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What I Wish I’d Known Before Planning Our Disney Vacation

Recently my family and I went to Disney World and it was our first trip to the magic land. I’d been wanting to take this trip for years, but it was never a good time. Finances and babies held us back for awhile, but I decided this year was our year!

Let’s be honest here – when is it ever a good time, right? My youngest just turned five and met the height requirement for most of the rides so I figured it’s now or never. I’m so thankful we went as my oldest son is eight and I’m not sure how much longer he will believe. I mean, I’m 40 and I still believe in Disney magic, but that’s a different story.

Last summer we started looking for dates to go this holiday season. The reason we chose this time was because neither my husband or I can handle that southern heat. We both grew up in it but have been Chicagoans for  years now. One hundred degrees in Florida – feels more like 1000 degrees in our world. Plus, nothing is worse than being sandwiched between thousands of sweaty people for multiple days in a row. No thank you. We also read on multiple blogs that the weekend right before or after Thanksgiving is one of the best times to go. We booked the day after Thanksgiving and stayed through the following Wednesday. The advice rang true. It was perfect weather, 70s/80s, and it was way less crowded than I expected. The ride wait times weren’t that bad either.

We went through Costco Travel to book our trip and did a package that included hotel, Disney passes and flights. I didn’t even know Costco had a travel service until two years ago and I love it! We also received great advice from an expert and friend, Melissa McCallister. She is an authorized dream maker Disney Vacation Planner and frequent visitor of Disney parks. In hind sight I would have went to her first as she can plan everything for you down to your fast passes and dining reservations and the service is free!

Planning a trip to Disney, especially if it’s your first time, can be very overwhelming! There is so much to do and see and never enough time. You want to make the most of every minute so here are my tips to have a successful, fulfilled Disney experience:


Plan, plan, plan.

I can’t stress this enough. Don’t just show up to Disney World and have a go-with-the-flow mentality. You will miss out on so many things. Download the Disney App, read this blog and other Disney blogs to map out your must-do rides and activities. There’s also some great YouTube videos out there on planning a Disney vacation. If you have an itinerary, you’ll be way less stressed. We only had three day hopper passes (which I suggest getting the hopper pass), but we did every thing we wanted to do and more. Hopper allows you to jump between parks as many times as you want.

Where to stay.

Unfortunately when we started planning our trip – all the Disney properties we wanted to stay at were already sold out. If you get an onsite property they provide free transportation services to and from all parks, access to meal plans, free magic bands, and access to dining reservations and fast passes 60 days out from your arrival.

If you don’t get into a Disney property, don’t worry! There are so many hotels in the area who also provide shuttle services as well. We chose the Waldorf Astoria because we received a free suite upgrade through Costco. This is beautiful hotel and their sister property next door, the Hilton, allows access to their amenities too. Another favorite hotel of mine is the Swan Dolphin Hotel & Resort. I’m and ex-Starwood hotelier so I’m a little biased to that property.

Which park is best for me?

There is something for everyone at all parks, but I think if you have little ones or toddlers, Magic Kingdom has the most options for this age groupAll of the large roller coasters you have to be at least 44″ to ride, but there are many young kid-friendly rides, attractions and other things for them to do. Plus, you get to see Mickey’s castle! I’m not going to lie, I kind of teared up when I saw it. We didn’t tell my kids we were going to Disney until the morning of the flight – so it was a big secret I was holding onto for months and I was ecstatic the time was finally here!

Another tip – if you go during the holidays you have the option to purchase additional tickets to gain access to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. 

I highly recommend you splurge on this if it’s in your budget. Tickets start at around $99 per person, however you get access to the park until midnight. Anyone who doesn’t have this ticket has to leave at 7 pm. This event does sell out so I suggest getting the tickets as soon as you book your trip. During the event you get free treats at different shops around the park. The wait times for rides is significantly shorter if nothing at all. It’s less crowded and you get your own firework show and Christmas parade with all the characters down main street.

Animal Kingdom was great, just not as big. You could see and do mostly everything you want and have time to spare. My little guy was able to ride all the rides except Avatar, Flight of Passage. For this ride you have to be 48″. I’m glad we asked before we waited in that horrendous line. I hear the wait is worth it, though! This area of the park was my favorite. It felt like you were in the set of Avatar. At the end of the night there’s a beautiful light display and show on the Tree of Life, which is an iconic feature of Animal Kingdom.

Hollywood Studios was also a smaller park compared to Magic Kingdom so we were able to do everything we wanted. My five year old was not tall enough to go on the Rock and Roller Coaster or the Tower of Terror. I didn’t want to go on the Tower of Terror either, I was too scared, however my eight year old was up for it.

Epcot we skipped this time because everyone said there wasn’t much there for little kids. I’d love to go back, sans kids, for the food and wine festival!

Why should I get a magic band?

If you’re not staying at a Disney property, you can still get magic bands! You can purchase them from the Disney online store and other vendors as well. I highly suggest you get them. Not only do they make the kids feel special, but you can link your tickets, fast passes, photos, etc., to them. If you’re staying at a Disney resort you can also link your meal plan to the band and use it to pay. Pretty cool if you ask me!

What are fast passes for?

