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Disney World Planning Guide: The Basics For First Timers

Disney World Planning Guide: The Basics for First-Timers

There is so much to know when you are planning your first trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida and admittedly it can be quite overwhelming!  In this post, you’ll find a guide to planning your Disney World vacation.  The basics, a lay of the land and everything you need to help you get started planning your Disney World vacation.

Walt Disney World is located in Lake Buena Vista, (Orlando) Florida. With millions of visitors planning a visit per year, Disney operates a complex of 30+ resorts, an entertainment center, four theme parks and, to the surprise of many, two amazing water parks.

The Parks at Disney World

There are four theme parks at Walt Disney World, 2 water parks and a shopping and entertainment district once known as Downtown Disney and reimagined in 2015 as Disney Springs.  Let’s have a look at what each of them has to offer.

Magic Kingdom

The original of the four theme parks and arguably the most popular.  Outsiders will recognize it as the park with Cinderella’s Castle and somewhat of a copy of Disneyland in California.   It opened in October 1971 and has welcomed millions of happy guests since.  It’s a place I truly never get tired of!

When you enter the Magic Kingdom you’ll walk down Main Street USA towards Cinderellas Castle, a nod to Walt’s childhood home town. The remainder of the park consists of different lands, Tomorrowland, Fantasyland, Liberty Square, Frontierland, and Adventureland all with their own unique story.

As the original park, it encaptures Walt’s dream of guests of all ages being able to share the magic of fantasy no matter your age.  When you enter you will truly be transported to a place of happiness.  “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.”

Magic Kingdom is a must for all first-time visitors and at the top of list for planning a Disney World vacation.

Epcot

The second park at Walt Disney World opened in 1982 and was originally a project for Walt Disney himself to study innovations for the city of tomorrow, Epcot is divided into two large lands, World Showcase and Futureworld.

Future World is home to attractions related to space and science, aquariums and innovation.  This area of Epcot is currently evolving and undergoing a major transformation with so many new things to come in the near future.

The World Showcase shares multiple pavilions where you will find a miniature version of different countries showing not only their architecture but also each countries food and customs.

It’s a great place to get off the beaten path, walk deep into the shops and really get a taste for what they have to offer.  Each pavilion also has dining options sharing foods from that country.

Each year the World Showcase is home to four festivals:

These festivals include food kiosks, live music, and entertainment including nightly concerts in the American Garden Theater.

There is truly something for everyone including the little kids.  My personal favorite festivals are the Festival of the Arts and the Flower and Garden Festival but the Festival of the Holidays ranks pretty high as well with the nightly Candlelight Processional.  It has all the holiday feels.

Hollywood Studios

At Hollywood Studios, Disney takes us into the movies. This park opened in 1989 as Disney’s MGM Studios and was renamed Hollywood Studios in 2008.

Guests can experience some of the newest lands and attractions at Disney World here, including Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land.  But the park is still home to some notable old favorites like Rockin’ Rollercoaster and Hollywood Tower of Terror.

To some, this park has become the Star Wars Park as guests flock to see the all-new Galaxies Edge, home to the popular new attractions Rise of the Resistance and Millenium Falcon: Smugglers Run.  Slated to open in 2021 guests will also be able to stay at a new Star Wars Hotel, a two night fully immersive experience that will also include access to Galaxies Edge at Hollywood Studios.

Animal Kingdom

And finally, the fourth park at Walt Disney World is Disney’s Animal Kingdom.  Animal Kingdom opened in 1997 and is more than “just a zoo” and shouldn’t be skipped.

Themed after the animal realm, this park displays exotic places such as Africa, Asia, Discovery Island, Dinoland, The Oasis and even lands out of this world like Pandora, the World of Avatar. Music, dance, food, and decorations embed the culture of these magnificent places inside the park.

In fact, I find Animal Kingdom to be one of the most relaxing parks at Disney World and hope that you’ll soon be able to enjoy it too!

Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach – Disney Worlds Water Parks

In addition to the four dry parks, Disney World has two water parks for guests to enjoy year-round.  The two water parks often get overlooked when guests are planning their Disney World vacation.

Both water parks are packed with slides for kids and adults. There is a thrill for all ages. Typhoon Lagoon is themed after a paradise beach that has been hit by a tropical storm. Whereas, Blizzard Beach tells the story of a ski resort that started melting in the hot temperatures of Florida.

My personal favorite is Typhoon Lagoon but truly you can’t go wrong with a day spent at either location.  Often times guests with smaller children enjoy Blizzard Beach over Typhoon Lagoon claiming that the kids’ area at Blizzard Beach is a bit more fun.  But really, I think they’re both great water parks.

