There are tips galore all around the internet on how to make your vacation to Disney World the best ever. Trust me - I think I perused all of them. After doing that, I picked the ones that would (hopefully) work for us and made up some just for us. Here are those tips so that you might can use some too.
Pick the right time for you. We used this excellent WDW planning tool to plan the "when" of our trip and nailed it.
The Dining Plans are great on the budget. But they might not work for you. Or you might decide to stay off site, where you would not be eligible for the Dining Plan. Check out this post on our spending to find out why the Dining Plan would not have been our best bet.
Keep your eyes peeled for open lines. For tickets and security, people (for some reason) seem to act like cattle and follow one person. Ironically, one of the busiest places on earth has open lines to get into the parks and to go through security because of this. If you see a turnstile with a cast member at it, don't be afraid to ask. We bypassed about 75 people this way and got to walk into Animal Kingdom as soon as the gate opened because we walked around the one single line that was formed in front of it.
Characters are fun to meet. Have a plan. You'll notice throughout this list of tips that I am a serious planner. It's really the only way I know how to function - especially now that I have two awesome kids to monitor. You can visit Disney's website and use the interactive maps for each park to find out where each character is located and what time(s) of day they will be available on the very day you will be there. If meeting a character is important to you, make a note of this and make sure you get there in time. If you just happen upon characters, you'll find a real treat, but if meeting one (or more) is important to you or someone in your party, make sure you don't miss them, as they are not all available all day.
Rides are fun too. Have a plan. If you have a ride enthusiast, make sure you have a plan for those people too. Don't be afraid to split up your party if you need to. The modern miracle of mobile phones make it easy to split up and reunite again. Split up to ride things and visit characters at the same time or to run out to grab a Fast Pass for your favorite ride(s).
Get a customized map for Disney. Did you know you can get a map customized? Whether you want to get one before your trip highlighting all of the places you MUST visit (and therefore leaving off those you can skip) or you want to get one after your trip highlighting your trip's joy so you can frame, grab one up!
GPS your parking spot. We tested this just to see if it would work. And it did! Chip's phone lead us right back to our car. =) If you don't want to or cannot do this with your phone, at least take a photo of the name of your row (Aladdin 53, anyone?) so you have it in case you DO forget. =)
Utilize the Fast Pass system. There are other sites that describe this system better than I can, but just in summary - a Fast Pass is a ticket that allows you to come back later within an assigned window of time, to step right onto those rides with long lines. If you get to a busy ride early before it gets too busy, you can always get a Fast Pass to use later and then go ahead and board it now to ride immediately. Just remember that you can only hold one Fast Pass per park ticket at a time, so use them wisely.
Fast Passes DO expire. I saw tips around the internet noting that although Fast Passes indicate a window of time that you should use them, as long as you don't arrive early for your Fast Pass, you can come as late as you want. I listened to their advice and while that was obviously their experience, it was not ours. We tried to use Fast Passes for Soarin' in Epcot as our last thing to do before leaving the park while we'd gotten the passes much earlier in the day. Chip and Patrick were turned away because the ticket had expired. So the tip here is try to get there around the right time (but not early) or hope for a forgiving ticket taker.
Utilize Rider Swaps and Fast Passes together. Like I said, you can use a Rider Swap whether you are riding stand by or via Fast Pass. And since you can only hold one Fast Pass per ticket, we would go use two tickets to get a Fast Pass at one attraction and the other two tickets to get a Fast Pass at another ride. Then when we were ready to ride, we'd show up during the Fast Pass time, and do a Rider Swap there. You can either then ride it immediately or come back later, since they don't expire. Then go grab your other Fast Pass time and presto - super Fast Pass/Rider Swap use. Find what works for you and do it!
Fun for the littles too! There are some play areas you should be aware of. Animal Kingdom has a huge play area in Dinoland USA called The Boneyard, but there are other playground type areas not on the map. Inside the gift shop of Mission Space is a playground that will keep the little ones entertained while the riders enjoy that ride and/or Test Track. There is a playground between Splash Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad underneath the bridge you encounter when walking towards the train station. There is also a big play area near Dumbo where you can play while you wait. This is great for when other party members are riding those two larger rides.
Bring food and drinks into the parks. Seriously - Disney doesn't mind. We saved big money this way and we were NOT the only ones doing it. Take advantage of the savings and spend your money on souvenirs or Mickey Mouse ice cream sandwiches.
Plan your eating - especially if you have a picky eater. We have one child who is a picky eater. I will brag on Disney for having healthy kids meals though. Their standard sides with kids' meals are not chips or fries, but rather yogurt, carrot sticks, grapes and applesauce. Good stuff. But not wanting to get caught somewhere in the park scanning each menu we came across to see if our picky eater would/could eat there, we checked out all of the dining options in each park and took in a list of those eateries that would be acceptable with a list of each food they would eat under the name of the eatery. That way, we could determine where we would be around time to eat and give the child options of food they could eat and pick our restaurant knowingly. Although it took some time to research, it was time well spent, as we did not waste time in the park looking for a particular fare - we already knew what we were getting into.
Splurge on the special things. Make sure you have a few special items. Whether it is souvenirs, a special meal or an activity - this is Disney World people and each visit should be memorable.
Try out the Agent P's World Showcase Adventure at Epcot. This is new and based on the awesome cartoon Phineas and Ferb and their lovable pet/secret agent, Perry the Platypus. Basically you are given a cell phone with GPS and a series of clues and you have to tour a designated country in Epcot to locate all of the clues. You really don't get a prize or anything, but it is free to do, takes a bit of time, helps you really explore the country, and gives the kids something to do in a part of Epcot that kids often find yawn-worthy.
