Thinking of going to Disney World for the VERY first time?
There are SO many things to consider and learn. Where do you stay? What’s the dining situation like? What types of tickets are there? It can all be a bit (OK, a LOT) overwhelming. Don’t worry, you do NOT have to figure this all out on your own. We’re here to help!! Today we’re breaking down everything you need to know about planning your very first trip to Disney World with lots of info, links, and videos that will make the process so much easier for you.
1. The Basics
We’ll start with the basics! Walt Disney World is made up of 4 theme parks. There’s Magic Kingdom…
…Disney’s Hollywood Studios…
…and Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
There is also an entertainment, shopping, and dining area called Disney Springs that is full of stores, restaurants, and more for you to enjoy.
There are also mini-golf (as well as full-sized golf!) courses and more on Walt Disney World property. There’s a LOT to see and do!
There are a LOT of different Disney-owned/run hotels to stay at on Walt Disney World property. There are also some hotels that are technically on Walt Disney World property but are not owned/run by Disney, like the Four Seasons Orlando or the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin. And there are hotels that are off of Walt Disney World property but very close by.
Want to stay at a Disney World hotel and wondering which Disney-owned hotel would be best? With a LOT of options, it can be overwhelming to figure out what the right move for your family is. There are three classes of hotels owned by Disney ranging from the less expensive Value resorts all the way up to posh Deluxe resorts will all the amenities you could want. With so much to chose from, we recommend you check out our video on the best hotels for visits this year below!
There are many reasons why you might want to stay at a Disney World-owned hotel — like the free transportation to the Disney parks (a HUGE perk for many guests), the service you get from the Cast Members, and the Disney theming. But, there are also some reasons why you might NOT want to stay in a Disney World hotel — like the cost savings you can find at other places or more space.
Should you stay on property or off property? Ultimately, it’ll depend on what’s best for your family.
Are these Disney World hotels underrated or overrated? Click here to see what thousands of our readers said!
Another thing you’ll need to think about is how you’re going to get from Orlando International Airport or any airport nearby (if you’re flying into Orlando) to your hotel. Disney currently has a FREE transportation service called the Magical Express that takes guests and their luggage from the airport to their Disney hotel.
But, this service is going away in 2022, so you’ll need to arrange for other transportation from the airport to Disney World. Speaking of, another consideration to make if you plan to drive or rent a car from the airport is parking. Just keep in mind that Disney does charge a parking fee if you bring your car and park it at one of their hotels BUT Disney-owned resort guests get complimentary parking at the theme parks.
Finally, before you book your trip, you’ll want to check and see if there are any special deals or discounts being offered on Disney World hotel stays.
Sometimes, you may be able to score the hotel of your dreams for less through these deals.
Finally, A lot of people make some rookie mistakes planning their first Disney World trip. Make sure YOU don’t make those same mistakes by reading our post about some of the mistakes people make when booking a Disney World hotel.
3. Theme Park Admission
Okay, so you’ve decided what hotel you want to stay at, but what about the theme parks? You’ll need to get tickets to enter the theme parks. But, in Disney World, not all days are created equal when it comes to theme park admission prices. Essentially, Disney uses a calendar system for its prices that is based on demand. So, “peak” days — holidays and days that Disney expects the park to be busier — will be priced at a higher cost.
If you go during a slower period, when the demand maybe isn’t as high, the tickets will be lower in terms of cost. Prices can jump up or down depending on when you’d like to visit, so scouting out a slower time could mean big savings.
Also, you’ll want to keep in mind that park tickets now have an expiration date, but that wasn’t always the case. So, while your parents might have tickets from the ’90s that are still totally good, the tickets you buy tomorrow will have a set expiration date. You’ll want to mark that down in your calendar and make sure you get the full use out of that ticket before it expires.
Okay, so we’ve talked about tickets and the calendar, but what types of tickets are available? You can get tickets that give you access to 1 park per day, or you can opt for a ticket with the Park Hopper option. With the Park Hopper option, you’ll be able to, well, HOP between all 4 Disney World theme parks once Park Hopper hours begin each day (currently, at 2PM daily). Park Hopper DOES add a not insignificant cost to your tickets, but if you’re looking to jump around to different parks for meals or are trying to do it all in just a few days, it might well be worth the added cost.
