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A First Timer’s Guide to Disney

I am a firm believer that every child should have a Disneyworld experience. So with our oldest daughter's fifth birthday approaching, I knew it was time to book our trip to the "happiest place on Earth." Having not been to Disney since eighth grade, with a husband who had never been himself, Disney as adults, the ones in charge, was an entirely new experience. Honestly it was overwhelming; every time I would look up information or advice, there were so many Disney fanatics with entire websites and YouTube channels devoted to the most minute details. Fast passes, dining plan, monorails, favorite snacks - it seemed like an entirely different world with its own language. I did not have the time or energy to chase down online Disney rabbit holes.

Luckily, I had a friend that took her daughter right before we did. She sent me an invaluable quick tips email, loaded with advice, but still easy and fast to read. Armed with that information, and the mentality that I was not going to let myself get stressed over doing every.single.thing, we boarded our plane and headed to Orlando. 

Walt Disney World Cinderella castle

What ensued was really the perfect trip. We learned a lot about the ins and outs of Disney, met a lot of Disney for Life types, ate way too much, took lots of pictures, and had six days of uninterrupted quality time as a family. 

So, if you are like me - a Disney first timer, someone who is not exactly a "Disney person," who does not have time to read entire essays and watch lengthy review videos on every single thing, I offer you a guide to Disney. Disney people will find nothing new, perhaps, but for those of us who are just embarking on this phase of our life, I hope it offers you some tips for making the trip as magical (and easy) as ours. 

