The ultimate guide to Walt Disney World

Planning your family's first trip to Disney World? Read this first and get valuable tips for saving money and avoiding stress from our resident Disney expert!

By Teresa Pitman
The ultimate guide to Walt Disney World Credit: Teresa Pitman

My family and friends call me the Disney Geek. I’ve been to Walt Disney World too many times to count, with kids (and adults!) of all ages, and I can tell you one thing for sure: while any WDW vacation will be fun, you’ll have a much better time if you do a little planning. (Lucky for you, I've got a few secrets up my mouse ears.)

When to go Hotels are cheaper (see for discounts) and parks less crowded in January, early February, late August, September and early December. Parks are busiest and hotels pricier in summer, around Christmas, and around other holidays. During busy times, though, parks are open longer and have extra activities.

Where to stay WDW offers on-site resorts at all price levels – including a campground – with perks including transportation to parks, free parking, Extra Magic Hours (when parks open early or stay open late for on-site guests only), and the opportunity to purchase a Disney Dining plan to save on meals. An off-site hotel may save you money, but you may need a car plus parking fees. Rental vacation homes are another option for bigger families (try

Get tips on where to eat and drink at Disney, plus some need-to-know info on ride height limits!
What to eat and drink You can bring food and drink into the parks with you (no glass containers). Parks have at least one vegetable and fruit stand, and most counter-service places sell fruit. Some table-service restaurants are very popular, so making reservations is recommended ( – be sure to mention allergies or special diets. All counter-service places will also give you a cup of cold water free if you ask (it can be hot in Florida, so you need to stay hydrated).

The ultimate guide to Walt Disney World

Park tips
Walt Disney World is big.  There are four theme parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom) plus two waterparks (Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach), a large shopping area (Downtown Disney), and about 22 resorts (a new one opens in 2012), each with pools and activities. Too much to do in one visit! So set priorities and plan accordingly.


Check ride height limits before you go (see for that info and much more). Plan to use Fast Passes: these free tickets give you a specific time to come back to the ride, avoiding long lineups.

Learn about suitable Disney rides and activities according to your child's age group >

Ages and stages Here's how to enjoy Walt Disney World with all ages, from toddlers to teens!

Toddlers and preschoolers The pricier resorts on the monorail are good with this age group – easier to get back to the room for naps. Pace yourself and plan plenty of breaks for snacks, drinks and just running around (each park has a playground-type attraction – Animal Kingdom’s Boneyard, for example). Adults can go on all the rides with their kids. Want to do a ride the toddler can’t? Parents can do a “baby swap” to reduce waiting. With a little prepping, this is a great age to meet characters.

The ultimate guide to Walt Disney World


Meeting the characters Consider a Character Meal where Mickey or Pooh will come right to your table. Or let them become characters: the Bibbidy Bobbidy Boutique does girls (ages 3 and over) up as fairies or princesses, the Pirate League turns your little ones into pirates.

Ages six to 10 Know your child – these kids are tall enough for most rides but may be scared by spooky effects. In Epcot, sign up for the Kim Possible mission – a free, fun activity where kids follow clues and use a special “cell phone” to get messages and create special effects around the park. Several tours add to the fun for kids this age: for example, the Family Magic Tour enlists the kids in following clues to find Captain Hook’s hook (with a surprise at the end); the Pirate Cruise takes a group of kids on a boat around the Seven Seas lagoon to find pirate treasure (and have a picnic lunch).

Tweens and teens Ready for big thrills? Big kids usually love WDW’s themed coasters (Expedition Everest is my favourite) and can design and ride their own at The Sum of All Thrills. Shoppers love the stores in Epcot’s World Showcase and Downtown Disney. The wave pool at Typhoon Lagoon and Summit Plummet at Blizzard Beach are big hits, too. Animal lovers can do the Wild Africa Trek that gets up close to hippos, crocs and more. Or introduce your teen to pin trading – the addictive hobby of buying and trading collective Disney pins – as it’s a great way to allow him or her to start up conversations with Disney cast members (who come from all over the world).

Got a question not answered here? Take it to the DisBoards – an active message board for Disney fans. And get ready for a truly magical vacation.

This article was originally published on Jan 27, 2012

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