First Time at Disney World? 15 Essential Tips for First Timers

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After our first time at Disney World, I lamented to a friend who lived in Utah that a four-day trip hadn’t been nearly long enough.

As a long-time veteran of Disneyland in California, she was puzzled by this. How could I possibly spend more than four days at Disney parks?

Her first misconception was that Disney World is only the Magic Kingdom. In fact, Disney World is a vast campus featuring 4 theme parks, 2 water parks and multiple additional activities that range from golf to horseback riding.

In addition to the wide array of fun things to do, Disney World is home to numerous hotels, a staggering array of restaurants, and even some world-class shopping at Disney Springs. Navigating this vast new world will require some planning if you want to capture everything that’s special about a first trip to Disney World.

Follow these 15 essential Walt Disney World vacation planning tips, and you’ll be able to capture all of the magic of your first time at Disney World.

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One of our first trips to Disney World. Digital camera quality has come a long way.

1. Set up You My Disney Experience Account

Before setting out to plan your first trip to Disney World, you should take some time to set up a My Disney Experience account. This can be done through the Disney World website or after downloading the My Disney Experience app to your smartphone, iPad or tablet.

Your My Disney Experience account is essential to planning, particularly for first timers. This is where you will book future reservations and where all of your plans will be displayed.

Beyond being a valuable tool for the planning process of your first visit to Disney World, the My Disney Experience app will be vital during your trip, allowing you to make reservations and other travel arrangements on the fly.

You can learn the step-by-step process for setting up your account and connecting your friends and family who will be traveling with you, through our My Disney Experience blog. We also have some tips for signing into your My Disney Experience account.

My Disney Experience Help

If you need help setting up your My Disney Experience account, and many people do, we can help. Check out the articles below for step-by-step instructions.

2. Most Important Tip for First Visits During COVID-19 Capacity Restrictions

If your first time visit to Disney World coincides with continued capacity restrictions across the four parks, it is critical that you check the reservation calendar for availability before making either Disney resort reservations or purchasing theme park tickets.

Due to the COVID-19 virus, Disney World has reduced park capacity. In order to ensure that this attendance cap isn’t exceeded, guests are required to book their place within a park by making a theme park reservation.

Reservations are made through the My Disney Experience app or on the Disney World website. If you omit this step before booking, you may find that there is no availability for you on certain days of your travel.

Currently, park reservations are required through 2022, and can be checked before booking by visiting the theme park reservation availability calendar. Once you purchase your theme park tickets, it’s a good idea to immediately make your park reservations to avoid getting shut out on any of your dates.

3. Make Your First Time at Disney World Special – Stay Onsite

Disney's Caribbean Beach resort as the sun sets, a great resort for your first time at Disney World
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One of the most crucial decisions you will make regarding your first time at Disney World is where you will stay. You have two choices: a hotel located on Disney property or an offsite hotel.

While the latter may seem to save you money up front, it’s important to consider all of the costs associated with your Disney World visit. By staying offsite, you will likely need to rent a car and will then need to drive to the parks. Once there, you’ll pay for parking.

By staying at a Disney World resort, you will have the luxury of using Disney’s complimentary transportation, a system of buses, watercraft, monorails and skyliner, all designed to get you from your hotel to the parks as quickly and efficiently as possible.

More importantly, you’ll remain in the “Disney bubble”, the hidden world of magic that makes your first time at Disney World so special. Acting as an extension of the theme parks, each Disney World resort is specially themed, allowing you to enter a new and unique world every time you leave the park.

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4. Look for Disney World Discounts

A Disney World resort stay is a sure-fire way to bring the magic home each night, but many guests choose offsite resorts to take advantage of cost savings or the opportunity to book with travel rewards points. However, a Disney resort stay may be more affordable than you think.

Every year, Disney publishes rack rates for each of its resorts. This is the typical booking rate that someone will pay when booking a room. These rates vary by season and even day of the week, so you can often reduce the cost of your stay just by switching dates or traveling during the week.

Another way to cut the rack rate by as much as 35 percent is to find a discounted rate for your first time at Disney World. This isn’t hard to do as they are published on the Disney World website. We also keep a running tally of all available discounts, including booking tips on our Disney World Discounts in 2021 blog.

