Not long after my wife Stacy and I first started dating, I surprised her with a trip to Walt Disney World (WDW). After the initial delight of an unexpected vacation wore off, I was met with the all-too-familiar eye roll of "Disney...again?" After all, she had already known me long enough to know about my fanaticism for all things Disney, as well as my repeated trips to WDW (thirteen and counting!).
I was worried whether she would like it as much as I did. I hedged my bets, taking her during the Epcot Food & Wine Festival. Some good wine would go a long way towards making up for a dud trip, just in case she didn't feel the magic.
I needn't have worried, though. Our first morning at Epcot, she actually squealed when she saw Minnie Mouse. Stacy had gotten in touch with her inner child.
I got something out of that trip, too. I got to see the parks again for the first time. I saw them through her eyes. I tailored the trip to her interests, while still taking the time to point out my favorites, hoping they'd become hers as well.
A good guidebook should do the same thing for you that I did for my wife. Not only should it help you find the things you'll like, but it should also help guide you to things you wouldn't normally try.
Here are reviews of the three major guidebooks. These reviews should help you decide which book best suits your needs.
Which guide? Birnbaum's Walt Disney World: The Official Guide ($16.95)
Who's it for? The rookie
Why should you read it? Consider this guide "Disney World 101." If you've never been to WDW, and you need an overview of everything that's available, this guidebook is the place to start. As the "official guide," it has extensive and detailed information that covers every aspect of your trip, from figuring out how you'll get there, to choosing your hotel and deciding which tickets to buy. (Its explanation of Disney's vacation packages is easier to understand than the one on the Disney World website.)
This guide is heavy on the details. You'll find yourself over a hundred pages in before you find a single ride description! But if you need to find a local church or temple, just head to page 53. (Yes, it's that detailed.) Such precision may seem like overkill, but it groups together important facts in easy-to-read sections, allowing you to skim over the info you don't need. (Not traveling with a party of eight or more? Then skip the whole "Magical Gatherings" section.)
A three-page color-coded comparison chart of the individual Disney hotels is a user-friendly way to pick the hotel that's right for you. Immediately following it, you'll find in-depth descriptions of each resort to help you feel sure that you picked the right place.
The ride descriptions are a little light. In some cases, more space is devoted to the gift shops and restaurants than to the actual attractions. But this guidebook does showcase the myriad of activities outside the theme parks—such as golf, surfing, and horseback riding—which can be easily overlooked by a first-timer.
Which guide? The Complete Walt Disney World ($24.95)
Who's it for? The seasoned veteran
Why should you read it? Now that you have a basic understanding of Disney World, it's time to dig deeper. WDW is built for repeat visits. Every trip yields new surprises and subtle treasures you never noticed before. Illustrated with beautiful color photographs, this guidebook details every attraction, scene by scene.
It also offers an in-depth history of the attractions and the parks themselves. Each ride has a "Fun Facts" section offering surprising tidbits. (Did you know that Country Bear Jamboree fan-favorite Big Al was voiced by Tex Ritter? And that the song he "butchers"—Blood on the Saddle—was a Tex Ritter hit in 1960?) If the attraction is based on a Disney film, expect a sidebar with a synopsis of that movie and a list of the plot elements that were incorporated into the attraction.
The Complete Walt Disney World primarily focuses on the theme parks. If you're looking for a primer to choose a hotel, this is not the guidebook for you. But what it does offer is ride length, average wait times, and even seating capacities at every restaurant and snack bar on the property. This is more than a history book!
It also offers the most in-depth run-down of the two Disney water parks: Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. These water parks are immensely popular, and were featured in our list of Top 10 U.S. Water Parks.
For the seasoned veteran who thinks he's seen it all, this guidebook even offers a bonus section of "Hidden Mickeys" you can look for throughout the park. (Hidden Mickeys are the familiar mouse-shaped icon, hidden in the background of many of the parks' attractions.)
Which guide? The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids ($16.99)
Who's it for? The family
Why should you read it? If the last time you went to WDW was when you were the kid, it's easy to forget just how much you need to know to navigate successfully with little ones. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids is a great place to start. Written by two parents and three children, it's a way of getting advice from people who have really lived through it. The guidebook is full of testimonials from average resort guests, and especially other kids. Want to know if Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is too intense for your child? Don't ask a grown-up. Take some advice from 8-year-old Hannah instead. (For the record, she came to enjoy it after some initial uneasiness.)
This guidebook also helps you plan all the logistics you need to deal with when traveling with children. Having no children myself, I wouldn't even begin to know where to rent a stroller, or what to do with it once I had one. Three dedicated pages to it later, I feel like a stroller pro.
The Unofficial Guide also helps you pick hotels and restaurants, keeping in mind that you have a child's tastes and interests to consider. Believe it or not, even at Disney World, not every restaurant caters to children. This guidebook helps you head straight for the places your kids will go nuts for.
And while most guidebooks do offer some type of suggested daily itinerary, this particular one offers the most detailed itineraries I've seen. They even offer alternative plans for children of specific ages.
Don't limit yourself to just guidebooks! There are dozens of Disney sites out there, all dedicated to helping you max out your trip. These three gems are required reading for all WDW newbies:
Disneyworld.com may seem like an obvious place to start, and it is. The official website, it's loaded with park schedules, parade times, and more photos of the hotels than you'll ever find in a guidebook.
Mousesavers.com can help you find the latest deals and discounts to help you make the most of your money.
AllEarsNet.com has menus for every restaurant on the property and hundreds of photos of just about everything, all submitted by fellow travelers.
With the right guidance, you'll have a trip to remember, and one you'll want to repeat again and again. Just ask my wife. She's busy packing for trip number three!