One important thing to keep in mind: if you don’t get a ticket with the Park Hopper option at first, and later you decide you want it, that is fine. You can always add it on later, once you’re in Disney World, and you can even add it to your tickets in the middle of your trip. But, Disney will charge you for adding the Park Hopper for the full length of your trip (meaning that even if you add on the Park Hopping on day 3 of 5, you’ll be charged Park Hopping for the full 5 days of your trip, not just your remaining days). So, if you are going to add it on during your trip, you’ll want to add it on early so you can take full advantage of it. If you’re going to pay for it, you might as well get to use it to the fullest!
But, also keep in mind that you typically cannot remove a Park Hopper option from a ticket once you’ve bought it. Our advice? You might want to wait to see if you actually NEED the Park Hopping ability before you decide to pay for it, but don’t wait until you’re too late into your actual trip.
Also, if you are interested in the water parks or some other activities, you can also get tickets that have a water park and sports option that will allow you to do more. And, if you’re really planning to commit, you can look into getting a Disney World Annual Pass. New Annual Passes are not being sold at the moment though.
Just like the hotels, Disney often runs a variety of discounts and deals on its tickets that you’ll want to look into. Right now, there’s even a deal going on that will let you get 2 days of FREE park tickets.
Okay, so you’ve picked your hotel and you know what type of tickets you want to buy — so what do you do in terms of booking? Well, you can book the tickets on their own and your hotel room separately. Or, you can book a package that includes both.
You can also book a package that includes hotel, tickets, and the Disney Dining Plan, if it’s available. The Dining Plan allows you to pre-pay for your food. You’re then given a certain number of “credits” that you can use throughout your trip. Right not the Dining Plan is not available though. If/when this returns, this is something to keep in mind if you like to feel like your trip expenses are mostly all covered before you even arrive.
What combination of bookings is best for you? You’ll have to price out the discounts on hotels, tickets, and combined packages to find out. Often many discounts will require you to book a specific package, so check the fine print of any deals you’re eyeing.
Truly, we’ve only just started this guide and maybe you’re already coming to the realization that planning a Disney World vacation can be A LOT. Our recommendation? You might want to think about reaching out to a travel agent. We specifically recommend the awesome folks over at Small World Vacations!
The people over at Small World Vacations know about ALL of the discounts, and they stay up to date on new discounts that could be applied to your vacation to help you save some serious cash. They can give you personalized advice and really help make your vacation planning stress-free. Oh, and did we mention that their services are TOTALLY FREE?! That’s right. You won’t pay a dime extra than what you normally would pay to book your vacation on your own. In fact, you could SAVE money working with a travel agent. Their job is to look out for you. We’ve scored some great deals this way.
We’ve got all the contact information for Small World Vacations at the bottom of this post and you can fill out their form to get started right here!
5. Disney Dining Plan
We touched on it briefly above, but the Disney Dining Plan is a way to pay for your Disney World meals in advance. Plans are pre-purchased and added onto a Disney Vacation Package (i.e. you must be staying through a Vacation Package at a Disney owned-and-operated hotel, and have purchased at least one ticket per person). With the Dining Plan, all you have to do when you get to Disney World is head to a restaurant on the list, eat, and scan your MagicBand to “pay.”
The credits for the meal for each person will be deducted from your total allotment. Easy peasy. Note that while you don’t pay while you’re at the restaurant (unless you order extras not covered like additional drinks or appetizers), gratuity is not included on table-service meals. There are a variety of different plans that are typically available that give you more or less food. The plans even include alcohol, if you’re able to partake. You’ll likely find a plan that would fit your family’s dining preferences. Right now, the Dining Plan is not available though and it has not yet become available for future bookings, so just keep that in mind for the time being.
6. Park Hours
One big thing you need to know about before your first Disney World trip is the park hours. Disney World theme parks do not open and close at the same time as one another, and the hours for each theme park can vary by day. It’s important that you know those hours when you plan your trip so you can try to get the most out of every single day you have there.
