Having been to Walt Disney World and Disneyland several times, I’ve had fun doing all the research to avoid the long lines and make the most of our vacation. I got advice from a lot of people and free websites so I thought I would try to give back and summarize the most important tricks and tips I’ve learned. It still never ceases to amaze me how the majority of park goers appear to be ill-prepared and spend the majority of their time in the parks waiting in much longer lines than they need to or waste time on bad attractions. This could have all been avoided and they could have made much more of their vacation time and money with some research and planning.
- Go during low-season – Ideally you would want to take your kids out of school, gettomg much better value for your vacation dollar and have such a more enjoyable and more leisurely park experience if you don’t go to the parks during their most busiest times: a) Summer Break (it’s too hot anyway – yuk) and b) the week from Christmas through New Years. Also if possible avoid mid-February (Winter Break), late March through mid April (Spring Break), 2-4 days right before Christmas, and any holiday weekends (Memorial and Labor Day.) Parks have had to stop admitting people the week after Christmas because they reached capacity!
- Get your tickets in advance: Disney ticket prices are highly controlled so you won’t find any huge discounts but you can save a little money buying from a reseller other than Disney. Try http://www.knowbeforeugo.com/ as they will beat anyone elsess advertised priced.
- Make a park itinerary and make dining reservations in advance: This is the basis for putting all the tricks and tips into action. I recommend storing all your notes on your phone if possible using synchronized notes or just create a calendar event each day with the notes for that day. MAKE YOUR DINING RESERVATIONS IN ADVANCE FOR ANY OF THE DISNEY OPERATED RESTAURANTS! Some of the best Disney restaurants you will need to make reservations a couple months or more in advance. It can be easily done online . If you are unsure where and when you want to eat make more than one reservations for that meal (maybe an early and a late dinner reservation.) There is no penalty for not showing up (although you should cancel if you know you can’t make it).
- Use these Internet Resources to plan: The main strategy behind good park itinerary planning in my opinion is a) know what is worth your time and what isn’t – prioritize what you want to see/do, and b) know the patterns of the ‘herd’ (the majority of park goers that didn’t do their homework) and essentially plan around them and in most cases do the opposite of them. My two top free resources are: Theme Park Insider (www.themeparkinsider.com) for a quick glance at what attractions and dining spots are the best for a given park. DIS Discussion Boards (www.disboards.com) to ask specific questions to other park goers. The two times I’ve gone to Walt Disney World I’ve paid the small price to get all the information from the Tour Guide Mike website (www.tourguidemike.com). This website has so much information and tools, it can be a bit overwhelming, but this is the Holy Grain of WDW planning information. ALSO – There are free Smartphone (iPhone) apps you can download that will tell you in real-time the current wait times for all the rides – see VersaEdge Software (http://www.versaedge.com/) For evaluating where to stay and eat outside the park I recommend using Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com)
- The Early Bird Gets The Worm, but so does the Night Owl – By far the #1 most emphasized piece of advice you see stated all over is to get to the parks early (to the gates at least 20-30 min before opening.) I mostly agree with this but based on my own experience it isn’t always critical to do this. But if you can’t get to a park early, then my advice is to plan on staying late until the crowd thins out at night and do some of the most popular rides then. This works very well because a lot of the families with small children have to leave the park in the evening when the kids get tired (or the parents get tired dealing with the kids – lol.) In addition I think the parks are more magical at night anyway. Rides like the Haunted Mansion, Tower of Terror, and Pirates of the Caribbean seem better to me at night. Plus it is cooler at night (if you go when the weather is hot).
MY GOLDEN RULE OF THUMB TO AVOID LONG LINES IS: Don’t plan on using standby lines (only use FastPass) for the most popular rides between 1 hour after park opening and 1 hour before park closing (2 hours if the park is open later than 10 PM.) IN MY OPINION, IF YOU EVER FIND YOURSELF IN A LINE LONGER THAN 30 MIN THEN YOU DIDN’T PLAN RIGHT (or you didn’t execute your itinerary as planned.)
