Planning a trip to Disney World in Orlando, Florida? We recently got back from Disney, so I am documenting some of our experiences and learnings.
Timing, process and planning are everything.
Magic Kingdom is truly magical during the holidays. That said, you are likely to hit crowds. Avoid the wait by buying your tickets online and pick them up at the 'Will Call' entrance. Tickets bought in advance may also be cheaper. This article by The Frugal South explains.
Process and Planning:
First, you need to buy the DisneyWorld entrance tickets. Buy them online. When you buy the tickets, you will need to create an account. Remember to use the same email for everything.
Then, you need to book each of the parks (Magic Kingdom is one of four parks) separately. Since they cap the number of people in each of the parks, park availability changes daily so advance booking is recommended. Customer service is great if you want to call and book and they do have a call-back feature so you don't have to wait on the phone for someone to pick up
Get the Genie + pass for each park. This is an additional cost
Download the Disney Experience app. Sign in with the same email you used to buy the entrance tickets. This is an important and valuable app that you will use to plan your day, book dine-in restaurants, buy and pick up food at counters, and book the most popular rides using Genie +. The app keeps updating real-time so ensure it is downloaded on your best phone!
Genie + is a good idea.
Genie+ definitely adds to the cost but if you do not want to stand in lines, it is worth the extra cost. The 'Genie+' Lightening pass helped us with skipping long lines, every couple hours. The trick is to book the most popular rides every two hours, (even if those rides are later in the afternoon). This way, every few hours, you get on a ride without waiting in line. We were able to book rides at 7 AM via the app even before we got to the park and it saved us hours of waiting in lines.
A website like Thrill Data can help you figure out the most popular rides and how to schedule them. There are many such sites, and even apps. Genie+ is a bit of a learning curve to it if you are using it for the first time but once you get a hang of it, you will love it!
Prioritize and learn it before you go.
The best rides / experiences in Magic Kingdom
Space Mountain (fast and dark, jerks)
Big Thunder Mountain Rail Road (interesting, with drops)
Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (so cute, and feels like a ride too)
Splash Mountain (you don't really get wet unless you are at the back, fun ride)
Pirates of the Caribbean (well put together)
It's a Small World (heart-warming!)
There were other attractions we did go to which, for next time, we would skip or at the least, not wait in line for. These included Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, Tiki Bird Show and Speedway.
The Fireworks, Parades and Shows are spectacular!
The night parade looks amazing but there is often a parade during the day. During our visit, the night parade was canceled but we caught a 7 PM entertainment with the characters singing and dancing live on stage. Super fun.
One thing not to miss is the The 'Disney Enchantment' show with immersive projection effects that extends from Cinderella's Castle down to Main Street, USA! On our visit, the 50th year anniversary celebration made it even more magical but I imagine it would be great any night of the year.
Food at Disney sucks for vegetarians!
DisneyWorld needs to partner with Florida restaurants such as Pura Vida and Planta to bring healthier vegan or vegetarian gourmet options to its parks. We completely hated our food experience at Magic Kingdom. We found stale salads, no healthy juices, fruits or smoothies at the park. Everywhere we looked, food was either sweet or fried.
Until Disney figures this out, dear healthy vegetarian readers, carry your own food. We carried hummus sandwiches and theplas (Indian flat bread with fenugreek) and we could eat at least one meal while standing in line which worked out perfectly.
Also, there are a few sit-down restaurants which book up quickly.
You need to reserve a table via your Disney app way in advance. Expect mediocre, over-priced food. Sorry :(
Disney things to do though are to buy the Mickey Mouse shaped ice cream and to eat the Mickey pancakes. Why? Because it is the cutest!
Carry water or plan to buy it at the park. There are only a few water fountains at the park (find them near restrooms). We carried an empty bottle and filled it whenever we found water but eventually, we had to buy water.
Carry chargers or better yet, battery packs. There are a few 'hidden' charging stations - You have to be lucky to find them. Also, connect to the Disney wifi because cellphone signal can be weak.
Please carry hats and sunglasses. Use sunscreen. Wear comfortable running shoes given how much you need to walk. No need for ponchos at Magic Kingdom. If you are old enough to have adult Tylenol, carry it just in case. If you are going between December and February, carry a backpack with warm layers for all your family members. I always carry an extra pair of socks, deodorant, extra masks and mints.
Disney Souvenirs, Mouse Ears and Tees
DisneyWorld apparel & merchandise are expensive at the park. If you are looking for those classic mouse ears / hairband, plushies and tees, find them at outlets or merch shops. We found that Disney items at the airport and our hotel shop were cheaper than at the park. And of course, there is always Amazon.
Hotels & Disney Springs
There are several hotels around DisneyWorld with free shuttles to all the parks as well as to Disney Springs. We stayed at the HUGE Orlando World Center Marriott and we were happy with our choice. It was cheaper than the Disney Resorts and it also had a fantastic pool, shuttle service, food options, Starbucks, spa and golf.
A complimentary shuttle to Disney Springs was great. This is a nearby area with a ton of restaurants, including celebrity restaurants such as Jaleo by José Andrés and Masaharu Morimoto's Morimoto Asia Restaurant. We also reserved restaurants in advance. Don't miss out of the LAVA mountain right by the Rainforest Cafe.
Renting a car vs. Rideshare
If you are only visiting Orlando for the parks, do not rent a car. Plan to stay at a hotel that has a FREE shuttle to all the parks and to Disney Springs..
Daily parking at the parks is $20-25. Hotels also have a similar overnight parking fee + valet + valet tips so it adds up. Hotel shuttles drop you right to the park's entrance from where you need to take a monorail or a ferry to Magic Kingdom
Ride share like Uber and Lyft have surge pricing when the park closes or during holidays so a $25 ride may end up unexpectedly costing you $50. Plus, the wait times are longer. We saw signs for 'Minnie Vans', Disney's own taxi service (powered by Lyft) but we did not find a taxi through them. Mears is a good old call-to-order taxi service. Call them at 407-422-2222 and get a taxi sent to you at the theme park, with no surge pricing.(Find!!)
The whole Florida toll thing is such a scam! If you rent a car, ask yourself: How do I pay the toll?. Some people buy the 'Sunpass' or the 'Mini-Sunpass' at the airport and then pay the toll and the administrative fee every time they pass through a cashless tollroad. It does get tricky with rental cars where depending on the rental company, you may have to pay a daily 'Sunpass / EZ Pass' rental fee + toll or incur hefty unexpected and unaccounted for administrative fees.
Overall, expect an exhausting 10-hour day but what great memories you will create and what fun you will have!! Magic Kingdom is truly magical, the cast members are super friendly and generally everyone is in such a good mood! Worth a visit.