Try out Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. This was a great interactive card battling game similar to Pokemon or the like. But in this version, you have a key card, a map, and a set of instructions that leads you all over the Magic Kingdom to fight villains with a plethora of spell cards you purchase. You can do this at your own pace over a series of days if you are in the park for more than one day. Patrick thoroughly enjoyed doing this while Abigail was more interested in seeing characters. Just more proof that Disney really thinks of something for EVERYONE.
Let Disney photographers use your camera. Sure you can do the Photo Pass system (do both!), but the same photographer who takes the PhotoPass photo will also take the same photo with your personal camera. So don't worry about HAVING to buy Disney photos, although you can if you want!
Never be afraid to ask. When we watched the opening show for the Magic Kingdom, one of the costumed characters that arrived on the train with Mickey (you should see the opening at the park at least once if you never have) was Stitch - Patrick's favorite Disney character. However, looking at the maps and even at the interactive maps on the internet, there was no indication that you could meet Stitch anywhere in the park. We thought it was strange to have a costumed character who did not make appearances, so we asked and sure enough - you COULD meet and greet Stitch. The cast member pointed us right where we needed to go. I felt bad for Stitch because there was no indication that you could find him anywhere in the park and so his lines were next to nothing, but we benefitted because we asked, and Patrick got to meet the only character he really cared to meet.
Label Your Children if they are small or have special needs. Sounds crazy, right? It's easy, write on their arms with a sharpie or use a nifty item like SafetyTats (which is what we did). Also, take a photo of them with your phone each morning. Having it on your phone instead of your camera will allow you to text it to security or police and taking one each day will show authorities not only a recent photo of your child, but what they were wearing when they disappeared (have them take one with coats/hats/etc and one without just in case). Teach them to find someone with a Disney name tag if you get separated.
Start off with Face Characters for Little Ones. Little ones who think that these characters are all real are usually intimidated by the fur characters the first time. Mickey Mouse is 5-1/2 feet tall rather than the size of a mouse. Big active faces full of expression and far taller than them is a lot to take in. Warm the little ones up by meeting "face" characters like Mary Poppins, Alice, the princesses, and the like. It will help them get used to seeing their heroes and they will probably see some fur characters off to the side as well, helping them get acclimated to the idea of them.
Don't be afraid to take a nap. If little ones (or even big ones) are getting fussy, feel free to go back to your room and take a nap. If you are staying on site, getting back in is easy. If you are staying off site, parking is already paid for the day (right - you don't have to pay again if you leave and re-enter or if you change parks). And having a rested little one will make your entire experience much better. Remember - it's better to have an enjoyable time in the park even if it is shorter rather than forcing fun on them and having them (and therefore, you) miserable.
Know all your options. With this era of the internet, there is pretty much nothing you cannot find out about Disney World - the Disney website being your main source of info. For instance, I was bummed when I found out the princess meals at Magic Kingdom were all booked up for all four days we would be in the area. After a bit of looking around at the website though, I found that there are princess meals in Epcot - with all of the big-name princesses (are there any other type) and as a bonus - it is the only one that includes the photo as part of your bill. Bonus!
Dine with characters early. We benefitted several ways with this tip. First of all, when we arrived for our 8:10 breakfast in Epcot (where the park does not even open until 9:00 AM), our parking was free. What? Was this normal or a fluke? I have no idea. I know when we pulled up to the green-lit parking booth entrance there was a sign on it that said, "Proceed to your destination." so we got to park for free that day! Woo hoo! Then we were allowed into the park to go to breakfast where we took an early-morning photo of the kids in front of Spaceship Earth (you know...the big Epcot ball) without any other people in the pic! We also got a lot of other photos while walking back to Norway without any crowds in them. Breakfast is typically less expensive than other character meals and there are no fewer characters. Lastly, we finished breakfast around 9:00 and were already in the park while others were just arriving and fighting through the ticket turnstiles. Needless to say, we were able to knock out Mission Space, Test Track and a few others pretty early.
Know that Disney replaces souvenirs purchased during your vacation. Even if it isn't truly faulty but your fault. We allowed Patrick to build his own light sabre at Hollywood Studios. Within 10 minutes, Chip had broken it. He quickly returned to the store they built it at, and they replaced the broken part for free. Hooray!
Don't be afraid of missing something. Unless you have many, many days to spend at Disney, you WILL miss out on some part(s) of the parks. It's okay. It really is. I understand if this is a once-in-a-lifetime type trip that you want to do EVERYTHING, but don't stress out if everything doesn't go as planned. Remember you're on vacation. Your family wants to remember the fun, not mom pulling her hair out because you didn't make it onto the Riverboat Cruise.
Divide and conquer. Face it. Not everyone is interested in everything. It's okay. Split your adults up to take the kids to the locations that they want to see the most. The girly girl might want to see the princesses while the rough and tumble boy might love the caves on Tom Sawyer's Island. The ride enthusiast will want to hit space mountain while the toddler wants to ride Prince Charming's Carousel over and over again. Use this tip and the one above to make EVERYONE'S dreams come true at Disney.
Be a kid. I don't care how old you are, there is no reason to be serious at Disney World. Sing along in It's a Small World, have you picture taken with your favorite character(s), buy yourself a set of mouse ears or a tiara (I promise you won't be the only adult wearing them), throw your hands up on a roller coaster, dance during the parades. There is nothing you can do at Disney that will look silly. I promise.
How do you make the most of your trip to Disney World? Please share! If you're looking for how to save on a Disney vacation, I wrote on that yesterday. And come back tomorrow for some special packing tips!