First Timer's Guide to Disney World

by - 7:00 AM

These are our tips and advice for anyone embarking on a trip to Disney World in Orlando, FL If you are heading to Disneyland in Anaheim, CA, we recommend reading our First Timer's Guide to Disneyland

What are the differences between Disneyland and Disney World?

Disneyland is located in Anaheim, CA and Disney World is located in Orlando, FL. Each Disney property is home to multiple theme parks, and those theme parks are home to multiple sections or "worlds" inside. I know this may be confusing.

Disneyland is home of two theme parks, Disneyland and California Adventure Park. Disneyland park hosts Main Street with Sleeping Beauty's castle right in the middle of the view down Main Street. California Adventure Park hosts the famous view of the Ferris wheel with Mickey's face and the World of Color show featuring lights, music and water effects as shown below.

Disney World is home to four theme parks: Magic Kingdom (where Cinderella's castle is), Animal Kingdom (think the Tree of Life and Pandora), Hollywood Studios (Toy Story Land, Star Wars Galaxy's Edge), and Epcot (featuring a showcase of many countries from all over the world along with food and wine festivals).

Both Disneyland and Disney World also feature a Disney Springs location, which is an area owned by Disney filled with retail stores, restaurants, and other experiences.

Here is an outline of the Disney World property in Florida:
This map is courtesy of - to download the full high resolution map, click here.

Things to Do Before Your Trip to Disney World

  • Plan your day(s) and your park strategy in advance

    A lot of your time in the theme park is unknowingly spent deciding where to eat, which ride to go on next, which direction to walk, show to see, etc. Especially if you have a large group or others to confer with. Planning your day ahead of time will help provide guidance and keep you on track so that you can maximize your time in the parks. Spend some time looking over a park map and familiarizing yourself with the park. This way, you will have a general idea of where everything is. If you have little ones, take note of the restrooms and child services. Confer with your friends and family on what they would like to see and do before the trip. It will make it much easier for you to enjoy once you're there.

    Multiple days will be needed to see Disney World in its entirety. The fastest we've ever done Disney World is 3 parks in one day, choosing to skip Epcot. This was done with adults only, and we strategically chose the rides and places to eat in advance. 

    TIP: I highly recommend doing at least one park per day. The parks are always crowded but we found them to be more manageable on weekdays versus weekends. We visited Epcot and Hollywood Studios (they are less prioritized than the others) on the weekend days of our trip and saved Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom for Monday and Tuesday. 

  • Make your dining reservations in advance via the Disney app or website.
    Dining in the theme parks is a wonderful and world class experience. Disney's standard for food in taste, presentation, and variety is of the highest caliber. That being said, it may be difficult to get into one of their many popular sit-down restaurants without a reservation. I highly recommend making a reservation in advance. The reservation can always be changed or canceled, if needed. It's better to reserve your spot now than to be out of luck on the week or day of your visit. 
  • Select your FastPass ride times in advance via the Disney app or website. 

    The Disney FastPass program is designed to let you skip the lines at certain rides, shows and events. When you get into the park, you can visit any FastPass Kiosk and select times for those rides and events. Once your time approaches, you can get into the FastPass line versus the regular line for that ride. 30 days prior to your trip, you can make up to 3 of these selections online or through the Disney mobile app.
  • Disney Magic Bands. What are they and how do they work?

    A MagicBand is a rubber, waterproof wristband with sensors embedded inside called a "Touch Point." The touch points allow you to scan your MagicBand to unlock the door of your Disney Resort hotel room, enter the theme parks with it versus a ticket, sync your FastPasses onto your MagicBand so that when you enter the FastPass entrance at a ride or show, you just touch your MagicBand to the sensor at the gate. You can also charge food and merchandise purchases to your Disney hotel room. And last but not least, if you purchase the PhotoPass, you can use your MagicBand to gather your ride photos and park photos digitally. The MagicBands can be managed on your Disney account online (where you can also view your park photos), they come in all kinds of colors and designs, and it makes life so much easier in the parks.

    If you are staying at a Disney Resort hotel or if you are an Annual Passholder, you will automatically receive one. If you are neither, you can purchase MagicBands online or from the shopDisney app. They are also sold on the Disney property.  
  • Check out the prohibited items list before you go.
    We didn't know selfie sticks weren't allowed in the parks until we were in the parks. Read the prohibited items list and park rules before your trip so you can plan accordingly. 
  • Decide whether you want to visit the parks during the holidays. 
    Disney changes their themes, decorations, food offerings, and events based on the holidays. During Halloween, the park is completely changed (check out this giant Mickey Jack O Lantern below). The same for Christmas, there are holiday food options, holiday themed events, and the park is transformed into a winter wonderland. There is even fake "snow"!

Money Saving Tips

  • Purchasing your Disney themed outfits and ears in advance may be cheaper than buying them on the property. Homemade ears and outfits are even more cost effective. 
  • We did not stay on the Disney Resort Properties. While there are SO many benefits that come with staying in a Disney Resort and we would have preferred to for those reasons, we just couldn't afford it at the time and opted for a cheaper stay near the resort area. We used Priceline or Orbitz to find cheap hotel stays nearby. 

What to Expect During Your Visit to Disneyland

Each park has its own parking lot, and there is a fee for each. 
If you are staying at a Disney property, there are shuttles, boats, and monorails that can get you to the parks. We used ride share services like Uber or Lyft to get to the parks and shuttles. 

You can usually walk from the parking lot to the main entrances at each park, there are trams that can pick you up if you are further away but you have to wait for the tram to fill up before it leaves. 

Special Occasions
TIP: If you are celebrating a special occasion, head over to the Guest Services building and ask them for a button. If it's a birthday, an anniversary, if you're newly married, or even if it's your first time at Disney World - the buttons are utilized by Disney Cast Members to make your visit extra special. Because we got engaged at Disney World, they gave us these "Happily Ever After" buttons and every cast member congratulated us and took extra pictures for us everywhere we went.

TIP: I highly recommend the Disney PhotoPass if you are celebrating or just keen on keeping the memories. The PhotoPass allows you to purchase all of your Disney photos for a flat rate. This means you can take photos at any of the photo opp areas in the parks and they are all yours to keep digitally for one price. Disney has photographer all over the parks to capture your moments. This includes Character meeting opportunities, photos in front of the castle and other cool spots, ride photos, dining photos, etc. The photos taken on their professional equipment is far more superior than what you would be able to capture on your cell phone. 

Be Kind
The park gets very, very crowded. Getting around is difficult to maneuver, it would be even more difficult with a stroller or large group. BUT we found that if you were kind to others, they were kind back. That is the MAJOR key here, people. We let others go in front of us, held the doors open for others, we apologized if we bumped into others, and it made the experience a much more positive one and we noticed the kindness spread like a domino effect. You will be bumped by more children than adults, but do not mind it.

Eat Smarter, Not Harder
Eat breakfast early, eat lunch later, and eat dinner later to avoid the crowds during popular times for meals. Also utilize the Disney Mobile App for quick service food orders. You can order from most quick service restaurants right from your phone and pick up your food right away without having to wait as long in line. 

Steak Bowl, Steak and Tofu Bowl, Cheeseburger Bao Buns at Satu'li Canteen in Pandora, Animal Kingdom

Ride Smarter, Not Harder
The average wait time per ride is usually about an hour or more. The mobile app also has ride wait times, we found that it wasn't 100% accurate all of the time. We made friends with other park goers in the lines and found that this benefited us greatly because we would run into our newly made friends all over the park and they would be able to let us know things like, "Hey, the Finding Nemo ride is down. Don't head that way!" And it really helped us have eyes and ears all over the park, saving time and distance. 

Using resources like a Crowd Calendar from Touring Plans, Magic Guides, or WDW Prep School will help you plan like a pro. These Crowd Calendars use data from the parks on certain dates to predict the wait times and crowd levels on the dates you are looking to visit. We used this tool immensely when planning out each day in advance based on the predictions. 

FastPasses can be obtained for most of the various night shows at all 4 parks. 
Try to select your FastPasses for these shows in advance online or via the Disney Mobile app. They fill up quickly online as well so if you miss out, you will still be able to see the show from general viewing areas, but the FastPass tickets for this show gives you the advantage to view the shows from better viewing areas.

Here are the shows at each park:
  • Epcot = IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth
  • Magic Kingdom = The famous fireworks are called "Happily Ever After"
  • Animal Kingdom = Rivers of Light
  • Hollywood Studios = Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular and the Fantasmic show featuring Wizard Mickey
Rivers of Light show at Animal Kingdom, Disney World

Pay Attention to Disney Magic Hours
Each park has its own set of Disney Magic Hours, extended hours before or after regular park hours. This access is only granted to those staying at a Disney property or a Disney affiliated property. We stayed at the Wyndham Garden near Disney Springs and they are a Disney affiliated property. All guests must be registered to the hotel and a special pass is needed from the hotel's front desk. 

We visited Pandora inside Animal Kingdom using Magic Hours before the park opened to the public. We managed to only wait in line for the Flight of Passage ride for about 1 hour versus the 3 hour regular wait time. Then when the park opened, everyone headed towards Pandora while we explored other parts of the park, saving us so much more time. After we were done with all we wanted to do, we headed back to Pandora at night, which is a totally different experience. 

Pandora, Animal Kingdom during the day time

Pandora, Animal Kingdom during the nighttime. 
Overall, each visit to Disney World is what you make of it. It really is a magical place as long as people like ourselves keep the magic alive. Be prepared, be kind to others, utilize all of the tools that Disney has to offer, and your experience will be amazing. 

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