1. MAGIC BANDS: THE GOOD AND THE ANNOYING
If you are staying at a Disney Resort (which I recommend you do HERE), then you will be sent (if a US resident) your magic bands prior to your arrival.
If you are from elsewhere, your colourful bands will be waiting for you upon check-in.
What are magic bands you ask?
They are colourful (or not) watch-like things you wear for the duration of your trip. They are your keys, your tickets, and your credit card.
They are EVERYTHING.
You can pick the colour you want, your name is put in the back and then all vital (and somewhat creepy tracking) information is stored on these bands.
They open your hotel door, they get you into the parks and they pay for your iced coffee.
A PRO: We liked the ease of having them – my husband felt so free walking around without a wallet.
A CON: After a few cocktails in EPCOT it was easy to tipsy buy toys for my kids.
Sometimes I missed good old-fashioned tickets.
Like when my son was passed out in the stroller and they still needed to scan his bracelet. It woke him up of course.
Now here is where I HATED my Magic Band:
The activation. Which myself, nor the 50 people who waited in line with me to activate their bands, knew about.
And it cost me precious ride time in the Magic Kingdom.
To get to the Magic Kingdom there are many lines.
There is a line to get on the ferry to take you to the main gate (yes, you need to take a ferry or monorail unless you arrive by the resort buses or a Minnie Van), there is a line to have your bags checked, and there is a line to tap your bands to get into the park.
It was at this last step that we discovered we had to ACTIVATE our bands first. WTF?
This meant standing in ANOTHER line of about 20-30 minutes at guest relations/ticket window to get them to activate my band.
I was in line with a ton of other people all wondering the same thing: what the heck Disney?
We all had the bands, we had all checked in to our hotels and opened our doors. Our park passes had been purchased online and linked to our reservations.
NO WHERE did it say online, in our reservation confirmation, our purchase receipt or at the front desk that we had to activate our bands before going into a park.
This was the moment I said “GIVE ME A TICKET”.
We missed our first fast pass time slot as well as a good 45-60 minutes in this process.
I have read, and re-read Disney’s instructions HERE and see no where that you have to activate your bands. You do if you are an annual passholder, which I am not.
Anyways, this is a long rant to make you aware of getting to your first park 30 minutes early to add this extra strep.
Here are my kids waiting for me to activate our magic bands. Alice is about as thrilled as I was.
2. MAGICAL EXPRESS IS LESS MAGIC AND MORE A PAIN IN THE ASS
Magical Express is the free shuttle to and from the Orlando airport to your resort.
A week before leaving, Disney will send you an envelope containing yellow luggage tags that you affix to your suitcases before departing for Orlando. In the envelope there will also be a piece of paper that you need to hand over to Magical Express when you arrive. Do not be a dummy, like me, and throw the paper into recycling.
The idea is that you drop your bags off at your airport and don’t see them again until you have checked in to your hotel room. You get off the airplane in Orlando, hop on your bus and arrive at your resort without having to schelp a thing.
So convenient right? Or not.
It all depends on when you arrive.
My husband and I debated just getting our luggage upon landing. I, stupidly, thought that we could decide once we landed if we wanted to drag our cases or not.
My mistake. Once those yellow tags are on, you won’t see them until they arrive at your room.
THREE TO FIVE HOURS AFTER YOU HAVE CHECKED INTO YOUR HOTEL.
This is part 1 of why this service is not awesome.
On the website, it makes it sound so easy. It does actually say “may take up to three hours after you arrive at your hotel”.
So I may have missed the ‘after you arrive at your hotel’ part. BUT no where does it say on the website that it could take up to FIVE hours to arrive. Which is actually the case.
If you are taking Magical Express, your check in can be a couple of hours later than your arrival.
We had to drop off all the expensive resort guests first before our stop. We watched as we passed our resort and then did a huge circle back to it.
Our flight arrived at 7PM. We did not check-in until 9PM. Our luggage didn’t arrive until 1:30 AM.
With two small children, we should have taken a taxi straight to our resort. We would have been there in a half hour.
This was mostly my mistake – had a I read more closely. I only learned of the 5 hour window when I called bell services and they told me to expect our luggage 3-5 hours after check-in.
I had a bad cold, my ears were plugged and all I wanted to do was sleep. My drugs had been stupidly (yes, I use that word alot) in my luggage. As did the kid’s PJ’s, toothbrushes, etc.
The website and all the planning blogs advice to keep medicine and valuables in your carry-on. I should have heeded this advice.
Therefore heed MY advice: only go on the Magical Express if you have an earlier arrival time OR pack what you need for sleep OR just carry your own suitcases.
GETTING ON THE MAGICAL EXPRESS at the airport is easy.
There are signs directing you everywhere and it’s very well explained what to do and what bus to get on. Easy peasy.
