Disney World tips and tricks for people who hate to wait in line

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!

22 thoughts on “Disney World tips and tricks for people who hate to wait in line

  1. Wow. To me, Disneyland sounds terrible. 😉 I am going to be that mean Mom that totally refuses to go and to stand in line. To be fair, when I was little, I also wanted to go to Disneyland in Paris.

    1. @Maggie- well, it’s not my first choice for a vacation. But on the other hand, the kids really did enjoy it!

    2. My husband’s family is really into Disney, so I’m sure we’ll have to go at some point, but I’m really dreading it! Since my husband is a teacher, most likely we’ll have to go during a peak time and as they are not really planners, I just imagine the whole trip will be a complicated, crowded, money-hemorrhaging affair! Can’t wait!

      1. @Kristin – ha! Yeah, I don’t think Disney is the right place to go if you’re the sort of person who decides what she wants to do for the day at breakfast that morning. I mean, maybe you’ll get lucky and the magic will happen. Maybe.

    3. Lol, I made it halfway through the list and thought the exact same thing. This is a lot of work for “vacation”. My neighbors recently went with older kids (11 and 13), and although it was still logistically challenging to maximize their time there, they didn’t have the added challenge of wrangling kids too young to really cope with the downsides of Disney.

      1. @Alyce – 11 and 13 would be absolutely perfect. They’d probably also like Universal while they’re there. I’ve pondered if there would be a way to just take my 9- and 11-year-old, but I don’t see that there is one without my little kids being furious.

  2. I agree that the Magic Express is terrible. Won’t be doing that one again!

    We are constantly trying to pare down our packing. Our goal is a backpack for all (big ones for grownups, small ones for kids) unless we’re doing some specific activity that requires lots of gear (skiing). It’s a fun challenge to get everything to fit!

    1. @Beth C – I think packing is like anything else…we get better with practice. Business travel has kind of forced that on me but as we travel more with the kids I’m getting better at that too.

      1. Definitely, we learn what we need and don’t need over time! We’ve been flying with our kids for 7 years now and I still learn something new every time.

  3. Orlando resident here, so I get a little bit of a different experience. (There is no Disney FOMO when you’re an annual passholder – you’ll be back – that is huge.) But I did have a couple things:
    —This particular weekend was so crowded! As are lots of days at Disney – it’s getting harder to find less crowded days. We ended up there Saturday – I feel for you making it through the whole weekend. I wish you’d been able to go when it wasn’t as crowded – you can skip a lot more lines when there are actually fastpasses available throughout the day, for example!
    —Both Shipt and Instacart are available in Orlando for grocery delivery if you’re staying somewhere with a fridge/kitchen and want to have groceries delivered.
    —The Disney app (MyDisneyExperience) is really super helpful if you can figure it out – you can order food, deal with fastpasses (you can get one at a time after your 3 run out, but when it’s really nuts they run out), locate bathrooms, and see wait times.
    —I think there are a couple big decision points for most families: are we staying for fireworks (or who is staying for fireworks, which are after bedtime for a lot of young kids) and if so, when are we taking a break for the day (afternoon pool time/nap time is popular)? Powering all the way through with kids requires a special kind of vacationer. Maybe even let mom and dad take separate breaks for an hour just to get away from the craziness. They serve beer almost everywhere now.
    -Lines are a good time for snacks. They don’t want you to eat and drink on the rides, but it doesn’t seem that anyone cares while you are in line.

    1. @SaraB – thanks for these tips! Yes, the problem with coming out of town is you’re coming when the kids are out of school…which is when everyone else is out of school too. We came in late April (a non Easter/Passover week) one year when the kids were 4, 2, and 6 months (so not really in school), and I think that’s the least crowded I’ve seen it. But…that’s a lot harder now. My 11-year-old felt stressed and behind for missing one day this fall.

  4. My recommendation is to read the books about how best to navigate the parks. I went years ago with my mom and sister as adults, and while our mother mocked us for doing things counter-intuitive to her logic, by the end of our trip she admitted that the planning my sister and I had done made it very enjoyable with less wait.

  5. Our best tip came from the couple next to us at the front gate: make a fast beeline to Soarin’ first. Ride it three times; by the time you’re done, there’s a lineup. Get a timed ride for later if you want. It worked great, it’s our favorite ride.

    1. @Barb – that’s what we did with Buzz lightyear at Magic Kingdom on our last day. We were right by the entrance to Tomorrow land when it opened. We ran over, did the ride once, got out and waited about 10 minutes in line for a second ride, then used our fast pass for a third go.

      We couldn’t get to Epcot when the park opened that day, so we just took our 40-minute wait each time for 2 rides on Soarin’.

  6. My hacks are on the save money side (I’m single with no kids). The past two years I’ve gone to a work conference in Orlando and added Disney at the end of it – booked too late for the more inexpensive Disney resorts to have rooms but there are good value non-Disney resorts by Disney springs (bonus is that you can walk to Disney springs!). My mom was amazed when i told her uber or lyft from the airport was cheaper than Mears (my parents hadn’t used it by themselves before). Flights of Passage was in the 200 or more minute range when I went and no fast passes available so I didn’t go on it (but I will inevitably be back). Also, the Polynesian has the best bar that I stumbled upon two trips ago (Trader Sams) and my parents insisted that I take them there to experience it. So we went twice in 2 days. (I found it while at Magic Kingdom – we were tired, hungry and didn’t want to eat anything in the park so we decided to get on the monorail to get away for a few hours and find something to eat – and walked past the entrance to Trader Sams just as they started to take names for their 4pm opening. So we put our names in.)

  7. If you’ve never visited https://touringplans.com/, check it out. Len Testa has made a career out of figuring the most efficient ways to navigate Disney; his touring plans were invaluable back in the days before Fast Passes. Now, his site and accompanying app still offer a lot of helpful information about predicted crowd levels, which parks to visit on which days, etc. The app often has more accurate wait time information than Disney’s app. Costs about $16 for an annual subscription but well worth it.

    Just an opinion — I have been to the parks on many days when his crowd level was rated as a 5 (out of 10) and it seemed pretty crowded to me. I cannot begin to fathom the sheer hell of a crowd level of 10.

  8. We just got back yesterday and I had read your post when you wrote it. We also stayed at the bay lake tower. I thought Disney was a great trip for super planners and strategizers. We have two boys, 4 and 7, and hit the four major parks and rode pretty much everything we wanted to with good planning and fast passes.

  9. I agree that Disney is best for school-agers and up. My best hacks for really enjoying it are staying on property, using Lyft/Uber if you’re not staying at a monorail hotel, getting to the parks an hour before they open, using FastPasses for later in the day (since you’re arriving early, you’ll get on your most coveted rides without using up a FastPass). Also, plan to eat at “off” times; since you’re up early, have your breakfast either in-hand (bagels, juice, coffee) while you’re waiting for the park to open, you’ll be hungry for ‘lunch’ around 10:00. No crowds then! Ask each person in the group which rides they MUST go on and ensure everyone gets something they want each day. I’ve taken my kids both as a married mom and as a single mom and always had a great time. The planning is what makes it great.

  10. My favorite website is easywdw.com. Even if I’m not planning a vacation in the near future, I drop in occasionally to read Josh’s tips and enjoy his sarcastic and witty commentary during his “walk-throughs.” It’s nearly as entertaining as the actual trip!

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