It’s time for the $1,000 question (sometimes literally) — are you staying on-property or off-property at Disney World?
Disney World resort guests get certain perks, like being able to enter the theme parks early and use free transportation like buses, Monorails, and the Skyliner. But a lot of the hotels outside of Disney World are a LOT cheaper and are just as nice as (if not nicer than) those on-property hotels. So if you DO decide to stay off-property during your Disney World vacation, how can you tackle the theme parks to have an awesome day without the added perks?
We’ve got a few tips for you to make the most of your Disney World day and get on the most popular attractions even if you are staying off-site.
Before we get into that, though, we want to remind you that many non-Disney-owned hotels have some of the same perks as the Disney resorts. Guests staying at the Disney Springs-area hotels and the Swan and Dolphin hotels qualify for Early Theme Park Entry, and select hotels also qualify for Extended Evening Hours. To see a full list of which hotels qualify for each of these perks, visit our page on extra theme park hours benefits.
But if you don’t qualify for the bonus time in the theme parks or you’re wondering how to handle the parks with non-Disney transportation, we’ve got some advice to help you out. Let’s dive into how to attack the theme parks as a non-resort guest!
Be at the Parks EARLY
Our first tip is actually one that we tell everybody, no matter which hotel they’re staying at: Be at the theme parks EARLY. If you don’t qualify for Early Theme Park Entry, make sure you’re still at the entrance of the park at least a half-hour before opening time.
In Disney-speak, this is called rope-dropping. In the past, Cast Members would let guests into the parks and keep everyone near the front of the park by holding a rope across the walkway. When opening time hits, the rope would drop and everyone could head in to find their favorite attraction.
Now, the same thing happens where guests are usually admitted earlier than the actual opening time and then held at certain places in the park before the park fully opens. There isn’t always a rope involved, but it’s the same idea. Being there early means you’ll be more likely to be inside the park at opening time, and you can be ahead of the big crowds that are there to start the day.
Guests who qualify for Early Theme Park Entry get to go inside and start getting on rides a half-hour before opening time, but not all of the attractions in each park are open for this extra time. So there are a couple of different possible strategies if you’re NOT using the early entry.
Which Ride Should You Head to First?
Most early entry guests will race to the most popular attraction in each park. These are Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Magic Kingdom, Rise of the Resistance or Slinky Dog Dash in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Avatar Flight of Passage in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and Test Track or Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in EPCOT.
To avoid the early entry crowds, you can head to other popular rides that didn’t open with early entry, so the lines there are more likely to be shorter than the attractions that did open with early entry. In Magic Kingdom, that could be Jungle Cruise or Splash Mountain (only Fantasyland and Tomorrowland open with early entry in this park) and in Animal Kingdom try Kilimanjaro Safaris. Most attractions open early in EPCOT but things like Figment and Three Caballeros do not.
Most of the popular Hollywood Studios rides do open with early entry, so your strategy there will be a little different. You could still head to Rise of the Resistance, because that attraction gets a VERY long line later in the day, so you’ll still have a shorter wait if you go straight there once the park officially opens.
Or you can avoid the early entry crowds at Rise and go to other popular rides that will have longer waits later in the day, such as Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run or Tower of Terror. Just know that the Rise of the Resistance line will likely not get shorter later on in the day. So if you want to go on that attraction, you should head there first or plan on paying for a Lightning Lane (which we’ll talk about more later on in this article).
If you do go to the rides that aren’t part of Early Theme Park Entry, you can get on the most popular rides later on in the day (the ones that opened early) by purchasing a Lightning Lane or waiting until near park closing time. Sometimes wait times will drop at the very end of the day.
Leave Plenty of Time for Transportation
Before you even rope-drop the park, you’ll have to get there! Be sure to plan for plenty of time for transportation to the Disney World parks. You don’t want to be stuck in traffic when the theme park opens, which would put you behind all of the big morning crowds.
Parking at all four Disney World parks opens an hour before Early Theme Park Entry, which is an hour and a half before the park’s official opening time. Be sure to take advantage of that and give yourself a LOT of buffer time to get to the entrance.
Some non-Disney hotels also have shuttles to and from the parks, so talk with the front desk at your hotel to see what transportation is available, how much it costs, and what the hours are. And don’t forget that ride-share options like Uber and Lyft can also get you to the parks!
