If you’re headed to Orlando for the first time this summer, then my top tips for your Walt Disney World Summer Holiday are going to come in very handy!
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Tips For Your First Walt Disney World Summer Holiday
We had our first summer holiday at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida back in 2011 – it seems so long ago now!
With the ninth trip under our belts, a Disney Vacation Club purchase at Polynesian Villas & Bungalows in 2015, I can safely say, that when it comes to planning a holiday to Walt Disney World, I know my stuff!
1. Know the basics
I often hear people describe visiting Walt Disney World as
- going to Disneyland Florida
- going to Disney
- going to the one with the big castle
Number one is completely wrong, and 2 and 3 are kinda right… so before your first visit, you really should know the basics!
Walt Disney World Resort (as it is officially called) is in Orlando, Florida, and opened in 1971. Disneyland Resort opened in 1955 and is in Anaheim, California. There are other Disney Resorts around the world, but that’s a post for another day.
So if you’re headed to Orlando for your summer holidays, then you are visiting Walt Disney World (WDW for short) and not Disneyland Florida (there is no such place!) If you say to me “I’m going to Disney”, you’re kinda right, but then I will be wondering which Disney Resort around the world it would be!
Walt Disney World has 4 theme parks:
- Magic Kingdom – this is the theme park with “the big castle” known as Cinderella Castle. It is divided into 6 themed areas called ‘lands’
- Epcot – this is the park with Spaceship Earth – aka the giant golf ball! It has two areas – Future World, and The World Showcase, with the latter being divided into 11 pavilions representing different countries around the world. It is also home to different festivals during the year.
- Disney’s Hollywood Studios -this is the park with the [new, opened in 2018] Toy Story Land, and the upcoming [opening 2019] Star Wars land – Galaxy’s Edge.
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park – or just ‘Animal Kingdom’. It is the park with the big Tree of Life, as well as Pandora – The World of Avatar, the land that opened in 2017
and 2 water parks:
- Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park
- Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park
Walt Disney World also has an entertainment and shopping district called Disney Springs; 5 golf courses; 2 miniature golf courses; over 200 dining locations, including around 90 full-service restaurants; 30,000 hotel rooms, across 28 Disney-owned resort hotels (Benefits of Staying at a Walt Disney World Resort Hotels); and some 62,000+ employees!
When I say that WDW is HUGE, trust me. Until you have been, you cannot begin to imagine just how big it is! On our first trip, we were blown away by the size of the place! It is over 40 square miles – that’s about the size of San Francisco. There are over 70 miles of road, and it has its own transportation system with buses, monorail, boats, and the [new, opening 2019] Skyliner gondola system.
2. Have a plan
By nature I’m a planner – wherever we go, whatever we do, I will always have some sort of plan in mind. We may not stick to it with military precision, but it will be there. I know that without a plan, we would find ourselves wasting precious time, wondering which park to go to, or which ride to go on! There are Advance Dining Reservations to book (if you are dining at an onsite Disney restaurant) and FastPass+ to reserve (especially for the popular rides) – all weeks and months before you even step foot in Orlando!
It’s quite naive, in my opinion, to go without any sort of plan of action (download my free printable Orlando & Disney Vacation Planner), especially if it is your first visit to Walt Disney World.
For many, it is a “once in a lifetime holiday” so make the very most out of it! I’ve had friends decide that they are going to take the family to Orlando, and say things like “can’t we just walk up and get a table with the characters?” (highly unlikely, even in the low season); “can’t we just decide what rides to go on when we are there?” (of course, you can, but don’t moan if you have to wait 2 hours to get onto Splash Mountain when you could have made a FastPass+ for it!); “but the characters just walk around so we can meet them like that” (no, sadly they don’t do that anymore!)…
Without a doubt, the very minimum you should plan is your FastPass+ (FP+) and your Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs) FastPasses as we knew them have now gone (as of 2021), and Genie+ is the new app to book Lightning Lanes.
- Buy a guidebook (I highly recommend The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World by Bob Sehlinger & Len Testa and if you are visiting from the UK the Brit Guide to Orlando & Walt Disney World by Simon & Susan Veness is a great first-timer book. Make sure you actually read them! As you do, take a highlighter and mark off the rides and restaurants you would like to go to. Highlight any useful tips and ideas too. This will make referencing things a lot easier when you flick through to find stuff.
