A Guide to Disney World for First Timers

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Moms - you can do this.  


You’ve grown your baby, you’ve been there through the night wakings, through the potty training, through the first day of school fears, through the friendship making.  Now, your little bundle of joy is a toddler, who has heard rumblings in the preschool playground about a place called Disney World.  


The secret’s out.  You’re being third-degree questioned by a three year old, and damn she’s good.  “When can weeeeeeeee goooooo mommmmm?”  


But, wait, is now the right time?  There’s a new baby in the mix.  Are there enough rides for little ones to enjoy at Disney?  What will this cost?  Also, aren’t there alligators in Florida?  Who’s the little kid that revealed Disney World before you were ready to embark on this extraterrestrial mission with your family?  Let’s make a mental note not to let that one hang around when Santa comes into question.  


Back to Disney.  




Then you remember that people of all ages, fall in love with Disney.  Disney World is known as the “most magical place on Earth,” because it is just that – it’s a universe where your kids can envision themselves as the princess in the movies, or as the superhero who saves the day.  They can meet their version of celebrities, and most importantly, they get to do it all with you!  


Yes, planning a trip to Disney can seem overwhelming at first -- so keep this "Guide to Disney World for First Timers" at your fingertips.  This article will cover important planning questions to consider, as well as reveal insider tips to make sure “the Big Day” runs smoothly.  You may even find that you want to return one day just as badly as the kids -- that's how much fun you're going to have.  So let’s get going. 

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Table of Contents
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    Disney World: Before You Go Planning Questions

    Before you depart for Disney, it's crucial to take some time to answer these questions, especially as a first timer visiting Disney World.  Answering these questions will help ensure you have the best at Disney World. 

    Which month is best for Disney?

    There are two points to consider for timing: weather and crowds.  

    • Weather:  Disney World is located in Orlando, Florida.  The winter has milder weather, but it can still get cold.  In January we experienced one day at 82F, 2 days in the 60’s, and one day only reached a high of 53F.  It made for interesting packing to say the least!  However, summer time in Florida is very hot and humid, and the chances of rain are much higher.  Generally speaking the weather is best in the spring and fall.  


    • Crowds:  Disney is always going to be crowded.  However, you can utilize Crowd Calendar to help plan your trip so that you're visiting at a relatively less busy time of year. 
    mom and family outside disneyworld on main street - disney world first timers

    Compass Roam Planning Cheat Sheet

    The best times to visit in terms of crowds tend to be: 

    • Post MLK weekend in January until mid February 
    • First half of May
    • Late August and September when kids have returned to school 
    • Mid November through Mid December (excluding Thanksgiving weekend)

    The worst times to visit in terms of crowds tend to be: 

    • Christmas/New Years week 
    • Mid February-Mid March (winter and spring break season)
    • Mid summer (June, July, first half of August)

    Should you stay on or off site?

    This is one of the most important questions to consider, so read carefully!


    There are 24 Disney themed resorts, plus many more hotels located on Disney property --  that's not even including the hotel and rental options located off site too.  However, one of the most important tips I could give to a Disney World first timer would be: book your accommodations at a Disney resort.  Booking a Disney resort will make your life easier.   Here's why:


    Guests at Disney themed resorts…: 

    • Have early access to the parks:  Guests can enter 30 min before official opening time.  You’ll want to show up even earlier to get in line for rope drop.
    • Have early access to individual à la carte Lightning Lane passes:  Individual Lightning Lane passes allow you to skip the line for select rides.  However, there isn’t an infinite supply, so having the ability to buy them at 7am vs 8:30/9am when the park opens is a huge advantage!  
    • Have free access to Disney transportation:  Guests staying at Disney resorts can use the complimentary monorail, buses, or boats to travel between theme parks and to/from the hotel.  There is also complimentary parking.   
    • You have access to extended hours:. On certain days, Disney World extends the hours of one theme park.  Only guests staying at select Disney themed hotels will have access to these late, after-hours experiences.
    • Advance access to dining reservations: Guests staying at Disney resorts will have the ability to book popular dining experiences 60 days in advance vs 45 for all other guests. 
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    four seasons orlando lazy river pool - disney world first timers
    four seasons orlando lobby girl dancing

    What If You Prefer to Stay Off-site?

    Some families prefer to stay off site at a rental, which typically provide more space at cheaper rates.  Or, others wish to stay at a hotel that is not a Disney property for various reasons.  If this is the case, and you wish to still enjoy the perks like early entry, early access to Lightning Lane, etc -- then you will need to make an additional reservation at the least expensive Disney resort so that you still qualify for the benefits. This isn't necessary to do of course, but is the only work around.  You will not need to physically show up at the second hotel.

