Many people, myself included, look forward to a trip to Disney World as an opportunity to disconnect from the regular world. We step away from our daily lives to enter a world of magic, entertainment, and of course Mickey Mouse. But there’s been a new trend with Disney World that’s begun to make it more difficult to completely disconnect, and that’s the reliance on using a smartphone to do everything from open the door to your hotel room to ordering food from a quick service restaurant.
This leads to the question, can you really do Disney World without a smartphone?
I think the answer to this question is yes, but that it requires some advance planning and a super thorough understanding of how to make the most of your time on the resort property. It may also require some sacrifice in terms of convenience and efficiency, especially when you’re inside one of the theme parks. I don’t think that doing Disney World without a cell phone is ideal for the first-time Disney World guest, but if you know the system it can be done.
How Smartphones Are Used at Disney World
For many of us, our phone is always within arms reach. It’s hard to imagine going anywhere or doing anything without that smartphone in hand. Disney has embraced the smartphone and has been ramping up the ways you can use it in the parks and at the resort hotels.
You can actually use your smartphone well before you even head to Walt Disney World to do a big chunk of your vacation planning. Obviously you can access the regular Walt Disney World website from the browser on your phone where you can make hotel reservations, dining reservations, and park reservations. These are all also things that you can do from the comfort of your home on your regular desktop computer or laptop.
Smartphones and the My Disney Experience App
The real use for a smartphone comes when you install the special Walt Disney World app called “My Disney Experience,” or MDE for short. This app began as a fairly simple tool but has grown in complexity over the years as Disney has added more and more features.
My Disney Experience lets you do so many things on your phone. First, you can easily see all of your current reservations in a single location. It shows all of your plans on one screen including your hotel information, park reservations, dining reservations, and any ride reservations that you’ve made using the new Genie+/Lightning Lane system.
You can also make most of these reservations from directly within the app. That makes it easy to make and revise plans on the fly. For my family, this is especially useful in terms of finding food, whether that’s a sit-down table service meal or a quick break for counter service. The dining reservation system in the app lets you indicate the number of people in your party and what time and date you want a reservation for.
The functionality and user experience is almost identical to using the internet browser, where you can search either by general meal period (breakfast, brunch, lunch, or dinner) or for a specific time (6:00, 8:30, etc). You can also filter your selections to only look in a specific park or hotel, or even for specific kinds of meals, such as character dining.
Dining With and Without MDE
The MDE app is key when it comes to placing a mobile order for quick service restaurants. Although mobile ordering was available before the pandemic, it really came into its own when Walt Disney World reopened after its brief closure in 2020. Mobile order is definitely how Disney World wants you to be placing food orders at counter service restaurants. When we were there in the beginning of 2021 they were the ONLY way you could place an order for these quick service dining locations. Although they’ve now opened up a very limited capacity for placing in person orders, cast members are quick to redirect you towards using the mobile ordering function instead.
With mobile ordering you can even select a time that is later on in the day. This is great if you know when you’ll want to eat that quick service meal later, but can be less useful if you don’t know what you’ll want to eat for dinner when you’ve just finished breakfast.
However there have been times when some quick service restaurants have completely run out of mobile order availability at certain high-traffic times. This leaves guests in limbo when they can’t place a mobile order and can’t find any other dining opportunities in the park. It’s also a problem when their mobile order system breaks down, as happened to us on a trip in 2021. They suggested the alternative of going to get food from the bakery, which wasn’t a viable solution for us as my family includes a diabetic for whom a cinnamon roll is not appropriate for a meal.
Although it’s strongly recommended that you make table-service dining reservations ahead of time, most of these restaurants now offer walk-up lists too! To get your name on this list you have to physically go to the restaurant you wish to dine at and ask if there is availability on the walk-up list. As long as there is still room on their list, they’ll add your name and send you a text when your table is ready. This option isn’t a guaranteed way to get a seat at a table-service restaurant, but can be a great opportunity to add a last minute meal to your schedule without using your smartphone.
One other thing that MDE is used for is to check into your dining reservation. You can check in 20 minutes before your reservation and confirm the number of people in your party as well as provide any additional information about allergies or special occasions. They’ll then send you a text to confirm that you’ve been checked in, and then a second one when your table is ready.
Some of the restaurants we’ve had reservations at over the last year required you to do this on your phone, even if you walked directly up to the host stand. They must have some way to manage this at the host stand directly, but you should be prepared for some pushback from that cast member.
Disney World Without Genie Plus
In late 2021, Disney World rolled out their new Genie, Genie+ and Lightning Lane system, which essentially replaced the old FastPass setup. Despite this new system, you can do Disney World without Genie+.
Genie+ is all about booking rides ahead of time. Currently, you have to do this every morning when you plan on entering the park, with the system opening up at 7:00am for on-property resort guests and at the individual park open times for guests who are staying off property. This has angered some guests who are looking forward to sleeping in on their vacations and do not want to wake up early each day to start making ride reservations. Once you’ve made your first ride reservation using Genie+ you can’t make the next one for another 120 minutes.
