Hello, hello! Today I am a very happy camper, because tomorrow I’m boarding a plane to one of my favorite places in the world…Walt Disney World! Woohoo!! 🙂
I’ve mentioned this briefly before, but while I was in college, I participated in the Disney College Program twice (working at the Kilimanjaro Safari Ride and The Haunted Mansion), and worked both as a seasonal Cast Member, and a DCP Campus Representative in between programs. Cumulatively, I worked for the Disney organization for 2.5-ish years between 2010 and 2013, and — thus — have visited the parks, oh, about 1,000 times… (Probably not exaggerating…)
Even though I’ve done just about everything there is to be done at WDW, it’s still one of my favorite places in the world. (Can’t wait to be back *home*!)
Because of my “plethora” of Disney knowledge and experience — (relative to many people here in the middle US — believe me, I’m no means a guru by true Disney Cast Member standards…) — I am often asked for Disney tips, tricks, and must-do’s. I know many of you may be even currently planning trips to this most magical of places, so I thought I would share some of my top tips and recommendations with you as well.
Avoid Large Crowds by visiting in September or February.
If you’re a Disney lover, but a long-line hater (like me), the best times to go to WDW to avoid the large crowds is September and February. As these are decently removed from any peak seasons like spring break or Christmas, you’re much less likely to encounter the mind-numbing, smothering crowds that Disney is famous for. Managing a trip during these times can be a little bit more challenging if you’re trying to work with school schedules, but if you’re able to manage a vacation during non-peak season, you will not only enjoy milder weather, but smaller crowds and shorter lines as well…something that is usually a pipe dream at a place like Disney.
Visit Animal Kingdom in the morning.
One of my two roles while participating in the Disney College Program was that of a safari driver at Disney’s Animal Kingdom (DAK). This was an incredible role for many reasons, but mostly because I got to be around exotic animals all day every day. My biggest tip for visitors of Animal Kingdom is that you go as early as possible. DAK usually opens pretty early, especially with Extra Magic Hours (for those staying at Disney resorts), but closes when the sun starts to set. This is because DAK’s main attraction is the hoards of real live animals inhabiting this most unique park. By going in the morning–especially in the summer–you will catch the animals at their most active: at the beginning of the day, before they’ve been inundated with tourists and heat.
Kilimanjaro Safari Ride at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Don’t take the monorail after fireworks or park close.
If you’re planning to stay at Magic Kingdom for evening fireworks (or till park close), I highly suggest you take the bus or the ferry — not the monorail. The monorail is super fun, but waiting in that line at park close will be the longest line you’ll wait in all day… Busses generally run much more frequently and fewer people ride the ferry than the monorail, making both of these options much faster.
Also, in regards to this tip, if you’re staying (or eating) at the Contemporary Resort, you can walk to Magic Kingdom from the parking lot — you do not have to take the monorail, though it is offered. If you’re visiting one of their restaurants for a meal and then the park, go ahead and park your car (if you have one) in the Contemporary parking lot and walk. This will save you time when you’re leaving. (Note: please don’t do this if you’re not staying at or visiting the Contemporary, as it’s not fair to those that are staying there to fill up the parking lot.)
Stay at a Disney Resort if it is within your budget.
I understand that everything about Disney is expensive… I have an especially hard time justifying money for Disney as I’ve done and experienced many of the things WDW has to offer time and time again. But, if you can manage it, staying at a Disney resort will definitely enhance your trip. When you’re at Disney, your hotel is not just a hotel, but part of the experience. By staying on property, your accommodations become part of your vacation through theming, activities, and Cast Members (CMs).
Art of Animation Resort
Watch the Magic Kingdom fireworks from the Polynesian Resort.
A lot of times I am asked about cheap or free things to do at WDW. At face value, it seems like everything at Disney is going to drain your bank account. But if you’re smart, there are things you can take advantage of without spending a dime. One of these is at The Polynesian Resort. Themed like Polynesia (i.e., Hawaii, Fiji, etc.) The Polynesian Resort features a beautiful beach along the edge of The Seven Seas Lagoon. From here, you can actually see over to Magic Kingdom. Because of this, the Poly gets a wonderful view of MK’s nighttime fireworks show, Wishes. (They actually pipe the music in as well, so you can get the entire experience.) Therefore, if you don’t have a ticket to get into MK, need something free to do, or just don’t want to fight the lines, you can easily relax on the beach at the Polynesian and experience the beautiful fireworks show free of charge. (PS, they have Dole Whip there.)
Visit The Boardwalk & Downtown Disney.
Following the same vein of finding (relatively) free things to do at WDW are The Boardwalk and Downtown Disney. Though these locations have multitudes of shops and restaurants that will cost you money, they are two main Disney-themed locations on-property that do not charge admission.
Tour other Disney resorts during your stay.
This, to me, is a biggie. Disney does an excellent job in theming their resorts, and each one has a drastically different and exciting environment. Take advantage of this (free) entertainment by going and touring some of these resorts during your stay. Even if you just visit for a meal, expand the variety of your trip by experiencing some of these magnificent resorts.
My favorites: Animal Kingdom Lodge, The Polynesian Resort, and The Grand Floridian.
Grand Floridian Resort
Find out the wait times of any ride by asking a Cast Member.
Honestly, this is a hit or miss trick because sometimes they can’t leave their posts for this one. BUT it is possible for Cast Members to call and find out about wait times for rides across the park. So if you’re trying to work out an itinerary for a far away ride, ask a nice looking Cast Member first. They may just be able to tell you without you having to walk. (Note: this is only possible within the park you’re in. i.e., Magic Kingdom CMs usually cannot find out about ride times at Epcot, etc.)
