There really is a lot to know before you visit the park. Or rather, parks, since Walt Disney World Resort includes the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios. Oh, and the surrounding Disney hotels, Downtown Disney (a shopping, eating, and entertainment venue), and the water parks. Here's a crash course, with the top five tips to remember:
1. Deal hunt. "Used to be that you couldn't save much on Disney packages," says Bob Sehlinger, author of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009. Now, we're guessing because of the economy, they're bundling all kinds of sweet deals. Check out MouseSavers.com -- a website that vets official Disney offers and handily tackles other practicalities, like giving you discount codes for rental cars. Airlines added all kinds of surcharges when fuel prices were high, says Carl Schwartz, chief travel officer for Cheapflights.com. Now that fuel is back down, we're seeing some of the lowest fares in a while, so Schwartz suggests booking your flights sooner rather than later.
2. Be realistic. Chances are, if you're all excited (as you will be) and buying your Disney tickets online before you go (as you should), you'll buy a package that includes too many of the parks, thinking you can see more than you can. Let's get this out of the way: You are not going to be able to do it all and return home with your sanity intact. Rank your priorities, then go to TouringPlans.com's best-ticket calculator, answer 12 questions, and it'll spit out the type of ticket that'll work for you. Plus, check its online crowd tracker, a continually updated predictor of waiting times for rides at different Disney World theme parks, before you leave. The calls are based on weather, past crowds on the same date, special events at Disney, school schedules, and more.
3. Think timing. Give the off-season (late fall, late spring) serious thought to snag lower hotel rates and restaurant prices. Yup, even Disney eateries up their prices for the high seasons (summer, Christmas break, and the winter and spring recesses). Many sources say that November, before the Thanksgiving holiday, is the best time of the year to do Disney, along with the two weeks immediately after that weekend, crowdwise and weatherwise. And go early. "Show up thirty minutes before the gates open and you'll be repaid five times over," says Sehlinger. You may not think it's a vacation without a leisurely breakfast at 10:00, but if you're among the first in, you've got free rein.
4. Plan it out. Once you've cleared the gate with your java in hand, head immediately to the must-see rides (aka the ones that'll have the slowest lines later). At the Magic Kingdom, take older kids to the two mountains (Space and Splash); hustle the little ones over to Dumbo, Peter Pan's Flight, and Buzz Lightyear. At Epcot, Mission: SPACE and Soarin' are the two thrills to conquer first. At Hollywood Studios, hit Toy Story Mania!, Muppet Vision 3-D, and Indiana Jones: Epic Stunt Spectacular! At Animal Kingdom, target Dinosaur, the Kilimanjaro Safaris, and Expedition Everest.
The beauty of an early start, too, is that you can take a midday siesta and swim back at your hotel, then return when the sun is lower and everyone's fresh. Believe it or not, you'll walk 7 to 11 miles a day here. A break during the hottest part of the day is the best meltdown diverter there is -- for you, too!
Another cool way to get off your feet: the air-conditioned character meals, where kids can eat with their fave pals, like Pooh, Snow White, and even Mickey. Try to get an aisle seat so your kids are in close reach for a hug or a chat. And make sure you call 407-WDW-DINE 90 days in advance to book it. (If you're after the ever-popular Cinderella's Royal Table, make that precisely at 7 A.M. ET 90 days in advance.)
5. If you've got a toddler, get the 411. The official Disney site, Disneyworld.disney.go.com, has a Little Ones planning guide. Strollers are rented, though they all look alike, so bring a scarf or ribbon to ID yours in the queue at the ride entrances. All the theme parks also have a "rider swap" program, in which one parent waits with a child who's too young to ride, then gets to hop right on after handing the baby off to the parent who just rode. And the Baby Care Centers aren't just for emergencies. Think of them as "cooldown" rooms where your family can take a break. They're clean, spacious, have comfortable chairs, and a TV running Disney movies. Pick up a "Magical Beginnings" map in any theme park for clearly marked locations of those centers and more targeted info.