The “most magical place on Earth” can be just that, but since its pandemic-era closures in 2020, Disney World has become equally challenging to visit. It can be stressful and somewhat maddening to parse the endless Google results about park reservations and Genie+ bookings, but just like settling for a sad croissant at a tourist cafe in France, experiences at Disney are layered and knowledge yields better trips. In a sense, not all Dole Whip stands are created equal, and your resident Disney pro is here to help. (Rum floaters at Animal Kingdom, anyone?)
As a full-time theme park journalist focused on all things Disney for eight years now, I, too, was once an adult with a hazy memory of MGM Studios and a Mickey meet-and-greet. After one single trip to Walt Disney World, I fell so deeply in love with its charms that I’m now on the other side, leading you through this weird, wacky, anthropomorphic mouse-led wonderland with reliable expertise.
After all, there’s a reason millions of people travel to Florida despite its swamp-like climate. Even if you’re convinced your kid won’t remember meeting Minnie Mouse, Disney World can have its merits at any age. This is an American institution, and if the countless hours your household logs on Disney+ amount to anything, it’s also somewhat inevitable if you can afford it. Yes, it’s a multi-day trip. Yes, it can be costly. And just because you’ll complain the whole time doesn’t mean you shouldn’t go.
If you’ve got that voice in the back of your head, summoning you to its royal gates, here’s what you need to know.
What’s the deal with Disney World?
Unlike Disneyland, the classic Southern California theme park that’s easily doable in one day, Walt Disney World is essentially its own city. With two water parks, dozens of hotels, a mass transit system, a “downtown” mall and, uh, a utility district you’ve likely heard something about, there’s an entire ecosystem of lingo and logistics that can be as tricky to navigate as a foreign destination.
Still, Walt Disney World’s draw remains its four separate theme parks, each worthwhile in its own regard. Magic Kingdom is the castle-laden one you’re picturing, packed with a bevy of kid-friendly rides, character meet-and-greets, and classic nighttime entertainment. Epcot is a mishmash of newer, family-friendly attractions with seemingly never-ending seasonal food festivals and a bit of edutainment you may recall from childhood.
Then there’s Animal Kingdom, the tamest of the four — packed with stunning zoo-like experiences and a surprisingly beloved Avatar land — and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, a once-fledgling park that now houses Star Wars and Toy Story attractions alongside Disney’s only Mickey Mouse-themed ride.
As you’d imagine, Disney World is massive, with some destinations a 25-minute drive away from each other. You won’t need to rent a car, though — so long as you can figure out transportation from Orlando International Airport (Uber, Lyft, or one of the airport bus services like Mears Connect and Sunshine Flyer), you can make it around Walt Disney World itself for free.
What do I need to know before booking?
Visiting this self-proclaimed epicenter of all things magic really is a multi-day trip. I recommend four to five days on the ground — one at each or most of the parks, with a rest day in the middle. Sure, you can experience one park in one day if that’s all you’ve got, but it will feel exhausting to jam it all in.
When it comes to selecting dates, it’s what you’d expect: If it’s a holiday, it’s going to be busier and pricier; if it’s summer, it’s gonna be hot and also rainy. There will always be crowds, but to seek out pockets when things are calmer, look through unofficial crowd calendars and take note of park hours. (On nights from August through December when Magic Kingdom has ticketed seasonal events, it closes around 6 pm and won’t let you stay for fireworks.)
How much is this going to cost?
Tickets aren’t cheap. Adult tickets range from $109 to $189 per day, and for the time being, require a free but easy-to-forget park reservation. (This will change in early 2024.) Disney offers single- and multi-day admission, but a park hopper, generally a $70 surcharge on a one-day pass and less for multi-day admission, allows you to visit any of them. Just mind the asinine restriction that hopping can only occur after 2 pm.
(Traveling before October? Don’t miss Disney’s rare summer ticket promotion.)
Once inside, it’s not just the $6 Mickey-shaped ice cream bar that’ll cost you — it’s the breakfast with Tigger ($45 for adults, $29 for kids) and custom Star Wars light sabers ($219) and other optional surcharges, like line-skipping, which can add up to around $55 per person, per day. (More on that below.)
With those endless pixie-dusted ads airing on TV, Disney wants you to think you have to stay at Disney’s hotels to feel the magic, but there are oodles of nearby hotels that sometimes offer more for less. You’ll miss out on Disney hotels’ perks — including early theme park and booking advantages — but it’s not an absolute dealbreaker to stay elsewhere.
Pricing changes constantly, and there are often seasonal discounts and promotions, but Disney offers three pricing tiers of hotels — value ($100-$200), moderate ($250-$450), and deluxe ($500+). (Higher-end brands like JW Marriott and Waldorf Astoria have outposts nearby as well.) Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, which offers Disney hotel perks, Marriott’s Bonvoy advantages, and walking paths to two theme parks, is often my go-to choice (pricing starts around $190 per night). For a ’90s kid, nothing can break the nostalgic hold that Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort has on you (thanks, Full House), but if you can swing prices in the four digits, Four Seasons Resort Orlando at Walt Disney World Resort is sheer perfection, ideal for special occasions or if the grandparents are footing the bill.
What can’t be missed?
Magic Kingdom is the quintessential Disney experience, even if other parks may be more enjoyable. It reigns supreme because for young ones or those short on time, it has the most rides of any park and all the classic meet-and-greets, providing more bang for your buck.
If you’ve got older kids who aren’t quite wooed by the charms of a slow-moving Peter Pan ride, turn your sights toward Hollywood Studios, whose Slinky Dog Dash coaster provides a worthy entry point to genuine thrills like Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Disney’s only upside-down offering.
For thrill-seekers, the Guardians of the Galaxy coaster at Epcot is a must, but if you’ve got someone in your group who’s as anti-Disney as DeSantis, not even the strongest of souls can resist Expedition Everest, a perfect coaster packed with a surprise track switch and, most importantly, no recognizable characters (save for a yeti). And if you’re the one planning the trip and simply give up, just head to Epcot. With its World Showcase pavilions and refreshed rides, the mix of Frozen meet-and-greets and frozen margaritas is a multi-generational crowd-pleaser.
If your child is hell-bent on meeting a certain character, know that while Mickey Mouse is at all four parks, some only meet guests at certain locations, while others, like Encanto’s Mirabel, are currently only visible in parades and shows. Oh, and once the sun sets, Magic Kingdom’s Happily Ever After is the nighttime fireworks show to see. (It’s so good that its replacement was recently bounced out in favor of it returning.)
How can I avoid long lines?
Disney World once had a free program called Fastpass, which let every ticket holder “skip the line” on select rides. That no longer exists, but two new paid products, sold through the Walt Disney World app, grant access to a shorter, speedier queue.
The first, Genie+, is essentially Disney’s paid version of Fastpass. Pricing changes daily and by which park you’re visiting, but for around $25 per day, per person, you’ll gain quicker entry into several attractions of your choosing throughout all four parks.
For the most in-demand rides, you’ll need to pay separately once again. Individual Lightning Lanes, which cost $10-$20 per person, provide one-time expedited access to the biggest, best attractions, all of which are excluded from Genie+.
Both are completely optional but maximize what you can do while in the parks — and, in a way, the admission you’ve already bought. They also require a bit of finesse. Disney-goers are on top of it, and if you don’t book the moment they’re available, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Genie+ goes on sale at midnight each day and ride selection opens at 7 am. Individual Lightning Lanes go on sale at 7 am for Disney hotel guests and at park opening for everyone else.
As you can imagine, there’s a lot of nuance to this somewhat essential process; we recommend reading one of the many Disney fan sites that break it down in detail. (Note: this can and will change in the future, so check the website prior to travel.)
Oh, and one more thing — for new rides, like Magic Kingdom’s Tron coaster, Disney will often impose a Virtual Queue. In lieu of standing in line, one must gain entry through boarding groups, which are free, and released at 7 am and 1 pm on the app. (For the latter drop you need to have already entered Magic Kingdom. And yes, it starts after park-hopping hours.) You can also toss some money at the problem — Virtual Queue attractions are usually offered with Individual Lightning Lane as well.
Do I really have to plan ahead?
Experts like myself will tirelessly recommend it, but there are some ways around it.
If you don’t mind eating quick-service meals — a.k.a. food on a tray — there’s no need for restaurant reservations. (You can also play it by ear and use the Disney World app’s walk-up waitlist feature to try and nab a last-minute table.) That said, if you’re looking for an elusive time to dine with princesses at Cinderella’s Royal Table or another popular spot, advance dining reservations go quickly and can be nabbed 60 days in advance, or a little earlier if you’re staying with Disney. (For any and all dining questions, the aptly named Disney Food Blog and its guidebooks are required reading.)
You can also use a travel agent, who will guide you through every step of the process and even book your travel, often at no cost to you. (It’s still a booming business in these parts, as their expertise pairs well with the many, many follow-up questions you’re likely to have.) Mouse Fan Travel and Dreams Unlimited Travel are among the biggest and best, but any independent travel agent with a focus on theme parks is likely to work their butt off for you, including sitting on hold with Disney’s call center for hours on your behalf.
Still, things you can’t budge on are familiarizing yourself with the offerings, linking all your plans through My Disney Experience and the Walt Disney World app, and getting your tickets squared away. The park reservation system, which is in place through early 2024, requires you to pick which park you’ll visit each day in advance, and those can sell out.
If you want to opt out of those Genie+ and Lightning Lane shenanigans altogether, arrive extra early, stay late (you can join most queues until the park closes), or parse through the massive amount of data for when the best time to pop in line may be.
What else do I need to know?
Pack rain ponchos for afternoon downpours, zip-lock bags for water rides, and if you’re traveling in the summer, your choice of personal cooling devices. (This place was built on swampland, and boy, does it like to remind you.)
Download the Disney World app in advance and make sure each member of your party (and your Disney hotel reservations, if applicable) are linked for those quick-draw 7 am bookings. Bring portable phone chargers, never wear brand-new shoes, and always check in with Disney experts (like me!) for updates on theme park changes, which can happen at any time.
Also: The Starbucks line at Magic Kingdom may look short but it’s long, the monorail is always more magical than the ferry, and whatever you do, don’t buy the “Most Expensive Day Ever” shirts. No one thinks they’re funny.
Carlye Wisel is an award-winning theme park journalist who spends all her time obsessing over The Muppets and minutia of Disney and Universal theme parks. Her podcast, Very Amusing, covers everything from trip planning to interviews with athletes and actors who are unexpected Disney fans. Got more questions? Give her a call at 747-CHURROS. She’s happy to help!