When you really need help, find a CM with a headset.
Managers and leaders at WDW all have two things with them at all times: a headset/radio, and those weird looking picker things for picking up trash. This is a fact 100% of the time. So, if you’re really in trouble for any reason — something that not just any CM can help you with — find someone with a headset to help you. (With this one — please do not just find a manager every time you have any question… They are super busy people, and regular CMs can usually help you.)
Plan your must-sees/must-dos before you visit.
Lastly, I highly suggest you take a good long look at park maps before setting foot inside the park. This way, you will know what things you most want to do, and what things are a little lower on your list. There is a lot to do at WDW…A LOOOOOT. Going in blind and trying to figure out your day as it happens can be overwhelming to say the least. Plus, with high levels of crowds and long lines, it’s best to know what you should try and hit first. [Insider tip: a typical visitor to Disney is able to participate in 8-9 experiences (rides, shows, meet & greets, etc.) in a typical day. Keep this in mind so you don’t over book yourself.]
As I’m often asked for suggestions, here are some of my personal must-sees/must-dos:
- Haunted Mansion (duh.)
- Pirates of the Caribbean
- Jungle Cruise
- It’s a Small World (it’s a classic)
- Peter Pan’s Flight
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
- Splash Mountain
- Space Mountain
- The Laugh Floor (better than it looks)
- New Fantasyland (all of it… ha!)
- Wishes (nighttime fireworks)
- Tower of Terror
- Rockin’ Roller Coaster
- Toy Story Mania
- Indiana Jones Show
- Great Movie Ride
- Fantasmic (nighttime show)
- The Seas with Nemo & Friends
- Star Tours (if you don’t get motion sickness)
- Mission Space (^same)
- The World Showcase (all of it…)
- Illuminations (nighttime show)
- Mount Everest
- Kilimanjaro Safari Ride
- Festival of the Lion King
These are my personal preferences for each park. Obviously, you aren’t going to be able to do all of this, so you will still need to pick and choose, but hopefully this helps you narrow it down to the best stuff. 😛 (just kidding…it’s all great.)
Also, as a bonus treat, let me just confirm/deny a few Disney myths that I often get asked about…
- There are tunnels underneath the Magic Kingdom. TRUE. There is a series of tunnels running under the entire park called the Utilidor. The purpose of these is for Cast Members (CMs) to be able to cross from one area to another, without being seen in their costumes. (It would kind of ruin the effect to see a Fantasyland CM wandering through Tomorrowland…)
- There are human remains (i.e., ashes) inside the Haunted Mansion ride. True… For reasons I cannot fathom, it does happen that people will smuggle in ashes of their deceased loved ones in order to strew them through the ride as a “final resting place” of sorts. For any of you who may be considering this — DON’T. This happens relatively frequently, and Haunted Mansion CMs are very quick to recognize ashes within the ride. As this is considered a biohazard, the ride is shut down for a HazMat team, and the loved one in question is vacuumed up, probably to end up in a dumpster somewhere…(not ideal).
- The Haunted Mansion is actually haunted. This I cannot confirm or deny…but I will say that many of the Mansion CMs, (myself included, during my time) are not huge fans of being in the empty Mansion alone, and nightly run-throughs are often completed very quickly. (Though I did not experience this myself, there are many rumors among CMs about hearing children’s laughter inside the ride when no guests were on board…take from that what you will…)
- The trucks at the Kilimanjaro Safari Ride (KSR) are on a track. FALSE FALSE FALSE. They are NOT on a track, and they are not automated. This is a somewhat annoying assumption for me (as a former Safari driver) as we are quite proud of our multi-tasking abilities. Working at this ride, CMs have to drive the truck, watch for animals to point out, recite animal facts (and other random info to make up for any stalled time), while watching the people on board to maintain appropriate safety measures. Super fun, but quite a challenge.
- The animals at KSR are animatronics. NOPE. Not a single one. (Though if it’s been a while since you’ve been, the little elephant in the truck that used to be at the end WAS an animatronic. But that was for show, and it’s not very humane to keep a baby elephant in the back of a small truck all day everyday…) The animals roaming around on the ride are 100% alive and real. (And they often show this by walking in front of trucks and stopping the ride.)
- The Tree of Life at Animal Kingdom is a real tree. Sadly, no. It’s massive and incredibly detailed, so not possible for it to be real. But it is modeled after a real tree — a baobab tree native to the African savannah.
- Cast Members have to give you whatever you want. This is not true at all. Cast Members at Disney are trained to go above and beyond for their guests, but they have to be reasonable. Being rude and demanding to a CM will likely just get you a chat with a manager, not necessarily “your way”. (Side note: please strive to always be kind to Cast Members. Most every CM I’ve met will do absolutely everything they can to make your trip magical. Long lines, ride shut-downs, etc. are not their fault. They understand your frustration, but they are much more likely to help you if you’re nice.)
- Walt Disney World is in a bubble so they can control the weather. What? No. If this were true, why would it be like a billion degrees there most of the time?? (I have actually heard this…)
Whew…I’m exhausted now. But ready to be back in my Disney home again! Hope these type, tricks, and must-dos gave you a little bit of insight into the wonderful world of Disney! If you have any specific questions that I did not answer here, I’m glad to help — you can contact me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
See ya real soon!