There are whole websites devoted to everything Disney, I have visited the happiest place on earth at least a dozen times and always have the best time! Most of my experience here will come from travelling with children point of view although I have also enjoyed the park without kids! I want to share my favorite experiences and must see/do!
HOTELS: There are hundreds and hundreds of hotel options around the Disney area. First decision is offsite or onsite?
Onsite hotels: I personally enjoy the onsite hotels and my all time favorite is Port Orleans French Quarter since my children loved the dragon slide pool. For families of 5 the Port Orleans Riverside has rooms that will hold a family of 5 with a trundle bed which is a nice option. There are so many options to choose from onsite, we have stayed at several and overall they are all pretty much the same as far as size, service, and amenities. What puts one above others for me is the ease of transportation and walking back to the hotel at the end of the long day at the park. My tops picks for easy transportation are Port Orleans French Quarter, Grand Floridian, and Contemporary Resort. I have only stayed at a handful of the onsite resorts and can’t possibly give advice on all of them, but I will say if you plan to spend most of your time at Magic Kingdom the monorail resorts are worth the extra spend! The only resort I would not stay at again is the Caribbean Beach Resort, it is a really large resort with multiple bus stops, so getting from the hotel to the park was often 45 minutes.
2018 Update: We tried a new resort, Old Key West Resort. This is one of the first “timeshare” resorts onsite. We found the large condo feel along with washer and dryer to be a real perk. Transportation to this resort is very good and it’s right next door to the Port Orleans, one of our favorite hotels and located in the Epcot area. The benefit of the onsite hotel is Disney transportation and extra hours at the park, called “magic hours” that allows you early entry. You can also have packages delivered to your room which eliminates carrying around Mickey ears and toys all day. When booking onsite you can also book your hotel with ticket and meal package which I find does save $$$ which is always nice because this is also one the most expensive places on earth!
Magic Bands: These great multi purpose bands (more like a fit bit bracelet) were introduced in 2014 and are room key, park pass, fast pass, dining/purchase pass, and photo pass for Disney resort guests and annual pass holders. We have used them on our last few visits to Disney and love them, make sure you check into your hotel before going to the park your first day or your bands won’t work! Your fast pass is linked to your band and booked through the Disney app now as well, so be sure to download the app on your phone before you go as well.
Offsite hotels: We have stayed a several local Marriott, Hilton, and Holiday Inn properties offsite. You definitely want a hotel that offers a shuttle and ideally a shuttle that matches park hours and is near Disney so that you aren’t spending time sitting in traffic because your hotel is near Sea World or Universal.
Park Passes: This will be your largest expense, but the cost goes down considerably for multi-day single park passes. My advice is to pay extra for the Park Hopper option, this allows you to visit multiple parks on a single day. This is great if you are in a park with large crowds you can try another park by using Disney buses between parks. We normally plan on spending the morning at Animal Kingdom when all the animals are out and move to Hollywood Studios for the afternoon. If this is your first time to Disney I would recommend a 5 day stay with 4 day park pass minimum. This gives you one “rest” day and 4 days at the parks.
Dining Plan: If you are staying onsite at a Disney resort you have the option of the dining plan, there are three different levels (as of last time I stayed this year). I can’t say if you actually save money with this option, you definitely get more food and snacks and it’s very convenient, but note you still have to pay gratuity for any table service meals!
