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My Top Ten Tips for a Magical Disney Vacation

Cincinnati Family & Newborn Photographer

There are a lot of gorgeous and spectacular places in the world to visit, and we absolutely love traveling as a family. But one place we keep going back to over and over are the Disney parks. There’s no competing with the fun and magic they can offer at this stage in our family.

We’ve visited the parks three times in the past three years (Disney World twice and Disneyland in California most recently) and are currently planning another trip for later this year. I’ve compiled what’s went well for us (and what hasn’t) and put together my top ten tips for an unforgettable Disney vacation.

California Adventure at sunset

10. Agree on a philosophy

There are some universal truths about Disney vacations. They will be expensive. There will be lots of crowds. There will be waiting (both for rides and transportation…if you didn’t know, Disney World is the same size as Manhattan. There aren’t any options that are walkable to everything).

It’s important to decide with your partner what your goal is for your trip. Are you trying to save as much money as possible and willing to take on more inconvenience? Or would you rather invest more to receive more benefits? Making sure you’re on the same page and agreeing what that means for your vacation (like, are both parties ok with spending 1-2 hours a day on a Disney bus to get to and from the parks?) is the perfect start to planning for success.

Personally we choose convenience over savings (within reason). We like to stay on Disney property, and will only stay at monorail or skyliner resorts in the future. Our plan for our next trip is to stay at the Polynesian, which is very accessible to the parks. Last time we stayed at Coronado Springs, which is stunning, but only offered bus access to all the parks. Most days we weren’t even stepping into the parks until about an hour (and several thousand steps) after we stepped out of our hotel room.

9. Download the Disney app ahead of time

Each park has it’s own app with an interactive map of the park, ability to mobile order food, and lots of other features. Download this app a few months or weeks before your vacation to get comfortable with it and keep an eye on wait times for rides. I try to look a few times a day in the weeks leading up to my vacation to see the trends in wait times and plan accordingly. Also, if you haven’t been to the parks frequently before, it helps you get the lay of the land and understand what rides and attractions are near each other.

8. Get Lightning Lane

Lightning Lane is fairly new to Disney, as it replaced the Fast Pass system late last year. This pass requires you to pay to skip the long ride lines, and in my experience at Disneyland this month, it is definitely worth it (even if your family is on a tight budget). We never waited more than 15 minutes for a ride, even when they had posted 70-120 minute wait times. This is a worthwhile investment, as you can get hours back into your day to let you ride more rides, enjoy more sit-down dining, or maybe just relax.

Our jedi at Hollywood Studios

7. Mobile Order as much as possible

Imagine this…it’s noon your first day in the park, your family is starving, and everywhere you look, lines for food are easily 20-30 minutes long. The solution to this is to mobile order your meals, which is an amazing feature offered through the app. Make sure you don’t wait until you’re ready to eat, though. At lunch and dinner times, it’s pretty common to not have pick up times for your food available for over two hours (we experienced this at Woody’s Lunchbox in Hollywood Studios).

My suggestion is to select your mobile order window for lunch while you ride into the parks in the morning. You can select a window that works for your schedule, order, and pay hours ahead of time. When your window opens, your food will typically be prepared in 5-10 minutes. It’s pretty amazing, to be honest.

Here are our favorite spots to mobile order from in Disney World:

  • Sunshine Tree Terrace for the classic dole whip (Magic Kingdom)
  • Satu’li Canteen (Animal Kingdom)
  • Woody’s Lunch Box (Hollywood Studios)
  • Ronto Roasters (Hollywood Studios)

6. Decorate your stroller

Disney is a sea of strollers, and most are exactly the same. For most rides, you’ll park your stroller along with a few hundred others. I recommend grabbing something inexpensive from Target that will help you be able to spot it quickly. We typically get a $3 party banner and wrap it around our handlebars. Thinking of getting a Disney balloon at the parks to make your stroller more noticeable? Think again. The balloons are fun for all of two seconds and quickly become a nuisance as they blow into your face and the face of others.

Unsure if you want to bring a stroller at all? If your kiddos are under the age of five, I highly recommend a stroller. My three-year-old never uses a stroller at home, and she still used it all day every day at Disney this week. We average 15-20k steps a day at the park, and most kids will want a break at some point.