If you’re wondering how to score the best deal on your Disney World vacation, you may want to work with an authorized Disney World vacation planner, such as Mickey World Travel. They can help you book your reservation and will even keep track of any discounts that may be released after you make your reservations. If you’re eligible, they’ll even rebook you to takw advantage of the better rate.

We Can Help You Plan Your Disney World Vacation!

Are you planning a trip to Disney World and finding it a bit overwhelming?

We can help!

We have partnered with Mickey World Travel, an authorized Disney vacation planner. Let us book your vacation, and we’ll take care of the heavy lifting or guide you through the process. Our services are offered free of charge, so contact or fill out the form to the right for more information.

Kathleen Hesketh, travel agent with Mickey World Travel, and her daughter/social media coordinator, Ali Patton, in front of Cinderella's Castle.
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5. Will Special-Ticketed Events Enhance Your First Time at Disney World?

Disney villains come out to play at Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween party, a great experience for your first trip to Disney World
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Disney villains come out to play during Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, a ticketed event at Disney World.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney offered a number of ticketed events that could be attended for an additional fee. Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and the Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party were two of the more popular.

In addition to exclusive food, shows, parades and attractions, capacity was limited at these events, making it a good way to experience not only a little bit of special magic, but regular attractions with shorter queues.

While neither event has returned, Disney did introduce two new after-hours holiday celebrations in 2021: Disney’s After Hours Holiday Boo Bash and Disney’s Very Merriest After Hours. Both feature limited ticketed entry to rides and attractions, special holiday treats and a few surprises.

Special events like these are well worth the cost if your visit is short, extending your time within the parks and allowing you to get more done in less time.

6. Think About Airport Transfers Before Your First Visit to Disney World

If you are flying into Orlando for your first trip, you’ll need to give some thought to how you will get from the airport to your hotel. Disney has discontinued the popular Magical Express, a complimentary service that formerly whisked passengers from hotel to resort, (and even magically retrieved luggage), so you will have to come up with an alternative way to handle airport transfers.

Fortunately, you have a few different options. For under $50 one-way, you can usually get an Uber or Lyft. Both services operate in and around Orlando. Just be careful if you do, and make sure the driver and vehicle both match the description that the app is supplying. If either are different, refuse the ride and report it to the service provider.

The second option is to book a seat on a Mears Motorcoach. Mears has been operating a shuttle service to and from the airport for many years, so their reputation as a reliable carrier has been well established.

If you don’t care for the ride-sharing service or the crowded confines of a bus, you can always hire a private car service. There are many that operate to and from the airport, but a few seem to stand out with Disney guests.

Happy Limo remains at the top of the list. They operate vehicles to accommodate small families up to large groups, and will even afford you a 15-minute grocery stop if requested ahead of time. You can find rates and also book a reservation at the Happy Limo website.

FL Tours is another private car service that seems to come highly recommended. They do not charge for late flight arrivals and also offer an extensive fleet to cover all party sizes.

When using a car service, you will be met at baggage check by the driver who will be holding a sign with your name on it. Drivers will help you with your luggage both at the airport and at your resort, so it is customary to tip them the going rate of 15 percent, or more for exceptional service.

The last option is to rent a car at the airport. By searching out discounts and comparing rates, you can usually find an economical rental. However, Disney now imposes parking fees at their resorts. These range from $15 a night at a value resort, to $20 a night at a moderate and $25 for a deluxe resort stay.

When it comes to airport transfers, we have you covered. Take a look at our guide to Magical Express alternatives.

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7. Think About Where You Want to Eat Before You Go

Disney dining Studios
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Disney offers many exceptional restaurants, including character experiences and dinner shows. Fitting a few into your first time at Disney World is definitely part of the magic, but don’t expect to walk up and get a seat. You will need to book a spot in the restaurant in advance by placing an Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR).

ADRs are a bit of a misnomer, as a table will not be held for your arrival. Instead, you will book a time slot, check-in 10 minutes before, and then be placed in a queue for the next available table fitting your party size.

