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Winter Travel

10 hacks for the perfect Disney World vacation

Planning a Disney trip is no walk in the park. Here’s how to maximize the magic.

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Vacations are wonderful. Escapism is better. And for my money, there’s no better place to leave reality behind than Florida’s Disney World. For those who can’t resist the fairy tale lure of a glittering castle set in a land of magic and whimsy, Disney is a dream destination.

It’s also four theme parks, two water parks, an ESPN-branded sports complex, more than two dozen hotels, even more restaurants, and a shopping and dining district with everything from its own Cirque du Soleil show to hot air balloon rides, on a property twice the size of Manhattan. Add in an at-times confusing network of Disney buses, ferryboats, monorails, and a sky gondola system — and navigating it all can snap unprepared visitors right back to reality.

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Whether I’ve been celebrating holidays in the parks, taking my daughters on birthday trips, or traveling on getaways with friends, the dozens of visits I’ve made over the years all had one common thread: Making the most of the experience all comes down to planning. With the Christmas season at Disney already well underway — typically the parks’ busiest time — here are 10 tips to help you and yours get the best out of your trip.

1. Time it right.

From events to rides to weather, when you go to Disney plays a key role in what Disney you’ll experience. Do you dream of topiaries in the shape of Snow White and all seven dwarfs? Then time your visit for the EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival in spring.

Does the idea of competing in a road race through the Magic Kingdom while your favorite characters cheer you on get your adrenaline flowing? The runDisney series kicks off each year in January.

Attendance levels fluctuate throughout the year, with holidays, long weekends, and Disney events drawing big numbers. If you want to avoid the biggest crowds, think about going during what is considered a down season, such as mid-January, when temperatures can dip at night, or early September, when kids are back in school.

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Openings of new rides and attractions will also pack the parks, so keep an eye on the Disney website for events such as the much anticipated opening of the TRON Lightcycle/Run roller coaster at Magic Kingdom, which Disney has said will happen some time this spring; and the unveiling of the Moana Journey of Water walk-through experience at EPCOT.

One caveat when it comes to rides: Scheduled maintenance happens throughout the year, so if your trip just won’t be complete without a ride down Splash Mountain, check the refurbishment calendar to ensure your visit and a planned ride closure don’t coincide.

Disney characters in front of Cinderella Castle at Magic Kingdom.Disney

2. Do your research.

Walt Disney wanted his parks to be ever changing, and they’re still that today. With new projects being launched seemingly all the time, getting the lay of the land — even if you’ve been there before — can be complicated. Look to Disney fan websites to help you narrow down what to see and do. “Are you a family that likes thrill rides, or Broadway-style shows, or upscale dining? Find the best of the best for that, then make a plan around it,” says AJ Wolfe, founder of the Disney Food Blog, a top independent site for all things Disney.

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Another key: Get comfortable with the My Disney Experience app. It can function as your room key, tell you waits for rides (and predict less-crowded times), allow you to check in for hotel and dining reservations, and let you schedule a food order in advance — it can even connect you with a local health center for a virtual doctor’s visit if you get sick on your trip.

Stormalong Bay, the main pool area at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts.Kent Phillips

3. Nail down the necessities.

Start by booking the basics: hotel, park tickets, and Disney Park Pass reservations. There are on-site Disney-run hotels at every price point, and even more “Good Neighbor” properties that have earned the Disney seal of approval. Expect to pay more to stay in Disney proper, which comes with perks including half-hour early entry and free transportation to the parks. Prices run the gamut, from $130 per night in the off-season for a “value resort” — think your average chain hotel, with an eye-popping color scheme — to more than $3,000 nightly for an off-season stay in a swanky beach bungalow with a private plunge pool.

Park tickets will likely be your next biggest expense. For the upcoming February school vacation week, a standard theme park ticket starts at $149 a day for adults, and $144 for ages 3-9 as of this writing, though Disney has just announced that starting on December 8, prices will vary depending on the park. (One-day tickets are most expensive; prices go down per day for longer stays.) Want to go from park to park in the same day, or add the option for water parks, or do both? For a one-day ticket, that will set you back at least $214 to $234 per adult. But we’re not done yet. If you want Disney Genie+, the paid service that lets you book ride times and cut down your wait in lines, expect to tack on about $20 per person for each day of your trip.

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When you’re done catching your breath from that last part, make sure you pay attention to this: A ticket alone WILL NOT get you into a Disney park. After pandemic closures, Disney instituted a reservation system. To visit a park, you must make a reservation through the online Park Pass system. These dates fill up, so book your park passes ASAP. Without them, people do get turned away at the gate, even with a $234 ticket.

4. Avoid pricing pitfalls.

Disney is a study in supply and demand, and right now demand is soaring. After hotel and ticket expenses, expect meals to take the next biggest bite out of your budget. Prices went up across the board in October, and many food items were no exception. Look online at Disney restaurant menus ahead of time to get an idea of costs. Plan a budget for meals, then pad it, to be on the safe side. Keep in mind that Disney is known to do surge pricing — meaning your $42-a-plate breakfast with Mickey and friends could cost even more if you’re visiting at a super-crowded time of year.

