I don’t like lines. I am not opposed to waiting in general; I feel like my life is quite future-focused in terms of saving/investing, or starting big projects that will take years to pay off. But that comfort with delayed gratification is a very different thing than waiting in line 35 minutes to get a bad chicken caesar salad in a crowded theme park restaurant.
Alas, going to Walt Disney World on a holiday weekend, as my family just did, has a high chance of requiring a lot of the latter kind of waiting. Some of this is inevitable, but over my past few years of fairly frequent visits (5 times since 2012…) I’ve discovered a few key learnings that I hope will help other people planning trips with their families. Feel free to chime in with you tips — the more the merrier!
Plan ahead to get dinner reservations and FastPasses. We booked dining 180 days ahead (with the help of Jaime Weitl), so we got Cinderella’s Royal Table and Akershus reservations, plus two other meals where we dined with various characters. Disney has a FastPass system for reserving popular rides at various times. This system has its own intricacies visitors need to study, but in general, if you’ve bought tickets ahead of time, you can reserve three rides per day to get in a short-to-no-wait line. In some parks, there is a tiered system, so you can only get one of the most popular rides, with the other two rides being from the less-popular tiers. We reserved these passes 60 days ahead, so we got the rides we wanted at the times we wanted.
I have since learned that there is a pilot program where if you’re staying in certain resorts, you can buy 3 extra FastPasses per day for something like $50/person/day. I did not know about that when we booked our room, though (as I don’t think it was announced until January). This might be a smart option; saving yourself a 60-minute wait for $16 is economical for pretty much anyone who reads this blog. It turns out there is also a “VIP tour” option where you get unlimited FastPasses; pricing appears to come out to about $500/hour for a group with a minimum commitment of something like 7 hours. If you’re planning a once-in-a-lifetime type trip (or have generous grandparents or something), it might be worth knowing about.
In any case, if you are a normal person not willing to spend $4000+ per day at a theme park, the upside of advance dining reservations plus FastPasses is that you know, even if all else goes to hell, that you’ll get to have one sit down meal with characters, and go on three rides. Adding in shows and exhibits can make for a reasonable day.
Look for extra hours. On our first day there, Magic Kingdom had a special ticketed event. You could buy a ticket (it was about $150/person — not cheap, but cheaper than VIP tours!) and go from 9-12 p.m. with very limited crowds. My big boys and husband got tickets to this and so they could ride Seven Dwarves Mine Train and Big Thunder Mountain Railway over and over again. It turned out there was also one for Saturday night when we were at Hollywood Studios, but I didn’t buy enough ahead of time and it was sold out. Too bad, as my husband and boys then spent about 2.5 hours of their lives waiting in line for Toy Story Mania and to go on Slinky Dog Dash a second time (we had a FastPass for the first time, but due to the tier system you could not get a pass for both Toy Story Mania and Slinky Dog Dash). There are also “extra magic hours” some days early or late for people staying at the resorts. This wouldn’t be quite as uncrowded as the special ticketed events, but would be better than the ridiculousness of mid-day on a holiday weekend. At one point, the stand-by line for Avatar Flight of Passage hit 345 minutes!
Look for “sales” on lines. My eldest child was obsessed with the Disney app in the weeks leading up to the trip. The upside of this is that he had already calculated average wait times on the handful of rides we absolutely wanted to do that we did not have FastPasses for (such as Soarin’ at Epcot). When we saw that the posted wait time was under the average, we knew it was a reasonable choice to jump in line. If you Google average wait times and the names of particular rides, you’ll get bar graphs of this data. In general, lines go down a lot in the hour before the park closes (or during fireworks), and might be OK right at the moment the park opens.
Lines are more comfortable if you’re comfortable. This should go without saying, but if you’re about to jump in a 65-minute line, make sure everyone goes to the bathroom and has a snack beforehand. (As for 345-minute lines? My bladder often doesn’t make it that long overnight, so if you’re about to go for that restroom-free experience, may the Force be with you.)
Bring one phone per child. My husband has two phones (don’t ask), I have one, and our 11-year-old has one. While long waits were still painful, when each child had an electronic device to play games on, they were mildly less painful. The 4-year-old in particular was tough to control. I waited with the two older boys for Na’avi River Journey (51 minutes, advertised as 60) at Animal Kingdom and it was fine. Almost pleasant to chat (sans phones!) and move along in the lovely Florida evening air. Speaking of which…
Maybe don’t bring little kids. I know Disney markets heavily to 2-6 year olds, but hot crowded places with long lines aren’t always great for little ones. Theme parks as an entertainment option are often best for kids ages 7+. We decided to bring the 4-year-old as he would have hated us for life if we’d left him at this point, but he was the cause of about 80 percent of my stress on this trip. (The remaining 20 percent was time-based; e.g. when a FastPass was scheduled too close to another reservation or to when we’d jumped in a line that then turned out to be longer than advertised).