If you’re not planning to go into a park that day, there is absolutely no reason that you’ll need Genie+. This new system is only for making those ride reservations, and if you’re not going into a park you won’t need to make any of those reservations! Non-park days are very common for people who are able to visit Walt Disney World for several days, and in fact are often needed to give your feet a break!
If you are going into the park, you don’t have to make any ride reservations, but can instead utilize the standby lines for each ride. You don’t even need the My Disney Experience app or the new Genie overlay, as information about the park and estimated wait times are available in the parks themselves.
You can get park specific information in each park in a few different ways. The first is the ride information board that provides estimates on what the wait times are for each of the rides in the park. In the Magic Kingdom, this board is right on Main Street when you’re entering the Hub area. You could also visit a guest relation station (usually marked by a large blue umbrella) to ask a cast member for this information. You might have luck just asking any cast member that you see in the park, but the ones at the guest relations stations are specifically there to help guests with park-wide needs.
You can also go to each ride directly and view the estimated wait time on the sign near the entrance. If there’s a long line, there may be a cast member holding a portable sign at the very end of the line. This sign usually has the estimated wait time, and the cast member holding the sign will also know.
Disney World Without Rides
You may think about a Walt Disney World theme park in terms of the rides, but you can absolutely enjoy a day at Disney World without rides! There are lots of other activities and entertainment options that are included with the price of your ticket that you can enjoy. Enjoying these other activities is a great way that Disney World can be done without a smartphone.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention one of my favorite non-rides to do at Disney World, and that’s to people watch! People watching is a great activity to do when you’re tired and need a little break, but it’s not quite time for another meal. Some of my favorite Disney World memories are when we grabbed a cold drink from the Starbucks inside the bakery, and then sat on a bench at the beginning of Main Street.
It’s fun to see all of the different people who are visiting Walt Disney World! As someone who enjoys dressing up for the parks in my Disney bound outfits (outfits that represent a Disney character, land, ride, or even food), I really love watching the outfits that others have put together. It’s also fun to see the different matching t-shirts that families wear.
Disney World Parades and Cavalcades
Parades and the new cavalcades are one of my favorite non-ride activities at Disney World. Although parades are mostly on hold right now (except for some special parades in their after hours hard-ticketed events), they’ve pivoted to smaller cavalcades that come through each park throughout the day. These cavalcades are one of my favorite things that Disney has added, and I hope they keep them up even after they bring the regular parades back.
The cavalcades follow the regular parade route, and typically feature a single float surrounded by dancers. Each cavalcade has its own theme, and its own set of characters. Disney has done a great job of using this opportunity to bring out some of the characters we don’t get to see as often, such as Clarabelle.
Although the cavalcades do run on a schedule, it’s not a published time like the parades. They’re frequent enough that you’ll probably see several of them throughout the day just by virtue of being in the park.
Live Action Shows at Disney World
Another way to enjoy Disney World without going on any rides is in their live action shows. Although you can get reservations through Genie+ for some of these, you really don’t need to for these experiences. The shows have a huge capacity, and rarely run out of room even when you enter one at the last minute. Each park has its own shows, and they’re always adding new ones, such as the new kite show on the water inside of the Animal Kingdom.
My personal favorite is the Frozen Sing Along show inside of Hollywood Studios! It’s great to sing our favorite songs from Frozen, all while being entertained by the historians who tell us all about what’s happening in Arendelle. The historians are really stand-up comedians, and most of their jokes are aimed at the adults in the room. The kids have a great time too, but the jokes are based on current events and change frequently, often going over their heads.
Shopping at Disney World
Do you love to shop? There are so many opportunities to shop at Disney World! Each park has its own set of stores, and they all carry different types of merchandise. Much of the merchandise is park specific, so you’ll have to visit all four theme parks (and the two waterparks!) to see all of the options. Most of these items are only available in the parks, and can’t always be found in the online Shop Disney store.
Shopping is also one of the main activities you can enjoy at Disney Springs, which is in essence a Disney themed shopping center! Disney Springs has many different stores, including some high-end boutiques. It’s also home to the largest Disney store in the world! Disney Springs does a great job decorating for the holidays, and has a special collection of Disney themed Christmas trees that you can see.
It’s completely free to enter Disney Springs, so you can also just window shop if you’re not interested in spending any more money on your Disney World trip! You can get to Disney Spring for free on one of their buses, or on a boat from select resorts.
Rest Days are Great Phone Free Days
Even the most experienced and enthusiastic guests get tired at Walt Disney World. Most of us aren’t used to walking 10-20 thousand steps a day, and so it’s important to build in some rest time. When we go to Disney World, we automatically build in one rest day for every two to three days in the theme parks.
