Walt Disney World is the place where dreams come true, but if you’re overwhelmed or confused or just plain unclear about how to plan your vacation, then it can easily feel like a nightmare.
My name is Michael, and I created Countdown to Magic to be your go-to resource for understanding everything you need to know to successfully plan and enjoy your upcoming Disney World trip.
Disney World Parks
Disney World boasts four incredible theme parks, as well as two water parks.
The most well known park, of course, is the Magic Kingdom. But Disney World also features Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Each theme park is identified by a major symbol located somewhere inside the park. For example, the Magic Kingdom is symbolized by Cinderella’s vast castle.
When you walk into Epcot, you can’t help but notice the iconic geodesic dome (some like to refer to it as a “giant golf ball”) that also holds the ride “Spaceship Earth.”
Disney’s Hollywood Studios once was symbolized by the giant Mickey’s Sorcerer’s hat, but has just recently been removed. Currently, the park’s most well known symbol is the replica of the TCL Chinese Theater, which used to be the icon of the park until the sorcerer’s hat was built in 2001.
And Animal Kingdom houses the meticulously sculptured Tree of Life.
The Magic Kingdom is Disney’s biggest theme park, and some might argue its best. It’s especially great if you have young children, as you can visit everything from the “Seven Dwarfs Mine Train” ride to “Winnie the Pooh” and “Dumbo.” For older kids and adults, the classic “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction features Captain Jack Sparrow, and thrill seekers will be happy to experience a 52.5 foot drop on “Splash Mountain” and a roller coaster engulfed in darkness in “Space Mountain.”
In addition to the rides, the Magic Kingdom boasts fine dining like the super popular “Be Our Guest Restaurant,” and features a variety of day and night parades as well as character meet and greets.
While the Magic Kingdom is probably the most popular theme park Disney has, Epcot might be its most appreciated. Particularly by older guests.
Why? Because Epcot is really the only theme park on Disney grounds that gives you an equal amount of excitement and culture.
For starters, half of Epcot offers visitors slow moving educational attractions like “The Universe of Energy” featuring Ellen DeGeneres, as well as thrill rides like “Test Track” and motion simulators like “Soarin.” Attractions such as these are featured in Epcot’s “Future World,” a massive section of the park dedicated to science, technology, and innovation.
The other half of the park belongs to Epcot’s “World Showcase,” which features eleven countries afforded space to display their culture and delicacies to park visitors.
The countries included at the World’s Showcase are the following:
- United States
- United Kingdom
Not only do you get the opportunity to learn about each country’s culture and heritage, but because Disney actually gets Cast Members from these eleven countries to participate at the World’s Showcase, you’ll truly feel the illusion that you’ve left America and are visiting Italy or France or Germany.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios was once called Disney-MGM Studios, and was (and to some small degree still is) seen as a “movie” based theme park. From the shops to the billboards to the well-dressed Cast Members, you get immersed in the feeling of 1930s Hollywood once you enter the park’s gates and stroll down Disney’s recreation of Hollywood Boulevard.
That feeling continues with dark rides like “The Great Movie Ride,” which features characters from movies like “The Wizard of Oz” and “Casablanca.” The park will welcome a “Guardians of the Galaxy” ride, as well (which will replace the beloved “Tower of Terror” attraction).
And with restaurants like “The 50s Prime Time Café” and “The Sci-Fi Dine-In Drive-In,” Disney really has gone the extra mile to make “retro” feel fun and modern.
With that said, the Hollywood Studios features more modern day entertainment, too. From a revamped “Star Wars” attraction to a “Beauty and the Beast” live show to the always popular “Toy Story Midway Mania,” this park may be the smallest of Disney’s Big Four, but it might be the best park in terms of providing family members aged 4 to 84 with a fun, satisfying experience.
Disney’s Animal Kingdom, on the other hand, is a park of a different color entirely. Aimed at mixing the concept of a traditional theme park and a zoo, Animal Kingdom takes the idea of Busch Gardens and puts a true Disney spin on it.
At this park, you can go on a “Kilimanjaro Safari” through Africa and get up close and personal with giraffes and cheetahs, while at the same time coming face to face with a Yeti on the ride “Expedition Everest.”
The park also features a unique mix of themed and quick service dining in terms of restaurants, and the Animal Kingdom might just house the best live action show you can see this side of Broadway in “The Festival of the Lion King.”