    For example, if you're staying at Four Seasons Orlando, which is on Disney property, but not a Disney resort, you'll need this additional reservation only if you wish to have early entry, early access to dining, early access for Lightning Lane, etc

    The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness cost about $120/night, and are one of the more affordable Disney resort options.

    four seasons orlando grounds
    four seasons orlando disney world first timers

    What is the Best Age for a First Trip to Disney?

    You may be heading to the Magic Kingdom, but there is no “magic” age that’s best to go.  Some experts advise that ages 7-12 are the best, but in reality, all ages love Disney - in fact, you may be shocked at how many adults you see just strolling along!  Everyone experiences the joys of Disney in their own way.  


    Younger kids will still believe in the magic unfolding around them.  They really believe they just met Elsa!  However, bringing younger kids along means you have to research height requirements ahead of time, plan around naps, and possibly utilize Rider Switch.  On the flip side, one advantage is that kids under 2 are free!


    Traveling with older children means you can stay out later, take advantage of extended park hours, watch the late-night fireworks, and experience some of the more thrilling rides and rollercoasters.


    You’ll see every age under the sun meandering through Disney, so don’t overthink this one too much.  Just go when it feels right!

    disney world first timers

    Which Disney Park is Best?

    Okay, so you’ve decided when to go, where to stay, and if now is the right time.  Next, you need to consider which parks your family will want to see, and how to map out the itinerary. 


    There are 4 Disney World theme parks: 

    • Magic Kingdom 
    • Epcot 
    • Animal Kingdom
    • Hollywood Studios 


    If you have older kids, you can do just about anything.  Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood will most likely appeal to an older crowd.  The most popular and thrilling rides include:  Star Wars, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Avatar’s Flight of Passage.  


    If you’re traveling with younger kids, you may want to research the parks ahead of time to see which ones offer the most for your family’s interests and needs.  Ask yourself:  Can my child(ren) ride most of what’s offered, and are they interested in the special attractions at this park?  This Disney FAQ website lists many of the rides with height requirements. 


    If you’re concerned that a younger kid won’t have enough to do, don’t be!  There are enough rides, special shows, and entertainment to keep even the tiniest mouseketeers happy.   If you’re looking for a good Disney source that compares the rides for toddlers in detail, check out Mousehacking’s articles on Disney rides for toddlersEpcot rides for toddlers, Animal Kingdom ride for toddlers, and Hollywood studios for toddlers. 

    Which parks did we choose?

    We traveled with a 4 and (almost) 2 year old, and chose to visit Magic Kingdom and Epcot.  I was initially concerned Epcot would feel too old for them, but they loved every minute.  In fact, my daughter’s two favorite rides were located in Epcot: Soarin’ and Guardians of the Galaxy.  Even the 2 year-old had a blast, and was able to ride many of the same rides as his older sister.


    How many days at Disney are enough?

    How many days you budget for Disney will in part depend on how many parks you’d like to conquer in one trip.  Keep in mind that no matter how long you stay, you can’t see it all!  So I’d recommend quality over quantity.  


    This is not a vacation where “winging it” is a successful strategy.  You’ll want to pencil out an itinerary so that you maximize your park days, but also leave some down time for everyone.  I recommend budgeting one day per park you’d like to visit, and fitting in at least one rest day.

    Compass Roam Itinerary: Disney World With Young Kids

    There are 4 theme parks at Disney, so...

    • If you’re going for 3 days, I’d recommend 2 parks and 1 rest day. 
    • If you have more flexibility and are staying 4-6 days, then you should aim to do 3-4 parks and have 1-2 rest days scheduled. 

    Can You Park Hop at Disney World?

    A Park hopper ticket allows you to visit more than one park per day, and yes, this is allowed with the purchase of a separate ticket.  For a Disney World first timer I do not recommend park hopping, especially if traveling with little kids.  


    Disney wasn’t built in a day, and it can’t be explored in a day either…or even a few days.  There’s simply too much to see.  To give you a sense of size, Disney World consists of 4 theme parks, 24 hotels, 2 water parks, and a shopping complex called Disney Springs.  It is roughly the size of San Francisco, and accommodates almost 50 MILLION tourists a year.  Disney doesn’t want you to see it all, so that you’ll come back again one day (cha-ching!). 


    With that said, many people “park hop” so that they can try to see as much as they can in one day.  My bottom line recommendation: A park hopper ticket is feasible to use for older kids, but if traveling with younger ones, it’s a recipe for exhaustion for kids and parents alike.  Instead, enjoy the park you're visiting for the day, and really get to explore it!  