- Early may still be best: I think first thing in the morning at opening will always have the shortest average wait times though. Plus, once you get into a pattern of staying at a park until very late, depending on the closing time that time of season, it can be difficult to do any early morning arrivals for the rest of the trip. You need to choose based on what works best for your situation. Also note, in the evenings (especially Fri & Sat) the local season pass holders like to frequent the parks (they are a great place to go on a date.) So avoid late evenings on Fri & Sat.Most people on a theme park vacation will NOT show up at the gates before the park opens so naturally those who get their first have a less crowded park and short lines. Why doesn’t the majority get their early? After all they are paying big bucks to go to these parks why not get the most for your money? It is pretty simple in my mind. Do people want to get up at 6:30 or 7 AM while on their vacations? Not really. Some still do (the ones who hate long lines.) Also, large families (or groups of people) and families with small children can have difficulty getting everyone moving early and in-sync in the morning so as they may have planned to get their early, the reality is they get their later than they had hoped. But be warned: unless you are diligent about getting to bed early, you will be challenged to keep up the early mornings day after day, especially if you are dealing with a time change traveling from West to East. And many of the parks have fireworks or other shows at night you will want to see. It is highly unrealistic to think you will see that 10 PM fireworks show one night (getting back to your room after 11) and then be at the next park turnstiles at 7:30 or 8:30 AM the next morning. With proper planning, most any time of year, your wait will be 15 min or less for most attractions. I know some people find that hard to believe.
- Don’t Overplan, Be Realistic/Flexible, TAKE A BREAK! – Themepark vacations are very fun and rewarding but unlike a beach vacation to Hawaii, they can be very tiring at times. It is okay to plan more in a day than you are able to do as long as you prioritize what you want to see/do and can live with ending the day without being able to check everything off your list. If you do an early morning arrival, a mid-afternoon break is really a must if you plan to return to the park in the evening. The only challenge with this is that this ‘break’ for kids turns into swimming at the pool which really isn’t a ‘rest’ or a ‘break’ but they manage. In general, you have a choice of three general plans for the day:
- Early/Long Day with Break – Early morning arrival before park opening > late morning breakfast or snack > leave park (by 1 PM) for lunch (or eat lunch there and stay a little later) > mid-afternoon break > return in evening after dinner
- Sleep In/Long Day (best for late shows and when park hours go late – 10 PM or later – and when daytime temps are very hot) – Late morning arrival (10 PM?) with early lunch (11:30) in park or early lunch outside park and arrival in park right after lunch > early dinner in park (5:30) > leave in evening
- Short Day No Break – Either arrive early before opening and leave at lunch, or, arrive after lunch and stay until late in evening (the latter I do not recommend as mid-afternoon is the worst time to be in the park.)
- Have a ‘backup’ (running late) plan: If you get to a park a lot later than you planned, it can totally through your itinerary as far as which rides in which order totally out of whack. Be prepared to re-plan on the fly with your knowledge of what rides are least crowded at which times. Or if you are a planning fanatic, better yet, have a primary plan/itinerary and have an abbreviated ‘backup plan’ each day that goes into effect if you can’t get to the park when you want to or spend as much time there as you planned.
- Avoid a park when they have special Early Entry or Stay Late hours (unless you can take advantage of them)– If a park has Extra Hours for guests of their resort that day that you can’t take advantage of, try to avoid that park. If you can’t avoid that park that day, if the extra hours are in the morning then make it a day where you arrive later and stay late into the evening. If it is a day where the extra hours are in the evening, then make it an early morning and don’t return in the evening.
- *** Get Fast Passes as quickly and as often as possible ***: This is my personal #1 most important piece of advice. Appoint someone in your group in advance to be the ‘Fast Pass Runner’ After your group goes through the turnstiles, have the Fast Pass Runner collect everyone’s park passes and immediately walk quickly to the most popular ride in the park you want to ride that day that has a Fast Pass option. The rest of the group can follow if you arrive early and you can ride that ride twice that day, the first time just waiting in the short standby line, the second time using your fast pass. If you arrive late, still get a Fast Pass for the most popular rides as soon as you can get them. It will tell you on the Fast Pass at what time you can get the next pass. Having a Fast Pass Runner means the entire group doesn’t have to keep heading across the park to get a Fast Pass with you every couple of hours. Again get Fast Passes as quickly and as often as you can. (Runner: Be careful not to lose the passes or leave one in the Fast Pass machine!)
