ben2So you’re headed to Disney World, eh?

You and I both know those park tickets ain’t cheap, so you’re probably trying to get the most bang for your buck. I don’t blame you—I’ve been there.

Scene: Family Vacation at Disney (Summer 2013)
Cast: My sister and me
Plot: We’ve both got one day park hopper passes, and neither of us wants to compromise on what we get to experience.

Now, let me be completely clear here: Both of us are in our twenties, and we did work hard to play hard in our Disney 1-Day Extravaganza—but don’t let that stop you from using the following tips to your advantage during your Disney vacation. In one day, we hit up all of our favorite attractions, without compromise (well, we did have one compromise, but I’ll get to that later), and still made it home before the Disney buses stopped running (around 1am).

Without further ado…the 10 Steps on how to conquer Disney’s four Florida theme parks—all in a single day.

Secret 1: Expect & Plan For Set Backs

If you had seen Lauren (my sister) and I at any point during the first 3-4 hours in our adventure, you would never have believed we accomplished what we did. I swear we missed at least three buses, a ferry, the first two major rides we visited in Magic Kingdom were not operating, and the first attraction we wanted to ride at Hollywood Studios had a 180-minute wait. This is on top of having will-call ticket pick-up issues at both our Disney Resort and at the Magic Kingdom Guest Services. At the time, we seriously thought the world was against us having a good experience that day.

Things did turn around, but before we move on to step two, make sure your expectations are in check and plan extra time in your schedule for when the inevitable setback happens. Besides, you’re at Disney World—the happiest place on Earth!

Secret 2: Get Your Tickets Before the Big Day

One of the small hurdles we experienced on our Disney Day was at a crucial time—the opening of the park for Extra Magic Hours. We already missed the park opening by 10 minutes due to watching a bus pull away and waiting another 20 minutes for the next one. We had some issues with confirmation numbers and some other mundane details since our parents technically purchased the tickets (even though it was under my name for pickup).

Needless to say, it’s a small—but preventable—inconvenience, so avoid it if you can by picking up your tickets in advance.

lala3Secret 3: The “My Disney Experience” App

This is one of the coolest and most handy improvements to the Disney experience since my last visit here four years back. Disney offers a free app with many useful features that provides useful info across the entire gamut of Walt Disney World, including every restaurant, resort, and most importantly—every park. The app allows you to view wait times for every attraction, shows the time you would have to return if you picked up a FastPass right then at each attraction, and lists showtimes for their live entertainment. It has so many other cool features as well, so make sure you download and get familiar with it before you head out to the parks. (Keep in mind that the queue times are typically behind the times listed at the attractions, so if there is a discrepancy, the attraction is most likely to be up-to-date.)

Using this app actually single-handedly may have turned our sour morning around—no joke!

Secret 4: (Somewhat) Extra Magic Hours

Extra Magic Hours aren’t a secret anymore, but they still are an important part of the strategy. If you stay at a Disney Resort, you get priority treatment and may enter one of the four parks an hour early (the parks are on a rotating schedule—check with your front desk to get more details). Our morning plan hinged on using this extra hour very strategically, as we chose the day that Magic Kingdom opened an hour earlier than normal. (Be careful though, as we noticed that it also closed an hour early on the Disney schedule too.) Don’t expect the entire park to be open though, as many attractions still don’t open until the normal park opening time. (We actually went to Magic Kingdom again to end the day, and found out they extended the park hours to the normal midnight closing schedule…so we actually had two Extra Magic Hours!)

Unfortunately, we showed up at Magic Kingdom at about 8:10 (we missed a bus), picked up our tickets at will call, and went straight for Space Mountain—but it was down for “technical difficulties” (a common term at Disney). Even so, we FastPassed it, and went straight for the other two mountains, Splash and Big Thunder. The Frontierland didn’t open until 9am, though, so we had to wait for that.

Even so, we did get a FastPass to the most popular attraction at WDW during our Extra Magic Hour, so it was still worth not having to wait 100+ minutes!

