My family and I are Disney fanatics, Earheads, Disneyphiles, whatever you wish to call us. Our close friends and family already know interventions are futile; we have consumed The Mouse’s Kool-Aid and we are not turning back.
We are annual pass-holders, members of the Disney Vacation Club (DVC), and the de-facto Disney experts of our social group. We even bought some Disney stock.
There are plenty of folks that have spent way more time at Disney Parks than we have, and these answers are based on my experiences at the parks with my family. We spend the majority of our vacation time at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, however, I have also visited Disneyland in California and Disney Paris.
Our friends and family are always asking us questions when they are considering a trip to Walt Disney World, so I decided to compile a list. Below are the questions most frequently asked.
Table of Contents
- Why do you keep going to Walt Disney World?
- What should we do at each park?
- Should we stay on property?
- What time of year should we visit?
- How should we book our Disney World vacation?
- What is Downtown Disney?
- Should we use the Disney Dining Plan?
- Should we purchase the Memory Maker package?
- Which restaurants should we eat at?
- When should we book our reservations?
- How long should we stay?
- What are good money saving tips?
- Any other advice worth passing on?
Why do you keep going to Walt Disney World?
This is the most often asked question from folks when they find out about our obsession. The answer is simple: it is a great place for both kids and adults.
We believed in our idea - a family park where parents and children could have fun - together.
Each of the parks offer many attractions geared towards adults, with fun for the kids at every corner; The Magic Kingdom brings the Disney classics to life, Hollywood Studios personifies the golden age of movies (and has a few roller coaters), Animal Kingdom upgrades the zoo into the 21st century, and EPCOT is a paradise of innovation, imagination, and culture.
What should we do at each park?
Throughout our many trips to the parks, we still have not visited every possible attraction, seen every show, eaten at every restaurant, or even come close to exhausting the possibilities of things to do. There are things we miss on some trips and others we do over and over again.
You should expect to not see it all, either. Even if you rode all the rides you would miss shows, street performers, restaurants, etc. I would recommend to see as much as you can, but with the expectation that there is more to see and do than one trip can withstand. Below is an overview of each park with the main attractions our family love, but researching on the Disney website or blogs is a good idea.
I have omitted most references to restaurants in this section. For dining information, please see the section “Which restaurants should we eat at?”.
Undoubtedly, the best way to visit Magic Kingdom is with, or as, a kid.
Fashioned after Walt’s hometown and set right after the turn of the twentieth century, this area offers food, shopping, barbershop quartets, even an actual barbershop. We love to sit on the deck of the train station with a hot cocoa at closing time, watching the other guests exit underneath us. This area is beautiful at night, especially during the holidays.
Cinderella Castle is the center of the park, with all the lands radiating out like a wagon wheel around this hub. The castle stage will host shows throughout the day, and the evening show Wishes will turn the entire castle into a living centerpiece for the fireworks display. Including Main Street USA, the park contains a total of 6 themed lands.
Fantasyland makes classic Disney tangible with rides like Peter Pan and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. The New Fantasyland expansion added many new rides including Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, a combination of roller-coaster and dark ride. Expect long lines for the Mine Train, and if a Fastpass is available, I would advise grabbing one.
Tomorrowland is best at night, with the futuristic neon lighting the way to The Monsters Inc Laugh Floor and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. We love to relax on the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover after dinner, and we will never pass up an opportunity to ride Space Mountain.
With a bit of practice and luck, you can achieve Galactic Hero status on Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, like my wife and I did simultaneously on our last trip.
Tomorrowland is also the home to my personal favorite: The Carousel of Progress. This trip through the twentieth century debuted at the 1964 Word’s Fair in New York and opened in Florida in 1975. A showcase of progress, I consider this a living museum and find it highly inspirational. If you catch my family on the ride, expect to hear us sing along as we look forward to a Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow.
Adventureland’s Pirates of the Caribbean is a family favorite, and a Dole Whip is welcome any time of year. If you have younger children with you The Jungle Cruise is a fun treat. A walk though the Swiss Family Treehouse offers great views and is a lot of fun, especially on a beautiful day.
After a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean ye be ready to join Capt. Jack’s crew.
Frontierland has two great rides, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Splash Mountain. Tom Sawyer Island makes for a good wind-down spot and don’t forget to watch the classic Country Bear Jamboree before leaving Frontierland.
Set in an early America colonial theme, Liberty Square exemplifies Disney’s attention to detail. The area has no public restrooms and a brown stone walkway winds through the center of the area; you can guess what it represents from colonial times. A trained eye can spot Paul Revere’s message and a replica of the Liberty Bell stands in the center of plaza. On a nice day or evening, a ride on the Liberty Square Riverboat can be a cool way to relax.