One way to take a rest day is to enjoy all of the amenities that your resort has to offer, none of which require a smartphone! Every resort has its own themed swimming pool, and some resorts even have multiple pools! The pools are free for resort guests, with chairs and towels provided at no extra cost.
You can take your resort rest days to the next level at some resorts by booking a poolside cabana! Although these are an extra cost, each cabana usually holds up to six people and comes equipped with snacks and non-alcoholic drinks included. You’ll also have a cabana attendant who will make the rounds of all of the cabanas and bring you any additional purchased food, including alcoholic beverages.
Outside of the pools, resorts also offer different activities for guests of all ages. Some of these activities do have an additional fee, such as tie-dying or making your own Mickey ears, but others are completely free. One of our favorite resort activities was the Disney trivia games poolside at the Contemporary Resort! Most of the hotels also show a different Disney movie for free each night on a giant screen on the lawn!
Water Parks At Disney World
Walt Disney World has two different water parks! Both Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon offer all kinds of fun water activities including wave pools, water slides, and splash pads! Although entrance to the water parks requires a separate ticket from the theme parks, they’re another great place to take a rest day and a break from your smartphone!
The water parks do offer free chairs that are first-come, first-served, meaning that there can be quite a rush to get the best seats on busy days. You can also rent a cabana for an additional fee that comes with chairs, towels, water, and a cabana attendant to bring you any other food purchases. The cabanas also offer a small safe where you can secure your valuables when you’re out splashing about.
Disney World Without Magic Bands
Disney introduced Magic Bands several years ago as an easy way to access things while you’re on Disney World property. You can use them to open your hotel room door, enter a theme park, scan into rides when you have a reservation, and even pay for food. However, all of this is optional and you can do everything at Disney World without magic bands.
If you’re staying at one of the Walt Disney World resort hotels you can always visit the front desk to ask for a traditional room key. They won’t have a problem giving these keys to you; you just have to ask for one. These keys work just like they always have, and can make it easy to pass keys to other members of your group who need to go into your hotel room.
For entering the park you can either use a virtual ticket with a barcode on your phone, or if you’re avoiding your smartphone altogether you can use a printed ticket. You can either print your ticket with the barcode from your computer ahead of time, or get one at the desk services window outside of the park. When you enter each park you’ll just scan your paper ticket and your fingerprint before going in.
You also don’t need to use a magic band to purchase food, drinks, or souvenirs. Any location on property that sells these items can also accept debit cards, credit cards, or cash. There may be times when specific locations have trouble taking these traditional payment methods due to technology issues or just being out of change, but you can usually find another location nearby that is up and running.
Is it Worth Not Using a Smartphone at Disney World?
Can you do Disney World without a smartphone? Yes, but if you’re considering a smart phone-free trip to Disney World I think it’s important to think about why you don’t want to use your phone, and have a realistic understanding of how that will impact your experience.
Overall, it’s my opinion that a better option would be to try to strategically limit your smartphone usage on your Disney World vacation instead of trying to fully eliminate it altogether.
Obviously, the biggest benefit to not using your smartphone is giving yourself a break from technology and being fully present on your vacation. This may be especially important if your regular day-to-day life keeps you tied to your phone all of the time and you’re looking forward to taking a technology break.
Not using a smartphone means you might be more present when you’re in the parks, and not wandering around staring at your phone instead of enjoying the sights. You also won’t have to worry about the phone battery draining or having to carry a portable backup charger with you.
When you’re in the parks, using your smartphone to check ride wait times instead of walking back to the Hub or to the ride itself can save you a ton of time. The parks are just so big that you can waste a lot of your day walking to each ride and then deciding if you’re willing to wait that long for a particular ride. If you’re willing to hop in the standby line no matter how long the wait is, then this may not be as important, but it’s not a great strategy if you’re trying to maximize the number of rides you can go on in a day.
I have the same approach for dining reservations and mobile ordering. If you want to eat at a sit-down table service meal, plan this out ahead of time and make your dining reservations before you get to the park. Then you can just use your phone to check in for your reservation (or try your luck checking in at the host stand), or to make any changes to your dining plans. I also like using the phone for mobile order, due to the extremely limited capacity of most quick-service restaurants for taking in-person orders. I’d rather spend two minutes making a mobile order on my phone than waiting 20 minutes to place it in person.
Take advantage of your rest days to go completely phone free. Explore the resorts or lay by a pool without needing to use your phone for anything. Use these rest days to recharge your body, and make it a point to truly relax without using your phone.
Again, you should think carefully about why you want to avoid using your smartphone during your trip. It may be worth going “smartphone lite” and using it selectively for wait time information, ride reservations with Genie+, and mobile ordering. Other than those select activities, try keeping your phone hidden away in your pocket or bag so you can truly be present in the magical world that Walt Disney has created for you, and enjoy the time with your friends and family!
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