Going BACK to the airport is also easy.
The day before your departure, the hotel gives you a letter stating what time your Express will be picking you up.
On the return journey, the Magical Express only takes guests from the resort you are staying at.
Therefore our journey to the airport was only 20 minutes.
If you are arriving early in the day, by all means use the luggage service and make sure to have packed your carry-on with swimsuits, medication and diapers.
If you are arriving later in the evening and your kids need to sleep – contemplate a quick ride to your resort over a longer bus journey.
3. ADR’s or Advance Dining Reservations
This is a term you will see alot when researching through blogs and the Disney World site.
I couldn’t believe the craziness of having to plan our meals ahead of time.
Back when I was a kid, we would show up in the morning and my mum would make reservations with guest services for that day.
This is no longer the case. You have to make your reservations 180 days (or SIX WHOLE MONTHS) in advance. Again, WTF? That seems insane right?
There are of course reservations that you can make the day before or the day of – but they might not be your first choice.
And you definitely, 100%, CANNOT book Cinderella’s Castle the day before.
That is one restaurant where you need to book as far in advance as possible. I’ve heard that it has meh food, but is insanely exciting for your kids to meet all the princesses. And you get to eat in Cinderella’s castle! I will talk more about character meals later.
The other coveted reservation to make far in advance: early morning reservations. I was able to book this slot a few times while we were there but if you can score those super early reservations – DO IT (see below for why)!
I booked our food about 4 months in advance. Cinderella’s Castle and early morning reservations were already gone.
I didn’t know what to book. I chose one sit-down meal a day – which is probably as much as you want to do with small children.
Here is the BIG TIP I learned:
Reservations open up the day before!
Because Disney has a 24 hour cancellation policy. If you cancel the day of, you are subject to a $10/person fee.
I also discovered that it’s not really 24 hours – it’s just the day before so don’t worry if you want to cancel a reservation that is at 7PM on Monday at 10PM on Sunday.
Therefore, when I discovered the early morning secret (explained below), I would wake up on, say THURSDAY, and immediately check the Disney app for FRIDAY morning. There would often be new spots that had opened up.
I consistently saw openings for Be Our Guest, Akerhaus, Prime Time Café, Artist’s Point and Hollywood and Vine (all high-demand restaurants).
If you were to ask me what I would do for next time this would be it: make as early-as-possible character breakfast reservations and then wing it.
**this is why this trip isn’t relaxing for some. I was constantly making changes to my reservations one day in advance while ‘having fun’ (aka standing in line) at a park. I thrive on this. If you don’t – make reservations before hand and stick to them. Or use travel agent – which I talk about in this POST
Please note this doughnut was for us to share. Alice ate the whole thing.
** CASUAL DINING TIP**
Use the My Disney Experience App to order your food ahead and simply pick it up in the mobile order line.
SO MUCH FASTER!
4. BEAT THE CROWDS BY EATING E-A-R-L-Y
This is my favourite tip of all. And something I barely mastered and only did twice.
Using tip #3, I saw at opening for Hollywood & Vine at 8:20 AM for Wednesday on a Tuesday afternoon.
I grabbed it!
You are able to get into the park EARLY for meal reservations – even if your reservation is for later.
For example: our reservation at Hollywood & Vine was for 8:20 but we entered the park at 7:30.
We were able to enter Hollywood Studios with a teeny tiny line at security and then had the main street to ourselves for a while.
We took pictures, the kids danced in bubbles and it was nice to be in a park with no crowd.
Being in this early, it was still BANANAS by the time we hit Toy Story Land at 9 AM.
I used this tip again on our last day.
I got a reservation at Be Our Guest in Fantasyland, Magic Kingdom at 8:15.
This was awesome.
We got into MK with a small line at bag security and then another small line to get it – but then we had Main Street to ourselves! And Fantastyland. I mean the rides aren’t running yet but it’s so fantastic to play around with no crowds.
In this case, I was right next to Seven Dwarves Mine Train to walk right on after breakfast and then we got in to Belle’s Enchantment and Winnie the Pooh with NO LINE!!!
Seriously, were able to accomplish so much by 10 AM.
But here is what I would do next time in MK:
Make a reservation at Be Our Guest but skip the actual meal.
Our meagre breakfast cost $102 USD!!!!!! It’s not very good food and there are no characters.
Instead, we would pay the $40 penalty for missing our reservation and just grab baked goods from Main Street Bakery or Gaston’s.
This way, we could enjoy the park for an hour, take photos, play around and then head to the first ride as it opens.
It’s my frugal husband who says it’s worth $40 just to beat the crowds racing into the park.
5. YES TO CHARACTER MEALS
Before we went, I hemmed and hawed at this decision quite a bit.
I had been told that character meals are awesome because you get to meet so many characters without having to wait in line.
This is true.
