Walt Disney World is one of the most magical vacation destinations on Earth. However, it can also be challenging, expensive, frustrating, scorchingly hot and the epicenter of meltdowns.
Which version of Disney World you get is largely in your own hands.
Luckily, there are easy, expert-tested tips for visiting Disney World. Use these tips to save money, have fun and ensure your trip is a magical success.
Use secret menus
In addition to their published menus, many of our favorite Disney World restaurants — including Nomad Lounge in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Trader Sam’s Grog Grotto at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar at Disney Springs and Jungle Navigation Co. LTD Skipper Canteen in the Magic Kingdom — have off-menu “secret items.” Other restaurants around Walt Disney World may even have additional off-menu items, too.
While you may assume you’ll find the same sky-high prices for these items as the menu staples, that’s not always the case. Sometimes, these secret menus can end up saving you some big bucks.
For example, you can get Ohana noodles from Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort without paying the hefty prix fixe price of an Ohana dinner by ordering a bowl from Tambu Lounge next door. It’s not on the menu, but you can ask for it.
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Eat at lounges, not full-service restaurants
The secret to a pleasant Disney World trip is striking a balance between maximizing your park time and taking enough breaks to remember you’re actually on vacation. A leisurely meal at Disney can be relaxing, but traditional table-service restaurants are often pricey.
Instead of choosing a traditional full-service eatery for every meal, go for a relaxed lunch or dinner at one of Disney World’s many atmospheric lounges. You’ll still have a table and a server but can order from a menu of lighter bites and creative cocktails without spending too much on an expensive meal.
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For example, at Space 220 Restaurant in Epcot, the set lunch menu costs $55 for adults and $29 for children. However, you can still enjoy the space view in the lounge, which offers heavy appetizers ranging between $12 and $18.
Disney World’s other best lounges include the previously mentioned Nomad Lounge at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Geyser Point Bar & Grill at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, Steakhouse 71 Lounge at Disney’s Contemporary Resort and Sanaa Lounge at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas — Kidani Village.
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Nomad Lounge. SUMMER HULL/THE POINTS GUY
If you don’t feel like sitting down in a restaurant or lounge after a long day at a park, ordering takeout meals from some of Disney World’s most popular table-service restaurants is a great alternative dinner option. Just type “to go” into the search bar in the My Disney Experience app to see a list of restaurants where you can mobile-order a full meal. You can take your food back to your room or to the nightly outdoor movie at your Disney World hotel.
Create your own souvenirs
Recreation cast members at Disney World resorts run free daily activities, from poolside trivia to evening s’mores around the campfire to movies under the stars. They also offer paid activities that make fun do-it-yourself souvenirs, such as tie-dyed Mickey T-shirts.
At Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, for example, you can choose colored nuts and string to make your own kukui nut lei ($15 for kids and $20 for adults). Several Disney World resorts also have Community Halls where guests can watch movies, play games and make crafts — either for free or a small fee.
Snag hard-to-get dining reservations
Disney World dining reservations are available for booking 60 days in advance. However, guests staying on Disney World property with their booking linked in the My Disney Experience app can make reservations 60 days plus the length of their stay in advance. In other words, for a five-day stay, those guests can actually book some meals 65 days before their arrival.
Having this further-out booking window means you’ll have a better chance of scoring the most desirable reservations, which sometimes get scooped up more than 60 days in advance.
Some of the hardest-to-snag reservations are for Cinderella’s Royal Table, Space 220 Restaurant, Topolino’s Terrace — Flavors of the Riviera, Oga’s Cantina, Ohana and the new Roundup Rodeo BBQ venue at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Guests have until two hours before their reservation time to cancel, so something may open up at the last minute if you keep checking.
If you want someone else to do the hard work for you, there are websites specifically designed to alert you when a hard-to-find reservation opens up. Disney planning site Touring Plans has a free alert service that will notify you via text or email when a reservation for your chosen date and time range becomes available.
Take advantage of free ice water
Bringing a refillable water bottle to the parks is never a bad idea. However, if you need some water on the go, ask for a free cup of ice water at any quick-service location serving fountain drinks.
Oftentimes, a Disney cast member will be stationed at the door checking for mobile order return notifications, so you can just let them know you’d like a cup of ice water. They’ll direct you to a numbered pick-up counter to grab one.
Save money by choosing your dates carefully
Just like it costs more to fly or book a hotel during busy weekends and holidays, it also costs more to get entrance tickets to Disney World on those days.
