Trip Planning for the First Disney trip

Are you planning your first ever Disney trip? Congrats!  I was in your shoes 4 years ago when we planned our first ever trip to a Disney park, Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida 2018, then again last year as we prepared our first Disneyland, Anaheim, California trip.  This guide is full of tips for those who have never been as well as those who haven’t been since the pandemic changes were implemented.

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Growing up, neither my family nor my wife’s family went to a Disney park, and the thought of spending a lot of money for a vacation like that seemed foreign to us, but we wanted to check it out anyway, so we scheduled a 2 day get your feet wet trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando Florida and we fell in love! 

The architecture, the theming, the characters, the experience all came together to create great memories that will last a lifetime.  We’ve since returned to Walt Disney World 2 more times and had a trip cancelled due to the pandemic closure in 2020, as well as travelled twice to Anaheim California to visit Disneyland.

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So, I’ve decided to put together a beginners guide to Disney parks by a beginner    Some of the tips are for both locations while some are more specific to one or the other.  Overall though, the experiences are similar, which hasn’t always been the case.

To get started, there’s a few things that are helpful to understand prior to your trip.  Even if you don’t use the tips, having an understanding of what is happening will be helpful.

Planning for your trip

First, identify when you want to go or can go.  If you have school age kids, you’ll be limited to summer break, winter break or shorter weekend breaks.  Typically, the times when a lot of kids are out of school are the busiest times for the parks as well as most expensive times to fly.

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Once you figure out when to go, there’s a few items you’ll need to do prior to your trip. I’ve put together a few Disney Tips posts to help guide you through your trip and hopefully make your first visit an excellent adventure. These links will open in a new tab so you can go and forth. The first 3 tips will be important information and steps to take as soon as you know you want to travel.

Your first tip is Hotels.

Finding the right hotel is part of the fun of the adventure. While there are plenty of non Disney resorts nearby that cost less than Disney hotels, I recommend checking out a Disney value resort to fully immerse yourself in this new experience.

The second tip is Tickets.

When booking a hotel, you’ll be given the option to add tickets to your vacation package. It’ll be important to understand what your options are and whether or not you’ll need to add on or buy separately. Typically, adding on is the most convenient, especially for a first visit.

The third tip is Park Pass Reservations.

Once you have your tickets booked, you’ll need to book your park pass reservations. These tell Disney which park you plan on visiting each day. These reservations help limit the total guests in the parks each day to somewhat prevent overcrowding, though it doesn’t always feel like that.

The next tip is Dining.

While it’s true you won’t be eating until your trip, it’s important to know about dining reservations and whether or not you might want a special meal while on your vacation. Disney restaurant reservations book up quickly, so it’s good to know before you go. Booking a Character dinner or Unique dining experience could be exactly what you needed and you didn’t even know it. Dining reservations open up 60 days before your hotel check in day, so not necessarily urgent info when first planning, it’s something you’ll want to prepare for.

As your trip approaches, you’ll want to look into Park Hours.

Park hours can vary from season to season and week to week, so knowing park hours before your trip and keeping up to date on changes will help you maximize your time in the parks.

You’ll also need to know about Transportation.

When traveling to Disneyland, getting around is generally not too difficult. However, Walt Disney World is very complex, so it’s important to know before you go how you’ll go from place to place.

Another item to know about before you go is the new Disney Genie system.

The Disney Genie system is a 3 part system.  It’s important to know the free features vs paid features and what you get with each part. 

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Taking your trip

When it’s finally time to go, there’s a lot of choices to think about when packing your luggage.  The weather in Orlando is hot and humid for 75% of the year, but beware, December, January and February can see temps drop as low as the 30s in the mornings and evenings, as seen several times this year.  Wear layers to the park that you can shed throughout the day, then put back on when the sun goes down.  There’s also brief but frequent bursts of rain that can happen at any time.  Packing an extra pair of shoes means you won’t have to wear wet shoes the next day.  Rain ponchos are great to have as well.

Do you have children?  Are they out of the stroller phase?  You may still want to think about bringing a stroller.  The Disney parks are massively large and there is so much walking.  Adults regularly walk 15,000-20,000 steps each day while at the parks. The stroller provides a good leg rest for the kids.  Not only that, a good stroller provides great storage space for everything you’ll want in the parks. Most airlines transport child seats and strollers free of charge, so if you plan to rent a car, you can fly their car seat free too so you’re not renting a seat you’re unfamiliar with.

