20 Essential Walt Disney World Tips

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Walt Disney World is one of the most popular vacation spots on the planet—for good reason. The complex, sprawling 40 square miles offers a plethora of theme parks, fine dining and casual restaurants, water sports and pools, a racetrack, and so much more. You’ll never have time to experience everything at Walt Disney World in one seven-night vacation, so it’s important strategize. Arm yourself with these tips, and research from the Fodor's Walt Disney World guide, before arriving in Florida to ensure that your family has the best possible experience. These are our top tips for experiencing The Most Magical Place on Earth. 

By Andrea M. Rotondo

Courtesy of Matt Stroshane/Disney

Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas party

The most important decision you’ll make when it comes to your visit with Mickey is when you’ll schedule the trip. Weigh the pros and cons of the weather, special events, and crowd levels (which influence everything from room rates to your ability to book restaurant reservations). Mid-November (except for Thanksgiving) through Mid-December is the sweet spot. Crowds are light, days are balmy, nights are cooler, and the resort is decked out for the Christmas season.

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My Disney Experience app

Before you leave home, download the My Disney Experience app. The app, which records all of your plans and reservations, will be a lifesaver in the park. It also shows the park's daily hours as well as character meet-and-greet locations, real-time wait times at each attraction, restaurants that are closest to you, and more.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Fodor's Walt Disney World Guide

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Disney’s Magical Express Transportation

Disney’s Magical Express Transportation service offers free airport transportation and luggage delivery for guests staying at select WDW hotels. When you arrive at Orlando International Airport, bypass baggage claim and get on the bus. Disney will pick up your specially tagged bags and deliver them to your room. You’ll even be able to check in for your return flight and secure boarding passes right at the resort. Eight popular airlines participate in the program. Call 1-(407) WDW-MAGIC to reserve your spot.

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Disney welcome celebration

There’s something so nice about checking-in to your room and finding a special gift waiting. Disney Floral & Gifts will deliver a variety of gifts to commemorate your first day at WDW, a birthday, anniversary, or special holiday. Flowers, champagne, wine, sweet treats, and themed merchandise are available. Have a classic Disney character plush waiting for your kids or a special in-room celebration with a welcome banner, balloons, gifts, and other fun options.

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Walt Disney World Entrance

Always arrive at the theme park entrance gate slightly before opening time. Zip into the park as soon as you can and get to the most popular attractions before they’re mobbed. Also, take advantage of Extra Magic Hours if you’re staying at a WDW resort, Dolphin or Swan, Hilton Resort at Downtown Disney, or Shades of Green. On select days guests can enter the park one hour early or stay two hours after the park closes.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Fodor's Walt Disney World Guide

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Disney Epcot World Showcase entrance

Start your day at Epcot by entering through the World Showcase entrance so you can explore this part of the park while the crowds are jammed in Future World by the main entrance. Guests of the Yacht and Beach Club, Boardwalk, Swan, and Dolphin hotels can easily walk or take the boat launch to the World Showcase turnstile. Otherwise, park your car at the Beach Club and walk over.

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Magical Celebrations birthday

Will you or someone you’re traveling with celebrate a birthday while on WDW property? If so, make Magic Kingdom's Town Hall your first stop of the day. Tell them it’s your birthday and you’ll receive a special commemorative button to wear. Cast members are trained to watch out for these buttons and will often present small gifts like a birthday card signed by the characters or a special sweet treat.

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Epcot IllumiNations

Want the best seat in the house for the nightly fireworks extravaganzas at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot? Book a private fireworks cruise on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon for the Magic Kingdom’s Wishes Spectacular or on Crescent Lake for Epcot’s IllumiNations. For IllumiNations you’ll sail the International Gateway before the boat positions itself near World Showcase Lagoon, where all the magic happens. Each pontoon boat accommodates 10 guests.

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Disney FastPass

FASTPASS Service helps your family bypass long wait lines at popular rides like Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot’s Test Track. Just grab a ticket near the FASTPASS entrance and return at the time indicated (a one-hour window). The FASTPASS line affords quick access to the attraction. WDW will soon roll out FASTPASS+ that will include entry to character greetings and viewing areas for fireworks and parades.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Fodor's Walt Disney World Guide

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Disney PhotoPass

Consider signing up for Disney’s PhotoPass service. Photographers stationed throughout the theme parks and at character meet-and-greets snap your picture. With PhotoPass you can buy a package for your entire stay or simply for one photo event. All pictures are uploaded to a website where you can choose what to order. You may also purchase a photo CD with all of your photos for less than $200. (Photos are deleted from the site 30 days after they’re taken.)