Typhoon Lagoon also hosts a fun late-night water park experience each summer on select nights.  H2O Glow is fun for all ages but does have an adults-only area.  If you’re interested in a themed water park experience with some of your favorite characters I suggest looking into this.

Disney Springs

Disney Springs is home to free entertainment, shopping, and dining complex open to the public daily.  Meaning park admission/tickets are NOT required to visit here.

Here you will find Disney themed stores including the World of Disney and Disney Style as well as popular mainstream shopping options like Mac, Lily Pulitzer, and Uniqlo.

There are also endless food options for snacks,  quick service, and table service restaurants.  Outdoor music and live entertainment, bowling, a movie theater and so much more.

You could easily spend a long afternoon and evening taking in everything they have to offer.  It’s a place we visit often for a quick bite and even Friday night and weekend fun that’s a little more casual than a park day.  When planning your Disney World vacation I often guide my clients to visit her on the night of arrival when they’re itching to experience Disney but don’t want to use an entire day’s park ticket or on the afternoon/evening of their rest day.

How to choose your Disney World Resort.

Disney World offers a variety of resort options for every budget.  All Disney Resort hotels on property offer complimentary transportation from Orlando International Airport to your hotel as well as free transportation to the parks, Disney Springs and the water parks.  Choosing your resort is often the very first step (ok second next to choosing dates) in planning your Disney World vacation.  Where you stay directly impacts how your Disney World vacation is planned.

Transportation

Transportation, ie how you’re getting around Disney World is a huge component when planning where to stay.  There is no right or wrong answer for which resort to pick but there can and should be a lot of thought that goes into what you’re ideal Disney World vacation looks like and what you want to see and do.  The resort transportation options you choose can really help change the experience you have while visiting.

Disney World transportation includes:

Let’s talk lingo and specifics.

I’ve stayed at many of Disney’s on-property resorts and do my best to update my reviews on the blog, Facebook and Instagram.  You’ll find those reviews on the blog linked below and in my saved photo albums on Facebook and Story Highlights on Instagram.

If I haven’t stayed at a particular resort I have toured it a number of times and often have pictures of those as well in the same locations as above.   I have literally seen then all!

If you have questions about a particular resort and can’t find what you’re looking for, please email me or message me on social media.  I am always happy to share what I know and have the privilege of experiencing.  Helping guests plan their Disney World vacation is what I love to do!

Deluxe Resorts

Deluxe resorts at Disney World offer the highest levels of amenities guests can experience while staying at Disney World.

These items typically include:

In fact, the two best resort pools on property are at Disney’s Polynesian Resort and Disney’s Beach and Yacht Club Resort, both deluxe resorts.

Deluxe resorts also have a concierge level room option that includes:

One very clear difference between Deluxe Resorts and their counterparts is entering the room via interior doors and the joy of an outside balcony.  My favorite place to relax after a long day in the park.

Deluxe resorts are also home to many of Disney’s signature dining and character dining experiences, spas, and water recreation activities.  This does not mean you have to be staying at a Deluxe Resort to experience these things, it simply means they’re a little more convenient.

Disney’s Deluxe Resort options:

Deluxe Villa Resorts

Villa resorts are tied to most of Disney’s Deluxe Resorts but are differentiated in that they’re part of the Disney Vacation Club brand and offer guests a room that includes kitchens or kitchenettes, laundry facilities (oftentimes in the room), larger spaces with multiple rooms and really more of a time-share or condo type stay.

Many confuse this accommodation type to be less expensive for larger families or groups but this is, in fact, quite the opposite.  Villa Resorts can be some of the most expensive accommodations on property.

Guests who aren’t part of Disney’s Vacation Club can opt to stay at a Villa Resort.  Reservations are typically available 7 months prior to arrival via your travel agent or Disney directly.

Disney’s Deluxe Villa Resort options:

Moderate Resorts

Moderate Resorts offer guests a themed resort experience while not being over the top in thematics.

Each moderate resort has:

These resorts mostly offer bus transportation with the exception of Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort which recently was connected to Epcot and Hollywood Studios via the new Disney Skyliner.  This was a major upgrade in my opinion and makes the Caribbean Beach Resort a fantastic option for families wanting to stay at a moderate level resort.

All moderate rooms are accessed via an outside door and typically offer guests two queen beds and sometimes a pull-down 5th sleeper option.  Moderate resorts are great for families that are looking for a somewhat upgraded resort experience from a value option yet don’t want the pricepoint of a Deluxe Resort.