- Have everyone in the family pick one ride or attraction at each park that they simply must do. Make these your
FastPass+ allocations, or make a beeline for these when you enter the park. Anything else you get done in addition (which you will!) will be a magical bonus! We use this strategy every time we go to one of Disney’s theme parks, and none of us leave feeling disappointed that we didn’t get to do or see something that we wanted to.
- Check out the menus and prices of the Disney restaurants at AllEars.net – you’ll be able to see if it is within your budget (
this is assuming you’re not on a Disney Dining Plan– not currently available due to the pandemic) and if you like the sound of the food that is on offer.
- Check out the park hours on Disney’s website because they do change depending on the season and the day of the week. Some days have Extra Magic Hours which are for guests who are staying at a Disney Resort. And with Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party now starting mid-August (!) Magic Kingdom will close earlier on party days.
- Similarly, you will want to check the times of things like the fireworks and other shows, as they change according to the season too.
- Also, check for ride closures/maintenance. You don’t want to promise your kids you’ll be going on the Dumbo ride if it is actually closed for 6 weeks for maintenance.
With all of that now covered, you can start allocating your days to theme parks, rest days, and other activities! I make this easy for you with my free printable Walt Disney World + Orlando Vacation Planner. Users who have downloaded it in have suggested laminating the sheets and using velcro dots to secure the tabs in place. A great idea!
3. Book Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs)
I’ve gone into great detail about how to plan and book your ADRs, so won’t go into all of that now. But, if you want to dine with a Princess, or at one of the other character dining experiences, you WILL NEED to book an ADR. I’ve heard of people telling their children they are having breakfast with Mickey, and just showing up – only to be turned away disappointed, with kids in tears, as there are not any tables available… Walt Disney World is a busy place, don’t get caught out by not booking your character meals.
Now, I know it’s difficult to know what you are going to want to eat, so far in advance of your holiday (the window for ADRs opens 60 days before you arrive!), but if there are special restaurants that you want to dine at, get those ADRs booked. You could take your chances… but, I wouldn’t, and make sure my ADRs are done!
Top tip! To find out your 60-day mark, type “60 days before your travel date” into Google and it will tell you when that is!
If you can’t make your reservation, remember to cancel your ADRs up to 24 hours before dining – if you don’t cancel, and miss your reservation you will be charged a fee per person – at the time of writing it is $10.
4. Make your FastPass+ (FP+) selections It’s now Genie+ (Update soon!) You can make what is called FastPass+ for rides and attractions – up to 3 per day in advance, either online or on the My Disney Experience App. After you have used them, you can make more, using the app (there is free Wi-Fi) or at one of the FastPass+ Kiosks. You are given a timeslot to go to the ride – so head to the ride, and join the FastPass+ line (you will still have to line up for a little while, maybe a few minutes, maybe 10 minutes – but no where near the time (usually!) of the standby line.
astPass+ selections can be made 60 days in advance if you are staying at a Disney Resort, or 30 days in advance, if offsite. Of course you can wing it if you want – but on those big popular rides, why take the chance? FastPass+ is free and we always use them. Top tip! To find out your 60 day mark, type “60 days before your travel date” into Google and it will tell you when that is! This is another tip that I have gone into in greater detail here, but in short, there are rides that are very, very popular, and will have long lines – sometimes a couple of hours long in high season. Newer rides like Slinky Dog Dash at Hollywood Studios; Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom; and even Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom, and Soarin’ at Epcot, which have been open for several years now, still have long standby times.
5. Know that you can’t do it all!
I told you at the top of this post how big Walt Disney World was… well, you will not be able to do it all in one trip – and maybe not even in 2 or 3 or 7 trips! There is still so much we have yet to see and do at Walt Disney World (and all of the other Orlando parks and attractions). So you have to visit knowing that you can’t do it all. That brings me to the next tip…
Have priorities when it comes to what you want to see and do. As I suggested in tip number 2, have every family member pick out the things that they want to see and do, that way, you prioritize those things, and anything else is a magical bonus. We have adopted this method on all of our trips. We all pick one ride each at each theme park and
make sure that has a FastPass+ slot, or if not required, make a beeline for that ride/attraction. Even if we do nothing else that day, we have done the one thing that we wanted to do. This also leads me to the next couple of tips as they will affect your vacation!
