Disney (at the holidays) for first-timers!

We recently took our first family trip to Walt Disney World. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s. When Florida was experiencing record-breaking hot weather. blogpost

And we loved it!

We first considered a trip to Orlando during the seemingly endless winter of 2014-15. In fall 2015, we finally decided to go for it and began making plans in earnest. As we started doing some research, we came across many websites and books that basically said 1) You need at least six months, and preferably a year, to plan a Disney trip and 2) You shouldn’t go during school vacations, especially not right after Christmas.


In spite of these intimidating warnings, we decided to go and make the best of it. The grownups were mentally prepared for the possibility that every day would be spent shoulder to shoulder with cranky fellow tourists and whiny kids. Instead, we found that each day (and all three parks we visited) exceeded our expectations, with lots of magical moments not only for the kids, but also for the adults.

Here are some suggestions for first-timers based on our experiences:

  1. Consider staying off-site. 
    We booked a three-bedroom condo at Caribe Cove Resort, a Wyndham property in Kissimmee, for our six-person group. The kids (ages 8 and 11) had a room, we had a room and Rachel’s aunts had a room. Perfect. Privacy when we wanted it, plenty of shared space in the kitchen and living room when we wanted to have dinner or hang out. We had a washer and dryer in the unit, and the resort has a nice pool and hot tub, too.
  2. Give up a bit of spontaneity in exchange for the delights of Fastpass+. 
    We didn’t love the idea of planning which ride we’d be on weeks before we had even arrived in Florida, but the Fastpass+ system was fantastic. The joy of skipping a 90-minute (or, in one case, a 150-minute!) line makes a bit of planning worthwhile. We decided to think of Fastpass+ as Disney’s way of guaranteeing that, at least a few times each day, we would get to enjoy a ride or meet a character with almost no waiting. It’s true that you’ll have the best selection of Fastpass+ options 30 days ahead (or 60 days if you’re staying at a Disney resort), but even two or three days ahead of time you can snap up some good passes. Trust us; we switched plans and went to a different park with less than two days’ notice. It’s also worth noting that Fastpass+ is free (vs. about $50 per person per day for the comparable line-skipping privilege at Universal).
  3. Buy some of what you’ll want ahead of time. 
    We ordered matching tie-dyed shirts for the family, found Minnie Mouse ears and Disney lanyards for the kids and stocked up on snacks before we left home. The kids also made their own Disney autograph books. They had Disney gift cards for souvenirs, which meant they were responsible for their own budgeting and we weren’t negotiating over every pin and stuffed animal we saw. We bought food in the parks, but generally not full meals. Expect to spend $5-7 per person for snacks and $10-15 per person for a fast food-style lunch. Ice water is free anywhere that fountain drinks are for sale.
  4. Get to the parks before they’re scheduled to open. 
    We left our condo by 7 a.m. each day, arriving 15 or so minutes later. This ensured a negligible wait at the parking gate and a good spot at the entrance as the parks opened. Generally, we walked right to the attraction (ride, character meet-and-greet, whatever) that we most wanted to do. In many cases, we walked right in with no wait (for rides such as Expedition Everest at Animal Kingdom and for the character spot at Epcot).
  5. Use the Disney app. 
    The app is one of the easiest and most effective I’ve used. We could review our Fastpass+ plans, switch them if necessary, see our dining reservations, locate characters, sort a list of attractions by wait time, view the day’s scheduled shows and more.
  6. Don’t follow the crowd.
    This goes for whole parks and for specific attractions. When we heard several Disney cast members say that Dec. 31 is the busiest day of the year at Magic Kingdom, we made plans to go somewhere else that day. When we saw a 60-minute wait for a ride, we did something else instead. Use Fastpasses for your must-see/must-ride activities, and choose attractions with shorter wait times the rest of the day. You’ll experience more of the park and avoid the sensation that you’ve done nothing but stand around waiting.
  7. Leave before your crew gets cranky. 
    Take an afternoon break and go swimming. Grab a nap. Go out for a late lunch or early dinner. But don’t force yourself (or your kids) to keep moving, even if it’s out of a desire to get the most bang for your buck. You’ll all have a better trip if you get some rest when you need it. Then, if everyone’s had a chance to recharge, you can go back and enjoy the evening. It’s likely to be less crowded and cooler, too.

What would we do differently? 

  1. Build in more downtime. 
    Given the length of our drive (18 or so hours each way) and of our kids’ school vacation, we had five days in Orlando. We were determined to make the most of our time, and booked four days of Disney and a day at Universal Studios. In retrospect, a down day would have been great. We could’ve relaxed at the pool, gotten some extra sleep and let our feet take a break after days when we walked eight or 10 miles.
  2. Consider leaving the camera at home in favor of Disney PhotoPass. 
    There were Disney photographers at almost every key scenic spot, attraction and character greeting location. If you don’t own a DSLR, it’s a no-brainer to buy the Memory Maker package for $149 before you go to Disney World. The package includes all those portraits plus photos from the roller coasters. Even if you do own a fancy camera, it’s worth considering just skipping the hassle and letting Disney do the work. If you do haul the DSLR along, as we did, you definitely should jump into the photos and have the Disney pro take a picture with your camera. They were gracious about it and captured some great shots.

Our itinerary:
We had a few books and spent time consulting several websites before we went, but ultimately we did wing it for much of the time. Our week ended up like this:

Monday after Christmas: Magic Kingdom
Highlights included our first glimpse of Cinderella’s castle, meeting Mickey Mouse and Cinderella, the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, our older daughter’s first ride on Space Mountain and visiting the Hall of Presidents with our younger daughter (a history buff). We returned to the park at night for fireworks, and we were still on the ferry boat when they began. Seeing them across the water over the castle was probably the best moment of our trip.

Tuesday: Universal Studios
Worth going for Diagon Alley, but we would say the hospitality experience here did not come close to matching the Disney experience.

Wednesday: Epcot and breakfast with Minnie and Friends at the Cape May Cafe
Highlights included Soarin’ (our most valuable Fastpass+ of the week, hands down), walking through the World Showcase and the yummy buffet brunch.   

Thursday (aka New Year’s Eve): Animal Kingdom
We didn’t have big expectations of this park, but it ended up being our older daughter’s favorite of the week. Highlights included the roller coaster Expedition Everest and the Kali River Rapids water ride. The Broadway-style Festival of the Lion King show was spectacular.

Friday (aka New Year’s Day): Magic Kingdom
We returned for a second day at Magic Kingdom, reasoning that we’d enjoy more time to explore the largest of the parks. It didn’t disappoint! We enjoyed the Barnstomer roller coaster (perfect for younger kids), meeting Anna and Elsa and Mickey’s PhilharMagic. We wrapped up the week with classics including It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean.