BUDGET TRAVEL TIPS
The Completely Obsessive Absolutely Indispensable Guide to Disney World
An insider manual to Disney World for first-timers and fanatics alike.
If there's such a thing as an archetypal Disney fanatic, I'm pretty sure that I don't fit the mold. I don't own Mickey Mouse T-shirts or have a Disney license plate on my car. There are no movie posters, bobblehead dolls, or other assorted Disneyana decorating my cubicle. But as hard as it is for my colleagues at Budget Travel to believe, I've been to Walt Disney World more times than I can count. In fact, when my family and I try to tally the total number of days we've logged in the parks, we usually start with some complex mental math only to throw up our hands and agree, "A few hundred."
Having grown up in Tampa, about an hour from Disney World, I've had some of my most memorable life experiences with Mickey and the gang. Disney World is where my fourth-grade science class went on a field trip to learn about marine biology, where my elementary school chorus performed Christmas carols, where I've spent countless New Year's Eves, Fourths of July, Labor Days, and Memorial Days. I even learned I was accepted into journalism school, from an e-mail sent to my smartphone, while riding in a simulated hang glider at Epcot's popular Soarin' attraction.
So I guess you could say I know the place pretty well. Add in my family (mother, father, and sister), and we've collectively amassed more than 60 years of park experience. With that kind of dedication comes a little embarrassment and a lifetime's worth of invaluable rules. What follows is my hard-won Disney World wisdom, an insider's manual for first-timers and fanatics alike.
1. Embrace your impulsive side
Disney World's sheer scale can be daunting: four theme parks, 25,000 acres, nearly 500 places to eat, more than 28,000 hotel rooms. Guidebooks often suggest creating a master multiday game plan before hitting the parks. I totally disagree. Rather than sticking to a rigid agenda, my family has developed a simple system: Check the morning forecast. If rain is on the way, we head for Hollywood Studios—it's far and away the most compact of the four parks, and almost all rides and lines are indoors or sheltered. Cloudy days are ideal for Animal Kingdom, since the big cats, great apes, and Serengeti grazers are much more active when the sun is hidden, while Epcot is a must when the mercury is predicted to climb above 90 degrees; many of its top attractions clock in at over 15 minutes, maximizing your precious air-conditioned hours. And for those perfectly sunny days? Magic Kingdom, of course. Blue skies are ideal for carnival-style rides like Dumbo the Flying Elephant and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad—not to mention that classic family photo in front of Cinderella Castle.
2. Don't even think about paying for parking
When you're shelling out $90 a day for admission, tacking on another $14 for parking can feel like adding insult to injury. I'm proud to say my family hasn't paid for a spot in years. What many out-of-towners don't realize is that the parking lots at Disney water parks, miniature-golf courses, and the Downtown Disney entertainment district are absolutely free. From those locations, shuttle buses will take you wherever you need to go (note that some routes require transfers). Our all-time favorite spot is an unmarked overflow lot across the street from the BoardWalk Inn. Next to a Hess gas station, the lot is almost always half-empty and is a 10-minute walk to the resort. From there, you can stroll over to Epcot, take a ferry ride to Hollywood Studios, or catch a shuttle bus anywhere else—all free of charge.
3. Ready, set...run!
If you've been to Disney World even once, you probably know that Fastpasses are the single-greatest time-savers ever. They are distributed from special machines at many popular rides, and they specify a time window (essentially a reservation) when you can return and skip the line. The only hitch is that they're limited and first-come, first-served. Every December 26, my family visits the Magic Kingdom with a large group from our neighborhood. To ensure that we all get Fastpasses, our family friend, a special-projects manager at a major computer company, uses his logistics skills to coordinate what I call the "running man" strategy. Because favorites like Space Mountain and Splash Mountain are located far from the entrance, it would be impossible to get our whole party to the Fastpass machines before the best time slots were taken. Instead, we send the fastest member of our pack bobbing and weaving through the crowds to collect passes for everyone.
4. Look beyond the biggies
With top rides like Hollywood Studios' Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (an intense free fall) and Epcot's Mission: Space (a thrilling virtual space flight) commanding hour-long waits, it pays to go where the action isn't. Epcot's Sum of All Thrills is no less exciting than Mission: Space, but for whatever reason, I've never waited more than 15 minutes for it. On a touch screen, guests design their own roller coaster, bobsled course, or jet flight, and then step inside a two-person module on the end of a robotic arm to experience a simulated version of their creation. Another inexplicably empty attraction is Magic Kingdom's Tom Sawyer Island. The 3.3-acre site is a warren of wooded trails, caves, and circa-1840s buildings. Each morning, staffers hide six paintbrushes on the island, and the first kids to find them get front-of-the-line passes for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad or Splash Mountain.