- Plan your day around eating meals during non-peak times: If eating inside the park, eat lunch at 11:30 or after 1:30. Eat dinner at 5:30 or after 7:30. Even if you have a reservation it is good to avoid eating lunch from 12:00 – 1:00 and dinner from 6:00-7:00 as a Disney Dining reservation doesn’t mean there will be a table open for you at that time. It just means that you are guaranteed a spot in line to wait for an open table. People without a reservation cannot even wait for an open table unless the restaurant is not busy. (Remember to make your dining reservations way in advance.)
- When all else fails, use the Single Rider Line – Line super long? Got their late? No Fast Pass available? Traveling with older children or no children? Your limited how much time you have at the park and can’t return later? Must do/see attraction? Use the Single Rider line if it has one. You may not all ride together but that is better than not riding at all.
- Ride Water Rides with Caution – Hang out near a ride exit to see how wet people are getting. If it isn’t very warm that day and people are getting soaked a) skip the ride, or b) go later in the day when it is warm enough right before you leave the park, or c) bring cheap ponchos to wear.
NOTE: My park specific tips are NOT geared towards people with toddlers but people with older children or no children.
Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom Advice (much of which also applies to Disneyland)
- Get a Photopass from Disney photographers – they give you this when you have a picture taken and you can view and download them back home for 28 days.
- Rides these rides early morning or late evening and/or get a Fast Pass for them ASAP: Peter Pan, Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain
- Best rides to ride when all the popular ones have long lines: Mickey’s Philharmagic, Hall of Presidents, Tomorrowland Transit Authority – these are all also good ones for resting your legs and the first two are good for getting out of the heat.
- Most overrated rides for the wait time (my opinion): Buzz Lightyear, Space Mountain
- Do Pirates, Big Thunder, and Haunted Mansion at night
- Least crowded place to eat: Columbia Harbor House
- If not during peak season, make a breakfast or lunch reservation at any restaurant at the Contemporary Resort (whether you end up using it or not) so you can park in their parking lot and walk to Magic Kingdom and take the Monorail back (faster and less crowded than parking at the transit center parking lot.)
- Watch the fireworks from near the flagpole at the end of Main Street so you can easily exit the park when the show is over or time it so you are on the ferry back to the Transit Center when the fireworks are going off
- Allow two full days if possible. Do early entry for Future World side one day and late entry to do World Showcase on second day
- Don’t bother taking the tram from the parking lot unless you get their late and have to park way far away. The walk to the entrance will most likely be short and easy if you get their early.
- Ride and/or get Fast Pass ASAP: Soarin, Test Track
- Eat at Sunshine Seasons Food Court
- Mission SPACE: Avoid if you have motion sickness or claustrophobia
- Do Innoventions and Spaceship Earth very last if time permits
- Buy passports for kids to take around World Show Case
- Walk around World Showcase in counter clockwise direction
- Watch Illuminations evening show at Epcot (not to be missed) from between little green buildings by water in front of France, or, area to left of red torii in japan, or between Germany & Italy – make sure the islands with trees don’t block view. If you have small children try finding a spot right on the railing about 20-30 min early or find a bench on the other side of the walkway they can stand on. Otherwise you may have to put them on your shoulders to see
- World Show Case shows/attractions worth seeing: Waiter show in France, American Adventure, Chinese Acrobats, Malestrom in Norway (don’t wait more than 20 min or get Fast Pass)
- Have a beer! They have carts selling them all over the park!
- Most overrated attraction: Turtle Talk with Crush (unless you have children under 8)
- If you are in World Showcase when the time comes that you can get another Fast Pass, have the Fast Pass Runner take the boat across and back to get the FPs without having to do all that walking
Hollywood Studios Tips
- Ride and/or get Fast Pass for Rockin Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror ASAP
- If you get there at opening DO NOT go straight to Toy Story Mania to get a Fast Pass. EVERYONE does that and there will be a 20+ min line JUST to get the Fast Pass! Wait until an hour after opening to get a Fast Pass for Toy Story Mania
- Rides to ride when the most popular ones have long lines: The Great Movie Ride, Walt Disney One Man’s Dream (to get out of eat and/or if you are a big Disney fan),
- Ride at night: Tower of Terror
- Fantasmic Show: Go to the later of the two shows and line up for it 30-40 min in advance.