Park hours can also change ahead of your trip or even DURING your trip! You’ll want to keep an eye on those park hours, ESPECIALLY once you’re there, and watch for updates from us here at DFB.
7. Park Pass
When the Disney World theme parks reopened after the pandemic closures, they introduced the Park Pass system. The way that things work now is like this: let’s say you want to go to Magic Kingdom on Friday. First, you need a valid ticket to visit Magic Kingdom on that Friday. But, in addition to that, you also need a Park Pass theme park reservation for Friday for Magic Kingdom. Every person in your party will also need a ticket and Park Pass as well.
But, Park Passes can fill up, especially at busier times. You’ll be able to take a look at the Disney World Park Pass calendar to see what days are green (meaning there is full availability at all 4 parks), yellow (meaning 1 or more parks are already full), or gray (meaning there are no Park Passes available at any of the parks). Park Pass availability can vary depending on whether you are an Annual Passholder, Disney World hotel guest, or just a guest with theme park tickets. You can only make 1 Park Pass reservation per day. That is the only park you will be allowed to visit for that day, unless you have added Park Hopper on your tickets (which, again, you’ll have to wait until after 2PM to do each day!).
Again, availability for Park Passes can change a LOT. Sometimes days fill up, and then later more passes become available. Our advice? Get your Park Pass reservations EARLY. If you can’t get a reservation for a specific park that you want, book another one for the time being so at least you have something. You can always check later to see if more availability opens up. And if passes for the park you originally wanted become available, then you can cancel your existing Park Pass and make a new one.
If you’re staying at a Disney World owned/operated hotel, one of the best perks is FREE transportation from the hotels to the parks and back. Depending on the hotel you’re staying at, different transportation options will be available. Some hotels have buses to the parks…
…while others have boats…
…or access to the Disney Skyliner…
…or monorails, or a combination.
Some hotels even give you the chance to WALK to the parks.
For example, you can walk from Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, Disney’s Contemporary Resort, and (if you’re willing to trek a little bit) Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort to Magic Kingdom.
You can also drive to and from the parks. If you’re staying at a Disney Hotel, you get free parking at the parks. Otherwise, just keep in mind that there is a cost per day to park at Disney World’s theme parks. If you hop to the other parks, you won’t need to pay again on the same day though — just keep that receipt! Also, parking is free at Disney Springs!
If you walk around Disney World you’re sure to see people with colorful bands on their wrists that look like this.
These are called MagicBands! MagicBands can do a whole bunch of stuff! If you set it up online, you can link your park tickets to your MagicBand. Then, all you’ll need to do is scan your band (rather than take your ticket out of your wallet or pocket) to get into the parks. They can also be used to open your Disney World hotel room door, scan to use your FastPass+ (when available), charge purchases to your Disney World hotel room, link PhotoPass photos, and more! It’s a mega-powerful tool right on your wrist.
MagicBands are no longer free for Disney World hotel guests, but you can still buy them and use them in the parks. Disney World hotel guests and Annual Passholders can also pre-order some MagicBands at a discount ahead of their trip, but you’re gonna have to pay a bit. If you don’t like the discounted options available, you can also just buy a MagicBand in the parks or online. MagicBands can be extremely convenient. But, they are not required if you choose not to use them.
10. Tech Stuff
You may want to spend part of your vacation away from the computer or technology, but in Disney World there are actually a LOT of apps and tech things you’ll want to know about and use. Here’s a quick breakdown of what you’ll need to download and know.
First, we highly recommend that you download the My Disney Experience app. You’ll be able to use this app to check park times, make FastPass+ reservations (when they’re available), make dining reservations, check the wait times for the rides, look at park maps, and SO MUCH MORE.
You’ll also be able to create accounts for your family members on there, link your tickets, and link MagicBands too.
Click here to see the steps you should take on My Disney Experience NOW before your upcoming Disney World trip.
Another thing you’ll be able to do on the My Disney Experience app is place a Mobile Order for your food for many Disney World quick-service spots. Mobile Order is in many ways essentially required at a lot of locations right now.
