Disney World - the essential guide

Walt Disney World Resort

So, you've decided to visit the mother of all theme parks: Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, a theme park resort the size of San Francisco (eek!). Whether you want advice on where to stay, or insider info on the must-see attractions, here's our guide to help you plan your visit

How to get to Florida

Disney World is smack in the middle of America’s Sunshine State: Florida. Orlando International is only 20 miles from the parks but you could also check flights for Sanford Airport, which is only “slightly further out, but not far,” according to one well-travelled Mumsnetter.

Lots of airlines fly directly from the UK to Orlando and flight time is around nine to eleven hours. A long flight is doable with small children as long as you’re prepared – check out our tips for surviving flights with small children.

One Mumsnetter swears by Virgin Atlantic for their Twilight Check-in where you can drop your bags off the night before.

You will need an ESTA to enter the United States – take a look at our guide to visas and ESTAS here.

Getting to the Resort

Most Mumsnetters recommend not renting a car if you’re planning on spending most of your time in the parks because “car park prices are steep for each individual car”. There are plenty of car alternatives: taxis, shuttle buses or, if you stay on International Drive, the Linx bus.

However, “if you’re staying in a Disney hotel, your airport transfer will be included” and you get complimentary parking at all Disney parks and hotels.

One benefit of a hire car is that it makes hitting the malls visiting other sites in Orlando, like Boggy Creek and Cape Canaveral, much easier.

Where to stay

Staying at a Disney Resort hotel

Staying in a hotel means you get extra hours in the park, and you save lots of travel time and grief.

The biggest perk of staying in a Disney hotel is the convenience: not only will your airport transfers be included, but you can also book fast-passes and make dining reservations up to 60 days in advance.

Disney World provides lots of accommodation options, with over 25 hotels of varying price and proximity to the parks

One Mumsnetter recommends Disney’s Pop Century: “I’ve stayed there several times as a party of two, three and four (with two teenagers), and I’ve always found plenty of room.”

If your children are animal lovers, and you can afford to splash out a little, Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge can make for an unforgettable experience – as one visitor explains: “We stayed in a Savannah room and had a couple of giraffes outside our room most of the time.”

Disney also have a free dining offer if you book into a moderate or deluxe hotel with your park tickets. This means that everyone in your booking party can eat for free at 100 dining venues – more information here.

Self-catering

If you like a bit of peace and quiet, and want to save a few bob on your holiday, then you might prefer to stay off-site. It also means you can self-cater rather than eat out every night.

There are loads of lovely villas and hotels in easy reach of the parks.

One Mumsnetter says “we always stay in a villa as it gives so much freedom (and there's no fighting over sun loungers). You can get a really nice villa from around £400 per week and many will do odd durations of stay, like 10 days.”

Or, if you want the best of both worlds, Disney offers a range of self-catering “villas” – they're more like self-catering apartments with access to shared pools.

Legoland cars

How to plan your Disney World itinerary

Once your flights, accommodation, and tickets are sorted, it’s time to start thinking about which parks, rides, and shows you’d like to see and when.

For instance, do you want to spend more time exploring Magic Kingdom Park, or on safari in Animal Kingdom? Will you be heading to Disney's Hollywood Studios or Epcot? And don’t forget the water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. Not only are they amazing, but they also count as ‘rest days’ which are very important for your energy levels and general sanity.

“Get the Disney app and look at what each park has that your children would like. When we went, DSD loved Frozen and the Little Mermaid, so we made those a priority and just relaxed and took our time enjoying the rest of the holiday."

Some Mumsnetters recommend having a couple of ‘early days’ at the start of your holiday: get to the park as it opens, hit all the main rides, then head back to your accomodation mid-afternoon for a nap. If you stay in a Disney hotel, you can use extra magic hours which allow you to access some parks before – or after – everyone else.

To book or not to book?

That is the question. Our Talk boards give mixed reviews on whether or not it’s worth booking loads in advance.