Also, remember that if you’re going to Magic Kingdom, the shuttles will drop you off at the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC), not the front entrance. This is also where you’ll need to park if you’re driving yourself. From this center, you can take a Monorail, bus, or ferry to the main entrance of Magic Kingdom. Be sure to plan for that extra time required for travel.
Some Disney Springs-area hotels are even close enough for guests to walk to the bus station there and use the free Disney transportation. For example, the Wyndham Lake Buena Vista hotel is just a 15-minute walk from the Springs bus station.
Note that the buses at Disney Springs do not usually run to the theme parks, but you can hop on a bus to a nearby resort and then walk or use other free transportation to get to the parks. For example, you can hop on a bus to Disney’s Contemporary Resort and then walk to Magic Kingdom. This may take longer than using a car or Uber, but it’s free and is a little more direct than visiting the TTC. Just be sure those buses run as early (and late) as you want them to.
Get an Early Breakfast Reservation
One way you can sort of hack the system is by getting an early breakfast reservation inside a Disney World park. These reservations are sometimes available even before the parks open, so you’ll get to go in before other guests.
The restaurants with early breakfast reservations include Cinderella’s Royal Table in Magic Kingdom, Hollywood & Vine in Hollywood Studios, Tusker House in Animal Kingdom, and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (when it reopens) in EPCOT.
For example, you could snag an 8AM reservation for Cinderella’s Royal Table on a day when Magic Kingdom opens at 9AM. Then you’ll be inside the park ahead of most of the crowds, even though you may not leave the restaurant until around 9AM (or whenever you finish eating). But you’ll be closer to the attractions and thus more likely to hop in line ahead of other guests.
Use Genie+ and Pay-Per-Ride
If you’re concerned about getting on enough rides, you can always purchase Genie+ and pay-per-ride attractions. Both of these are ways to skip the line and get on rides with a much shorter wait time.
You do not have to be a Disney World resort guest in order to buy Genie+ and/or pay-per-ride attractions. Genie+ costs $15 per ticket, per day and it allows you to skip the line at many attractions in each park. See a full list of the included attractions here. But note that you need to reserve your spot at each attraction, and you can only book the next one after you’ve entered the one before it.
Pay-per-ride is similar to Genie+, only it applies to individual rides. So you can pay to skip the line at certain attractions that are NOT included with Genie+. These are usually the most popular rides in each park. For example, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is not included in Genie+, but you can pay extra to skip the line only at that ride. Pay-per-ride costs anywhere from about $7 to $15 for each ticket at each attraction.
The difference between being a Disney resort guest and staying off-property only applies to pay-per-ride reservations. For Genie+, all Disney World guests (staying on- or off-property) can buy Genie+ for each day beginning at 12AM, and you can make your first Genie+ selections beginning at 7AM.
For pay-per-ride reservations, Disney World hotel guests can start making reservations at 7AM, but guests staying off-property can start making reservations when each theme park opens. For example, if Hollywood Studios opens at 9AM, that’s when guests at non-Disney hotels can start buying pay-per-ride reservations. Some attractions sell out quickly for pay-per-ride (like Rise of the Resistance), but we have seen availability remain open until at least park opening time pretty often.
Check the availability on the My Disney Experience app during your visit to see if the ride you want to visit has open reservations.
Schedule Time for Rest
Our final tip is to schedule in time for rest at the theme parks. Because your off-property hotel may be more difficult to get to from the parks, you might not have as much time to go back to your room for a midday nap. But you still want to make sure that you’re giving yourself and your group the needed downtime!
You could make a dining reservation for a late lunch or early dinner so that you’ve got designated time to sit down and relax during the hottest part of the day. Or just plan on finding a bench in a shaded area and munching on a snack for a while.
We know it’s tempting to go, go, go all the time during a Disney World trip, but burn-out is REAL and can definitely happen if you don’t take care of yourself!
That’s it for our tips on tackling the Disney World theme parks if you’re NOT a Disney resort guest. We hope this helps as you plan your upcoming vacation! Keep following DFB for more planning tips and the latest Disney news.
Do you prefer to stay on- or off-property at Disney World? Let us know in the comments.