Funday: 10 Tips for a First Trip to a Disney Park

This Sunday, I find myself without a lot to talk about. I don’t have any big news. New projects are still cooking. It’s cold here in Chicago and only expected to get colder. With Sunday winding down, I thought to myself, why not think about something fun coming up?

My next big non-writing adventure coming up is the vacation my husband and I are planning for our 10th wedding anniversary. Courtesy of stroke of good luck at our company’s Winter party, we can do something unique that we wouldn’t normally do – we won free airfare and a gift card to Marriott hotels within North America. If you know us personally, you’ll know we’re Disney-philes. We both participated in the Walt Disney World College program and have been going to Walt Disney World on and off since then. Since neither of us has been to Disneyland, we decided that doing both Disneyland and Walt Disney World would be an awesome way to celebrate our anniversary in a way that would probably be out of reach for us under normal circumstances.

We’ve been planning this trip for about a month now. As we’ve been going through the planning process, it’s occurred to me that we know a thing or two about how to maximize time at a Disney park. I’ll focus mostly on Walt Disney World, as that’s where my expertise lies, but, you could easily apply some of this to any theme park vacation. So, without further ado, I present to you, my top 10 tips for a first trip to a Disney Park.

 1.        First and foremost, get your head right - Figure out why you’re going. Is it for you? For your kids? Because it’s something you want to do, or is it something you feel like you must do? One of these is the wrong motivation to have. Whether it’s planning a vacation or doing anything in life, doing it because you have to do it is not the way to live. Anything that feels like an obligation isn’t going to be fun.

Also, keep in mind the fact that there are certain, inescapable realities of a Disney vacation. Regardless of when you go, there are going to be a lot of people. Many of them leave their home town once, maybe twice a decade, and thus, don’t know how to act outside Nowheresburg, USA. There are going to be personality conflicts. There are going to people who are woefully under-prepared for the experience. There are going to be lines and things will not always go according to plan. If you can deal with these things without losing your cool on the people traveling with you, then you’re in the right frame of mind.

2.       Do Your Homework and Enlist the Aid of a Professional - Disney parks are usually a pretty “easy” destination for a lot of people. Most visitors live in the continental US, so it’s easy for a lot of people to get on a plane and go. Once you’re booked though, it can be a bit overwhelming. With ticket tiers, accommodations, on-the-ground transportation, Fast Passes, dining plans and the hundreds of other little elements that come up while you’re hammering out details can start to feel like a second job. Fear not – there’s help. If you’re a DIY type, befriend the Walt Disney World website. With a little time and a little patience, you can learn everything you need to know for your trip.

If you’re feeling a little woozy at the idea of trying to sort out all the details yourself, consider enlisting a travel agent. Disney has an extremely in-depth training program that all the people who sell their parks go through. They learn about all the products Disney offers, from their parks to the Cruise Line, resorts, dining plans, ticketing, and everything in between. They update this training every year, so working with a travel industry professional will guarantee that you’ll have up-to-date information in what’s going to be happening during your trip. Plus, many of them have been doing this job for years. That experience, whether you’re going to Disney World or on an African safari, is hard to beat. They often think of things you may not have even thought to ask.

3.       Budget – I’m going to say this up front, and it’s a good idea to internalize this from the jump – Disney is not a budget vacation. You can find ways to reduce the amount of money you spend. You can cut corners. But keep in mind this one, simple truth - if you’re looking to save money on a vacation, a Disney vacation is not the way to do it. Don’t get mad about it. Don’t get upset when you see an ice cream bar that costs $5.00. Don’t grumble the whole time and make your family miserable. If you’re going to go through with a Disney vacation, the only thing you can do is accept the fact that you’re going to be spending a decent amount of money.

There. Got it out of our system? OK, good. We can move on.

