Lessons learned from our first trip to Disney

We just got back from our first trip to Disney World, and had a great time. We procrastinated a bit in our planning, and there are some things I wish I had known before going. Maybe these will be helpful to someone:

  1. Complete your registration. When you get an e-mail to "complete your registration", go ahead and do that early. We stayed "on property" (at one of Disney's hotels / resorts), and with that comes the Magic Bands which serve as room keys as well as park admission. If you wait too long, they wont ship to you, and if you put it off till a few days before your arrival, you can't customize them (ie: change the color of them)
  2. Learn about Fast Passes. Figure out which rides you want to go on, and which of those have long wait times. Figure out which ones you want to use your fast passes on.
  3. Book rides and dining well in advance. There are some rides that you have to book a month or more in advance if you want to use a fast pass. The same goes for some of the restaurants (Be Our Guest is one of them)
  4. Learn about Ride Swaps. We didn't know about this till day 2, and it would have saved some troubles on day 1. If you have kids that can't / don't want to ride certain rides, part of the family can go through the line, get a rider swap, and the second part of the family can go through the fast pass lane.
  5. Get to the Magic Kingdom. The only way in is via boat or monorail. It takes a long time to get to and from your car. It took us about an hour to get back to the car when the park closed at 10pm on our final night there, and remember, this was not the "busy" season.
  6. Strollers - yes, they are welcome, there are plenty of places to park them. We used a folding single on two days, and our double jogger on the final day. Getting them on the people movers in the parking lot is not as easy, especially with the double stroller.
  7. Food - it is going to be expensive, but at least it is fast. The "Quick Service" restaurants are actually quite quick. We had a "Quick Service Dining Plan" (not sure what that saved us by paying in advance), but the list price for most meals averaged from $7-15 per person. If you are buying park food, budget for it
  8. Meals and Baby. Baby's dont get their own tickets, and thus dont get their own meals. We had to share at every meal, but thankfully there was always more than enough to share
  9. Snacks - most of the snacks (also included in the quick service plan) were surprisingly large. Ice cream, Dole Whip, pretzels, etc. There was plenty to share with the baby
  10. The Florida Turnpikes - You need CASH (coins even) for these. Nowhere (that we saw) does it say this (Houston and Chicago do a much better job at this) until you are at a point of no return. There were two toll plazas between getting off I-75 and the park, one was $3 the other was $1.50. Also, my wife left the hotel to go to Walmart, and the road was not clearly labeled as a tollway, she got stuck at the booth at 10pm looking for enough change to get past the gate (again - Chicago lets you go right through as long as you log in online to pay your toll)
  11. Walmart - just don't go there, at least not the one about 4 miles East. It was a "hot mess" according to my wife.
  12. Park hopper - This wasn't really worth it for us. We did a half day at Animal Kingdom (before lunch) and spent the rest of the day at Hollywood. For the short trip, we should have skipped Animal Kingdom, instead of trying to fit them both in on the same day. The time it takes to leave one park, drive to another, park, and get inside is easily over an hour. We might have saved some time by using a bus, but probably not much.
  13. Download the Disney World App - it lets you book Fast Passes, see wait times, see menus, and more

Some random positive observations:

  • We stayed at the All Star Music Resort. We were very happy with the room (a family suite - separate master, and enough fold-out bedding for 4, maybe even 5 kids, and it had two bathrooms)
  • Our 4 year old got separated from us at Hollywood Studios. When we realized he had wondered off, I ran back towards where we previously were, and there he was with a cast member. She went into one of the stores and grabbed him a small toy - left him with a happy memory instead of a sad one.
  • We booked through a friend who is a Disney travel agent. The process was very simple and smooth. Since we were paying with our debit card, we actually encountered an issue where the total charge was more than the single-purchase limit set by our bank ($3,000). We ended up using my wife's card and my card (both linked to the same checking account) to split the charge. Thankfully their payment system was flexible enough to do this (though it makes me sad that people probably use 2+ credit cards to fund their Disney trips)

Budgeting for the Trip

My wife did most of the planning, and I don't have a copy of the detailed invoice as I am writing this, so I priced a new trip using the same parameters, albeit for 3 weeks after we went (still in May, 2017, so before most people are out of school, ie "the busy season")

  • 4 nights at the All Star Music, Family Suites ($1,257.60)
  • 3 days park admission (w/o Park Hopper, 2 adults, 3 children 3-9) ($1,488.42) (Park Hopper adds another ~$300 - again, wasn't worth it for our visit)
  • Quick Service Dining plan for 5 ($637.43)
  • Total: $3,383.45

Opportunities for Savings

We wanted to stay at a Disney hotel for this first visit. If we go back invest the time to figure out how to make this more affordable, we certainly could. Off-park hotels are a lot cheaper, and there are some good ones that are about the same distance away from the parks as the All Star Resort. Parking is included when staying at a Disney hotel, but it is only $20 / day / vehicle. We probably could have saved $500 on hotels by looking at some of the nearby off-park options. If the hotel had a good breakfast included and we packed snacks in the stroller, we probably could have saved an additional $200-300 on dining (eating two full meals at the park each day for about $40-$70 each).

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