If it sounds pointless to make a reservation to wait for a table, consider the alternative. Many restaurants, particularly those offering character experiences, fill up with ADRs. When this happens, you will be turned away at the podium without ever having the chance to enter the restaurant.

Quick-service dining, on the other hand, requires no reservations and can be accessed any time during open hours.

8. Consider Skipping the Online Resort Check-in

If you decide to stay at a Disney World resort, you’ll be offered the option of online check-in. This handy feature of the My Disney Experience app allows you to complete all of the requirements for getting into your room online. On the day of check-in, your hotel will text you with your room number when it is cleaned and ready. You can then go directly to your room, bypassing the front desk.

If this is your first visit to Disney World, we strongly recommend that you skip online check-in and take time to visit the front desk. This is crucial if you are staying at a larger resort as cast members will provide you with a map and let you know exactly where to find your room.

Beyond logistics, you’ll be treated to a bit of Disney cast member magic as they make you feel special for visiting their resort and provide some otherwise unknown tips about your resort stay. It’s also a great time to get your questions answered and maybe even request a room change if your location is less than satisfactory. There is no guarantee that the front desk can accommodate your request, but they will try hard to meet your expectations.

9. Decide if You Need a Magic Band for Your First Visit

Magic bands - will you need one for your first time at Disney World?
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Magic Bands hold the world of magic on your wrist, providing you access to everything from your Disney resort room to entering the park and Disney Lightning Lane reservations. They also act as a payment device, allowing you to pay at stores and restaurants with a simple tap of your wrist.

Prior to 2021, Disney included magic bands with every resort stay. In fact, if you split your stay across two resorts, you would even get two sets of magic bands. As a result, we’ve accumulated several in various colors over the years.

Disney no longer includes magic bands in the price of your resort stay, so you will need to purchase them separately if you wish to use them.

Alternatively, you can access many of the same features on your smartphone.

10. Should You Go Right to The Parks Upon Arrival?

Your first time in Disney World will certainly be filled with magical moments, so there is no wrong way to start your vacation. However, unless your trip is short, don’t feel inclined to rush right out to the theme parks when you arrive.

If you land at your resort late morning to mid-day, you’ll likely find the parks crowded, and since you’ve likely been traveling since early morning, it might be a great time to have a leisurely bite to eat or relax at your resort pool. Crowds often thin out later in the day or around dinner time, giving you some freedom to hit a few attractions with shorter lines.

You’ll also want to consider park hours in relation to your arrival time. If you plan to arrive at your hotel in the evening, is it worth the cost of an extra day on your ticket if the parks will only be open for a few hours?

If you do decide to venture out, consider hitting the park that will be open the latest. This will give you more time to enjoy your first visit.

11. Decide if You’ll Use Disney Lightning Lane and How to Do so Wisely

While the FastPass+ system was discontinued in 2020, an all-new Genie+ with Lightning Lane was introduced for first-time visits in 2021. Genie+ Lightning Lane allows you to skip the regular queue by booking a time slot to visit attractions. Since the number of bookings are limited during each time slot, you’ll generally wait less in line by using the Lightning Lane.

Since Genie+ reservations can reduce the time you spend in line, thereby allowing you to accomplish more, it’s important to use them wisely.

For instance, some rides or attractions will never have enough of a wait to make it worth using the Lightning Lane. This includes many less popular rides. That means you may not need to use the Lightning Lane on It’s a Small World, depending on when you’re traveling. Instead, save them for rides that typically garner higher waits.

For more details on making FastPass+ reservations, be sure to read our complete guide to Genie+ with Lighnting Lane, to learn all of the ins and outs, including which rides are available and the associated cost.

12. Consider Arriving Early and Using an Itinerary

Enjoy your first time at Disney World more by arriving early and enjoying empty walkways.
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Crowds are lighter early in the morning.

During our first time in Disney World, we were free spirits, moving from one attraction to another at will. This was a different time when there was still an off-season at Disney World with walk-on wait times.

You’ll be hard pressed to find that atmosphere these days. Even with park capacity restrictions in effect, popular attractions are realizing extended wait times of an hour or more, so planning your day can help you get more done in the time that you have.

