As career, top-level EAs both Stephanie and I looked at taking our family of four to Disney World as if we were a client of ours. What we found was a unique experience which I would consider an ‘obstacle’ that needed to be ‘worked’ to be ‘enjoyed’ to the fullest.
You see, Disney World doesn’t make it easy for a first timer to just go to one of their 4 major parks and enjoy the day. You have to understand the extra fees (and yes, you NEED to pay for these if you don’t want to completely waste your day waiting in lines), the reservations systems and how everything fits together.
Did I think it was going to be like this when we signed on the dotted line to whisk our kids away for 5 nights in this magical world? No, I did not. It wasn’t until I spoke to the countless friends of ours who had gone, our vacation planner and spending a few hours on the phone with helpful Disney reps directly that I realized the amount of planning and tactical knowledge needed to get the most out of this ‘once in a lifetime’ trip was not insubstantial.
That ‘once in a lifetime’ phrase above WAS our goal. Our two boys are currently 7 and 12 years old so, our thinking went, if we could go all out and make the most of this trip, we wouldn’t have to come back anytime soon. Grandkids someday? Sure. With our kids? Hopefully not so much. Stephanie and I both commented on how byzantine the systems were that ‘maybe’ Disney’s goal is to get people to say, “Next time we’ll do it better.”, upon leaving their first time and start planning their next trip. Our goal was to avoid that and this post may help you do the same.
What the brief from a client would have sounded like:
“Our family of 4 wants to do Disney World. We want three options for accommodations, and I want a cost benefit analysis of each option: Least expensive to most expensive and what each entail. Also, I heard the lines are long… Any way around that? And can I have this by tomorrow morning, please?”
There really are 3 options. Out-of-park which would include both 5-star luxury like The Four Seasons or economic options. While In-park has regular and premium.
With the out-of-park or in-park regular option you don’t get early access to the parks. With premium in-park, you do get to access the park ½ hour prior to opening to the public. The benefit with this is that, if you plan your day correctly, you can enter exactly ½ hour early and bee line it directly to your most favorite ride of that park. You can then wait in the ‘stand-by’ line and have the shortest 'stand-by' wait of the day for this ride and then leverage Genie+ and Advanced Ticket purchase listed below to either ride your favorite ride a 2nd time (what we did) or reserve other rides and have the least ‘stand-by’ line waiting time for the day.
For example, we were allowed into Animal Kingdom a half hour early, we bee-lined it to Avatar Flight of Passage, waited 55 minutes and then were able to ride it AGAIN via advanced ticket purchase 2 hours later. Phenomenal ride and worth doing it twice. We also used this tactic with the Star Wars rides at Hollywood Studios.
There are 2 VIP experiences worth mentioning HOWEVER these are significantly more expensive and you DON’T need to do either of these to get the most out of your visits to the park. What this does do is give you an idea of the breadth of options available depending on how much you want to spend.
The first the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. This is a hotel that Disney built on the back lot behind their Star Wars world at Hollywood Studios which acts as a ‘starship cruise’ type experience. The reservation is for 2 nights and a Star Wars ‘play’ happens around you on ‘the ship’ while everyone who works on the ‘ship’ is in character. You can play along as much or as little as you like. They leverage the Disney Play app to send you and your little ones on ‘missions’ to save the ship from the First Order. What’s great about this is that Chewbacca, Storm Troopers, Droids, Lt. Croy from the First Order, and other characters -no spoilers- abound. This is an immersive experience that die-hard Star Wars fans will appreciate while not so committed fans can have fun with too. Activities include light saber training, bridge training (flying the ship), droid races, ect. This also includes a park pass to Hollywood Studios, lightning lane access to both Star Wars rides, food / drinks on the ship/and Batu (Star Wars land at Hollywood Studios) and an immersive/VIP experience.
The other VIP experience is to hire a VIP tour guide for Disney. This is someone who will take a maximum of 10 people into whatever park(s) you like and allows you to cut ALL the lines by using back door entrances. You can ride your favorite ride 10 times in a row if you like. You do have to purchase park passes (park hopper should be a no-brainer in this situation too as they have a van that transports your group to any park you like; can click off 3 or all 4 in a day) in addition to their fee which varies depending on the day. The range of the fee from what I was told is from $500-$900 per hour with a 7-hour minimum and doesn’t include tip which is expected. VERY EXPENSIVE (thanks Captain Obvious) but if you’re all about saving time, want to ride rides multiple times and can spread the cost between 2 or 3 families this may be an option for you.
You do need a reservation to enter a park which is chosen ahead of time by calling Disney or using the My Disney Experience App. This is to regulate the number of people at each park and given that they have 4 of them, this is meant to spread the crowd out. Just a note to make sure you don’t skip this step.