Secret 5: Ask a Cast Member—They Really Do Help

We gambled on Splash Mountain over Big Thunder Mountain, and we lost—it was also closed for technical difficulties. I found a particularly generous Disney Cast Member (it’s what they call their employees) nearby and asked him for the scoop. He quickly shared that the problem was actually already fixed, and now the crew was going through their normal preparations to open the ride—which is causing the current delay. At this point, many of the folks in line had already migrated to the neighboring Big Thunder Mountain, and we moved up near the front of the line. It opened after about a 10-minute wait, and we hopped right on!

Luckily, we asked a Cast Member instead of giving up on the situation. After that, we went next door to Big Thunder (which has a very quick-moving queue). It wasn’t long before we knocked out two of the major mountains at the Kingdom, and we headed back to Tomorrowland to redeem our FastPasses at Space.

lala2Secret 6: Look Up the Parade Times—and Plan Around Them

One of the most magical experiences that Disney’s parks offer is their truly magical parades. During our day, we witnessed three parades at two different parks…and each one was unique and really captivating to experience.

With that said, there is a huge strategic advantage to knowing when and where the parades are so that you can enjoy them when you want and avoid them when you don’t. Our first parade was quite by accident, and I wish we had intentionally visited this parade. Lauren wanted to get a picture with Minnie Mouse in the background (to send to a friend who asked for it). To get the best angle, we went to the large roundabout circle in front of Cinderella’s Castle.

We got a decent photo, and as we tried to continue our trek across the Magic Kingdom to ride Space Mountain, the parade began moving again…and we were stuck on the roundabout for another 10-15 minutes while the floats and paraders went through. It was an absolutely wonderful show and a fun parade that made me actually dance a bit—don’t get me wrong—but it was frustrating to be stuck there because of a simple mistake we made in not being prepared! (Remember, not much has gone right for us this morning yet, so we are in a somewhat negative mindset…well, as negative as you can be at Disney World, I suppose 😛 )

Later, when we got to Animal Kingdom, we did our homework on the parades and got the intel and suggestions from helpful Cast Members on what to expect and where, so we “strategically experienced” a fun, cultural parade there. This is what I would recommend to you if you want to see and experience the fun parades Disney parks offer: Find out when they are, what route and direction they take, and plan to walk through that way from one attraction to another during the beginning or height of that parade (though I would recommend ending your day with the 11pm Main Street Electrical Parade at Magic Kingdom). You still get a great experience, you can often follow the paraders and floats, and you’re making progress traversing the park to your main attraction…which leads me to my next point.

Secret 7: Skip to the Front of the Popular Lines

This step is huge for your strategic Disney park success. I’m not suggesting you skip the parades altogether, but if you follow Step 6, you’ll get to experience plenty of parading and still be able to take advantage of the fact that most of the park visitors are standing five-deep watching the parade. The old trick of riding the popular attractions during lunch is somewhat helpful, but the fact is most park visitors eat at all times of the day (and you should too—more on that in a minute), so don’t expect to skip to the front just because you ate early or plan to eat late.

The parades, however, are another story. Almost everyone is at the parade (unless they were already near the front of their queue). We discovered this nifty trick accidentally while at Animal Kingdom (our third park). There was a fantastic parade we witnessed as we walked from the Everest ride to Kilimanjaro Safaris. When we arrived, there was absolutely no one in line. Granted, this was the third- or fourth-most popular ride at Animal Kingdom, but literally ZERO people were ahead of us. Use this to your advantage on the rides you know you’re going to have to wait in line for! Plan to wait in line for the most popular rides DURING a parade if possible. We actually arrived at Magic Kingdom (for the second time) around 10:05pm after the Epcot Illuminations show. The MK fireworks show was going on in all its glory, and we watched as we walked to Space Mountain. While everyone was outside watching the end of the fireworks, we jumped into a short wait line (around 15 minutes) to ride Space Mountain again—making up for the fact that we missed Test Track earlier in the day—and we didn’t have to FastPass it or wait in an unreasonably long line.