“We never bothered booking anything in advance and found that it only mattered once. We were there at the end of July BTW, so it wasn't quiet,” said one of the last-minute camp.

However, if your DCs want to meet their childhood heroes, booking restaurants – like Cinderella's Royal Table – is recommended. After all, the last thing anyone wants is to tell their kids that Anna and Elsa are too busy to meet them.

The important things will be to book any character breakfasts or meals, which you can do 180 days in advance.

You can book park restaurants up to 180 days in advance too and fast-passes for rides up to 60 days ahead. “Use the Walt Disney World website or the My Disney Experience app/site,” says one Disney fan. Be advised, plenty of people do this so it’s worth putting the time in in advance to avoid huge queues in the baking sun.

Where to eat

Surviving on packed lunches alone is unrealistic for even the most organised family. Plus, you’d be missing out on a key Disney experience: eating in themed restaurants like Be Our Guest – the Beast's enchanted castle.

If you're someone who likes planning everything in advance, then you might consider buying a Dining Plan, which gives you a set number of meal credits for you to use up during your stay. The credits comes loaded onto your MagicBand for you to use at the point of purchase.

If you take the Dining Plan, book the nice restaurants before you go.

It'll also allow you to pre-book the popular 'character dining' restaurants. It's worth doing your research well in advance to make sure you visit the restaurants – and, most importantly, meet the characters – your kids will love. There's an app which makes it even simpler.

If you're eating in the park, dining options are plentiful and include cuisines from all over the world, not just fried food (unless that’s what you're about on your hols – no judgement here.) “You can go burgers/nuggets/fries all the way, or not touch them at all. The range is huge,” advises one fan.

Disney World with small children

Travelling with a toddler isn’t for the faint-hearted – particularly when it involves flying thousands of miles across the Atlantic – but with a little bit of prep, a trip to Disney World with a little one can be more fun than you think. Plan for naps, and remember that you'll be doing a lot of walking – bring a stroller or hire one in the park.

Magic Kingdom has plenty of rides and attractions for the smaller members of your party, which you should book in advance to avoid having to queue. Disney recommends Toy Story Mania, the Magic Carpets of Aladdin and Under the Sea – The Journey of the Little Mermaid, all of which are suitable for young children.

“Hit as many of the Disney shows/parades/fireworks as you can.”

“There are a good few rides past the castle geared at younger kids too, like Dumbo, and of course, It’s a Small World – if you can hack the tune being stuck in your head for the rest of your life,” advises one Mumsnetter who brought a three-year-old.

One tip on our Talk boards is to visit the park later than you'd normally would, if you can get your toddler to cooperate. “I did notice that if you can hang out and go later in the afternoon, loads of the toddlers have passed their peak by then and gone off to eat/nap, and you may not have to wait so long for rides.”

There are plenty of shows too, like the Festival of the Lion King or the Disney Parade, which can be even more fun with a toddler. “Because of his age (two) we got picked out of the crowd several times during the opening ceremonies,” recalls one Mumsnetter.

And don’t forget, very young children can find entertainment in the most surprising places. “Our son is really into trains, and loved the monorail from the parking lot to the Magic Kingdom.”

Packing list for Disney World

  • “A great tip is to buy one of those neck cord things to attach to your sunglasses. That way you don’t lose them whenever you go on a ride or in a restaurant. They also won’t fall off your head and break. It’s been especially useful for the DC who always seem to misplace their sunglasses.”
  • “Waterproof ponchos for the downpours (I got mine very cheaply on Amazon).”
  • “Small backpacks to take to the parks.”
  • “Don't bother packing any fancy clothing, it's not that kind of holiday.”
  • “We had proper hats and cardis to protect from the sun, plus lots of sturdy carrying bags and water bottles.”
  • “Either take a buggy, or buy a cheap one from Publix or Target when you're there. Very useful for carrying water around in as well as your kids.” You can also hire one in the park."