  1. Unless you get joy out of planning every single, minute detail of your trips (and have the time to do so), I highly recommend hiring a Disney Vacation Planner. The services are offered to you entirely free of charge and they are truly experts in all things Disney. Our planner listened to my priorities, made recommendations, gave me options, and even asked me if we wanted to do things I did not know existed. They can save you money in some cases - our planner would post updates in her Facebook group about a special Disney was running and how she had already done it for customers going in that time frame. She booked our fast passes, our dining reservations (both of which are competitive and require logging on at a specific time to get the best options), and even troubleshot with me via messenger from the park when our photo pass was acting wonky. I did not have to do a thing to book it; it was literally a vacation where I jut showed up. As moms, how often does that happen?
  2. Disney knows how to make a trip easy for travelers. When you stay on-site at a Disney resort, you have the ability to tag your bags with yellow luggage tags sent prior to your trip - Disney employees will retrieve your luggage from the baggage claim and deliver it to your resort room. When you get off the plane in Orlando, all you need to do is walk down to the Magical Express, scan your band, get in the line for your resort, and a bus transports you to your hotel. No need to call anyone, reserve anything. Similarly, when it is time to leave, if you are flying one of six airlines, you can check your luggage at the resort, board the Magical Express, head to the airport, and bypass the luggage checking process there. 
  3. With shops and street vendors everywhere in the parks and resorts, all of the Disney paraphernalia and souvenirs can get pricey quickly. I recommend two things: first, buy ahead what you can and pack it, and second, establish budget and expectations with your kids prior to arrival. The must haves for kids in the parks were bubble wands ($30 in the parks, you can find them on Amazon for cheaper), autograph books (lots of options on Amazon but I like that this one has a pen holder), and mouse ears (over 40 options for your princess with this listing, or this Mickey hat for your boy). Something I found worth it to buy in the park was the Mickey balloon. For $14, it is a substantial balloon, well made, and if it pops or deflates, they will replace or repair it free of charge in the parks. We tied it to our stroller and it made it easy to find in a sea of stroller parking. On the way to the airport, our daughter gave it to another child in the hotel lobby, since after six days it was still fully inflated but we could not take it on the plane. 
  4. Speaking of souvenirs, when you inevitably shop at the parks or resort, you don't have to worry about carrying around your new giant Mickey plushie or princess dress because the shops offer several options. You can pick up your item on the way out of the park, or if you are staying at an on-site resort, they can deliver it to your room for you. If you don't have enough room in your luggage, you can pay to have it shipped home for you. Some items are available on shopdisney online but there are park exclusive items (particularly the character outfits), so you can always check and see if it is available online before paying to ship it home - it may or may not be. 
  5. Many people rent or bring a stroller to Disney, even if their child(ren) are not using a stroller anymore at home. Our large-for-her-age 5 year old daughter rode almost everywhere in our rental Baby Jogger City Mini because there is just so much walking and so many long hours involved (I tracked 18,000-20,000 steps a day). It also was nice to have the stroller basket and cup holders for all of our stuff (you know kids come with so.much.stuff) and that we didn't have to carry it onto rollercoasters and rides. There is dedicated stroller parking and while we of course didn't leave valuables in the stroller, we felt confident leaving things in our stroller without worrying. Especially if you want it for airport travel, you may want to bring your own stroller, but beware of new Disneyworld stroller size regulations and make sure your stroller complies. Another option is to rent a stroller from one of many Orlando based companies. We used Kingdom Strollers with much success. Disney recently changed their resort drop-off agreement with these third party vendors, so you no longer can just pick up/drop off your stroller at bell services in the resort, but a Kingdom Strollers rep will meet you in the resort lobby or you can pick up/drop off at the airport (which is even better). Kingdom Strollers even offers a stroller rental for bigger children with special needs. 
  6. I was impressed by Disney's accommodations for individuals with special needs. To this point, anyone with a physical or cognitive reason they cannot stand in lines is able to sign up for a Disability Access Pass. The DAS pass allows everyone in your party to receive a "return time" for rides instead of physically standing in line (and lines can be up to two hours for the hottest rides). This works in addition to your fast pass, but you can only have one DAS pass return at a time. To get the DAS pass (which works through your magic band), go to any Guest Experience blue umbrella in the Disney parks. From there, the cast member will ask why you need a pass (but cannot legally ask any medical questions or require documentation). They will take a picture of the DAS pass holder (because when you scan to return to the ride, the cast member at the fast pass line will need to verify the DAS pass holder) and include anyone in your party on the pass. To get return times, you can either go to the fast pass entry of the ride you want and request a return time or you can go to any blue umbrella Disney Experience kiosk. The pass works in all four of Disney's parks so you only have to set it up once per 60 days. You may read outdated information about having to go to City Hall or Guest Relations, but it is all digital on ipads now. 
  7. Even if you are on the dining plan, you may want to have snacks and water bottles for your hotel room and in the parks. If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can download the Prime Now app and have groceries, forgotten toiletries, and more delivered to your resort. You can test it out from home to see what is available (it is through Amazon and Whole Foods, but the Amazon availability is based on what is local so it isn't everything) by entering your resort zip code and creating a shopping cart. The delivery is free over a certain threshold. When you're entering your address for delivery, you type "Resort Guest First Last Name" and then the name of the resort and its address. 
  8. On the topic of snacks - perhaps the best tip I learned in my minimal prep for our trip was about using your snack credits on the dining plan to buy Starbucks. Each of the four Disneyworld parks has a Starbucks, though you won't see the traditional branding, as they are themed with the landscape of Disney on the outside -but the inside feels just like home - this is the real deal, no "proudly brewing" stuff. Any size drink - even a Venti - counts as one snack credit on the dining plan. Many people complain that they can't use all their snack credits (each person gets two a day) but with this info, we had no problem using ours up, happily caffeinated.
  9. You're already paying a hefty sum to step foot in Disneyworld and may be wondering about the various add-ons. One thing we decided to spring for, at the recommendation of our planner, was the Memory Maker package. There are Disney photographers stationed all over the parks and resorts, especially at the iconic locations - getting a picture in front of the Cinderella castle at Magic Kingdom with the whole family without asking a random stranger to take your photo sure is a luxury. The photographers are at every character meet and greet (with exception of when the characters come to your table at character meals) and capture great candids and posed pictures. With the magic band, you even get photos on certain rides - they just pop up in the photos tab of your Disneyworld Experience app. Anyone can take the pictures (they scan your magic band and they show up in the photos tab) - if you don't get the memory maker, you can pay to download individual photos, but all in all over five days, we had almost 150 photos and with the memory maker, I was able to download them all for a set cost. 
  10. Waiting in lines are a fact of life at Disney, but there is one area where you can skip the line - mobile order your meal at select quick service locations through the Disneyworld Experience App. It uses location services to determine which restaurants have mobile ordering available close to you. You order on the app and click when you are ready to pick up. By the time you walk in, your food is ready on the pick up counter. Can't beat that with hangry kids (and their hangry parents). This works with the dining plan or with a credit card loaded on to the app. 

And now, a few packing tips - things I brought or wished I had:

  • portable auxiliary cell phone battery/charger - between checking fast passes, taking all sorts of pictures, using the parks app, and scrolling facebook while waiting in line, Disney kills your phone battery. You'll want this (make sure to bring the cords you need with it)
  • hand sanitizer and lysol wipes - so many people and their germs using the same handrails, tables, and touching the same counters
  • wipes - our five year old is past the carry wipes everywhere phase, but I was glad to have a travel pack of Wet Ones in our stroller when she inevitably had ice cream all over her face
  • reusable straw -  Disney parks and resorts have transitioned completely to paper straws, which is great, but I am not a paper straw fan, as they disintegrate after a while. I wish I had brought my silicone or metal straws to use in my reusable mug or my cold Starbucks drinks.  

So after going to Disney for the first time in forever, as a "non-Disney" person who would rather be sitting on a beach, I have a confession for you - it really does live up to the hype. The customer service is unparalleled, my daughter had the time of her life, and I had more fun than I expected. 

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