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Here are some easy ways to save: Buying Disney gift cards in advance is a good way to earmark money for your trip, and they can be found at a (small, but it all adds up) discount at warehouse club stores. Have a Target Red card? You’ll save 5 percent off your gift card purchase. Have a different credit card? Check the promotions program to see if you can save even more.

For snack hacks, use a grocery delivery service to get breakfast items to eat in your room, and drinks and treats to bring to the parks (glass bottles and ice from outside the park aren’t allowed). At upwards of $4 for a bottle of water inside the parks, snack spending can add up fast.

And, consider keeping extras as just that — extras — to cut down on costs. Your family might actually prefer watching the fireworks in front of Cinderella Castle, without the added expense of booking a specialty ticket that includes preferred seating.

Guests enjoy the character breakfast at Topolino’s Terrace restaurant at Disney’s Riviera Resort.Matt Stroshane

5. Prioritize reservations.

Hotels, restaurants, and experiences often fill to capacity — fast. Know what you want to book so you’re ready when the reservation window opens on the Disney website, which is 60 days in advance of your trip, at around 5:45 a.m. Set an alarm, mark it on your calendar. If a certain reservation means a lot to you, this is your best chance. Remember that it’s more than just meals that need to be booked in advance. Experiences such as getting princess and pirate makeovers for little ones at Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique or building lightsabers at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a themed area at Hollywood Studios, also require that spots be reserved ahead of time.

6. Set expectations.

There’s a seemingly limitless amount of activities at Disney World. Doing it all is just not possible. “Make a list of the most important things in each park — your top five rides, top snacks — then anything else extra you get to do is just cherries on top,” says Molly McCormack, the co-founder of Mammoth Club, a media company focused on theme parks and pop culture. Even McCormack, whose actual job is to go to Disney, says she has not seen and done everything.

AJ Wolfe, from Disney Food Blog, takes it one step further. Think about going to Disney like visiting a foreign country for the first time, she says. “You don’t want to see everything. Your job is to start narrowing things down, to figure out what your family is going to be interested in.”

To try to avoid heartbreak, have each person in your group set one top priority, and make a plan to get those things done.

7. Map it out.

Understanding how to get around Disney can save you time, which can let you pack more rides and activities into your vacation. Look at maps — for parks and transportation — and plan accordingly. If you’re like me, you might need a leisurely Sunday brunch before you can face up to the madness of a bustling park. With two teenagers. Who want things. So many things. In that case, I like to go to the Grand Floridian Café for lobster eggs benedict, a calm-before-the-storm stopover that puts me one monorail stop away from the Magic Kingdom.

If you’re booking rides through Genie+, try to cluster times in the same general area, to keep you from running from one end of the park to the other. There are lots of steps in a Disney day — my highest on a trip with my daughters was 29,199 — so distance can really matter.

The author's daughters, Meredith and Cassidy Dawkins, met princesses including Belle at EPCOT on a 2019 trip.Carrie Simonelli

8. Pack the essentials.

Between the step count and all of the planning, it can feel like you’re prepping to summit Mount Everest, instead of queuing to ride Expedition Everest at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. But having what you need will make your park day go smoother. First, pick a lightweight, comfortable backpack with padded straps — a drawstring bag will dig into your shoulders after a while. Then, put in only what you need, because you don’t want to feel like a sherpa on Everest, either. Here’s what’s always in my Disney backpack: Band-Aids (there will be blisters), sunblock, Advil, Pepto tablets (churros and upside down rides, enough said), and Dramamine (rides that spin). Also must-haves: antibacterial wipes, sunglasses, a water bottle, portable phone charger (using the Disney app will drain your battery), and the plastic, lightweight rain coats that go for around $2 each at Target, which are handy to have for both water rides and Florida’s sudden downpours.

9. Build in downtime.

While a Disney vacation can be filled with over-the-top excitement, it can also be draining. My daughters and I like to go to Disney Springs, Disney’s shopping and entertainment complex, around the mid-point of our vacation, for a more laid-back experience. If you don’t want to dedicate an entire day to relaxation, think about even setting aside an hour or two to kick back at the resort pool.

“I literally schedule down-time into my day,” says Wolfe. “Build in that down time, build in that sleep-in time. Whatever you know your body is going to need, you will need more when it’s in Disney World.”

Meals are served aboard the Galactic Starcruiser, an immersive Star Wars experience.Kent Phillips

10. Make sure you enjoy it.

It’s easy to feel like any minute that you’re not at Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, or Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a waste of valuable park time, but don’t let that mean missing out on the range of experiences Disney offers. You don’t have to spend your entire trip going on rides. If you want a spa day, plan one. Rather go golfing, or learn to make sangria, or try your hand at archery? All of those activities are there, too. “If you’re looking for something a little more luxurious, make a good dining reservation that’s going to take a while,” McCormack suggests. “People don’t realize the caliber of dining you can get — James Beard Award-winning chefs have restaurants at Disney World.” Crafting the “perfect” trip means doing what appeals the most to your group.

And, don’t be so focused on checking items off a list that you’re afraid to go off-script. Even with the best-laid strategy, things will go awry — rides will close unexpectedly, you might oversleep and miss a reservation — and that’s OK. At the end of the day, you’re making memories, and that’s the best plan there is.


Carrie Simonelli is an editor at the Globe Magazine. Send comments to carrie.simonelli@globe.com.