- Seen Fantasmic already? Opt for the last Indiana Jones Stunt show in the evening instead (especially if you have Indiana Jones fans in your group)
- Don’t waste time with: Sounds Dangerous, American Idol
Animal Kingdom Tips
- This is a good park for a short day and/or when you have other plans for the evening as it typically is not open past 6
- Expedition Everest: Best ride in park. If arriving early, ride it AND get a Fast Pass to ride it again later.
- Kilimanjaro Safari: Second best attraction in park. Worth a one hour wait or get Fast Pass ASAP after Expedition Everest
- See Flights of Wonder and Festival of Lion King Show (arrive 30 min. early for Festival of Lion King)
- For a splurge go have dinner at Animal Kingdom Lodge or at Sanaa at neighboring Kidani village for a little more reasonably priced dinner
- Go to Universal Studios park (not Islands of Adventure) first thing in the morning and ride The Mummy, Men in Black, Terminator, & Twister. (Second tier to do if time available: Simpsons, JAWS, Horror Make Up Show, Beetlejuice, Wild West Stunt Show)
- Do roller coasters in Islands of Adventure late morning after Studios
- DO WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER LAST 1-2 HOURS PARK IS OPEN AT NIGHT. Only do Wizarding World of Harry Potter first thing in morning if you have early entry for staying at a Universal Resort. WWOHP lines get long very fast in the morning unless you are going on a Mon-Thur during low season.
- Roller Coaster Enthusiast: Dragon Challenge and Hulk are awesome!
- Most overrated attraction for lines: Spider Man (worth up to a 20 min wait), Olivanders Wand Shop in WWOHP (worth 20 min wait – only one kid gets chosen by a wand), Candy Shop in WWOHP (worth 10 min wait)
- Don’t bother paying extra for preferred parking. They have escalators and moving sidewalks. If you are worried about walking for $5 more than preferred you can get Valet parking.
- Have lunch or dinner at Three Broomsticks if you are a big Harry Potter fan but try to go early or late
- Make advance reservations for Mythos if you want fine dining inside the park
- Skip Poseidon’s Fury
Here’s my brain dump of travel tools so I don’t forget and hopefully others will find them useful.
Where to go?
Don’t have a specific destination in mind? Get the best ideas at:
Where to stay?
Stray away from commercially published reviews and ratings (Frommers, Fodors, etc.) Stick to reviews from actual travelers but take them with a grain of salt and form your own “mental average” realizing someone use to staying in a 5-star is going to give a different perspective than someone use to staying in a 3-star. Best site I’ve found is
Want to rent a condo or house? That can take a lot of searching. There really is no one or two best places as it depends on where you are going. I usually just do a search on “bla bla town vacation rentals” but one of the best places always is:
Where to eat?
www.zagat.com – it costs money but it is always spot-on. Well worth it for the frequent diner. Next best free source is City Search (sort by Best of City Search column on the right). www.citysearch.com?choose=1
What to do once you get there?
Best way to accumulate and use frequent flyer miles?
If you use a credit card tied to one airline, throw it away. Wells Fargo has the best credit card reward I know of. The business card has no annual limit on the number of miles you can accumulate and the personal card you can upgrade to the “enhanced” program to have unlimited miles. I also have experience with the Chase program but it isn’t as good (50,000 miles for up to an $800 ticket as opposed to only 40,000 on the Wells program.) The best thing about these programs is you can use any website like Orbitz or Expedia to pick your flights and then just call in and book the ticket. No blackout dates and no limited seating. You book the flight the same way as if you were paying for it. The AMEX Rewards program is popular as it lets you combined points with mileage you have earned on an airline by transfering the points to your mileage account. The downside is that they are not partnered with every airline but if you frequently accumulate mileage (business travel?) on one of their partner airlines this is a great option. But you’ll have to deal with blackout dates and limited seating availablity since you’ll have to book through the airline using your mileage account. For other great ideas on how to accumulate and use mileage see:
www.flytertalk.com (awesome site)
How do I get the lowest price?
