Tripadvisor’s first-timers guide to Walt Disney World, including booking tickets in advance
Visiting Walt Disney World in Florida is practically everyone’s childhood dream, so if you’ve ever considered visiting someday and the opportunity has presented itself, start planning immediately because winging it won’t cut it.
With more than four parks, hundreds of restaurants, and dozens of hotels, the experience can be daunting, particularly for first-time visitors, due to the vastness of the magical kingdom.
Travel journalist Valerie Marino said: “I’ve been going several times a year for more than a decade and a lot has changed over the years. On my first visit as an adult, I simply booked a hotel and hit the road.
“I didn’t even have park admission before we arrived in Florida, popping into a Kissimmee Walmart for discounted tickets and some snacks for the hotel room. Nearly 15 years later, one of those holds true: You should always have snacks for the hotel room.”
So, if you’re planning a trip soon, here are some helpful tips that will come in handy once you arrive, because the last thing you need is the stress of an unorganised plan.
Tripadvisor’s first-timers guide to Walt Disney World
Go in February to beat the heat and the crowds
The shoulder season between Christmas and spring break is ideal for catching some cooler days with less humidity and fewer crowds—which means less time waiting in queues. She said: I also love going in February because it’s when Epcot’s Festival of the Arts takes place.
“It’s a huge win with the kids: you get to see Broadway concert series, interactive art instalments (don’t miss the giant paint by number wall!), and visual artists’ displays for the entire month.”
Book tickets in advance
Admission tickets and theme park reservations (choosing your first park of the day) should be purchased at least four months in advance for visits through 2023, as some parks will fill up during high holiday seasons. This method will be changed early next year, and date-based tickets will no longer require a park reservation beginning January 9, 2024.
If you really want to avoid queues, look out the dates for Pop Warner sports finals and national cheerleading competitions, which are held in Orlando every year. You’ll want to stay somewhere else because many teams stay at Disney’s All-Star resort hotels.
Use Genie+ to skip the lines
Valerie also recommends shelling out a little extra for front of the queue access if you can afford it using Genie+ that lets you book return times, giving you a one-hour window to skip a ride’s standby line later in the day, for Lightning Lane access to popular attractions so you don’t spend as much time waiting, which is perfect for busier park days and your more impatient family members.
There is an additional cost—prices range from $15 to $35 per guest per day—and you may still wait about a half hour on busier days, but knowing you’ll never wait in the queue for two hours for Space Mountain is worth it.
If travelling like a celebrity is more your thing and you’ve got the A-list bucks to spend, a private VIP tour guide is the way to go, said Valerie. She said: “I got to do this once (and I’d do it again if I could) because it’s truly a bucket list-worthy experience. Starting at $3,150 for a seven-hour tour for a group of 10, your official Disney guide will help plan your day, shuttle you to the parks through a back gate, and usher you through secret entrances to the head of every line.”
Figure out your park strategy
With four theme parks, there are an infinite number of options to keep you entertained from park opening to park closing. So sit down with your group and determine what interests you the most.
She said: “Character meet-and-greets? Coasters and thrills? Food and wine? And pick your pace—do you want to pack in as much as you can from rope drop to close, or take a more leisurely pace? I usually hit two or three parks a day with lots of rides but add in breaks for snacks and people watching.”
She said: “On your first trip, I recommend you start at the Magic Kingdom. It’s got all the classic attractions for all ages like It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean, with new rides like Tron Lightcycle/Run to bring the thrills. And please, I know you’ll be tired but stick around for the nightly fireworks spectacular, Happily Ever After, which seriously makes all other fireworks shows seem boring in comparison.”
Then Valerie recommends heading to Hollywood Studios next, home to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Here you can take a turn piloting the Millenium Falcon, fight the First Order on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, or roam Black Spire Outpost, which could easily be mistaken for a film set. That’s fitting, because you might just run into the Mandalorian, out for a stroll with Grogu.
Epcot is our third park and gives you the chance to choose your own adventure, said Valerie. She said: “On one path, you can take it slow, sampling food and drinks from across the globe at the World Showcase.
“While that’s a lovely way to spend an afternoon and stroll, you got to check out Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, a coaster like none other with a randomized soundtrack—all bops— and cars that rotate on the track.”
A trip to Disney World isn’t complete unless you have explored the savanna on Kilimanjaro Safaris or walked underneath the colourful flags at the base of Expedition Everest, said Valerie.
She said: “So Animal Kingdom is always on my list. If you need a break, head to Nomad Lounge, where you can relax with a cocktail and small plates (the churros are to die for) on a covered waterfront patio.”
Book a dining reservation
Valerie said it is always recommended to book a dining reservation that doubles as a midday reset that allows you to have some guaranteed time off your feet.
She said: “Skipper Canteen is one of my favourites for a break from the standard burgers and chicken fingers fare, as well as 50s Prime Time Cafe, where you can catch clips of the Dick Van Dyke show and other classics during your meal. Both are great for groups and little ones.
“There are about a dozen restaurants that offer character dining, which is a great way to ensure your kiddos get face time with their favourites. Many of these locations, like Topolino’s Terrace, are located outside the park gates, so you can nosh with Mickey and Minnie without having to swipe a park ticket.
“Dining reservations open 60 days in advance, and the super popular spots go fast. If you’re staying onsite, you can book dining for your entire stay 60 days out from your check-in date, so try for harder-to-get spots like Cinderella’s Royal Table toward the end of your trip.”
Pick the best hotel for your group
Picking the best hotel for your group can be tricky especially when there are more than two dozen onsite hotels and hundreds of options in the surrounding area. First tip, she said, book at least six months out to make sure you get what you want.
A Disney hotel will be pricier than comparable off-site offerings, but you’re paying for proximity and easier access, which means more time for fun. Guests of Disney hotels can get extra park time in the mornings—30 minutes before the official opening—and deluxe resort hotel guests get extended evening hours on select nights.
If you’ve got a big group with little kids, check out Disney’s Old Key West Resort. It’s got spacious rooms, many with a kitchenette, and a relaxed setting that feels remote but is still just minutes from the action. For more active trips where we’re always on the go from park to park, I love Disney’s Pop Century Resort. It offers the best value onsite thanks to its access to the Disney Skyliner, a gondola system with stations at Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
If you’re planning an adults-only trip, go to Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, a short walk or boat ride to Disney’s Boardwalk or the Epcot World Showcase. It offers many of the same perks as Disney’s onsite hotels, including extended evening hours. Or if you’re travelling with the kids and want to pretend you’re not, head to the Four Seasons Resort Orlando. The little ones will love the free onsite kids club (there’s an indoor volcano) and the full-service spa has an adults-only infinity pool and the Michelin Star-rated Capa Steakhouse.