You need to book fast passes. I repeat, you need to book fast passes. Fast passes are special access passes to rides in all the parks. The wait time with a fast pass is no more than 10 minutes for any ride. You can link them to your magic band and you just scan it at the ride to get in the fast lane. If you’re staying at a Disney property you get access to reserve your fast passes 60 days from your vacation start date. If you’re at any other hotel, you get access 30 days out. You can book your passes right on the app. Research what rides are favorites among park goers and height requirements, etc., before booking. I made the mistake of booking my five year old on Space Mountain and realized you ride that coaster in a seat by yourself. There’s no way he would have done that, it was too scary for him so we had to sit out and wait. It was a waste of a fast pass. Once you use three fast passes, which is the amount you get per day, you can keep booking one at a time as you use them. Try to book your three passes first thing in the morning so you can add more for the afternoon and evening. If you have a fast pass for later, the other ride fast passes are usually filled up by then.  Fast passes are free and come as a part of your hopper pass. You also have an hour window when you book to go on that ride. For example if you book fast pass for Space Mountain at 9 am, you would have an hour to go on it before the pass expires.

What rides should we use our fast passes for? 

We did some research before going and watched YouTube videos of a lot of the rides so we could pick smart. Below are the ones we loved. Some rides I saw moms wearing their babies and such, so depending on your family – there were rides for everyone.

Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was by far my favorite! It is a very popular one and usually had a 75+minute wait without a fast pass. Space Mountain is a classic favorite. Buzz Light Year’s Space Ranger Spin, Pirates of the Caribbean, Peter Pan’s Flight, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Haunted Mansion were my kid’s favorites. In between our fast passes we would go to the next ride that had the shortest wait times. By doing this we were able to hit most of the rides. You can check up-to-date wait times on the app for each park and each ride. The park also has wifi so we never had a problem using our phones to check the app.

Animal Kingdom: It’s Tough To Be A Bug was a great 3D show. DinoLand was fun however scared my little one because it seams so real. Expedition Everest, but you do backwards on this coaster so if you don’t like that – skip this one. Na’vi River Journey was amazing as well as the Kilimanjaro Safari ride where you get to see real animals.

Hollywood Studios: Slinky Dog is a must in Toy Story Land! Rocking Roller Coaster featuring Aerosmith if you meet height requirement, and if you like to go in loops upside down. Star Wars The Adventure Continues was great. Right next to this ride you can sign your littles up for Jedi training, too! They do one every hour and the kids love it. Toy Story Mania is great and you are in an active arcade game gaining points – so the boys loved it.

There were a lot of other rides, however these were our favorite and most of these were great for the whole family.

What and where do we eat? 

We brought in our own snacks and items to hold us between meals. I suggest you get breakfast and fill up where ever you are staying as you have full days ahead of you. There are multiple restaurants inside all parks that you need to make reservations for and range in pricing. There are also quick stop places located through out all the parks. Their menus are listed on the app and you can order remotely, then go pick it up. Talk about genius. It saved a lot of waiting time. If it’s in your budget, I do suggest booking at least one character meal. They are expensive, however they are buffet and offer lots of choices. We reserved ours at 2 pm, which served as our lunch and dinner as there was so much food. For a family of four you’re looking at about $210 with tip. We chose the Husker House in Animal Kingdom and got to meet all the main Disney characters. The food was actually really good too. If you can’t get in at the place you want, be sure to keep checking the app for availability because cancellations happen all the time. If you choose to cancel a reservation, be sure to do it within 24 hours in advance or you get charged $10 per person as a cancellation fee. Another thing to mention is even at the quick grab and go food outlets there were always healthy options available, too! As someone with food allergies this was a win for me!

Now some extra random tips:

  • Bring your own snacks to save money.
  • Instacart is available in Orlando, so you can order groceries to your hotel and make quick bites to take with you to the parks or eat breakfast in your room to save money.
  • Bring lightweight bags to carry all your snacks and personal items. We purchased some for all four of us off of Amazon and they were perfect!
  • Be sure to get your littles some autograph books. All the characters will sign their books and it’s a great keepsake. You can buy them off Amazon, the Disney app, or Etsy. Some even come with cute custom pens.
  • Don’t forget the swag! We loved our matching Disney shirts and hats. Again, on Etsy.
  • Bring a water bottle for everyone and just refill it at the water fountains stationed all over the parks. Another great way to save money.
  • Rent (or bring) a stroller. Even if your kids are older and don’t use strollers any more they are worth it for Disney! My kids lasted all three days from 8 am to close because we rented a double stroller. It’s a lot of walking. We did almost 7 miles each day. Even my eight year old needed the rest. They are $27 for double $13 for single strollers and receipt transfers across parks.
  • Need transportation from the airport back and forth, but don’t want to rent a car? Mears Transportation was great and not too pricy. We took our blow up booster seat to use in Ubers and such and it worked out perfectly.
  • You can book private VIP tours for fast pass access, etc., that run $400+ per hour. One can dream, but if you can afford this option I say go for it!
  • Souvenirs are in every square inch of the park and your kids are going to want them all, so be sure to bring some extra fun money.
  • Advil. Bring Advil. Roller coasters are not as easy on my bones as they once were. By day two I was popping the Advil.

I hope this was helpful. If you have any Disney hacks please share them in the comments. If you’re planning a trip – I’m so excited for you! Disney is such a magical place and I can’t wait to return.

About Me


Holly Rust

Chicago Boy Mom – Author – Side-Gigging CEO On The Go. Social Media Maven. Eternal optimist. Lover of travel, food, style & beauty. Follow my random thoughts, favorite things and life shenanigans here. Be sure to follow me on social, too! Links below.

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