As for the water parks, visitors have the option to get wet at either Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon or Disney’s Blizzard Beach.
Typhoon Lagoon has been in operation since 1989, and its signature attraction (“Typhoon Lagoon Surf Pool”) features a six-foot wave every 90 seconds that causes visitors to begin furiously paddling to either swim away from, or ride out, the massive onslaught of rushing water. This water park also features dining, park activities, and even surfing lessons.
Blizzard Beach is the second water park on Disney property. Opening in 1995, this park’s centerpiece is entitled “Mt. Gushmore.” A peak that’s 90 feet high, “Mt. Gushmore” holds the launching point for the park’s most popular attraction “Summit Plummet.”
This attraction features a mind-blowingly tall (120 feet!) water slide, and when you’re at its peak, you’re virtually at eye-level with “The Tower of Terror” ride located at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
It should be noted that, from October to March, only one water park is open at a time. Therefore, when either Typhoon Lagoon or Blizzard Beach is open to the public during these months, the park that’s closed is usually on-going rehab and will reopen once the other park closes for its scheduled maintenance.
Disney World Dining
There are a lot of places to eat at Disney World.
In fact, between Disney’s four theme parks and two water parks, there are over 120 options to choose from—from quick service restaurants where you can walk in and get a burger, fries and a soda, to themed table service restaurants.
But that’s not all. Because after you’ve included the dining options at all of Disney’s Resort Hotels, as well as your choices at Downtown Disney, the number balloons to over 200 dining options.
So don’t worry—it doesn’t matter whether your daughter is a picky eater, or your best friend doesn’t eat meat. No matter where you go throughout Disney World, and no matter where you’re staying or spending most of your time, you’ll always have great options to choose from.
Some of the more popular dining choices are listed below, but as we dig deeper into this particular topic, you’ll find that each Disney location offers some amazing choices when it comes to food:
In no particular order:
1) Be Our Guest Restaurant (a “Beauty and the Beast” themed restaurant located inside the Magic Kingdom)
(Uploaded by Disney Travel Professionals)
2) 50’s Prime Time Café (a Hollywood Studios restaurant where the waitresses are old school and demand that you eat your vegetables)
3) San Angel Inn (a dark, intimate Mexican restaurant in Epcot that not only has good food and even better drinks, but a water ride and gift shop built around the restaurant itself)
4) Yak and Yeti Restaurant (get ready for a Pan-Asian meal inside this Animal Kingdom restaurant)
Disney World Hotels
Disney World Resort Hotels are broken down into four categories (Value Resorts, Moderate Resorts, Deluxe Resorts, and Deluxe Villas), and the categories correspond with a hotel’s quality and price.
Below, I have listed all of the Disney World hotels:
1) Value Resort Hotels
- Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort
- Disney’s All-Star Music Resort
- Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort
- Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
- Disney’s Pop Century Resort
2) Moderate Resort Hotels
- Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
- Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort
- The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort
- Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside
- Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter
3) Deluxe Resort Hotels
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
- Disney’s Beach Club Resort
- Disney’s BoardWalk Inn
- Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort
- Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Disney’s Yacht Club Resort
4) Deluxe Villas
- Animal Kingdom Villas
- Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Disney’s Beach Club Villas
- Disney’s BoardWalk Villas
- The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Old Key West Resort
- The Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
Other places where you can stay on Disney grounds are the Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, as well as Walt Disney World’s Dolphin Hotel and Swan Hotel.
There are also hotels offered around the Downtown Disney area. These hotels include:
- Best Western Lake Buena Vista Resort Hotel
- Doubletree Suites
- Buena Vista Palace Hotel and Spa
- Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista
- Holiday Inn
- B Resort & Spa
- Wyndham Lake Buena Vista Resort
And for those that absolutely love Disney, and know that they’ll be traveling to and from The World again and again, you might want to consider joining Disney’s Vacation Club, which is a timeshare program operated by Disney.
Like many timeshare programs, the DVC operates via a “points” system, which means you can purchase “points” that can then be used to stay at one of the handful of DVC resorts at Disney World. You can even use the points for Disney Cruises or Disneyland Resort stays, as well.