Pack light. Honestly, this is my tip for travel in general! I posted a photo on Instagram of my packing for the four kids for five days. They each wore jeans and a light rain jacket (and their shoes) on the plane down. I then packed a swimsuit for each kid, two sets of light pajamas for the two little kids (the big boys don’t really wear them), five pairs of underwear and five pairs of socks for each kid, and then generally one more pair of long pants (to wear home plus one day at the park) and 2 sets of shorts (to wear 1-2x at the park) and 4 T-shirts (one to be re-worn). Plus toothbrushes. I swear all of this fit in my husband’s old Samsonite carry-on, except for a little bit of my oldest’s clothes, which he carried in his backpack.
The three big kids had backpacks for the plane. In each there was their electronic device (Kindle/Switch/phone), headphones + charger, favorite (small!) stuffed animal, a book or crayons + paper, a Ziplock bag of snacks, and an empty water bottle. They mostly just watched TV/movies on the plane rides. We brought one book (Cars and Trucks and Things That Go!) and a Kindle for the 4-year-old, which my husband put in his backpack. My husband and I each packed our own carry-on plus personal items. Total was 3 carry-ons plus 5 personal items (backpacks or purse) for 6 people.
Don’t bring bags into the parks. So this doesn’t work if you have diapers, or a kid in a stroller, but I decided that we would go bag-free. (There are often shorter entry lines if your bags don’t need to be searched…plus then you don’t have to carry anything! As we did need to carry the 4-year-old sometimes, this was a good call for us). I wore a light jacket with zipped pockets to the parks each day. When it got hot, I tied this around my waist. Disney’s Magic Bands (electronic wristbands) can be used for charging stuff, though I had my driver’s license and a credit card in one jacket pocket, just for back up. I put my phone in the other. I also put a trial sized tube of sunscreen and a trial sized bottle of hand sanitizer in my zipped jacket pockets. Plus two band-aids! The parks have water fountains everywhere, so we didn’t actually need to bring our own, and we left ours in the hotel room. It was nice not to be weighed down.
Skip the Magic “Express.” I put express in quotes because there was nothing rapid about this form of transit. We took the Disney bus from the Orlando airport to our hotel. We landed at 10 p.m., so we waited forever for departure with tired, cranky kids, and then we stopped at two other resorts before going to ours. We didn’t get into the hotel until right before midnight. A taxi would have taken us about 35 minutes. I guess theoretically the upside to the Magic Express is that they get your bags for you and deliver them to your hotel, but since we never check bags, this wasn’t a benefit. Plus, after 10:00 p.m., they make you get your own bags anyway. Big fail. We took a car to the airport for the return trip (the Magic Express reservation they gave us was going to be 3.5 hours before our flight, and they wanted to us to check in 15 minutes before.)
Consider ride-sharing services (e.g. Lyft) for getting around the parks. The buses and monorails can take a long time, and while the app shows you theoretical arrival times, we found this can change a lot, which is maddening if you’re trying to get somewhere for a reservation or FastPass. It is true that the buses can use special entrances to the parks, so during rush times there might be some upsides to the bus but it’s still not clear. One morning, my bus took 15 minutes to load. We waited 20 minutes for a bus the next day, which then also took 10 minutes to load, so even sitting in Lyft in a line-up might have taken less time. In the middle of the day, it’s nice to go from Point A to Point B directly. (Incidentally, Uber has a car seat/booster seat option that you can order directly through the app in Orlando if you’re taking it to/from the airport or something, and at least theoretically the “Minnie-van” branded Lyfts are supposed to have booster seats available, though you should check on current policies if that is important to you.)
Use mobile ordering for quick service restaurants. We didn’t figure out this option until midway through the trip. Disney has so many lines for rides that you simply have to deal with, but it’s crazy-making to wait in a line you shouldn’t have to be in: 40 minutes for a crappy “quick” serve meal because there are no other options, and the restaurant seems surprised that there are crowds. Imagine that! Crowds! We ordered ahead for our lunch the last day there and I could pick it up within about 10 minutes of confirming that I was there (well, actually on the way there, but that seemed more efficient).
Make your own breakfast. We stayed in the Bay Lake Tower, in what was basically an apartment. We bought frozen waffles, butter, cheese, fruit, etc. at the convenience store at the next-door Contemporary resort. This was a big time saver on the two mornings we wanted to be at the parks early. We could just make our own breakfast and get going, rather than waiting in yet another ridiculously long Disney line.
What are your Disney hacks?
In other news: Speaking of hacks, if you’re interested in mine, please consider getting a copy of my ebook, Laura’s Little Book of Life Hacks: 113 Ideas for Winning at Work and at Home. It’s free…but there’s a catch. You can only get the life hack book if you pre-order Juliet’s School of Possibilities. (Scroll to the bottom of that page to see the form you can fill out with name and email to get the download). I hope you’ll think that’s worth it! One person posted on Instagram that even if Juliet never showed up (which it will, I promise, on March 12th in the US) she’d consider her money well spent. Thank you!