FastPass. It’s everywhere. It’s simple. It’s on the app now, too. Use it to your advantage…but this isn’t new to the parks so I won’t any more time on it.

Single-Rider Lines. These aren’t as well-known as I would have expected. I knew about the single-rider line at Test Track (which was the only ride we missed that we wanted to go on), but there are many other attractions with single-rider lines. Unless you are experiencing the day with your sweetheart, consider breaking up during the actual ride and meeting together again on the other side. You’ll save about 3/4 of the wait time by going as a single rider. There are only a few attractions that offer this, so ask your resort staff or call guest services to find out when planning your trip (some of the attractions tend to change).

The Rider Switch Passes. This is something I’m not familiar with, but it can be a lifesaver for families with kids who can’t or don’t want to ride the “big-kid” or scarier attractions. The basic gist is that Dad can wait in line and ride a ride while Mom watches the kids, and then Mom gets a Rider Switch pass to the front of the line—as if you waited together. It apparently works much like a FastPass. Here’s some more info.


Secret 8: Take Care of Yourself

So back to the relatively rough morning…we finally got to FastPass Space Mountain, and we stop for an early lunch (about 10:30-11am) at the diner in Tomorrowland (which has some healthy options—my sister won’t eat beef, pork, or dairy, and we found plenty of food options at every park). This was the first real body fuel we’d had since a very light breakfast at 6:30am, and we had been busting it for the most part. The portions were a good size—and of course the prices were higher than a normal diner, but we both at lunch for around $15. After that, we left Magic Kingdom to head to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, when we found out there was no direct transport to that park from Magic Kingdom (more on that below).

This is where the Disney App turned our frowns upside-down.
I hadn’t given up hope on the ride yet, and checked the wait time for the Aerosmith coaster again…only now it said 80 minutes. I knew we could manage that—at some point we’d have to wait in a long line…we can’t FastPass everything. So we walked back down Sunset again and right before we turned the corner, the app updated to display 180-minute wait. I almost lost it! Thankfully, we kept walking to see the marquee above the queue entrance said 60 minutes. We asked a Cast Member which was accurate, and they said we would only have to wait an hour…so we joined the line. Exactly an hour later, we walked out on the other side!When we arrived at the Studios, we made a bee-line for Rockin’ Rollercoaster, only to find the wait time was 150 minutes. I really, really wanted to ride, but even if I didn’t know our schedule wouldn’t allow for a 2.5 hour wait, Lauren made sure of it. Dejectedly, we walked back to the other end of Sunset Blvd. and sat down at a café and ordered coffee and pastries (If you’re paying attention, the last two things we’ve accomplished have been eating…). It’s important to take regular breaks for water and food to keep your energy up!

Per my mother’s instructions (and yes, I do listen to mom—even at 25 years old), we had four rules to follow during our day:

  1. Be Smart
  2. Be Safe
  3. Drink Water
  4. Stay Together

Lauren took responsibility for the first two, and I became the water police and made sure we didn’t part ways. It sounds silly, but we took the roles seriously and having a “water captain” actually helped us remember to consistently drink water and stay hydrated. I trusted her opinion on making smart and safe decisions (she is a woman, after all), and she listened to me about water and not parting company (me being protective, I’m sure). I suggest you do this in your journey as well!

We periodically stopped for food and made sure to relax when we were in queues, so that when we got out of the attraction, we could keep going. All in all, we ate four times in the parks from 8-midnight, and it wasn’t ridiculously expensive. Be smart about ordering food, be aware that prices do vary (coffee at the café was in Starbucks range, but at AK it was $7), and split an entreé when possible.

Secret 9: Think Transportation

Disney World’s transportation system is really remarkable, if you think about it. Between buses, monorails, and ferries, they’ve got you covered. Take advantage of this free transportation. It’s efficient, effective, and affordable.