    Need Help Planning Your Trips?

    What to do before you arrive at Disney World?

    As a first timer going to Disney World, you’ve now completed most of the important steps.  You’ve finished the research, decided when you’re going, which parks to visit for your first time, booked the hotel, and perhaps have even revealed the “Big Day” to the kids.   Before you arrive at the parks (or even get on that airplane), there are a few crucial steps you need to complete. 

    Make Park Reservations and Buy Tickets

    Do this immediately!  There's no Disney experience without tickets.  

    Currently, Disney requires both a park reservation and ticket reservation to enter each park.  As of now, you’ll need a separate reservation for each park you plan to visit.  You’ll want to make those as soon as you have your hotel secured. 

    Download the My Disney Experience App

    The My Disney Experience app is a free tool, and you'll need it all day long.  It provides maps of each park, queue wait times, and is also where you'll access Lightning Lane passes and dining reservations, mobile food orders, and general tips.  It’s a good idea for first timers traveling to Disney World to log in beforehand and become familiar with its features. 

    my disney app tip board disney world first timers
    my disney map disney world first timers

    Know how to minimize your time in lines

    If there is one section you should not skip, this is it!


    You can absolutely count on epic wait times for your most favorite Disney rides.  However, don’t lose hope – you don’t have to be that person waiting in a 2 hour line for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.  There are ways around this craziness!  Not surprisingly, Disney charges for this convenience. 


    To understand how to skip the lines or minimize your time spent in them, you first need to understand the difference between 4 Disney World terms:


    • Rope Drop:  Visitors who “rope drop” arrive about an hour before park opening, wait in line at the rope drop before early entry to the park, and then use the head start to hop on as many rides as possible before the masses arrive.  

    • Genie: Genie and Genie+ are not the same thing.  Genie more generally refers to the free trip planning service offered in the My Disney Experience app.  Based on your likes/dislikes, the app will customize an itinerary for you.  It receives mixed reviews.

    • Genie +: Genie+ allows visitors to skip certain ride lines by purchasing a “return time” to that line.  During your allotted time (there’s a one hour window), you can use the Lightning Lane to bypass the standby line.  Genie+ rides become available for purchase at 7am the day you visit the park ($15-$35 per person/per park).  This type of pass is available for any Disney world guest (not just those staying at an on-site resort).  You can continue to select more Genie+ passes once you have completed the ride, or 2 hours after park opening. Not all rides offer Genie+ services, but most do.  

    • Individual Lightning Lane -  Individual Lightning Lane is an à la carte “pay to skip the line” service, but is a separate purchase than Genie+.  It only applies to one popular ride per park (see below).  These tickets are paid on a sliding scale per attraction, per person, per day ($10-$25).  After you purchase this pass, you’ll return to the ride at your allotted time using the Lightning Lane.  These passes also become available at 7am, but early access is only available for guests staying at a Disney resort. For any visitor staying at a non-Disney hotel, availability opens at park opening between 8:30-9am.

    So how can you skip the lines?  You can utilize just one of the strategies above, or mix and match.  My bottom line recommendation: the best way to skip the lines is to combine all 3 strategies.  Show up for rope drop and splurge for Genie+ and Lightning Lane services mentioned above.  If you’d like to know how we set up our day by combining all 3 strategies, then scroll down.

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    lightning lane disney app

    Which Rides Are Eligible for Individual Lightning Lane

    à La Carte Lightning Lane Rides at Each Park: 

    • Magic Kingdom: Seven Dwarfs Mine (will most likely be replaced with TRON). 
    • Epcot: Guardians of the Galaxy
    • Animal Kingdom: Avatar, Flight of Passage
    • Hollywood Studios: Rise of the Resistance 

    *These selected rides are subject to change

    Consider hiring a Disney Guide

    If you feel like you need a special university degree to understand and operate Disney, then you’re not alone.  Luckily, there are people who are legitimate Disney pros. They do this everyday!  Even if you understand every word in this guide, it can still be a lot to put into play once that app goes live with Genie+/Lightning Lane passes.  If you have my luck…there will probably be a big diaper explosion with one of your kids right as 7am chimes.  So my #1 advice if you are overwhelmed by Disney, but you have a flexible budget, would be: book a guide.  There are two types of guides you can hire: 


    • Disney VIP guides: Disney certified guides cost $450-750/PER HOUR.  Some of the perks include: direct pick up at any accommodation, start the day whenever you’d like after rope drop, and you can hop to the front of every line using Lightning Lane passes (as many times in a row as you’d like).  However, this service requires a minimum of 6-8 hours, which adds up to a pretty steep price tag.  


    • Disney 3rd party guide:  Alternatively, you can hire a third party guide who will secure your tickets, make your dining reservations ahead of time, and handle all Genie+/Lightning Lane purchases. They will also physically guide you through the park during the day.  A third party guide costs about $200/hour.

    Should you use a Disney 3rd Party Guide?

    Bottom line: If you have a flexible budget, this would be my top recommendation, especially as a Disney World first timer.  While it truly is a luxury to have a guide, it makes a world of difference.  Moms, you'll exit that day with a skip in your step. Here’s a few points you’ll want to consider beforehand:

    • You’re on their time table: Guides have the schedule down to a science, so you’re meeting at their time, eating at their time, and going in the order they deem best.  
    • You'll cover a lot of the park, with minimal wait times:  With a guide, you're able to see the whole park in about 5-7 hours, leaving enough time to go back to the hotel for a rest before dinner.  Given the guide is also continuously monitoring the app for you (securing Genie+ Lightning passes, etc), you won't be waiting in long lines either.
    • You can’t park hop:  You have to schedule a separate day at each park, but if you’re traveling with young kids, you most likely won’t want to park hop anyways. 
    • They will take care of all parts of your trip: A 3rd party guide will make hotel, dining, and Disney ticket/park reservations.   
    • The guide is with you the whole day and helps out in whatever way you need:  The guides will shepard you through the masses in a relaxed manner.  They know where to go for rope drop, and which rides to prioritize first.  They’ll even babysit your younger kids if you'd like to ride a more thrilling one with your older kids or spouse.  The guides will also pick up any snacks for you while you're on a ride, drive the stroller so you have a free hand, or even show up with coffee that morning.    

    Make Advanced Dining Reservations (ADRs) ASAP

    Through the My Disney Experience app you can make dining reservations up to 60 days in advance, starting at 5:45 am EST, if staying at a Disney resort (45 days prior if staying off site).  Many of the character experiences sell out quickly.  These include: 

    • Be Our Guest - a fairytale themed meal in Belle’s castle.
    • Saana -  you can watch animals, like zebras and giraffe while enjoying what is known as the best bread at Disney.  
    • California Grill - devour West Coast cuisine while watching the nightly fireworks.
    • Cinderella's Royal Table - head into the Magic Kingdom castle to eat with this darling princess. 


    You DO NOT need any ADRs for quick service food orders (i.e. take out).  Instead, you can use the app to place an advanced order at one of the fast food dining options.  This is especially handy if you’re just looking for a quick lunch stop during the day, instead of a sit down character experience. 

    Familiarize yourself with other attractions when planning

    Disney isn’t all about the rides.  If there are must-see shows or events, you’ll want to plan for that as you think about your day.  For example, everyday there is a parade on Main Street in Magic Kingdom at 12pm and again at 3pm.  There are also nightly fireworks anytime between 6:30pm-10:30pm, depending on the season.  During the holidays, there are special shows too.  Be sure to research what's offered during your visit so that you don't miss out on any must-do experiences for your family.

    disney world parade

    What should you pack for your day at Disney World?

    There are thousands of blog articles written on this topic, but I’m going to make this one short and sweet.  Besides the basics - water bottle, diapers for kids, wallet, Disney tickets, there are really just two items you need to make sure you have on hand, plus a bonus recommendation if you have kids: 

    • Rechargeable battery:  Between taking photos and using the app, your phone’s battery will die quickly!  Bring your own back up fully charged battery.
    • Good pair of walking shoes:  You’ll be walking an average of 10,000-25,000 steps/park/day.  This isn’t the time to test out the new sneakers - it’s the time to wear the best footwear you have.   
    • Stroller:  Unless you’re up for carrying your kids for the 10,000-25,000 steps mentioned above, you should plan to have a stroller on hand.  If you have more than 1 child (even as old as 5-7), a double stroller is a must.  You can rent strollers at Disney World, but I suggest using a baby rental gear company if you don’t want to bring your own. 


    If you’ve remembered to pack these two items (plus stroller), then you’ll be ready to go!

    Don’t let this picture fool you. He was torturing his sister for awhile first

    Need Help Planning Your Trips?

    6 General Tips for Visiting Disney World


    Whether or not you’re a Disney World first timer, or a Disney veteran, there are some important tips to remember.   

    How to set up your morning at a Disney Park:

    In the previous section, you learned the difference between rope drop, Genie+ and Individual Lightning LIne.  I recommended using all 3 tools to minimize wait times in lines, or even skip the line entirely.  We hired a 3rd party guide who took care of these details, but if you don’t hire a guide, this is how you should set up your mornings (using Magic Kingdom and Epcot as examples).