Now, although it’s going to be an expensive trip no matter what, there are ways to not spend as much. This is another area where a travel agent is going to come in handy. They can help you decide what a reasonable budget is for your trip and help you stay within it. Only you know what you can truly afford, so I won’t try to tell you which hotel to stay at, how many days you should stay (four, the answer is at least four), or what extras you should include, but, I will say this – build in some fun money. If you’re taking your family for the first time, and your kid wants a Mickey Bar, set aside money for that ice cream. Pay attention to your budget by all means, but don’t be so restrictive with it that you can’t enjoy a little spontaneity.

4.       Plan your day to be flexible – As previously noted, Disney vacations are expensive. They’re also super fun to plan. Disney makes it easy for you to plan a lot of your trip too. You can make dining reservations, book Fast Passes, even arrange your transportation if you’re not renting a car. If you’re a Type A Mom that likes to have every minute of ever day planned out, planning a Disney trip might be one of the most fun things you do all year.

Until you get to the Disney Studios for your 9:00 a.m. Fast Pass for Star Tours, only to find out that the ride has broken down and no one knows when it will be operational again. Then you have a dilemma. You can either wait to see if it comes back online, possibly for hours, or you can abandon your carefully laid plans, throwing your entire day into disarray. Deep breath – it’s going to be OK. That is the beauty of Disney World. You can plan your little heart out, but as long as you remind yourself that you can always change that plan, everything will be fine. Plus, your family will thank you for allowing them to enjoy a semi-organic experience, instead of one you’ve engineered for maximum fun and efficiency.

5.       Dress for the Adventure – I am a big proponent of the idea that leggings are not pants. Sorry, ladies, but if you want to look like you have your life together, you need to look like you care at least enough to put on real pants.

There are three places that even I acknowledge it is necessary to make an exception to this rule. First, on your workout – it’s what your leggings were made to do, after all. Second, Southeast Asia, where the humidity is upwards of 110% most of the time, and finally, Disney World. I cannot stress how important it is to wear clothes and shoes that are going to be there for you when you’re spending 10 – 12 hours a day in a park, walking, in Central Florida. You need clothes that are going to wick the sweat away from your body and keep you dry. You need shoes that are going to support your feet. Most people walk about 10 miles a day in Walt Disney World. If you’re not prepared for it, you are going to be super duper miserable. Wear your workout clothes and your running shoes. Bring a first aid kit with blister care stuff in it. And, if your life is pretty sedentary most of the time, maybe even train for it a little. You’ll thank me later.

6.       Snacks on Snacks – If there’s one thing that has become exponentially harder at Walt Disney World over the years I’ve been going there, it’s deciding where to eat. They have come up with so many restaurants that “spoiled for choice” doesn’t begin to cover it. On top of that, they’ve added so many new snack options that you could survive on snacks alone and not feel like you’ve missed out on anything.

One thing has remained constant though, and that is the steadily increasing bill for each meal. While I’d definitely say that you should enjoy some of the dining options in the parks, if you’re trying to reign in your budget, pack some snacks. Even if you’ve followed my earlier advice and decided that money isn’t going to be an object for your trip, you should at least give a passing consideration to what Dole Whips, Chicken and Waffles, Poutine, Mickey Bars and buckets of popcorn are doing to your wardrobe and how it fits you. Disney does make an attempt to offer more healthy snacks in the parks, but even then, unless you’re careful about reading labels and making obviously healthy choices, there’s a chance that “healthy” snack isn’t as healthy as they might say it is. If you pack your own, you know.

7.       Rest – This might seem like obvious advice, but it’s surprising how many “zombies” I’ve seen walking around the parks. It’s very tempting to look at that ticket price and say to yourself or your family that you’re not stopping until you’ve seen everything there is to see, ridden every ride there is to ride, stood in every line there is to stand in, and met every character there is to meet. It’s natural to want to get your money’s worth. And for a day, maybe even two, it’s entirely possible to go from rope drop to fireworks without taking a break.