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Fodor's Walt Disney World Guide

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Victoria and Alberts restaurant

Walt Disney World restaurants and dinner shows are wildly popular so many sell out a full six months in advance. If you want to dine at the most popular locations—like Cinderella’s Royal Table Character Breakfast or Chef’s Table at Victoria and Albert’s in the Grand Floridian Resort—you have to make reservations long before your arrival. WDW resort guests can make dining reservations 180 days in advance of the trip online or via 1-(407) WDW-DINE.

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Pirate’s league

Walt Disney World is all about making special memories and your family will do just that when it signs up for Pirate League at Adventureland in the Magic Kingdom. Captain Jack Sparrow and his crew draft participants (ages 3 and up) into service and then perform a total makeover on incoming pirates with an authentic costume, earring, eye patch, and sword. A special “pirate portrait” is taken so you’ll never forget your time as a marauder.

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Disney horse-drawn carriage ride

Fancy a romantic horse-drawn carriage ride? Twenty-five-minute rides are offered nightly at Crockett’s Tavern at Pioneer Hall at Fort Wilderness or at Boatwright’s Dining Hall at Port Orleans Riverside from 6–9pm. Carriages are $45 and can accommodate up to four adults or two adults and three children (ages nine and under). Call 1-(407) WDW-PLAY to make reservations. (There’s also a cheaper, 45-minute wagon ride around Fort Wilderness Campground at 7 and 9pm nightly.)

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Disney campfire singalong

Here’s a very fun—and free—pastime: a campfire sing-along followed by a Disney movie shown under the stars. Several locations offer these events seasonally. Ask for days and times at guest relations and then head to Fort Wilderness, Port Orleans Riverside near the Ol’ Man Island Fishin’ Hole, or the beaches at Disney’s Beach Club or Grand Floridian. There’s no charge but you can buy a s’more kit that serves 4 for under $10.

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Cinderella’s Castle fireworks

Attending the Magic Kingdom’s action-packed Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks extravaganza is a must. You can make it even more special by booking a table at the Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party. You’ll get an incredible view of Cinderella Castle from the covered patio. Tinker Bell flies right overhead and the event is always a hit with the kids. Reservations are a must and can be made 60 days in advance.

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Inside Walt Disney World castle

Guests that want to get the behind-the-scenes view of Walt Disney World can take the five-hour  Keys to the Kingdom walking tour and learn about the interesting history of one of America’s best-loved destinations. Part of the tour takes you underground to the “Utilidor” tunnels that transport cast members and supplies beneath the park. You’ll also visit other backstage areas and several attractions with your guide. Call 1-(407) WDW-TOUR to make your reservations.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Fodor's Walt Disney World Guide

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Custom celebration cake

Walt Disney World employs some of the most masterful pastry chefs in the world. If you’re celebrating a special occasion while staying on property, or want to set the stage for a special evening, order a custom fondant or buttercream-frosted cake from the Private Dining at the Grand Floridian, Contemporary Resort, Boardwalk Inn, Animal Kingdom Lodge, or the Yacht & Beach Club. Cake designs can be very elaborate and themed with certain Disney characters. Call the cake hotline at 1-(407) 827-2253.

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Wild Africa Trek at Animal Kingdom

The next best thing to taking an African safari is booking Animal Kingdom’s Wild Africa Trek. This three-hour safari takes you through Safi River Valley where you’ll see hippos, rhinos, elephants, giraffes, crocodiles, and lions. The tour includes a trek across a shaky rope bridge (you’ll be wearing an overhead safety harness) as well as a traditional ride in an open safari vehicle.

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DiveQuest at Epcot

Sealife lovers can take part in DiveQuest, an adventure into the 5.7-million-gallon saltwater aquarium at Epcot’s the Seas with Nemo & Friends Pavilion. The program lasts three hours with 40 minutes of dive time with sea turtles, dolphins, eagle rays, sharks, and angelfish. You must be SCUBA-certified to participate in DiveQuest. Those who are not certified can book Dolphins in Depth (meet-and-greet a dolphin) or Epcot Seas Aqua Tour (snorkel experience).

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Exotic Driving Experience at Walt Disney World Speedway

Have a need for speed? Head to Walt Disney World Speedway and sign up for the Exotic Driving Experience. You’ll get behind the wheel of some of the world’s fastest cars, like the Ferrari, Lamborghini, and Porsche. Packages include six, eight, or 10 laps around the track.

PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit the Fodor's Walt Disney World Guide