But they are super pricey and I was convinced my kids would have little or no reaction to characters coming up to our table.
I had booked one character meal that included tickets to the light show later – this would have run us up about $150 USD.
I cancelled this particular reservation because it dawned on me that my kids wouldn’t be able to stay up for the fireworks show. I was correct. They barely made it to one. And when they did – the fireworks are RIGHT ABOVE YOUR HEAD – they were terrified. Whoops.
As I said in tip #4, I wanted to get into the park early so I nabbed that 8:20 Hollywood and Vine reservation which includes Disney Jr. characters.
This was a WIN.
Firstly, it is about $35/adult and $23/child over 3. Secondly, it’s all you can eat and it was surprisingly good (cheesy grits?! Yes please!). Jody and I ate so much we didn’t need lunch later.
Thirdly, my kids, especially my son, love love loved meeting the characters from Disney Jr which was a huge surprise.
I mean he knew there were people inside the costumes (damn you super smart kid for figuring it out or asshole adult that told him) but that didn’t phase him. His little face when they came to our tables.
After that breakfast, I made a breakfast reservation at Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom. Another win! The food was good and unique and the kids met Mickey, Donald, Daisy and Goofy.
When Mickey entered the room ALL the kids cheered. My kids screamed “MICKEY!!!” – I won’t lie – I cried a little. Goofy handed out maracas and did a parade around the room which Alice loved.
The meals themselves are slightly stressful because you are racing up to get your food before characters come to your table. Waiting for the characters is distracting.
But they were great overall.
I wanted to do more. But (aka the frugal husband) said that the kids would survive without meeting Winnie the Pooh (Crystal Palace in MK). I think they would have loved it. I could see from the outside as Tigger led kids singing around the restaurant.
The other character meals I would like to do: Akershus Royal Banquet Hall (Norway Pavillion) which includes all the princesses (and they do a princess parade), The Garden Grill Restaurant (EPCOT) which features a rotating restaurant with Chip and Dale, Mickey and Goofy and Storybook Dining at Artist Point (Wilderness Lodge) which is Snow White, Dopey, Grumpy and the witch (my kids are Snow White obsessed right now).
Therefore learn from me: there is no such thing as too many character meals! Your kids will love them. Breakfast is cheaper so aim for breakfast and get into the parks earlier!
6. USE LYFT/UBER
We opted to not rent a car because there is free bus service from resorts to all the parks and because parking at the resort and the parks add up fairly quickly.
Really, there was no need.
But the buses are slooooooooowwwwwwww and can often get full.
We took Lyfts or Ubers in the morning to get to the parks and either took the bus or a Lyft home.
This was FANTASTIC.
We spent $150 (Canadian) for the week. This was definitely worth it in order to save time and energy.
Regular Ubers/Lyfts don’t necessarily have carseats. You have to decide if you are willing to risk this. We felt it was okay to travel without carseats because there is not a ton of traffic, no one is really speeding and you aren’t driving on a freeway.
If you want a carseat, you can select a Minnie Van in the Lyft app. This is $25 and in high demand – waits were about 25 minutes.
We took it once and it really was fantastic but I ordered it while we were still getting ready so that it would arrive when we needed it.
The Minnie Van is BEST for a Magic Kingdom day because they are the only vehicles (besides the bus) that gets you right to the gate of the MK. ( You have to take a monorail or a ferry from the parking lot to get to the gates of MK. It’s a huge pain in the ass!)
Lesson: don’t rent a car, use the free buses when time is not a factor, and download that Uber or Lyft app and use it lots!
And if you go after September, you can take the Skyliner Gondola from select resorts! A whole new option.
7. GIVE YOURSELF A BREAK
This was my hardest lesson.
Every time I’ve gone to Disney, I am a rope drop to fireworks kind of girl.
What is rope drop?
The moment the park opens (which is always earlier than posted time) and they do a little welcome show.
Fireworks are self-explanatory.
I am all about the 12-hour days. Which apparently is not everyone’s bag. Especially when you are 4 and 2.
I felt that we spent so much money on the park passes that we needed to be at them all the time.
So I changed my thinking and thought of the vacation as a whole: resort AND parks.
What we finally figured out that worked well for our age kids was to go the parks bright and early, head back to the resort at lunch for pool time in the afternoon (or for mama to catch a nap) and then head to another park in the evening (with or without kids).
George was super moody on our third day and was a bit of a crank dragging around EPCOT. We went home for a swim.
Once we had these long afternoon pool breaks, he was a way happier kid.
When we do it again, I would take a full day off every few days and not try to race to the parks so much.
8. SAVE MONEY WITH SNACKS AND DOLLAR STORE GLOW STICKS
Disney is great at letting you bring your own food into the parks. Although they do not allow coolers, etc and they have new STROLLER SIZE REGULATIONS – you can still bring in a ton of your own stuff.