But then, after a little while, even the adults start staring longingly at the neatly manicured lawns in Epcot and thinking about how nice it would be to lay down there and just have a nap for an hour. Bottom line, even the fittest, healthiest, and strongest among us are not meant to deal with that level of exercise and sensory input for 12 hours a day, day in and day out for a week. Regardless of whether you’re with your kids or not, you need to schedule in some time to rest. Whether that’s planning your big meal of the day for lunch instead of dinner, or actually going back to your hotel for some pool time, get away from the crowd, kick up your feet, and then head back out when you feel human again.

8.       Remind yourself of your budget – So, remember what I said about recognizing the fact that this is going to be expensive and you shouldn’t be too strict with your budget? Yeah. About that. Disney loves doing two things – making money and making things efficient. The first one is obvious. When I worked there in 2000, there was a rumor going around that Disney World makes enough to meet its operational costs for the next two days by 11:00 a.m. each day, even in the slow seasons. While I have no idea if that’s actually true or not, it’s certainly plausible when you consider parking costs, tickets, concessions and so on.

 The second one, efficiency, is not quite so easy to spot. You look at masses of people milling around, you see them standing in lines for rides that show a wait time of 194 minutes and it’s easy to think to yourself that there’s got to be a better way to do this. There isn’t. Trust me. When you’re dealing with moving 60,000 people through your park on an average day, though it may look like chaos, what guests are actually seeing is a carefully orchestrated ballet, designed to keep people happily spending their money. One of the many clever ways Disney has dreamed up to keep you spending your money is to make it so easy to do that you’re not really aware that you’re doing it. Credit cards linked to hotel rooms and the Magic Bands, while brilliant for many reasons, also make it incredibly easy to forget just how much you’re spending. A responsible adult should probably be logging into their credit card and bank accounts once a day to check for fraudulent charges and watch balances anyway, but in a Disney Park, it’s especially important to keep an eye on your spending. There’s nothing worse than ending your trip with a “declined – insufficient funds” response when you run your card for something.

9.       Be prepared, but not too prepared – There’s definitely an art to packing your bag for a day in Disney parks. You go through at least one security check point before getting into any park, so there’s always the inclination to pack lightly so that you’re not spending your whole day getting your bag checked. On the other hand, there are things you are going to need or want while you’re there. I’ve gotten pretty good at paring down my park bag to the essentials over the years.

My park bag is a mini Jansport backpack that I’ve had since Jesus was a boy. It’s comfortable and spacious enough to carry the things I need, but not so big that I can easily over-pack it. Plus, it’s a little on the difficult side to open, meaning if I want to get into it, I need to actually take it off and unzip it. If someone else wants to get into it, only the most skilled of sneak thiefs is going to be able to do that without my noticing. In that little bag, I keep my smaller travel wallet with cash, my ID, two credit cards and insurance info. The loyalty club cards, gift cards, Costco receipts from 2014, and all the other wallet crap stays home. I also take the following:

-          First aid kit, including sun block, heavy-duty band aids, Neosporin, pain reliever, hand sanitizer, antiseptic wipes, and an elastic bandage. All of that fits in a box that’s about four inches square.

-          An opaque zipper pouch for things like tampons, pens, lip balm or gloss, powder, and a travel size eyeliner, because I’m vain AF.

-          Phone, spare battery and its accompanying charging cable.

-          Maybe a snack, maybe not.

That’s it. I don’t pack raingear. Anything else I might need, I can get there.

 10.   Have fun! – This might be the most important tip of all. It’s easy to get wrapped up in what’s not working. It’s easy to start feeling sorry for yourself when you get caught in the rain, or a ride you wanted to go on isn’t working or the lines are long. It’s easy to get short with your family when they’re feeling the fatigue and not being as charming and fun as they were on day one. When you catch yourself starting to do that is when you need to step back, pull yourself out of whatever it is you were just going to throw a fit over and remind yourself that this is a vacation. You’re not at work. You’re not at home. No one, except for the people you love around you, needs anything from you. Nothing bad will happen if something doesn’t get done. You’re there to enjoy yourselves. So enjoy yourselves!