Now, you’ll preorder and pay for your food on your phone at many locations. Familiarizing yourself with the app to begin with can save headaches once in the parks and you just want some food!
You’ll also be able to use the app to do Mobile Dine Check-in for Disney World restaurants.
Essentially, for table service restaurants in Disney World, you’ll generally be able to skip the check-in desk and check-in for your reservation right from your phone! You’ll receive a text when your table is ready.
The My Disney Experience app also now lets you join Virtual Waitlists for many Disney World restaurants. So, let’s say you couldn’t score a reservation at the one spot where you really wanted to eat. Or, maybe you didn’t think you’d have time for a table service meal, but now you do. You could always check to see if there are any regular Advanced Dining Reservations available. But, you also might be able to join a Virtual Waitlist for the restaurant and potentially get a walk-up spot with this feature.
The app will show you if the walk-up waitlist is at capacity for that restaurant already, or what the estimated walk-up wait would be.
If you want to try some of the food from a table service restaurant but don’t have the time for a full sit-down meal or don’t feel comfortable eating perhaps at an indoor location that doesn’t have outdoor seating, consider using the Table Service To-Go feature (also on the My Disney Experience app — see why we say it’s important to have?!).
With this feature, you can order from some of your favorite table service spots and take your items to go, to be enjoyed back in your room or elsewhere! This is only available for select restaurants, so just keep that in mind.
If you’re looking for a way to keep the little ones entertained as you wait in line or even give the older kids (*raises hand*) something to play, the Play Disney Parks App is something you might want to download (it’s FREE!). The app is full of games and more to keep everyone busy. And it’s got special features you’ll want to use in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
There’s also one BIG Disney World ride that makes heavy use of the My Disney Experience app and that’s Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. To even get a chance to board this SUPER popular ride in Hollywood Studios, you’ll need to download the My Disney Experience app to sign up for a Boarding Group for the ride.
Boarding Groups are distributed at 2 times during the day and they can be VERY difficult to get. One big thing to keep in mind is that if you want to ride Rise of the Resistance it MUST be the first park you visit that day and you must have a Park Pass reservation for it. You won’t be able to visit, say, Magic Kingdom first, and then hop to Hollywood Studios to ride Rise of the Resistance because boarding group distributions happen BEFORE Park Hopping hours begin.
We recommend REALLY brushing up on our how-to tips before attempting this one. You’ve got a small window to score these boarding group spots and you don’t want to do it wrong!
Other spots around Disney World also sometimes use virtual lines, so just be on the lookout for those!
OK, we mentioned FastPass+ above a bit, but what IS it exactly? Well, for one — it’s not available right now (sorry, guys). BUT, it is/was a FREE system available to all Disney World guests that allows you to skip the standard queue line and hop in a separate (much shorter) line to get onto your favorite rides quicker.
Guests are allowed to make 3 FastPass+ reservations per day. Once they use those 3, then they are able to make more — one at a time. FastPass+ reservations for the SUPER popular rides can fill up really quickly, so you’ll want to try to make those reservations as soon as you can. But, sometimes FastPass+ spots can open up as your trip gets closer or even during your trip. So, you’ll want to be on the lookout for that too.
You’ll make your FastPass+ reservations using My Disney Experience or the kiosks in the parks. You’ll select from the available rides and return times. Disney will specify when you can return to that ride and skip the regular line. Then, when it’s your time to use a FastPass+, you’ll scan your MagicBand or Disney ticket and get in the FastPass+ line.
In the past, Disney-owned resort guests were able to book 60 days out from their trip while everyone else could book 30 days out. Right now, FastPass+ is not available in Disney World. But we’re on the lookout for any updates. For now, you’ll have to wait in the standby lines for any attraction you want to go on.
There are a LOT of dining options all around Disney World. There are counter service spots — meaning places where you simply order your food, pick it up, and take it to your table (AKA, fast food like chicken nuggets or burgers). There are also table service restaurants — where you will be seated, a Cast Member will take your order, and your food will be brought to you at the table.