Here are the DVC Resorts at Disney World (as well as one in California and one located in Hawaii):
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Jambo House
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village
- Aulani, Disney Vacation Club Villas, Ko Olina, Hawai’i (in Hawaii)
- Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort
- The Villas at Disney’s Californian Hotel & Spa (in California)
- The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
- Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Beach Club Villas
- BoardWalk Villas
- Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
- Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Disney’s Old Key West Resort
- Disney’s Vero Beach Resort
- Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
(Uploaded by Disney Parks)
Of course, you don’t have to stay on Disney property when you visit Orlando. While you may miss out on some of the on-property perks like free parking or Extra Magic Hours, staying off property can allow you and your party to save money that can be spent at the gift shop, on additional tickets, on an extra meal, or simply saved for your next vacation.
Here are just a few hotels and resorts located within the Orlando area that aren’t too far away from Disney World:
1) CoCo Key Hotel and Water Resort Orlando
2) Buena Vista Suites
3) Sheraton Vistana Resort
4) Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
5) Blue Heron Beach Resort
Disney World Tickets: Disney World offers you the ability to purchase single day tickets, multi-day tickets, park hopper passes, and water parks (and more) tickets. And while this is a topic you can read more in depth about on this site, as well as my official podcast, let’s briefly discuss each ticketing option below (do note that Disney can, at any time, change their ticket prices):
Single Day Tickets: All tickets are first broken down by age. Kids aged 3 to 9 pay a bit less than kids and adults 10 years and above. In regards to single tickets specifically, Disney has a premium price if you’re buying a ticket to Magic Kingdom (kids aged 3-9 get in a little bit cheaper than guests aged ten and above).
If you want to visit any of the other three theme parks (Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, or Disney’s Animal Kingdom), you can expect to pay a little bit less for both 3 to 9-year-olds, as well as those above the age of 10.
Multi-Day Tickets: With a multi-day ticket, you can purchase anything from a two-day ticket to a ten-day ticket. And the best thing about it is that the more days you buy, the less you spend.
Well, sort of.
Using an example, a three day park ticket for one guest aged 10 or above might cost in or around $290. But, if that same guest only wanted to visit one theme park for one day only, it will cost him or her over $100 (the price ranges depending on whether you are interested in visiting Epcot, Animal Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, or if you’d prefer the Magic Kingdom–which is the most expensive park to enter).
As you can see, the per day ticket price technically decreases the more park days you purchase via your multi-day ticket.
Park Hopper Passes: For an additional fee, you can add a “Park Hopper” option to your tickets. This simply means that, by paying an additional fee when you buy your tickets, you have the added benefit of knowing that you’re free to leave one of the four theme parks and immediately go to another one without having to pay an additional cost to enter that second park. You can also use this ticket option to visit the water parks, as well.
As a quick example, if you had a regular 2-Day Multi-Day ticket, you would be only be able to visit two parks during your trip.
With the Park Hopper option enabled, however, you could theoretically visit four parks with that same 2-Day Multi-Day ticket. On day one, you could begin your day at Magic Kingdom and end it at Epcot; on day two, your day could begin at Animal Kingdom and conclude at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
This can only be done, however, if you pay for the Hopper Pass option.
Water Parks and More: If you know someone in your group wants to go to Blizzard Beach or Typhoon Lagoon (or visit ESPN’s Wide World of Sports or go miniature golfing, for that matter), then paying the additional Water Parks and More fee is a smart option. The amount of “visits” to the water parks and “more” locations is inherently tied to your multi-day pass. So if you buy a five day multi-ticket, you get five “visits” to attractions like Disney’s water parks, as well as multiple mini-golf venues, ESPN’s Wide World of Sports and the DisneyQuest Indoor Interactive Theme Park.
Memory Maker: Disney also gives you the option to add a little convenience and peace of mind to your trip with Memory Maker. This option allows you to leave your camera at home and allow professional photographers stationed all throughout the four theme parks to take high quality photos of you and your family. The images will then be digitally uploaded to your Disney account, which you can easily access via computer or smart phone.
(Uploaded by Disney Parks)
*Do note: Prices at Disney World are subject to change at any time.*
Additional Ticketing Notes
Also, always remember that any ticket you buy must be used within fourteen days of first use. This can only be circumvented if you purchase the “No Expiration” option, which allows your tickets to remain valid essentially forever (so long as you have an actual Disney day or days remaining on your multi-day ticket).
