Our family spent six nights at Disney World from February 10-16 of this year. This was our first family vacation at Disney World and although we had an amazing time, there were quite a few things that I’ve learned during our time there that makes me want to go back and do it right or better the second time around. By no means am I an expert on the subject now but I’d like to share a few tips and recommendations from my personal experience that I think may be helpful to those of you who are planning your first visit to Disney World in the near future.
Where to Stay
This is a tough one only because the options are endless. You have the option to stay in a Disney World resort inside the DW complex or stay at a nearby hotel right outside of DW. It all depends on your needs and preferences.
We decided to stay at a Disney World resort as it was recommended by many I’ve spoken to and reviews I’ve read. We stayed at the Saratoga Springs Resort and Spa. Since we were a party of seven as my parents came with us, we needed to find a hotel that offered 2-bedroom suites, which Saratoga Springs offered at a reasonable price. Saratoga Springs is a sprawling Victorian-style resort with a golf course, 5 different pools, a spa and many other amenities. Depending on which section of the resort you stay in, it may be a hike to get to the main building where the restaurants and main desk/concierge are located. We stayed in the Grandstand section, which was a 3-minute walk to the main building and steps away from the bus stop. We were also the first ones to get on the bus on the way to the parks and the first ones to get off the bus on the way back, which proved to be extremely convenient.
The next time we go, it’ll probably be just our family of five so we would most likely stay at the Contemporary Resort, not only because of convenient access to the monorail but also due to our personal preferences in terms of style and amenities.
My preconceptions about the restaurants at Disney World were that they were overpriced and not very good. We were pleasantly surprised by a couple of the restaurants we decided to dine at. I do have to mention, though, that I did some research on the restaurants before I made reservations so it definitely pays off to read the reviews and recommendations in order to find a restaurant that will suit your family’s palate. And I would recommend that you start making reservations 6 months in advance, if you’re able, because the popular restaurants get filled very quickly.
We really enjoyed our dinner at California Grill at the Contemporary Resort, which is an award-winning restaurant that offers fresh and seasonal ingredients with flavors of the Pacific Coast. The best part is the rooftop view. The entire dining area is surrounded by windows so we had a beautiful view of the sunset.
We also liked Cítricos at the Grand Floridian Resort where we had brunch and mingled with the Disney Princesses. The brunch was very good but the atmosphere was even better. Character dining is a must if you have young children. I could see my 5-year-old’s eyes light up as different princesses came by our table to chat, give out hugs and take pictures.
If you’re staying at a Disney World resort, I would definitely recommend getting a dining plan unless you’re really particular about how you order your food and/or plan to consume a lot of alcoholic beverages. Included in the plan for each meal was a non-alcoholic drink, an entree and a dessert and there were certain premium dishes that were excluded. We would have liked the flexibility of ordering an appetizer instead of dessert but unfortunately that was not an option. Regardless, considering the upcharge at all these Disney restaurants, the daily cost of food came out a lot cheaper with the dining plan even after adding tips and extras that are not included. I would definitely recommend it for large parties.
One of the conveniences of staying in a Disney World resort is that you get to use their transportation. There are buses, boats and a monorail system. Even though during busy times, you may be waiting for a while for the bus and may even need to take two modes of transportation to get to your final destination, you’re avoiding having to deal with finding a parking spot every time you get to a new place. I could imagine that being a nightmare during busy seasons.
The only times we wished we had our own car was when we were running late to dinner or to drive to a local grocery store to get breakfast items as our meal plan only included two meals per day. Our resort had a small grocery store for basic needs and it turned out to be sufficient for us. In addition, there was also the option to have breakfast at the resort restaurants.
Parks & Rides
I would highly recommend doing your research on each of the Disney parks and deciding which rides/attractions you and your family might be interested in and plan ahead as much as possible. Otherwise, you’ll be wasting precious time deciding and waiting in line. We purchased a 4-day pass to the parks as part of our package. We could have visited all four parks (Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios). However, based on what we had heard and read about Hollywood Studios and our girls’ interests, we decided to skip this particular park this time around and enjoy Magic Kingdom for two days. Below are a few of the rides/attractions that we enjoyed at the parks we visited:
Since we have a 5-year-old and we were with my elderly parents, we opted for fun-to-watch attractions and mild rides and, of course, we couldn’t skip the Elsa/Anna meet-up. However, parades take up a lot of time since you have to stake your spot early and just wait if you want a good view. The next time we go, we’ll probably skip most of the princess related attractions and parades and go for the thrill rides.
Magic Bands, Fast Pass and Other Perks
If you stay in a Disney World resort, magic bands are included in your package. These are personalized wrist bands that you need to wear at all times to gain entrance to the parks, purchase food on your dining plan, gain Fast Pass+ access, etc. It basically contains your itinerary. Needless to say, these were extremely convenient to use. You may purchase these bands even if you decide not to stay in a DW resort.
Fast Pass+ service is included in your ticket or package. You’re allowed to gain Fast Pass+ access to up to three attractions per day. And if you miss a Fast Pass+ reservation, you may be able to add another one after all your reservations have been used for the day. I would highly recommend that you use these on the most popular attractions and reserve them early as there is a limited number of spots available for each time slot. We had Fast Pass+ access to Soarin’ at Epcot and we still ended up waiting about 20 minutes or so due to its popularity.
Another perk of staying at a Disney World resort is the Magical Express service. If your arrival time is before 10 PM and you have checked in luggage, the Disney staff will pick up your luggage from baggage claim for you and bring it to your hotel. All you have to do once you get off the plane is to go straight to the Magical Express shuttle to be taken to your hotel.
I seriously can go on and on about the ins and outs of Disney World that I learned during this trip. However, I need to end this post at some point. I’m very curious to hear about your experience at Disney World. And if you have any other questions, feel free to drop me a note.
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