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Other important items for the parks include sun screen, big spray, Tylenol or ibuprofen, first aid kit with bandages, Neosporin, etc, hats, sunglasses, chewing gum (this isn’t sold anywhere by Disney!) Swimsuits, extra clothes, and a bag to transport things to the parks. Amazon is a great place to find everything you need.

When it’s time to head to the airport and prepare to fly to your destination, have everything packed and ready to go to avoid last minute rushing around. When you arrive at the destination airport, have any documents you may need for your transportation from the airport to your hotel. If you’re renting a car, you can type your hotel into your phones map app and get directions straight to the hotel. If you preplanned a ride, know how to contact the driver or transportation company.

Going to the park

When you take a normal vacation, you typically want to sleep in and head to attractions later in the day.  However, with a Disney vacation, the best time to visit the parks is in the morning, especially if staying on property.  My hours post discusses Early Theme Park Entry.  The morning hours typically see the lowest crowds of the day, though this can be subjective.  Most people that plan an early morning trip to the park will usually plan to leave the parks from 1-5 for an afternoon break.  With transportation, this could mean anywhere from 2-3 hours at the hotel for a nap or pool break. 

When arriving at the park, whether by Disney transportation, your own vehicle (take a picture of a sign or marker at the end of the row you park in to make it easier to find your car later), or walking from your hotel, the first thing you’ll do upon arrival at the park is go through the security line.  At Disney World, they use scanners that can see through bags, pockets etc.  If you have anything metal in your bags, such as umbrellas, sunglasses, etc, take them out and hold them as you go through security and you should be fine.  If necessary, they’ll send you to the bag check line.  At Disneyland, they don’t have the fancy scanner, so you have to go through a bag check, then a metal detector.

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After security, you’ll get ready to scan into the park.  At Disney World, each park is in its own location, so you just follow the crown and get in line.  When ready, you’ll scan your magic band, phone, key to the world card or paper ticket and also your fingerprint, which will tie your pass to you, meaning if you lose it someone else can’t pick it up and use it.  If you’re traveling with small children, you can use your finger for their fingerprint.  This saves a lot of time because kid fingers don’t scan well. 

At Disneyland, the one security point leads you to both park entrances.  Make sure you go to the park entrance that matches your park reservation. In the 360° picture above, I was next to the Disney California Adventure entrance and you can see the Disneyland park entrance not too far away. You will use either your printed park ticket or the Disneyland app to scan your ticket.  Here, they take your picture to tie your ticket to you, so don’t shave your beard off mid trip!  Ha.  (I don’t know if that’d actually be a problem.) They also give you a printed ticket that comes on a souvenir 2×4 card. 

Congrats, you’ve made it into a Disney park.  Now what? There’s so much going on once you’re inside the parks.  Sights, sounds, smells, it honestly is a bit overwhelming at first.  Take a minute to get your bearings, off to the side if possible.  Have a plan before you get there of the first few things you want to do, so you go with the flow. 

On our first trip to Disney World, our first park day was Hollywood Studios just a few months after Toy Story Land opened and I just had to go to that park to experience it, I had hyped my daughter up for Slinky Dog Dash and we were excited.  Then when we got back to the land, we were completely shell shocked at the overwhelming amount of people there. the pathway was wall to wall people. (The 360° picture above shows an empty walkway in December compared to our first trip.) Slinky Dog Dash already had a 3 hour wait.  I guess it opened early for some people and we didn’t realize it.  So, plan B, Fastpasses were planned ahead of time and we had a pass for Alien Swirling Saucers, so we tried to enjoy the park as much as possible until our Fastpass time.  We started with disappointment, but we overcame it and found ways to have a great time.

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I tell that story to point out that when one thing doesn’t work as expected, pivot and find something else.   Disney parks aren’t just rides.  They have historic buildings, shops, street performers, parades, stage performances, fireworks, food, character interactions and so much more.  The Disney app as well as hours pages list the show times each day.  Knowing when shows are beforehand can help you plan them into your day.  Certain stage shows, as well as fireworks and parades, have people line up an hour before the start of the event.  Getting there early can get you a good spot.

Back to our first trip, the second day, we were at the Magic Kingdom.  We saw a show at the stage that was about to start in 30 minutes, so we headed to the front of the castle.  There weren’t many people there yet, so we got a great spot near the stage.  We looked back just before the start and there were so many people behind us.  So that was a good experience.  But then we tried finding a spot for the parade later and the sidewalks and viewing spots were jam packed with people and we couldn’t get a spot, so that was a disappointment. 

