A former cast member shared 12 Walt Disney World vacation hacks, so we're planning our next trip ASAP
One of the best experiences of my life was the year I spent working at Walt Disney World. There is truly no other place like it on Earth, and after spending nearly 365 days working at everyone’s dream vacation destination, I learned a lot about how to take advantage of every magical moment. Now I want to share it with you.
One of my favorite things to do post-Disney is to give people advice on how to get the most out of their trips. For the amount of money you’re spending on plane tickets, hotel rooms, and character dining experiences, you deserve to get the most bang for your buck.
These are my top insider tips for making the most out of your time at Disney, from how to know if a wait time is really just 30 minutes to how to get that coveted Be Our Guest reservation, and everything in between.
Make an itinerary for your trip months in advance
Even though everything is pretty much done though MagicBands, it’s still helpful to plan out your trip on paper or your phone before your trip—especially if you’re traveling with young children. Research which rides are appropriate for your children and how many you think they can handle before needing a nap. What restaurants serve food that you and your kids will eat? What shows, fireworks, or other events are can’t-miss for your family? These are all things that you should know in advance so that when you get your FastPass+ tickets (usually 30 days before your trip) or make breakfast or dinner reservations, you know exactly what you want and can structure your day accordingly.
Avoid visiting during peak season
Some families can only travel to Walt Disney World during peak season: over spring break, winter break, the holiday season, and throughout the summer. That’s okay—you can still have a great vacation if you visit during high-traffic times. But if you can visit during the off-season, like the end of January to the beginning of February, the end of September, or between Halloween and the week before Thanksgiving, it makes a significant difference in the amount of ground you can cover during your trip—as well as your stress level. With fewer park guests, lines are shorter, parks and hotels are less crowded, and you can usually see all of the special events that you would during peak season, like the Epcot Food and Wine Festival, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, and the Epcot Flower and Garden show, without the crowds.
Embrace rainy days
When the rains come, people stay away from the parks—or rush to certain rides that offer a place to hide out from the deluge. I am telling you to throw a poncho on yourself and your kids and head for the outdoor attractions that other people avoid during the downpour.
I used to be a safari driver on Kilimanjaro Safaris in Disney’s Animal Kingdom. On this ride, people would hop onto my safari truck and enjoy a 20-30 minute drive through a replica savannah, seeing real, free-roaming African animals go about their business while I shared fun facts about the animals we saw along the way. Some of the best animal encounters I ever saw during my time there were in the pouring rain: baby elephants would cannonball into the watering hole and splash around, rhinos would roll around in the mud and chase each other through the bushes and trees. I will never forget the cool things I saw on rainy days, but I usually didn’t have a lot of guests on my truck to experience these things with me, because the trucks have no windows and people would avoid the safari in the rain. Too bad. They missed out on some pretty phenomenal animal encounters that just didn’t happen on sunny days.
Skip a sit-down breakfast and run to the rides first
I highly recommend eating breakfast on the go or even mid-morning. A large, sit-down breakfast is not only expensive (whether you eat at a Disney restaurant or your off-site hotel), it takes up valuable time. The first hour after park opening is a great time to run toward rides or attractions that you couldn’t get a FastPass+ for or that fill up fast, so I recommend eating breakfast afterward or packing something to eat while you’re waiting in line. Another great time to hit popular rides like Frozen Ever After and Soarin’? During the fireworks and parades. If you’ve got kids, this strategy may be a harder sell, but if you’re lucky enough to visit a particular park more than once, spend one day seeing the shows and one day skipping them in favor of the big rides.
Hack FastPass+ to benefit your family
I think the old paper FastPasses were much better than the new FastPass+ system—you were able to get way more passes in a day. But just because FastPass+ limits you to three passes at a time per day doesn’t mean you’ll be stuck on long lines for the rest of the day. The trick is to schedule your passes as close together as you can because once you use all three, you can select more to use that day in any park. Another trick for families with kids that vary in age and size is to utilize every member of your family. If one kid is not big enough for a ride, or one of the adults has to stay back with a baby, make sure to reserve a FastPass+ in their name anyway for the same ride or another ride. That way you can ride the same ride again and just switch MagicBands with those not riding, or split up and have one parent supervising one ride and another across the park on a different ride, so no one has to wait for anyone else.