The key is to arrive early, probably an hour before park opening, and to schedule the most popular attractions for early in the morning. Generally, the more popular the attraction, the earlier you will want to ride it.

That advice, however, is not always the best approach to visiting ultra-popular or brand-new attractions, such as Slinky Dog Dash and Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We’ve observed that both of these rides have higher wait times first thing in the morning than they do right before closing.

It’s a good idea to monitor wait times on the My Disney Experience app for a week or two before you go. This will give you an idea of trends and when wait times are highest. You can then plan your day accordingly.

For detailed advice on creating an itinerary, as well as a planning sheet, you can visit our Disney World itinerary blog.

13. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Disney World’s Complimentary Transportation

Don't be afraid to use Disney World's internal transporation, like this boat, on your first time at Disney World
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With the rise of Uber and Lyft, many guests now forego the Disney World transportation system in favor of a ride-sharing service. Most assume that this will allow them to get where they are going much faster. Unfortunately, this isn’t always true.

We performed a comprehensive analysis of ridesharing vs. Disney World transportation and found that both had similar transit times. The only exception to this rule was mid-day when using Disney World buses. Fewer vehicles often run during these hours, so you might wait longer to be picked up.

COVID-19 UPDATE: Due to social distancing mandates at the parks, Disney vehicle operators are limiting the number of guests that can travel on Disney transportation at a single time. This can result in longer wait times during peak travel times. Generally, if the queue for the line is filled, you’ll be waiting a few pickup cycles and might be better off ordering an Uber or Lyft.

14. Have Young Kids? Use Disney Rider Switch

Some attractions at Disney World aren’t suitable for younger visitors. Fortunately, parents don’t have to miss out if one or more of your youngsters are too short to ride, or simply don’t want to.

The way it works is simple. Just let a cast member know that you would like to use the rider switch option. You’ll find them at the entrance to each queue.

They will then give you a pass for coming back. One parent then enters the ride using the regular queue while the other stays back with the non-riders. When they are done and ready to make the swap, the second parent then uses the pass to skip the regular queue and go to the front of the line. Usually, this parent is welcome to take one child with them when they ride.

15. Memory Maker is Nice but Is It Necessary?

Disney World Memory Maker photo

Saving those precious photo moments from your first time at Disney is essential, so Disney positions photographers with professional-looking cameras to take guest photos at strategic locations, such as in front of Cinderella Castle. These photos are part of Disney’s PhotoPass program and can be purchased for a fee online.

However, individual shots are costly, and quickly add up if you want more than a few. For that reason, the also costly Memory Maker Package may be worth the expense if you think you’ll want a lot of these images and especially ride photos.

All shots snapped by PhotoPass photographers, as well as those taken on rides, are included in the $169 advanced purchase price of the Memory Maker Package. Often, you’ll find that photographers have included magic shots, featuring special effects. However, if you wait until after your arrival, you’ll end up paying $199 for the same privilege.

To help you decide whether to purchase the Memory Maker package for your first time at Disney World, we’ve put together a comprehensive blog post on the Memory Maker package.

Enjoying Your First Time at Disney World

By following these 15 tips, as well as the step-by-step guide to Disney World vacation planning, you’re sure to have the magical vacation of your dreams. Just remember to relax and soak it all in. After all, you’ll never have a second chance to take a first-time trip to Disney.

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Kathleen Hesketh and Ali Patton, mother daughter travel bloggers

We're Kat and Ali, a pair of mother daughter travel bloggers sharing our knowledge and experience from multiple years of Disney travel with other Disney lovers and first-time visitors, hoping to simplify your vacation experience and help you enjoy all of the magic of a visit to Disney World. As Disney vacation planners, we can now book vacations through Mickey World travel, at no additional charge, and help you realize all of the magic of a trip to Disney.

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Kathleen Hesketh

Kathleen is a travel agent with Mickey World Travel, a platinum level Authorized Disney vacation planner, where she helps people discover the magic of a Disney vacation and other travel destinations. She is also the chief author and editor for Seconds to Go - a travel blog where she shares experiences from traveling the U.S. with her daughter, Ali.

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