Disney World ticket prices now vary by date and park. The Magic Kingdom is positioned as the priciest park, while Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the least expensive. Single-day tickets start at $109 per person but go up to $189 each. This means a family of four could spend up to $320 more on daily tickets, depending on when they go and which parks they visit.
Additionally, the cost of the reduce-the-line pass, Disney Genie+, varies by day. It costs more on busier days (and has even sold out on a few occasions), so the price differences can add up if you want to go to Disney World on a peak date.
You no longer need a park reservation
As of Jan. 9, 2024, theme park reservations officially became a thing of the past for guests with date-based tickets. You will still purchase variably priced, date-based tickets for the days you plan to visit Disney World, but you will no longer be required to make a theme park reservation for the park you wish to visit on a given day.
Now, you can wake up and visit whichever park you’d like.
This change applies to most ticket types, with the exclusion of annual passes and certain promotional tickets. These guests must still make a theme park reservation to enter a Disney World park.
You no longer need to wait until 2 pm to park hop
If you have a ticket with the Park Hopper option or are an annual passholder, you no longer need to wait until 2 p.m. to visit a second (or third or fourth) park.
Before this change, you had to wait until 2 p.m. to visit a park other than the one you had made a theme park reservation for that day. Now, you can visit additional parks any time you like throughout the day, making the Park Hopper option more valuable than it used to be.
Opt for other payment options besides cash
An easy way to shave anywhere from 3% to 10% off the cost of your trip is to buy discounted Disney gift cards to use for everything — your Disney hotel or Disney Vacation Club dues, park tickets, merchandise and dining.
You can get them from Target (there’s a 5% discount when using a Target RedCard) or from Sam’s Club and BJ’s at a 3% to 4% discount. Even if you don’t get a discount, you can earn bonus points on your rewards credit card by strategically buying Disney gift cards at grocery stores and office supply stores.
Some cash-back credit cards also include wholesale warehouses in their quarterly cash-back categories, boosting your overall savings. Chain retailers like Meijer, Kroger and Lowe’s occasionally run promos that can nab you even more savings on gift cards, too, so you may be able to get up to about 10% off.
If your heart is set on one of Disney’s Deluxe resorts but your wallet says otherwise, you can often save money on pricey nightly rates by renting Disney Vacation Club points.
The information for the TargetRedCard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Assume it will rain — and plan accordingly
This is Central Florida, so there’s always a chance you’ll get stuck in a pop-up afternoon thunderstorm. The right preparation can mean letting a little rain roll off your (covered) back instead of drenching your parade. You can get “rain ready” with these tips:
- Wear waterproof shoes (read: no sneakers and socks that can get soaked).
- Bring a travel umbrella and a poncho or rain jacket.
- Cover your stroller with a waterproof cover whenever there’s even the slightest chance of a shower.
- Consider the forecast when you choose what to ride first (you may need to prioritize outdoor rides).
Many of Walt Disney World’s outdoor attractions close temporarily during rain and lightning. If you have your heart set on a top-tier ride — such as Slinky Dog Dash, Test Track, Expedition Everest — Legend of the Forbidden Mountain or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train — don’t wait until the end of the day to try to ride. If you do and rain comes your way, you could be out of luck.
Carefully consider where you stay
Disney World has some truly fabulous resort hotels, but they regularly cost $500 or more per night. If your budget can’t quite handle such a splurge, consider some of Disney’s Moderate hotels (this one may be our favorite hidden gem) and renovated Value options.
However, know that it’s not a deal breaker if you stay off Disney property. While there are many reasons to stay at a Disney resort hotel, there aren’t as many as there used to be.
With the free Magical Express bus from the airport and free Magic Bands now long gone, the on-site perks list has shortened a bit. However, you’ll still enjoy a few benefits, including:
- Early access to the parks each morning
- The ability to purchase individual Lightning Lanes for rides starting at 7 a.m. (instead of when the park opens, which is when non-resort guests get access)
- No theme park or hotel parking fees
- Extra hours in the parks on certain nights (for Deluxe resort guests)
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If a traditional Disney property isn’t feasible for you, remember that you can get all the above perks (other than free parking) if you stay at the Swan, Dolphin or Swan Reserve, which are all in the Marriott family of hotels and sit on Disney property.
Have a plan for getting on the newest rides
Disney knows that guests are clamoring to get on new attractions like Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Epcot and Tron Lightcycle / Run at the Magic Kingdom. The company also knows the experience will be diminished if guests have to wait in line for four or five hours before they get to try out the latest and greatest rides.
