (we waited 90 minutes to see Elsa and Anna, that lineup snakes into Norway’s mountain so don’t be fooled by its initial “short” appearance), and rider swap. This is when one adult skips a ride to stay with a child who is too small/doesn’t want to go on a ride while another adult and any interested kids go on it. Then the adult who skipped, along with one other person, can go on the ride via the Lightning Lane. Rider swap requires the assistance of a ride attendee and we found that getting this assistance can take a while.

Lower Your Expectations

Finally, arrive at the parks with a pragmatic mindset. Understand that it will be expensive, loud, and busy; that there will be frustrations and possibly (likely?) meltdowns and even tears. And realize that while a successful Disney World vacation requires planning, you also need to be prepared to rework those plans on the fly. This doesn’t mean that your family and yourself can’t have fun and make amazing moments, but those goals are much easiest to achieve if you approach each day with an open, flexible attitude that’s realistic about the adventure you’re about to undertake. Disney World might call itself “the happiest place on Earth” but this likely won’t be your happiest day ever. However, with the right outlook, just the right amount of planning and some luck, your Disney World trip can be an incredible experience that your family will remember forever.

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Category: family-life,travel