Reservations are NOT required (nor can they be made) for counter service spots. But, reservations can (and should) be made for table service spots. At many popular spots, reservations essentially become required if you want to dine there. You won’t find these spots on the walk-up waitlist! Right now, you can make dining reservations 60 days ahead of your Disney trip. Reservations can book up pretty quickly for some spots — particularly those popular locations. When we say “fast” we mean “gone 60 days out” type deal for big spots. So, if you’re looking to eat at Be Our Guest Restaurant, a character meal, or other popular places, you’ll want to book those as quickly as you can!
You can change or cancel your reservations later if you change your mind. But, note that some Disney reservations will charge you a cancellation fee (usually $10 per person) if you don’t cancel within a certain time period — generally 24 hours.
Also, if you’re on a serious budget or you’ve got picky eaters in the group, you can bring food, snacks, water bottles, sodas, and more into Disney World. If you’ve got special dietary concerns or allergies, there are also several things you can do to notify Disney and help them best accommodate you. Cast Members will be happy to help in any way they can.
Wondering what the TOP Disney snacks are that you should get? Or the best restaurants you should eat at? If you’ve NEVER been, you likely won’t know what or where to find all the best food! We got you.
Click here to watch our DFB video on the top Disney World restaurants for 2021! Be sure to check out our picks for the BEST snacks in Disney World right now in our video below!
13. Rides, Fireworks, Parades, and a Bit More
There are a lot of rides in Disney World, and it’s important to know what rides are in what park so you can best plan your days. You can find Disney World maps online or in the My Disney Experience app. We think it’s a good idea for you and your family to look at these maps ahead of time and make a note of what rides are must-dos, which ones you’d like to try, and which ones you’d rather skip.
Not sure what a specific ride is even like? Is it too scary for your little one or too scary for you?? Watch videos of the rides online! There are tons of videos on YouTube that will give you a much better idea of what the ride is like. You can watch them with your family to get excited for your trip and help you narrow down your must-do list.
Some Disney World rides do have height requirements, so keep that in mind for little ones and be sure to look in advance so they aren’t disappointed when they get there. We recommend measuring your kiddo with their shoes on so you know before you go what they can and can’t do. If someone is too short, parents can take advantage of Disney World’s Rider Switch program. This allows you to split your party so those tall enough can ride while someone stays with the person too small to ride. Then, they switch and the person who waited can ride without waiting in the full line.
Again, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is its own unique beast as we went into before. If you want to ride it, this is the one ride you’ll want to really understand how to get a spot to ride. Be sure to check out more details on the Boarding Group distribution system.
Aside from actual moving or simulation rides, there is some wonderful entertainment all around Disney World. Right now, many of Disney’s live shows have not yet returned, but some are back up and running and others are set to come back soon.
Also, we wanted to briefly mention how to handle if someone in your party required a bit of extra assistance to ride rides on your trip. Disney does have certain services available for those with disabilities. For example, Assistive technology devices for guests with hearing disabilities are available at Guest Relations.
Those with disabilities can also get a Disability Access Service pass that allows them to stop by an attraction and receive a return time at which point they’ll be able to come back and be directed to an alternate entrance to get on the ride.
Also, we couldn’t get through this post without mentioning two of the things that Disney is so famous for (even though they aren’t rides) — parades and fireworks! Considering that this is your first trip to Disney World, these are the quintessential Disney things you’ll likely want to reserve some time to experience.
Both fireworks and parades are temporarily suspended at the moment, but we’re on the lookout for any updates. In the meantime, you can enjoy character cavalcades at all four Disney World theme parks — which are sort-of like mini, unannounced parades!
You can’t currently meet or interact with characters (with a few socially distant exceptions) so these cavalcades are a great way to still experience characters on your vacation.
During your trip, you’ll likely see Disney photographers taking other families’ photos. This is called PhotoPass. The photographers are scattered throughout the parks and will take your photos for FREE! So, don’t be afraid to say cheese and take those pictures! You can then link the photos to your account with your MagicBand or admission card so you can see them online later. Some photographers can even add in fun magical stuff to your photos, so be sure to ask!