If you’ve read this far, then you deserve my money saving tips.
Lowest Airline Fares
If you are like me you can spend an hour or more searching high and low for the best airfare. You don’t have to do that (unless you really enjoy spending your free time that way.)
Step 1) Search www.kayak.com. This is a meta-search engine that searches everyone else including the individual airline sites. You will most likely find your best fare here and I really like the ability to sort by the trip duration so you can easily find the best combination of decent itinerary and low price. (Lowest price does not necessarily equal best flight.)
Step 2) Search www.travelocity.com I don’t know why but sometimes this site pulls a lower fare that no other site had. Worth a look.
That’s it, you’re done. Seriously. You don’t need to look anywhere else. Kayak already searched the other sites you would have normally searched. If you are like me and really really want to be sure you got the best deal and will waste your time to save a buck, then my third recommendation would be to search www.mobissimo.com It’s like Kayak but you can’t search by trip duration. Forget Expedia. They are the big name in the online travel business but their prices are never lower. They have good details and photos for hotels though.
There is one site that will always pull the lowest international fare. I don’t know how they do it, but they do:
Wait, before you book that ticket, make sure you are getting the best seat:
Hotels.com almost always has the best price (or same price as everyone else.) Expedia will have the same prices and inventory but may be worth checking. Also check the hotel site itself as most guarantee the lowest rate now.
Use your Entertainment book coupons or go to this site:
Rule #1, never book a cruise based on a price that was advertised online. This is like buying the new car off the lot for the sticker price.
First, get knowledgeable about cruises and the different ships by going to:
Second check the www.icruise.com site and see if the live agent option is available in the upper right hand corner and click on it, but don’t start the chat session – just make sure the option is available.
Now call the people at cruise.com and ask them what the lowest price you can get on the various cruises is. If icruise.com published a lower price tell them at has to be lower than that price. Once they give you a price get their name and extention and tell them you are going to shop around then call them back. Call icruise.com and ask them to beat the cruise.com price.
If you want to get really tricky and save time, start a chat session with the icruise.com agent while you are on the phone with the cruise.com agent and go back and forth and have them beat each other’s price.
Where can I get the best travel deal?
No specific destination in mind and just like to find a good deal? (The first two are all you really need to check. Don’t bother with Priceline or Hotwire unless you just like spending your free time doing this kind of thing.)
One of the last gifts my Mother-In-Law gave to me before she recently passed away was a booked called “Slipping into Paradise – Why I Live In New Zealand” by Jeffrey Masson. I finally got around to reading it on my trip to Aruba. I’m not sure if she read this book or not, but if she did, then she had far greater an insight on my thoughts regarding the possibility of living somewhere else in the world more than I knew. At the least, she obviously loved visiting this country and knew I will too some day. She essentially found the book I’ve been looking for, for a long time. Written by someone who has been fortunate to live and travel many places. (He lived in or visted for a significant period of time England, France, Germany, America, Canada, India, Bali, Australia and many other places.)
Without going into a full book review (not my fortay) I’ll just say the book is written by someone who is very “well read” (as in smart) and has really covered some ground. If you are interested in New Zealand, this is a must-read. The book does sort of go off on tangents at times and the author can be quite judgemental in an extremely intellectual fashion (whatever that means.) So the book drags in places but not for very long. It’s worth a read. It’s short described as “part memoir, part philosophical reflection.”
One thing about the author is that he’s lived a lot of places but he’s never lived in Seattle. However my limited knowledge of New Zealand is that it would be a potentially attractive home for someone who has been so fortunate as to live in such as wonderful place as Seattle (not that I am moving there anytime soon.)
Here’s a few exerpts that I found particularly interesting if not entertaining.