We did have an issue with missing a few buses and a ferry, and not having direct transport from Magic Kingdom to Hollywood Studios, but overall, the experience was very pleasant. When planning your trip, think about where you’ll be traveling to and from between each stop (from the start of your day to the end). Knowing this will help you schedule an appropriate amount of time to “hop” between parks. We generally allowed thirty minutes travel time to hop ourselves, which was about right for us.

Also, be strategic to avoid lines for transportation. When leaving Magic Kingdom, we took a bus to the Boardwalk Hotel, even though we were staying at the Yacht Club, because we had to transfer to the ferry and the ferry’s first stop is at the less-crowded Boardwalk Hotel. Take a look at the map on the Disney app and find out what other resorts or attractions may be close to your intended destination, but might be less-crowded (either at the destination or in the number of people heading to that destination).

For example, the Yacht and Beach Club Hotels are sister buildings—they even share a magnificent pool (best pools on the property outside the water parks). Even so, the Yacht Club Bus Stop is significantly less-crowded than the Beach Club’s (Why? I don’t know). Ask resort staff what to expect at each place that might be relevant. In addition, while exploring the map, you can find alternates that may come in handy. For me, I noticed that the Swan Hotel was about the same proximity to my room on the very end of the Yacht Club (and the Southwest end of the Boardwalk)…so if needed, I could take a bus or ferry to that location and not gain much walking distance to either destination.

If you happen to plan your day around watching the magnificent fireworks show, Illuminations, at Epcot, you can bet that everyone will be leaving at the same time. Instead of heading out the park entrance, exit toward the Boardwalk hotels, and grab a bus from the Beach or Yacht Club to your next destination…most people will be heading toward the Boardwalk area and resort or out the front gate. We actually watched the Epcot fireworks at 9pm (from France—which has great views and is very close to the park’s Boardwalk exit) and then grabbed a bus from the Beach Club to Magic Kingdom for their fireworks show at 10pm! (You can also enter from this gate as well, which is handy if you’re in the Boardwalk area.)

Should you be staying at one of the larger-occupancy (read: longer bus lines) resorts, like the Port Orleans, consider taking a bus to a nearby resort within walking distance (like the less-crowded side of the Port Orleans Resort…though I can’t remember which is which at the moment). If lines are ridiculously long, think about riding to another entertainment destination (like the Boardwalk or Downtown Disney) and transferring.

All in all, plan out your travel plans and be strategic about it wherever possible.

benSecret 10: Get Lucky

It sounds tacky, but you’ve got to have a stroke of luck to get everything checked off your Disney to-do list. For Lauren and I, that meant running into very kind strangers on the way into the Animal Kingdom. These two gracious souls gave us their FastPasses for Kali River Rapids—the most popular ride at AK. Because we didn’t have to wait in that 90-minute line, we were able to take in the incredibly fun and entertaining Lion King show, shop, and find a moment to truly rest during a meal break. This also kept us ahead of schedule and gave us peace of mind about finishing the day strong!

Want to make someone else’s day? Grab a FastPass to a popular attraction on the way out of a park (if you’re not planning to get a new one for about two hours…which will be more common as the day goes on and the FastPass return windows get later and less convenient). Give those passes to someone else on the way in! If it’s early in the day, you’ll probably be able to get another FastPass at the next park within two hours of getting those. By the time you get to the next park, your wait will most likely be less than an hour—so ride one ride and grab a new FastPass. Pay it forward, and you can truly make a complete stranger’s day very magical!

Not everything will go your way—see Step 1—but if you have a good attitude and have fun doing everything you get to experience, the you’ll find some luck…or magic…come your way sooner or later.

Bonus Step 11: Be Flexible—Magic Does Happen

My last piece of advice before sending you on planning your big Disney park trip is to simply be flexible. You can plan your day down to a “T”, but following a strict schedule will be impossible.

Leave plenty of extra time for something magical to happen, and you’ll be much happier in the end!