2018 Update: The dining plans now include an alcoholic beverage for adults over 21!
Basic option includes- for each guest (over age of 2) per night of your resort stay: Two Counter Service Meals, One Snack, and One refillable mug (unlimited refills at the resort but cannot be used in parks)
Plus option includes- for each guest (over age of 2) per night of your resort stay: One Counter Service Meal, One Table Service meal (includes drink, entree, and dessert), Two Snacks, and One refillable mug (unlimited refills at the resort but cannot be used in parks)
Deluxe options includes- for each guest (over age of 2) per night of your resort stay: Three Counter or Table Service Meals (includes drink, appetizer, entree, and dessert for lunch and dinner), Two Snacks, and One refillable mug (unlimited refills at the resort but cannot be used in parks)
Magic Kingdom: This is where you will find Cinderella’s Castle and where all the iconic Disney rides and experiences begin. There is something magical about walking into this park which I would guess is the most popular and most crowded. When you enter the park be prepared for a quick bag search and then que up to enter the ticketing center. On the first day of your visit be prepared to take a little longer as you scan your fingerprint along with your ticket or Magic Band (remember which finger you used for faster entry next time!). You will see stroller/wheel chair rental on the right and then through a short tunnel and you are right in front of Main Street USA with a great view of the castle. If you are one of the first to enter the park in the morning, bypass all of the people who stop to take pictures here and head straight to the ride that is on your must do list ( I recommend the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train where wait times can be two hours by 10am). The rides you can expect to wait in longer lines for are Buzz Lightyear, Space Mountain, Thunder Mountain Railroad, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Pooh Bear, and Splash Mountain. During slower times (September) I have seen 5-15 minute wait times versus peak times (July and November) can be 45 minutes to 3 hours per ride. I recommend downloading the Disney app on your phone when you arrive for somewhat up to date wait times and help with planning your day.
Tip: For a great picture with the castle in the background and less crowds behind you – There are benches across from the Crystal Palace restaurant that have a great view of the castle, great place for a photo. You can also (book ahead!) plan on breakfast with Pooh Bear and friends inside the Crystal Palace which is a great way to start the day.
Another great breakfast spot (again book ahead!) is with the Disney Princesses in the castle, if your kids are early risers this is a great place to start the day because once you have eaten you are already at the back of the park in Fantasyland before the crowds.
Epcot: This is a park that has mostly attractions and restaurants. There aren’t any roller coasters, but more experiences that are really fun. Most of the attractions at Epcot are in the front area called Future World. When you first enter the park you come up to Project Tomorrow (this is the large golf ball looking sphere that everyone associates with Epcot) this can be a little dull for the younger crowd but it’s great place to escape the heat or rain! My top two experiences at Epcot are Test Track and Soarin, get fast passes for these as the wait times can get very long. Another fun place to escape the heat and rain is The Seas based on Finding Nemo that is a continuous clam shell ride, great for younger kids as well. Beyond Future World is the area known as World Showcase, there are several countries showcased and each has a restaurant and some type of show or attraction. This area is definitely more entertaining for older kids and adults, but Disney does a great job of finding ways to make it fun for the younger crowd with scavenger hunts and coloring stations. There are some great restaurants in this park and this is a great place to have dinner and then stay after to watch the fireworks show, Le Cellier in Canada is my favorite (make reservations in advance!)
Hollywood Studios: This park is where the real adventure is and great mix of thrill rides and attractions. There is the Aerosmith Rockin Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror for thrill seekers along with really fun rides like Toy Story Mania and Muppet Vision 3D. This is a fun park for those young and old, pretty much something from everyone here with Star Wars, American Idol experience, Disney Junior Live, and Indiana Jones Stunt Show (note this is show not a ride like Disneyland). My two favorite places to eat are the 50’s Prime Time cafe which is a fun atmosphere but also very good comfort food. If your kids are a little older the SciFi DineIn is fun where you sit in a car and old black and white sci fi movies play. Lastly for breakfast the Hollywood & Vine has a Disney Jr breakfast that is a huge hit with toddlers.
Animal Kindgom: This park is part (mostly) zoo and part theme park with a few thrill rides. It is best to start your day here early with the Kilimanjaro Safari when the animals are active, once it gets hot and they have eaten you don’t see as much. There is Dinosaur and Expedition Everest for thrill seekers along with some great family attractions like Bug’s Life 3D show and Kali River Rapids (you will get wet). This part is very spread out and can be one of the hottest in the summer months, I always plan on early morning start and back to the hotel for rest/pool time by 1pm.
Getting Around: If you are staying onsite at Disney I do not recommend renting a car if you are flying into Orlando, Disney has a shuttle that is free for hotel guests. If you drive to Orlando I would suggest you unload and then park your car until it is time to depart. The only real reason to venture beyond the resorts is if you plan to visit another them park like Sea World, Discovery Cove, or Universal. It can also be nice to make an initial “run” to the local store to pick up water and snacks, otherwise the expense of a rental car and parking aren’t worth it.