Disney’s Moderate Resort options:

Value Resorts

Disney’s Value Resorts are the most economic of resort offerings at Disney World in terms of staying on property.  They are great options for guests who are planning their Disney World vacation planned around full park days or their budget doesn’t allow for a moderate or deluxe level resort.

These resorts are heavily themed with oversized icons celebrating its theme.  The pools at value resorts are large in size however they don’t have slides or additional water play structures.

All rooms are entered via an outside door and somewhat “motel” in feel by the shape and layout of the buildings.  If you’re an “open to close” park-goer or a value resort is what fits your travel budget I would definitely consider a few of the value resort options over Disney’s Good Neighbor Hotels for a number of reasons including but not limited to the perks Disney offers for guests staying at one of their resort hotels.  More on these perks below.

Disney’s Value Resort options:

While it appears that Disney offers more accommodations in the Deluxe or Deluxe Villa options the reality is that there are more value rooms on Disney property that anywhere else.

While there are fewer resorts to choose from these resorts are large in size and have over 10,000 rooms to offer guests.  Of these value resort offerings, my personal favorites are the Pop Century and Art of Animation.

Good Neighbor Hotels

Guests can choose to say at one of Disney’s Good Neighbor Hotels or what we refer to as “off-property” meaning a hotel nearby that is not owned and operated by Disney.

In the last few years, Disney did add some amenities to these hotels including being able to choose Fast Passes at 60 days prior which makes these hotels an ok option when planning your Disney World vacation.

However, I personally don’t think it is a better choice than a value resort.  When you stay at an on-property resort the Disney experience you have is very different than when staying off property and often times these Good Neighbor Hotels are not less expensive than a value and even sometimes a moderate resort.

The one exception to this rule is the Four Seasons Resort which offers an upscale experience while visiting Disney World.  The Four Seasons Resort is in the Golden Oaks neighborhood which is an exclusive on property multimillion-dollar single-family home community.  In other words, you CAN actually live AT Disney World!  Life goals right here!

My Favorite Resort Options by Category:

Included Amenities when you stay On-Property:

Tickets

It is always recommended when planning your Disney World vacation for tickets to be purchased in advance.  Do not wait until you arrive at the parks to buy them!  Not purchasing tickets before arriving at Disney World is one of the biggest first-timer mistakes that can have a direct impact on how your vacation plays out, causing longer than necessary wait times and unneeded stress.

Remember, the parks are huge!  Aim to explore and enjoy as much as you can and avoid wait lines. Prepurchasing your tickets in advance with a Disney World Vacation Package and strategically selecting Fast Passes 60 days prior to arrival will maximize what you can get done in a day and therefore be a more satisfying experience.

Disney World has multiple types of tickets but really think of them as ticket tiers, each tier offering a less restrictive experience.

Base Ticket

The base day ticket is valid for one park per day.  Meaning you can only go to one park on the same day and can not visit a second park the same day, even if you have additional days left on your ticket package.

For example, say you’re visiting Magic Kingdom on Monday morning.  You CAN NOT go to Epcot in the afternoon EVEN if you still have three days left on your ticket package.  To visit multiple parks in one day you MUST have the Park Hopper option.

Park Hopper Option

The park hopper option will let you visit more than one park per day.  It is an add on item to your Base Ticket making your tickets more flexible.

In the same scenario above, if you were visiting Magic Kingdom on a Monday morning and wanted to visit Epcot in the afternoon with the Park Hopper Option added to your Base Ticket you could do so.  And it would only use one day of your ticket package.

Adding the Park Hopper Option to your Base Ticket is the ONLY way to visit multiple parks in one day.  And in fact, if you’d like to visit all four parks in one day, you can do this with the Hopper Option.

Notes:

Water Park and Sports Option

This is a new ticket option for 2020 and offers guests access to the water parks and sports facilities with their base ticket.  Guests would purchase this ticket option if they wanted to include water parks and sports but did not want to add the hopper option.  The number of times you can visit these various options is based on the number of ticket days you have.

For example – if you have a 4-day ticket you can also visit the water parks or sports options four times.  So, in theory, you could have 8 different days of park fun.

Included in this ticket option:

Note: To truly get the value of this ticket option you should be planning to visit the water parks or sports options more than once during your stay, or at least half the length of your ticket option.

For example, if you have a 4-day ticket, you should be visiting one of the water parks or sports options a minimum of 2 times.  Otherwise, it may be less expensive to purchase a ticket to the water park or sports option at the ticket window.