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There’s so much to do in each park that it’s impossible to do everything in one day.  Pace yourself.  Take time to enjoy a little bit of all the different aspects of the parks.  Remember to eat at your normal meal times.  Remember to take a break.  Remember to get family pictures.  Disney has photographers in every park at several locations ready to take your picture in front of iconic places. 

If you have a stroller and park it to do a ride or catch a show, note that the cast members may move your stroller.  This helps to keep strollers in a designated area to keep walkways clear and tidy up the stroller parking area. You can see in the 360° picture above how crowded a stroller parking area can become.  If you don’t see your stroller initially, kindly ask a nearby cast member if they know where it might have gone.  It also helps to tie a unique identifier to your stroller that sticks out so you can easily spot it.

When it’s time for a hotel break, head to the front of the park and locate the exit path.  If you are taking Disney transportation, cast members will be available if you need help figuring out where to go. Each resort hotel has a specific pickup location. The bus will take you back to the same hotel bus stop where you got on the bus in the morning.  After your break, you can head back to the park.  Your ticket is good for the entire day. Go back to the park in the evening, enjoy more rides, make note of fireworks show time and whether or not you want to stay for it. Families with small children and others startled by loud noises, may want to head for the exit 30-60 minutes prior to give yourself time to exit and avoid large crowds.

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If you’re staying for the fireworks, it’s also a good idea to make your way to the area 30-60 minutes before the start to stake out a spot. Parents, please be mindful of other people. Don’t put children on your shoulders. There are height challenged people behind you that want to see the show too. It’s not that hard to hold them to your side or have them stand in the stroller so their head is the same height as yours. Fireworks shows can be delayed a few minutes as everything gets ready. Have snacks available in case anyone gets hungry while waiting. Most fireworks shows are between 10 and 20 minutes. A lot of shows include projections on nearby buildings that tell a story along with the fireworks.

After the show, you’re likely to have some more time in the parks before closing. A lot of people head for the exit right away, so finding another ride or two is a good option to avoid the initial rush for the exit. When it’s closing time, you can get in a ride line up to the last second before official close. The rides will continue operating until everyone in line at the park closing time has gone through. If you’re interested in last minute shopping, the shops are open typically 1 hour past the park closing.

When you’re ready to leave, specialty transportation like skyliners, monorails and boats are typically available for at least 90 minutes after park closing. Buses will run as long as necessary. If you are lucky enough to score a dining reservation for after park closing time, there will be buses available to take you back to your hotel. However, if you were hoping for special empty park pictures, security may have other ideas for you. It’s better to grab some pictures before close and before going to the reservation just in case they plan on shooing you out quickly.

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End of the trip

When you’ve reached the end of your trip and you’re preparing to head to the airport, know that it typically takes 30 minutes to drive to the Orlando airport. The SoCal airports might be a little more. The recommended arrival time is 2 hours before your flight, but each of the airports near Disney locations can be even busier, so arriving 2.5-3 hours earlier is not a bad thing. Once you’ve checked in and passed through security, you can relax, take a break, grab some food and breathe a sigh of relief you made it this far.

Arriving home, you’re going to be asking yourself when does the vacation from your vacation begin? You’ll be tired and worn out, but you’ll have memories to last a lifetime. Or at least until your next trip.

Speaking of memories, the pictures taken by photopass photographers will be available for 45 days after your trip. Be sure to hop on to your Disney account from a computer so you can download any pictures you’ve paid for or were given to you. Some pictures are available free, but for the most part you’ll need to purchase a photopass package to download the pictures. I like to put our fun moments into a Shutterfly photo book as a fun souvenir to pull out any time you think about the trip.

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Once you’ve had a chance to recover, it’s never too early to begin looking forward to your next trip. You can start thinking about all the things you did that you really enjoyed and all the things you didn’t do that you want to do next time!

As Mickey says, “We’ll see you real soon!”

If you’re ready to start exploring a Walt Disney World or Disneyland family vacation, I recommend checking out Undercover Tourist for your ticket options. I’ve already used them twice, once at Disneyland and once at Disney World and will plan to continue comparing their prices with other sites, however I usually come back to UT because they have the best deals and their instructions make it easy to add your tickets to the Disney apps.

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