    • If you’re staying at a Disney resort, at 7am sharp, use the app to secure Genie+/individual LL passes.  Make sure to have your valid Disney theme park ticket and reservation.  Select “My Disney Genie Day,” then “My Day,” then “Get Disney Genie+ for Today.”  You’ll be able to purchase 1-2 passes at this point through Genie+, with an option to purchase that  “special” a la carte Lightning Lane ride for an additional charge.  


    • Popular rides will sell out quickly (especially for morning slots — more may become available later in the day).  If you don’t get  Genie+/LL for a desired popular ride, then you’ll want to make sure you beeline for that attraction straight away after rope drop to avoid long lines. 


    • Keep using the app during the day to secure more LL passes through the Genie Tip Board.  You can get more after you’ve used the one you purchased OR afer 2 hours have passed since park opening (whichever comes first).   


    • If you’re staying at a Disney resort, you have access to the park before general entry.  Rope drop is around 8:15-8:30am, but you’ll need to arrive at least 30 min beforehand.  We arrived at  Magic Kingdom security by 7:20, then ran to rope drop, ate breakfast while we waited in line, and then we were the first ones in the park at 8:25am rope drop.


    • Beeline for the popular rides once the park opens.  At Magic Kingdom we didn’t have passes for Peter Pan, so we went there first, followed by Little Mermaid, Pirates of the Caribbean, Splash Mountain, and Aladdin’s Magic Carpet ride. At Epcot we prioritized completing Remy, Frozen Every After, and Soarin’ right away so that we didn’t have to get a LL pass for those rides.


    • Start using your purchased LL passes once the lines build.  If there’s a small line and you have a LL pass for a certain ride, DON’T USE IT!  You can only use a LL pass once/day/ride, so don’t waste the pass if there’s a small line. You can always save the LL for later in the day by modifying the time. 

    Was Paying for Genie+/Lightning Lane Worth It?

    100% YES!

    The longest we waited in a line at Magic Kingdom was 4 minutes, and the longest in Epcot was 15 minutes.  We were told average wait times were 10-25 minutes for Lightning Lane, but we found this to be a "safe" estimation.  In reality, we usually walked right on, or only waited a few minutes.  


    Take advantage of Rider Switch

    What if there’s a ride both you and your spouse would like to ride, but only one kid is old enough to join?  What can you do? 


    Rider Switch allows Parent A to complete the ride with Kid A.  At the end, Parent B can use the Lightning Lane (with Kid A again possibly) to experience the thrilling moments!  


    If you have hired a guide, you don’t need to use this option, as the guide will watch your younger one for you.  However, it’s an incredibly helpful way to save time if you don't have a guide.

    Can you take your own food into Disney World?

    Surprisingly, yes!  You are allowed to take your own food and non alcoholic beverages into the park; however, there’s no place to reheat items.    

    Transportation Takes Time

    As mentioned earlier, Disney World includes 4 parks, 24 hotels, 2 waterparks and a shopping area.  Remember...it's the size of San Francisco!  


    To travel from one park to another can sometimes be a long journey.  Therefore, when planning your park days, make sure research transit times and learn how to get around.  

    Disney World is Expensive

    The Disney stores sell just about anything you may need -- from underwear to panchos.  However, it's pricey!  I’m not saying don't splurge that perfect princess dress for your daughter (we now own yet another one), but you may want to stock up on your Disney gear at a Disney store outside the parks.  They are everywhere – even the Orlando airport has a nice retail shop.  

    There is No Gum Allowed

    Did you know that gum is not permitted in any Disney park?  Gum presents a “sticky” cleaning situation - so it is simply banned.  In fact, you won’t find gum anywhere on Disney property, nor in the Orlando Airport (MCO). 

    Need Help Planning Your Trips?

    That's a Wrap

    As a Disney World first timer, planning your first trip to Disney may seem overwhelming, but stick with it -- this trip will be one your kids talk about for ages!  If you follow the steps and guidelines in this article, you’ll be well on your way to experiencing a truly enjoyable Disney World adventure.  The most magical place on Earth will not only completely captivate your little one, but you’ll also be antsy to return again to experience more of the rides and experiences.  


    I hope this article has inspired your own family getaway to Disney World.  If you have any questions, or your own travel tips, please leave them in the comments below.  Also, don't forget to sign up for the monthly newsletter, packed with travel tips, upcoming news, and access to FREE destination itineraries.

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