5. Skip “rope drop”

Rope drop is the term for getting to the parks right at opening (as they drop the rope to the entrance of the park); many families choose to get there early to rush to very popular attractions and hop in shorter lines. Personally, we opt to get to the parks later for a few reasons…

  • In the first hour after the parks open, the security and ticketing lines easily take 30-45 minutes. I’d rather still be sleeping or spending time relaxing in our hotel room
  • Most families go to rope drop, go back to the resort for a few hours in the afternoon, and then return to the parks in the evening. We prefer to stay in the parks during the less busy afternoon time. On vacations, my child will not take an afternoon nap, but she will sleep in during the morning, so we schedule around that
  • Disney transportation is busiest in the mornings. We’ve waited for several buses (and seen some resort guests get pretty nasty with each other) during this morning rush. We prefer to arrive at the parks around 10-11 am when those transportation crowds are less busy
We don’t do a lot of character photos at this point (too shy!), but I still love capturing these candid moments. PS: Shoes are required in the park. Not sure how she snuck them off here.

4. Character dining: highly recommend!

During COVID times, character interactions look different than normal, but they are still such a huge part of the Disney magic. We try to schedule 2-3 character dining experiences during our trips. These are wonderful ways to get out of the heat for an hour or so, interact with some characters, and get some much-needed downtime on park days.

The cost for character dining meals tend to be higher, and that generally reflects the experience, not the food itself. Right now not all the character dining meals are open, but some of our favorites are:

  • Crystal Palace (Magic Kingdom)
  • Garden Grille (Epcot)
  • Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom)

We’re hoping that some others will be re-opened by the time of our next trip. Most notably, Ohana’s breakfast at Polynesian resort and Tusker House at Animal Kingdom.

3. Save money strategically

Like I said above, we’re not really willing to sacrifice convenience for savings, but that doesn’t mean we don’t stick to a budget on our trips. Disney often offers deals on rooms during non-peak times; we took advantage of this during our last Disney World vacation in April 2021 and received a 20% room discount at Coronado Springs.

By far the biggest way we save money on our Disney vacations has nothing to do with how we book, though. I opened a Disney Rewards Visa two years ago and earn Disney rewards on my everyday purchases (an important part of this savings strategy is that I pay off my credit card in full every month, though). My rewards points paid for our park tickets and most of our park food (about $1000) on our Disneyland trip this month. You can open your own Disney Visa here and receive a statement credit with my referral.

On our next trip, we’re going to try a different strategy for savings on our resort reservation. We will be renting our room from a Disney Vacation Club member (Disney’s equivalent of a timeshare), which lets us access deluxe resorts at a discount. This method of reserving a room doesn’t come with the same protections as renting directly through Disney, and it requires a bit more legwork, so it may not be ideal for first-time Disney visitors.

2. Make planning a family affair

If you didn’t catch it before, Disney World in Florida is the same size as Manhattan. There are over 200 restaurants and 52 rides. It’s completely impossible to do it all on one trip. We make planning and strategizing part of the fun by watching planning videos together on YouTube.

Our favorite is AllEars found here; we typically watch one 15-minute video a few times a month, and it’s such a fun way to decide which restaurants we want to try, which rides look overrated, and find lesser-visited spots within the park. Planning shouldn’t fall entirely on one person; it’s really just too much stress and you can easily encounter decision-fatigue.

The one advantage of getting to the park early was this almost empty spot right in front of Cinderella’s Castle

1. Buy PhotoPass

I think most people would be shocked at how few pictures and videos I take on my Disney vacations. Memory keeping is one of my greatest passions in life, but I also believe in setting realistic expectations. Momming is a full-time job at Disney, even with the best partner in the world, and adding on the stress of taking photo and video with a toddler can be really overwhelming.

Personally, we don’t always get PhotoPass, but if you want to make sure you get a lot of those “picture perfect” memories preserved (in front of the castle, visiting characters, etc.), then outsource this job to the amazing Disney photographers. I can’t tell you how many families I’ve heard arguing in front of the castle about taking one more picture (plus, all the families stopping in walkways to take pictures is annoying). This is a really wonderful service Disney offers that really can take a lot off your plate.

Bonus Tip: How to get your coffee fix

There is a Starbucks in every park, but they do not accept mobile order. The line is always long–typically about 20-35 minutes in the morning. This is the one line I agree to wait in every morning while my husband finds a nice seat on Main Street with our daughter. You can use your Starbucks app for quick payment. Another option in the Disney parks is Joffrey’s, which is a coffee chain that has a direct Disney contract. These locations do accept mobile order, are typically carts with shorter lines, and the coffee is delicious. You can’t go wrong either way, but know that both of these are options so you don’t have to settle for drip coffee, if that’s not your thing!

Obviously I love love love Disney! I think all families can have a wonderful time on their vacation, regardless of budget or time available. I hope these tips are helpful as you plan, and if you ever want to talk Disney planning, this is seriously a topic that is never unwelcome in my Instagram DM’s!

The Journal

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