Adding the Water Park and Sports Option is NOT the only way to visit one of the above options.

BUT don’t let that confuse you, you SHOULD always pre-purchase regular park tickets (MK, Epcot, HS, AK) prior to arrival so that you are able to plan your Fast Passes at 60/30 days prior to arrival.

Park Hopper Plus Option

The Park Hopper Plus option includes everything that is included with the Water Park and Sports option PLUS the ability to “hop” or visit multiple parks per day ie. Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Epcot.

Flexible Dates Option

When you purchase any one of the ticket options above they are “date based”.  Meaning you will select the first date you will use the ticket if you are purchasing stand-alone tickets or tickets not included in a Disney World vacation package.  That ticket will be good for the number of days purchased plus a few days, depending on the ticket length.  Specific examples of how this works can be found here.

If you purchase tickets with a Disney World vacation package, the tickets will be valid on your check-in day and for an additional few days, again depending on how many ticket days you purchased.  This date-based ticket option was introduced in 2019 and additional details on how it works, including examples, can be found here.

If you prefer the old school way of how tickets worked, this is where the Flexible Dates option comes in.  By adding this option to your ticket, the date you first use your tickets is not restricted.

However, once you use the first day, all additional days must be used within 14 days of first use.

Consecutive use dates are not necessary with any of the ticket options but they do have varying expiration dates based on the type of ticket you purchase.  Gone are the days of tickets that do not have expiration dates!  And yes those really once existed and I’ve had clients use tickets for the day from nearly 20 years ago!  Crazy right??

Special Events Tickets

Planning your Disney World vacation when special occasions are taking place can add fun to your trip.  Special Occasions that happen in the Magic Kingdom such as Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party are individually ticketed events. They require a separate ticket that is not directly linked to your standard day ticket.  The same applies to After-Hours events which are held in various theme parks.

Don’t ignore these Special Ticket Events as something above and beyond that you don’t consider.  These late-night party events are some of my favorite experiences at Walt Disney World!  They often include entry into the event park hours prior to the actual event starting and can be a great option for your arrival day or rest day during your Disney World vacation.

These events include but are not limited to:

Fastpass+

This perk makes your wait times for rides and attractions shorter. With your day ticket, you will be able to book three Fast Passes in advance, at one park only per day, which equates preplanning to skipping the line for a minimum of three rides per day.

When you have used the three FastPasses that you booked in advance, you will be able to book an additional Fastpass from the remaining available attractions either on your phone in the My Disney Experience app or at an in-park kiosk.

Once you used this one you will be able to book an additional one, and so forth until Fastpasess are no longer being distributed for the day.

These passes can be booked:

All Fast Passes are not created equally and there is quite a bit of strategy that goes into selecting Fast Passes that will maximize the number of things you get done in one park day.

Guests should not just select the Fast Pass that is their top of the list attraction if that ride doesn’t typically have a long wait time.  In fact some Fast Passes you can choose don’t have a wait time at all which means you’ve wasted one of your precious Fast Passes.

Guests should plan to choose from the most popular attractions with the longest wait time to get the best value from this included amenity!

Some parks have Fast Pass Tiers:

While it can be stressful to not choose all the “best” Fast Passes, it is nice to know that all of the “good ones” won’t be distributed to only a handful of guests.  The system works well and with great park touring plans, you can really cover a lot of ground on your days at Disney World.

For a complete list of Fast Pass options and the best ones to choose for your family check out my post, Disney World Fast Pass Tiers, and Ride Heights.

Can additional Fast Passes be purchased?

Yes and no.  Of course, the answer is never simple when planning your Disney World vacation!

Guests can not purchase additional Fast Passes UNLESS they are staying Club Level at one of Disney Worlds Deluxe Resorts.  If you’re planning your Disney World vacation and only three Fast Passes doesn’t seem sufficient for you and your budget allows, this is a great option and about the closest you can get to a VIP Tour experience without that cost!

Guests who are staying Club Level can:

When you purchase these additional Fast Passes a few things happen:

FAQ’s

How many days should I plan to spend at Disney World?

Is a Deluxe Resort worth the price?

What resort is right for my family?

When it the least crowded time to plan my visit to Disney World?

What is the average price of a Disney World vacation?

Is Disney World only for families?

I want to see Harry Potter Land. Which park is that in?

Have additional questions?  I’d love to answer them for you!  Find me on Instagram and Facebook or reach out to me via email jamie@LOTMV.com

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