Make dinner reservations at the last minute
Before I say more, note that this does not apply to every restaurant. Generally, reservations book up 60 to 90 days in advance, so you’ll want to make as many as you can before you even get on the plane. But for really popular restaurants like Be Our Guest (which, I’m sure, is the only restaurant your kids care about eating at), this strategy could save you if you couldn’t get a reservation before your trip. Wait until the day you want to eat there to make a reservation.
Here’s how it works: People usually make as many reservations as they can before their trip so they have options of places to eat, but as it gets closer to the reservation date, people cancel their reservations at the last minute or just don’t show up. If you come in the morning or early afternoon and tell a Guest Relations cast member or the restaurant host that you want a table that day, they’ll likely take your name and number or let you know when to come back to check for a table or reach out when something becomes available. This doesn’t always work, but why not check in when you get there and see if something opens up? You have nothing to lose.
(Be Our Guest tip: Go to the hostess booth in front of the restaurant—it’s shaped like a castle tower—just before the restaurant opens for lunch to ask about dinner reservations. Most guests don’t know that you can inquire about a table that day, or where the hostess booth even is, so you’ll be at the top of the list.)
Know your stroller before entering the park
This advice might sound stupid to a parent that has to handle their stroller every day, but I think it’s incredibly important, whether you’re renting a stroller at the park or bringing your own. Stroller parking in Disney World can be inconvenient, and navigating through crowds will drive you absolutely insane. Know how to close up your stroller fast. Handing your stroller parking attendant an already-closed stroller gets you and your family on the ride faster and avoids the awkwardness of standing in the middle of the line wrestling with the darn thing when people are trying to walk around you. Also, put your family name on your stroller, because you may think you know what it looks like, but when you walk into a stroller parking area and see a sea of black Bugaboo Cameleons all in a row, you’re going to wish you labeled yours.
Check out available Guest Services before your trip
This can be a game-changer for families with medical needs or a fussy baby that needs changing. All over every park there are Guest Service stations that most people don’t even know exist, like baby care centers that provide private places to nurse, change your baby, or even sit your kids in front of the television for some down time. These areas also have microwaves, sinks, and on-site shops with diapers, sunscreen, and any other essentials you may have forgotten. It’s also the place where cast members bring lost children to wait safely for their parents. There are First Aid stations where you can speak to someone if you’re feeling ill or get medicine for headaches. Knowing where they are, even if you never need them, can bring peace of mind to parents.
Take full advantage of the MyDisneyExperience app
When it comes to making the most of your Disney vacation, there’s an app for that. The MyDisneyExperience app is like your personal vacation assistant, allowing you to organize or make dinner reservations; keep track of your FastPasses and select new ones; give you walking directions to nearby attractions, amenities, and guest services; show you full park maps, updated show times, updated wait times for every attraction; and so much more. You can even download it right now and start using it to plan your trip, because it works even when you’re nowhere near the parks. I highly suggest using this often throughout your trip, but make sure to bring a portable phone charger with you, because it does eat up quite a bit of battery.
Always doubt the wait times
It’s a sad reality that even the wait times in the MyDisneyExperience app aren’t always correct. It could be because the app is loading slowly that day or the ride hasn’t updated their wait times since their last busy cycle. It’s sometimes worth checking out the ride line for yourself, just to be sure. A great tip for determining the wait times without needing to refer to the app or a cast member? For many rides, there is an indoor queue and an outdoor queue—and if the line ends outside and wraps around the attraction but the sign above the entrance says 20 minutes, chances are it’s wrong and you can expect to wait more like 45 minutes to an hour. And when you’re just not sure, ask the cast member to confirm the wait time if something doesn’t look right.
Use long queue lines to your advantage
So let’s say you’re stuck on a two-hour-long line because your children would never forgive you if you left Disney World without riding Frozen Ever After. Take advantage of this downtime by letting the kids nap in the stroller, give them a phone or iPad to distract them, or even send an adult over to a nearby food stand for a quick stand-up lunch. Then, once you get on and off the ride, you can go right over to the next activity on your itinerary without having to make a rest stop. (Unless somebody needs to make a bathroom run because, sadly, there is no queue in Walt Disney World that also includes a bathroom.)
When in doubt, ask a cast member
That’s what they’re there for! No question is a dumb question (trust me, we’ve heard them all), and if they don’t know the answer, chances are they know of another cast member nearby who does. Most people who work for Disney love what they do and love interacting with guests and helping them have a magical day in the parks, so if you ever need anything at all, just ask!