To keep wait times under control, Disney uses a virtual queue system when it opens new rides. Rather than have a traditional standby line, guests can try for a virtual queue spot on the My Disney Experience app. Typically, rides that use a virtual queue also offer a pay-to-ride Individual Lightning Lane pass, giving guests a free and paid option for getting on popular rides.
There are two opportunities to join: at 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. There is an additional option for Deluxe hotel guests at 6 p.m. during extended theme park hours. You can try for the 7 a.m. slot from the comfort of your hotel bed, but you must be in the park where the ride is located for the 1 p.m. opportunity.
How long the virtual queue system stays in place depends on how popular the ride is. Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind has been open for more than a year and still uses a virtual queue instead of a traditional standby line.
Allot time for a resort day (or 2)
There’s so much to do around Walt Disney World that you could easily fill several days with activities that don’t require buying a park ticket. If you’re visiting on a multiday park ticket rather than an annual pass, consider loading the bulk of your nonpark activities into a day (or days) when you skip the parks entirely — including your arrival and departure days.
Another good time to plan a resort day is before a party like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party and other after-hours events. Those go well into the night, so you’ll need to save up some energy.
Save character dining for nonpark days
Character meals tend to be a trip highlight, but too often, guests make the mistake of trying to cram a morning character breakfast into an already full park day. Instead, save those character meals for a resort day, as a special dinner on your arrival night or a farewell breakfast on your departure morning.
If you have your heart set on a particular in-park character meal, book breakfast as late as possible. Make it a brunch, so you can save your early morning hours for scoring shorter waits on rides.
Don’t ‘rope drop’ the most popular ride
One of the best ways to get a jump-start on doing as many attractions as possible in a day is to rope drop. Rope dropping means arriving at the park at least 30 minutes before the official park opening (or the start of Early Theme Park Entry for Disney resort guests) and heading straight for your first attraction the moment the rope drops.
It may seem intuitive to beeline to the most popular ride at the park — which is typically also the one that will cost you the most to skip the line by purchasing an Individual Lightning Lane. Still, this isn’t always the best approach.
Two of Disney World’s most popular rides — Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Avatar Flight of Passage at Disney’s Animal Kingdom — are two of the priciest Individual Lightning Lanes. They are also two of the longest queues, preshows and ride experiences. This means that your rope drop advantage for anything else is long gone by the time you’ve exited either of these rides.
Instead, if you can afford to, purchase an Individual Lightning Lane for those rides (or wait to join the standby line until just before closing when lines are often shorter). Then, rope drop slightly less popular rides that are still on your must-do list. With that strategy, it’s possible to get two to three other rides done in the same amount of time before the crowds start to build.
Combine this with Disney Genie+, and you’ll easily knock out everything you want to experience in a day.
Trade fireworks and parades for shorter waits
If parades and nighttime spectaculars aren’t must-see activities for you, especially if you have multiple days in the same park, skip the show and hop in line for a popular ride instead. You’re all but guaranteed a shorter wait.
Keep an eye on character meet-and-greet hours
Many character meet-and-greets start later and end earlier than when the parks open and close. Because of this, you’ll want to check any must-meet character’s appearance times in the My Disney Experience app. This way, you can avoid the heartbreak of missing out on a Winnie the Pooh hug or Wookiee fist bump from Chewbacca.
Know how to get in early or stay late
Disney has a perk that lets resort guests staying on property or in select affiliated hotels (like the Swan, Dolphin and Swan Reserve and the Disney Springs hotels) into any of the four theme parks 30 minutes early to begin enjoying select attractions.
Additionally, on select nights, those in Deluxe Disney resorts (and again, including those at the Swan, Dolphin, Swan Reserve and Shades of Green) can stay two hours after the parks close to enjoy select attractions with relatively minimal waits.
Usually, Epcot and the Magic Kingdom alternate staying open late on select nights. On nights that Epcot is open late, travelers staying in eligible resorts get an extra chance to get a virtual queue boarding pass to ride the new “Guardians of the Galaxy” ride.
Make your mobile orders in advance
Using the mobile order option in the My Disney Experience app can save a ton of time when ordering food from quick-service restaurants. But, on busy days at popular spots, the return times can get backed up quickly.
Instead, avoid that whole situation by placing your order early in the day for your ideal return time. Or, keep an eye on return times to ensure you place your order before your desired return window is gone. You can modify your return window within Disney’s app if you need to change it.
Between having the right gear in your theme park bag, knowing about the hidden layers of magic built into Disney and following these practical tips, you’re well on your way to being a Disney World pro. Not to mention, you’ll be saving time and money.