7. Walking & footwear
We’ve established that Walt Disney World as a whole is huge, but each theme park itself is also large, with lots of walking involved – several miles a day, easily! On a Walt Disney World summer holiday, you will walk a LOT. You need comfortable shoes (this is not the time to be breaking in those new trainers!) and you need to get some practice in (we start going for long family walks in the weeks and months leading up to our holiday).
I can’t tell you which shoes are the best to wear – everyone is so different. I wear Crocs (Olivia or Jayna style), and my husband and son wear trainers. I’ve seen guests in all types of shoes. Whichever ones you take, make sure they’re the most well-worn and comfortable shoes you own! And take plasters for blisters, because you may well get them, even with all of your preparation!
8. The weather
Florida might be called the Sunshine State with the summer months being very hot and very humid, but with its sub-tropical climate, you also get heavy rain and thunderstorms. The start of June through November is hurricane season, and while hurricanes themselves are rare in Central Florida, they can happen. Tropical storms are also common and can affect the weather too.
It is wise to check the weather forecast on the television each morning (we always watch the Wesh2 news channel) so that you can try and plan around inclement weather. Or download the app for weather on the go. I do find the forecasts to be pretty spot-on!
Make sure you have a poncho and/or umbrella in your park bag for protection during the rain; and have a bottle of sunscreen to apply regularly throughout the day – even if it is cloudy.
9. Take a break
Hot and humid weather, rain, lots of walking, excitable children (and adults!), crowds, and waiting in line, can all add up to tempers fraying between family members and burning out.
Plan rest days into your vacation, as well as take time out during the day.
This could mean retreating into a restaurant for lunch, finding a shady spot (not many in the parks, it has to be said) to sit down for a while, or going into the shops to feel the cold welcome of air-conditioning.
Or you could spend half a day at a theme park, head back to your accommodation to chill out for a few hours and go back out for the evening.
What kind of break you take (short or long, staying within the park, or leaving and coming back) will depend on you and your family – just don’t let it get to the point of no return. I’ve seen several families lose it when they’ve just tried to power through – us included!
10. Expect lines and crowds
We visited Walt Disney World in the months of August, September, October, November, December, February, March, and May, and shall I be honest with you? There are always crowds, and there are always lines. If you visit WDW expecting lines and crowds, then you won’t be disappointed, and pleasantly surprised if it is a more quiet day.
This is why it is important to have those Genie+ and ADRs booked, as well as some sort of plan for the day in mind.
You can use information from crowd calendars which will give you some indication of the level of crowds you can expect, but over the years, we have found that they are not as reliable as they claim to be. I think this is because they are compiled from historical crowds – and the crowds at WDW are changing!
11. Organise your park bag
There are pros and cons to taking a bag to theme parks. The biggest con, I guess, is the fact that you have to go through the security bag check, instead of bypassing that line. And of course, you have to carry it around with you. But, there are things you need during the day – like sunscreen (so important in that Florida sunshine), water (we freeze bottles which melt through the day; plus there are water fountains to refill at), as well as other bits and bobs, like our autograph book and ponchos (for those tropical downpours!) I wrote a post a couple of years ago about my 20 Walt Disney World Essentials which you might like to take a look at. It does need a little bit of an update, but most of it still stands.
You may find after taking it one day, that there are things that you don’t need to take – so adjust accordingly. Everybody’s park bag will be different, so why not download my free printable day pack checklist to help you get organised?
12. Stop and smell the Magic!
By this I mean, the little things – there is so much detail and theming that goes into a Disney theme park, and the Disney Imagineers that create these wonderful places for our enjoyment are amazing at what they do. You’ll spend so much time just feeling like you need to rush around, fight through a crowd, or wait in line, that it is vital to take a moment, stop and take it all in. From the flora and fauna to the Hidden Mickeys, to the little details (like the glowing pathways at Epcot, which we only discovered last year!) to the changes in costume for the Cast Members in different areas of the park. Everything at Walt Disney World is a show, so enjoy every moment of the performance!
13. More Walt Disney World Planning Posts
- Planning Tools I Use When Organising our Walt Disney World Vacation
- 20 Walt Disney World Summer Holiday Essentials
- My Walt Disney World Tips – Planning
- My Walt Disney World Tips – Comfort
- My Walt Disney World Tips – Theme Parks
- Disney + Orlando Pre-Trip Planning Reports
- Complete Walt Disney World + Orlando Planning Index
- Disney Trip Reports