I get asked quite often about the best way to plan your days at Walt Disney World. Which rides should I hit at rope drop? What can easily be picked up as an additional Fastpass later in the day? How much of the Festival of Fantasy parade can I see if I’m watching from Liberty Square but I want to be at “it’s a small world” by 3:27pm?
My answer to all of these questions is..a story.
In May 2017 I was on a solo trip to Walt Disney World and had a pre-park open breakfast reservation at Be Our Guest. I was in line with the other early breakfasters to enter the park, and queued up behind a father and his young daughter. She was in peak princess park attire – a Cinderella dress and running shoes. Which was a good thing, because she was positively bouncing out of her shoes in excited anticipation. As we walked beneath the “Here we leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy” sign on the Main Street train station, the dad turned to his daughter and said, “Are you ready to see the castle?”
And she said, “Yes!”
As we got into the train station, he said to her again, a little louder, “Are you ready to see the castle?”
And again, even louder, his voice full of joy, “ARE YOU READY TO SEE THE CASTLE?”
“YES! YES I AM!”
Their pace quickened as the tenor of their voice rose, and they were nearly running when they reached the fire house, positively sprinting by the time they rounded the corner at the Emporium. And then…they stopped dead as Cinderella castle came into view.
The dad knelt down to his daughter’s level and she put her arms around his neck as they stood there in awe. I’m pretty sure both had been dreaming of this moment, but probably for very different reasons.
And suddenly I felt a little bad that I and other guests were witnesses to this future family memory. But then I realized that those two, in that moment, were only cognizant of each other.
I tell this story to my clients to remind them that Walt Disney World is full of magic, but that magic most often comes in the form of the unplanned moments. I know it has for me.
The memory I treasure the most from my daughter’s first trip when she was thirteen months old was on our first night there, a very rainy evening in January while Soarin’ was down for refurbishment. After we got off Living with the Land at she crawled over to the gift shop outside Soarin’ to check out something shiny. We began to apologize to the cast member, who instead magically produced a coloring sheet and crayons and sat down on the floor with her, and she started coloring for the very first time. And while the cast member sat with her on the floor, he told us how he loved his job and seeing all the families come through because his family came to Walt Disney World every year when he was growing up and their tradition was to eat at Garden Grill, which he could see from the shop in which he worked, and it always reminded him of his mom.
Or I remember the Photopass photographer at Animal Kingdom on that same trip who managed to get the only picture of my kid (out of eight hundred shots we got that week) looking at the camera, smiling, and without her thumb in her mouth. And from a trip two years later the magic I treasure is finding that same photographer and being able to show her that picture that she had taken of us two years before and thanking her. And then we all cried and we attempted to recreate the shot. Which, it turns out, is much more difficult to do with a three year old than a one year old.
And I think back to Walt Disney World vacations when I was a child, and a trip when I was nine when I went with my grandfather and a couple other grandkids. I was…a timid kid, too scared to go on Spaceship Earth because I was afraid it would roll off its supports while I was on it and we’d all roll away. I don’t remember any rides from that trip. I just remember my very patient grandpa hanging out with me while the rest of the crew went on the ride, telling me about how Spaceship Earth was built, looking at the park map to see what other cool things were in the park.
This is the real Disney magic, that happens organically and spontaneously, outside of carefully crafted daily itineraries. It is true that there are more efficient ways than others to move around all four of Walt Disney World’s epically awesome theme parks – and your Key to the World travel agent will be more than happy to guide you through as much planning as you like! But here are some basic tenants I share with my clients:
Use your Fastpasses and dining reservations as tent poles.
You can begin to reserve dining 180 days in advance (for up to ten days of your stay if you are an on-site resort guest, or 180 days out from each individual day) and Fastpasses, three per day, 60 days in advance for on-site resort guests or 30 days for off-site guests. This is a maximum of four things that are on your schedule. And often, this is enough to guide your day.
Don’t be afraid to schedule less than three Fastpasses per day.
At writing time, there are only five attractions that I consider must Fastpass in advance: Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Magic Kingdom), Frozen Ever After (Epcot), Slinky Dog Dash (Hollywood Studios), Flight of Passage (Animal Kingdom) and Na’vi River Journey (Animal Kingdom). Most of the other attractions can easily (or with a bit of persistence) be picked up a day or two before you want to use them, some even day of! This allows your schedule to be much more open and spontaneous.
Don’t be afraid to cancel and modify plans on the fly!
With the exception of the aforementioned attractions, do not hesitate to cancel or change the times of other Fastpasses. Dining can be canceled and modified as well – just remember that if you cancel less than 24 hours ahead of your reservation time (48 for some restaurants) you will be charged a $10 per person fee.
Add the Park Hopper option to your tickets.
Park Hopper tickets gives guests a lot more freedom of choice and movement throughout Walt Disney World, whether it’s to go back and revisit favorite attractions, escape to another park if the one you’ve started in is experiencing unexpectedly heavy crowd levels, or you crave a carrot cake cookie for breakfast at the Trolley Cart Cafe in Hollywood Studios before heading to Animal Kingdom for your “no way I’m gonna cancel” Flight of Passage fastpass.
Look for the magic. It’s all around you.
Oh, by the way, if you want to be at “it’s a small world” by 3:27 pm and are watching the parade from Liberty Square, you should leave the Festival of Fantasy parade after the Tangled float goes by.
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