If you want to download those photos you’ll either need an Annual Pass that includes free photo downloads, you’ll need to buy the Memory Maker service, or you can pay for each photo individually. Memory Maker is a service that you pay for that allows you to download all your PhotoPass photos for trips in a certain period of time.
15. Packing List
Maybe you’ve got everything booked and ready…but what do you pack?! Don’t worry — we’ve got you covered there too! Check out our DFB video below with the ULTIMATE Disney World packing list. It’s a few years old, but should still be SUPER helpful.
16. Face Masks
Face Masks are currently required in Disney World for all guests ages 2 and older, and are expected to be required at least through 2021. Masks can only be removed if you are actively eating and drinking while stationary and physically distanced from others; if you’re in a pool; or if you’re in a relaxation zone.
There are rules about what masks are NOT allowed in Disney World, so be sure to check those out so you can make sure that the masks you bring are approved.
Mask rules have also changed over time (including very recently), so you’ll want to be on the lookout for mask updates ahead of your trip.
We’ve got a whole host of tips about wearing face masks in the parks, including a post on 8 new tips for wearing face masks in the parks, and a DFB video with 10 tips for wearing a mask in Disney World. Those can be helpful to give you a better idea of what to expect and potentially what masks to bring.
17. Cast Members & ALL the Tips
One thing we really wanted to mention is that if during your Disney World trip you have a question or need assistance, don’t hesitate to ask a Cast Member for help. Cast Members are INCREDIBLE and do a fantastic job helping guests with their needs.
Need more tips and tricks to help plan your first trip? We’ve got ’em right here! In fact, if you’re still on the fence if this is the yearo r if you should wait, click here to see whether you should go to Disney World for the first time this year.
Click here to see 6 things most first time visitors get WRONG at Disney World, so you can prevent yourself from getting these things wrong during your first trip.
Want a month-by-month planning guide to your Disney World vacation? We’ve got that here too!
Want to make sure you walk away from your first trip with as few regrets as possible? Click here to see some of our readers’ 10 BIGGEST regrets in Disney World so you don’t experience the same things.
18. The DFB Guide
Want a BIG guide to all things Disney food related? Well lucky you — we got you covered there too! (What can we say. We like you and want you to have the BEST time ever!) You might want to check out our DFB Guide to Walt Disney World dining!
The DFB Guide to Walt Disney World Dining, 2021 Edition is FULL of details, tools, and features to help your trip go smoothly, including:
- A 5-Step Strategy for Disney Dining Planning, covering everything you need to know from budgeting and booking to kids’ meals, dining discounts, and fireworks.
- An updated look at the COVID-19 changes happening at Disney World.
- A comprehensive and in-depth look at EVERY Disney World restaurant, kiosk, bar, and lounge, including our personal tips to ensure a positive and stress-free dining experience.
- Four free, downloadable worksheets for planning your trip. These worksheets are designed to help you execute all the steps of planning the perfect Disney dining experience. And they’re reusable for all of your future trips!
- Seven sample one-day dining itineraries for a head-start on planning.
- A comprehensive index of bars and lounges WITH reviews. An often under-appreciated option for both dining and entertainment, the e-Book devotes a whole index to the topic.
- AND MORE!
The book is a digital book, so you can easily look at it on your phone or computer before and during your trip.
19. Don’t Forget Our DFB Videos
And finally, if you’re a videos type of person, then you’ll want to check out our DFB YouTube channel. Truly, this is not just a shameless plug. The DFB videos on YouTube are totally FREE to watch and there are LOADS on there with tons of valuable information that could help you plan your trip.
And that’s our essential guide to planning your very first trip to Disney World! There is SO much more we could say, but then this guide would go on for AGES. We’ll leave it at this — planning a trip to Disney World can be a lot. But, try not to let yourself get overwhelmed. Remember that at the end of the day, it won’t matter if you hit every single ride or ate every snack you had on your list. What will matter is whether you got to spend quality time with your family, soak in the magic, and create memories that will last a lifetime. We hope your first trip to Disney World is absolutely fantastic!
Are you planning your first trip to Disney World soon? Let us know in the comments!DISCLOSURE: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning when you click the links and make a purchase, we receive a commission.