In New Zealand… the line among locals is that if you to the beach and you find one other family there, you immediatley leave to find one less crowded! I can no longer count the number of time we were the only people on the beach, indeed, the only person in a store, on the road, in a restaurant, at a cafe, at a bus stop, at a rest stop on the road. We have taken many walks that are prominently signposted, a two-hour tramp through a lovely kauri forest, and not met a single other person the enitre time. Where else can that happen? When you have a country the size of Oregon with only four million people in it, that is what you get. Sometimes you feel lonely, at other times you exult.
AMERICA. Sigh. I am an American, and when I was in Germany, England, France, I felt it. I was always relieved to meet my fellow contrymen. I like the openness, the enthusiasm, the friendliness, even if it was not always deep. I liked somebody I just met telling me his or her life story. But recently I have felt the politics have become devisive, and the materialism that was never far from the surface now seems public policy. (The only other place I have been to where shopping is practically a national sport was Dubai.) To say in America seemed some form of complicity. It is not; I know, for one of the great things about America is our First Amendment rights: thousands of Americans protest and express their opinions on a daily basis, many via the Internet, the there is also the danger of being a dissenter in America, something quite remote from New Zealand (where nobody who disagrees with government policy need ever feel threatened.) Nobody would ever stop you in the street and try to pick a fight with you because of your views no matter how high-profile they were.
Something you really don’t learn about Australia is just how dangerous it is. You won’t learn this from Aussies; they will never tell you. It’s too commonplace to them. Imagine this, just for starters: You are in your garden, weeding, right in the middle of Sydnet. An ugly, hairy funnel-web spider (there are forty species) the size of a yo-yo takes a bite out of your hand. If you are very young, the single bite is all it takes: You’re dead. If not, the bacterial these spiders carry on their fangs will cause your skin to die and your flesh to literally melt away. There is no known antidote. Or the trap-door spider, the size of a fifty-cent piece, feels the vibrations as you walk by, rushes out, and takes a fatal bite out of you. Or you are lucky and just meet the white-tail spider, which bites your hand and causes an ulcerous sore that lasts for months, then leaves a large hole (the bite works like gangrene.) Your garden also contains the king brown snake, the most poisonus snake in the world, forty times more venomous than our rattler. Actually, Australia has a hundred poisonous snakes about a dozen which are the most poisonus on earth (New Zealand has no poisonus snakes or spiders.)
Should you foolishly decide to want to go swimming in Australia, beware of the stonefish. It looks like a seaweed covered stone, but it has a spike. Should you have the misfortune of stepping on it, you’re history. We went swimming in a mild-looking bay outside Cairns, where there was a small sign: BOX JELLYFISH. How bad could that be? I was used to swimming in Hawaii and had tangled with many a Portugese man-o-war. Ha! If the three-foot tentacles of a box jellyfish so much as touch you, the pain is so intense that you scream out of control. Not for long however, for if you don’t get to a hospital soon, you die. If somebody comes along to take it off you, she is attacked. This jellyfish is so transparent that it’s more or less invisible, you don’t see it, you just start screaming. Australians would actually rather meet a seagoing saltwater crocodile, all twenty feet of him. These swim between New Guinea and Australia, but will also go thirty miles up a freshwater river. They attack and kill you. Still, they’re better than the blue-ringed octopus, common in rock tidal pools around Sydney. Smaller than your hand, when annoyed its blue rings become iridescent, attracting the unsuspecting child. The bite does not hurt, but injects a venom that can lead to paralysis and the cessation of breating within minutes. It’s the world’s most lethal octopus. They wash into swimming pools that people build at the edge of the sea. You can’t speak. One victim reported her horror at hearing the paramedics saying, “It doesn’t look like she’s going to make it.”
Still, my favorite has got to be the amazing gympie gympie tree. Sound sweet? There are six species. Two grow 130 feet. They are in Queensland. Don’t go there. The hollow plant hair easily breaks off in your skin, injecting a pain-causing toxin that can last for up to one year! Constant, unbearable pain–so extreme that one stricken soldier took his own gun and shot himself. Horses die from the pain. One dried specimen collected in 1910 is still active. Australian forestry workers carry gloves, antihistamine, and a repirator. The extreme shock of the pain can cause a heart attack and death. You don’t even have to touch this tree. You can just be sitting beneath it minding your own business. Wham! Your dead.