Finally, if you live in or near Florida, or simply believe you’re someone who will visit Walt Disney World more than one time per year, you can look into purchasing an Annual Pass. For an annual fee, you can enjoy unlimited, same day access to the four theme parks. And, if you are willing to pay a bit extra for the Premium Annual Pass, you not only get the same access to the four theme parks, but also the two water parks, the golf course, and much more.
On top of that, Annual Pass members get perks such as free parking and sometimes receive discounts on dining, merchandise and other great options.
Disney World Vacation Planning System
MyMagic+ is the latest Disney vacation planning system used by visitors to plan their activities, book their dining reservations, and reserve and board specific rides and attractions.
And it’s all done in a pretty slick and high tech fashion.
(Uploaded by Visit Orlando)
MyMagic+ is made up of the following components:
- My Disney Experience
- FastPass+ (FastPass Plus)
- Disney’s Magic Band
My Disney Experience (MDE) is a webpage and companion mobile app that allows you to pre-plan your entire vacation. With MDE, you can book your attraction reservations, change or delete them, make dining reservations, look up ride wait times, add key reminder notes, and overall connect with anyone in your party so that you can better coordinate your daily schedule.
As a current app on smart phones, My Disney Experience is always available to you so that you’ll never forget where you need to be or when your next attraction begins.
FastPass+ is the digital cousin of the original FastPass system, which used to provide guests with paper ticket reminders pertaining to their reserved attraction.
FastPass+ takes the concept of reserving attractions and experiences to a whole new level, however.
Now, FastPass+ allows you to reserve a popular attraction you want to experience up to 30 days in advance of your visit. And if you’re staying on Disney property, you get up to 60 days.
When you reserve an attraction or experience, you will typically get a window of time that you must arrive back at the attraction to receive priority access to said attraction. Once you have taken advantage of all your reservations, or when all of your return windows have passed, you will then be allowed to make an additional reservation. Once that reservation window passes, or you have used that reservation, you can make another. And another. And another.
It should also be noted that FastPass+ reservations can be made for everything from rides to character meet and greets to fireworks and even parades—the latter two of which provide you with prime viewing locations within the parks to watch a show like “Wishes” or characters parade down the street on colorful floats.
To understand how this may better work, however, here’s an example. An attraction like “Toy Story Midway Mania” at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is often very busy and has long standby lines. So, instead of arriving to the park and being forced to stand 90 minutes in the standby line, you can use one of your three FastPass+ reservations for your Hollywood Studios visit on “Toy Story Midway Mania.”
When you do that, you will be given an “arrival window” of time to visit that reserved attraction. This is usually a one-hour window, from 10 AM to 11 AM, for example.
When your visit to Hollywood Studios arrives, if you head to “Toy Story Midway Mania” at 10:30 AM, you will be placed inside a FastPass+ priority line. And while you may not board the ride immediately, you will be able to experience the ride significantly faster.
So instead of having to wait 90 minutes to experience the attraction, with a little pre-planning thanks to FastPass+ and My Disney Experience, you can cut that waiting time down to potentially ten minutes.
That’s the power of MyMagic+.
And then, there’s the MagicBand, the Mouse House’s wristband that gives you the ability to utilize MyMagic+ freely and with little hassle.
First, what are MagicBands, you might ask? MagicBands are colorful and customized wristbands that Disney doles out for free to guests staying on property (you are able to purchase one if you are staying off property, too) that come with an identification chip built inside them.
(Uploaded by MrCheezyPop)
These chips interact with scanners scattered all throughout the Disney World resort, and ultimately allow you to do everything from entering your Disney hotel room to charging purchases made in the park to your room to entering a FastPass+ attraction you reserved in advance.
Guests staying on Disney property, as well as Annual Pass holders, not only get an array of color choices to pick from, but they can even have their name inscribed on the Band itself.
Yes, there are some that will feel this is an unnecessary gimmick, or that it’s an invasion of privacy. If you do, then rest assured that wearing a MagicBand throughout the park, and tying a lot of your personal information to its embedded technology, is not required.
If you forgo the MagicBand, then you will simply utilize your own room key, your own cash or credit card for purchases, and your Disney single or multi-day ticket to enter your reserved FastPass+ reservations.
So either way you slice it, it’s a win-win for everybody.
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