I brought snack items from home (raisins, goldfish, etc) and ordered groceries to be delivered to our resort upon arrival (so many services you can use: Walmart, Amazon, Instacart – just to name a few.
The most successful thing I ordered was a jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread.
When we would return to our hotel room, whether just after noon or in the evening, both kids were suddenly famished and devoured peanut butter sandwiches like they were going out of style.
I had also read the tip to buy glow sticks at the Dollar Store before you come.
This was GENIUS.
As soon as the sun starts setting, vendors selling overpriced glow toys come out.
Obviously a glowing and spinning Buzz Lightyear looks amazing – but they are massive (how would it come home?) and so expensive.
My kids would see them, ask for one and then be just as happy with glowing sticks that cost me $2.
What is this you wonder?
Around all the parks, professional Disney photographers are waiting with their cameras to capture your memories with your family as a whole unit (aka – this is a chance for you to get a photo of your whole family and/or no weird selfie angles). You pose, they click and then scan your wrist band.
You can do this for free and then buy the photos you like individually OR you can purchase a photopass.
This is something I am <somewhat> on the fence about. I think it is severely overpriced. Before you arrive, you can purchase this for $160 USD and once at Disney it is $190 USD.
I thought we would for sure get tons of great photos and I would have do doubt this was 100% worth the cost.
Firstly, the photographers are hit and miss. We had some great ones and we had some meh ones. I was super disappointed with the photographers at the character meet and greets – they missed the most precious moments! And I didn’t use my own camera because I thought they would get it.
Secondly, at popular spots you had to wait in line. So much waiting in line.
Thirdly, it was hot and each time I had to get the kids in and out of the stroller and pose for a photo was NOT fun – as you can imagine.
Therefore, I didn’t get as many photos as I had anticipated or wanted. However, they do these ‘magic’ photos. This is when they add little characters into the photo. I sort of thought this was cheesy BUT my kids love love loved these photos. So much so that I loved them and then asked for them each time.
Is it worth it? Probably. I mean you are already in the thick of bleeding money so you may as well do it and have the pictures for proof. Just make sure you GET enough photos and keep a look out for the people in the khaki vests with cameras!
** ASK FOR MAGIC PHOTOS ** They don’t necessarily do automatically.
You can see that some of these are wonderful (the night ones) and some are just okay and some (and I didn’t post the worst ones) are not good at all.
10. Early Morning Magic/After Hours
Not to be confused with the Extra Magic Hours that are included with your stay at the resort, these are extra hours with less crowds that anyone can pay extra for. Note: the early morning hours are only for certain lands within a park.
Hollywood Studios offers EARLY MORNING MAGIC in Toy Story Land only (I am sure there will be one for Galaxy’s Edge when it opens on August 19, 2019) on set dates from 7:30 AM – 8:45 AM (breakfast until 10). This does not include Rock N Roller Coaster or Tower of Terror.
Magic Kingdom has EARLY MORNING MAGIC in Fantasyland (which does not include the circus area where Dumbo and the Barnstormer live) on set dates from 7:45 AM – 10:00 AM. This is for Fantasyland only so not Splash Mountain or Space Mountain.
Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom offers DISNEY’S AFTER HOURS which is slightly different than the above.
On set dates, you can purchase a ticket to gain an additional THREE hours after said park closes. You will have access to all the rides as opposed to one particular land. It varies from 9PM – 12AM or 10PM – 1AM.
A big bonus with either of these is that Disney limits the numbers of tickets sold so you truly get the park to yourself.
The Disney After Hours are $125/person plus tax. This includes snacks and non-alcoholic drinks.
The Early Morning Magic are $69/child and $79/adult plus tax. This one includes breakfast.
Is it worth it on top of your already pricey vacation?
If George or Alice had truly loved the rides in Toy Story Land I would have said 100%.
Toy Story Land was so incredibly busy. It would have been fantastic to explore it with no crowds, meet Buzz, Woody and Jessie, and look at all the fun details.
As for Fantasyland – my early breakfast trick sort of did the same thing for us.
Our kids would have been too zonked for the late-night hours. Actually we would have been too zonked.
But I feel the late hours would be really fun.
If you are going at the busiest time of the year or if you are only there for a couple of days (and your kids love rides) – then yes, these tickets are worth it.
Just another expense to suck up.
I have heard, however, that the Animal Kingdom after hours is not worth the price. This is because rides like the Kilimanjaro Safari is pointless in the dark (and don’t actually run). So unless you need to do the Flight of Passage or Expedition Everest over and over again, it might not be worth your money.
To see what attractions are open for these extra hours check out:
I hope this gives you a little more guidance and honesty. At the end of the day, extra expenses are up to you but I definitely found spending a bit more money meant more fun and enjoyment for my family.
As always, happy adventures!