MUST HAVE Upgrades
No matter what accommodations you choose, we feel that these upgrades are must haves and should be thought of in combination with the purchase of your park passes as a ‘sunk cost’ or ‘cost of doing Disney’. If you don’t, then you’ll be waiting in lines that can stretch from 100-240 minutes long and greatly impact the number of rides you'll be able to tackle each day. Disney is really good a moving people around and giving you stuff to look at while line-waiting but after 55 or 60 minutes, it’s just waiting. They’re not that magical.
The first consideration is to potentially add ‘park hopping’ onto your tickets. This feature allows you to jump from one park to another after 2pm. If used in concert with the other additions below, you can get through 2 or 3 parks in one day smoothly. This does add about $65 per ticket to the initial park pass but if you are good at planning your days out and everyone agrees with said plan, it can work really well.
As an example, we hoped from Animal Kingdom to Epicot and had a pre-planned dinner reservation at Epcot which even allowed us to take a little break at the hotel before making the ‘hop’ to Epcot.
My Disney Experience App
For Genie+, advanced premium ride tickets and food mentioned below, you will need the “My Disney Experience” App from either Apple or Android App Store so download that prior to your trip AND get acquainted with the app.
The four tabs your need to focus on within the app are Genie+, Tips, My Day and Food.
MOST IMPORTANT is to have 1 person be the point person where they have access to and can control reservations for each family member (or member in your party) through their profile so they can make reservations for the whole group at once. This will require each person to have a profile on Disney and connect it to the leader (this was me; the joy of it!).
Disney used to have ‘lightning lane fast lanes’ but have transitioned to Genie +. With Genie+ you need to purchase access to this option after 12:01am on the day you’re visiting the parks and can then make your first ‘reservation’ at 7am on the dot and beyond. However, if you wait until a bit after 7am to make your first reservation AND advanced ticket purchases, you will miss early in the day openings and must wait in ‘stand-by’ lines at rides until your reservation is up. Also, you can only book 1 fast lane at a time or if enough time (usually 3 hours) from the time you booked your first reservation. Should you see an opening on the 'Tips' board that you really want, you are able to cancel a reservation later in the day and then book that one so there is a bit of flexibility.
Also, if you get a reservation for a ride at 10am and you take that ride by using the fast lane, you can then schedule your next one right away based on availability in the 'Tips' tab of the app.
The price for Genie+ added on to a ticket varies depending on the day and how busy the day is but expect to pay between $10-$30 per ticket for this option.
To make reservations for fast lane, you go to the ‘Tips’ button in our My Disney Experience app, select which park you’re going to visit at the top and then you’ll get to see what is available currently at that park as fast lane options. Once you select an option for you and your family, then those reservations will appear in the ‘My Day’ section of the app.
On the ‘My Day’ section, you’re also able to bring up a map of the park that marks your location and then provides walking directions to your next ride – super helpful.
Advanced Premium Ride ticket purchases
There are single rides at each park which are their newest for each park and don’t have access to the Genie+ lightning lane reservation system but rather charge another fee to ride these state-of-the-art rides without waiting in 'stand-by lane'. You can purchase these tickets for multiple rides at different parks AND STILL use Genie+ to make additional reservations which is kinda a one two punch.
Currently these rides are:
- Animal Kingdom – Avatar Flight of Passage
- Magic Kingdom – 7 Dwarfs mine ride (Tron is coming)
- Epcot – Guardians of the Galaxy roller coast
- Hollywood Studios – Star Wars Rise of the Resistance
Again, the price on these individual ride tickets can range from $15-$30ish which give you a specific window of time to redeem that ticket on the ride. These are the lines that get the longest so if you want to avoid the 100+ minute wait times, this is your option.
It took us a little bit to realize that the best way to order food at any food place within any of the parks is through in-app ordering – ‘food’ tab in app- and then being notified when your food is ready for pick up. This allows you to find a place to sit and avoid the line to order with a human. And there is no up-charge to using this service so even if you avoid all of the above add ons, you can still do this through the app.
In terms of the food, everything we could find was either pizza, hotdogs or sweets -at least it felt this way- and so packing a bag and bringing water bottles/healthy snacks is never a bad call. We also leveraged the Starbucks locations as we knew what we could get and please all four of us.
Net-Net / Bottom Line
If the above extra fees nor waiting in lines is what you have in mind when you take on Disney World, you should plan on going on a Monday – Wednesday, non-holiday or school break week and see how it goes. We did speak with many people who have done this and said that the length of time in lines is like night and day.
However, if you don’t have that option and need to go at a time that matches up to your kids’ school schedule and you don’t want to wait in lines more than 100+ minutes at a clip, you should think of the cost of the ticket to get into the park as the first step/not total cost and plan on these extra fees to get the most out of your time there.
So, for about $80-$110 extra per ticket (park hopping, Genie+ and 2 advanced ride tickets) you will have minimal line waiting time, maximum ride time and guarantee rides on the BEST rides that the parks have to offer.
Our trip was great and the 5+ hours of planning ahead of time made it all the more so. Hopefully, by reading this post and getting acquainted with the My Disney Experience app prior to your arrival, we have cut your planning time down to less than an hour.
Safe and smooth travels!
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