We love to visit Ye Olde Christmas Shoppe any time of year, but especially during the holidays when there are artists customizing the ornaments. The Hall of Presidents is a historic and popular attraction that is worth seeing over and over again. The most popular ride in Liberty Square is the famous Haunted Mansion, where the Ghost Host introduces you to the 999 happy haunts within. This attraction only gets better with time and the updated queue area offers a lot of fun things to do while waiting in line.
There are too many great attractions at the Kingdom to list, but a first trip should include a flight with Dumbo, a spin in a teacup, a trip to the Enchanted Tiki Room, and a lesson from the Presidents of the United States. Don’t forget to ride Prince Charming’s Carousel and attempt to pull the sword from the stone.
Sometimes they make a big deal when you try to pull the sword from the stone in front of Prince Charming’s Carousel.
If you can get a spot for lunch or dinner, use the Fastpass+ or a dining reservation for Be Our Guest. If you have children with you, especially young princesses, this restaurant is a must see.
There are other night shows at Walt Disney World, but the best fireworks are certainly at the Magic Kingdom. The current night show Wishes is worth waiting for. Grab a spot on Main Street, preferably by the Partners statue, and prepare to be amazed. After you have seen the show, subsequent viewings are really good from the beach at the Polynesian Resort where there is almost never a crowd.
Epcot, originally EPCOT Center, stands for the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. It began as Walt’s dream of a futuristic city, and has become a perpetual world’s fair for the last 30 plus years.
I visited Epcot shortly after its debut as a child, and it was love at first sight. The future of the world, innovation, and technology presented in an interactive way I had never experienced before. I visited again as a young man, and now as an adult it still astonishes me on every visit.
Over twice the size of Magic Kingdom, Epcot is broken into two sections: Future World and World Showcase.
Future World has changed dramatically since I was a child. Like a living expo, you can expect to see new technologies on display every few years. Many of the attractions have been updated or replaced as new innovations and sponsorships have emerged.
Spaceship Earth is the “big sphere” that stands as the iconic symbol for the park. Inside is a ride that inspires faith in humanity by reminding us of our achievements over the past several thousand years. It is a must ride for me every visit, sometimes it is my first and last ride of the day.
Rides like Mission: SPACE, Test Track, and Soarin’ offer bigger kids and adults more thrilling experience while The Seas with Nemo and Friends, Ellen’s Energy Adventure (featuring Ellen DeGeneres and Bill Nye), and Living with the Land are slower paced, small child friendly rides that offer educational opportunities.
Lastly, Innoventions is a great place to escape the weather and see presentations and interactive exhibits from various sponsors. The Sum of all Thrills is a personal favorite, allowing you to build your own roller coaster and then ride it in a virtual simulation.
Build and ride your own custom roller-coaster at the Sum of all Thrills in Epcot’s Innoventions.
The eleven countries represented at EPCOT’s world showcase each offer shopping, entertainment, food and drinks from their homeland. Enjoying some unique refreshments while strolling around World Showcase Lagoon keeps the adults happy and Kidcot allows kids to create personalized souvenirs at each country.
There is also an interactive game, Agent P’s World Showcase Adventure to keep the young detectives busy while exploring the shops and themed areas of each country. It is fun to play along, and the adventure will bring the entire family into each country’s nooks and crannies.
Every land is worth exploring, and all cast-members are native to the host country. Talking with shopping attendants in Norway, or portrait artists in France, for example, can be educational and rewarding. For dining information please see the section “Which restaurants should we eat at?”.
Towering over the Mexico Pavilion is a grand pyramid. In and around the pyramid are shops, bars, restaurants, and a full indoor marketplace. You can catch mariachis on the patio while grabbing a couple of street tacos.
A often overlooked ride is Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros inside the Mexico Pavilion. Directly inside the pyramid is the Kidcot station for Mexico, and once you enter the marketplace, head left to find a boat ride that is usually a very short short line for a dark ride at Disney. This ride is suitable for all ages, and we ride this every year.
Norway’s Maelstrom has been removed and is being converted to a Frozen themed ride, however this country still offers great shopping and dining. A beautiful area with quaint shops and good eats, you will not regret a stop here.
Our family loves to visit Germany, as my wife spent her childhood with her family there while her father was in the service. They swear by the authenticity of the food and beer, and our son loves to dance to the live music in the Biergarten. The shops sell seasonal German fare, with Lebkuchen being one of my wife’s favorite finds during the holidays.
Italy is one of our favorites, from the food and wine, live shows, and beautiful courtyard it is easy to spend a lot of time in this country. We recommend both restaurants, and the beverage cart is has many good selections.
The American Pavilion goes great with a smoked turkey leg, and while it may be tempting to pass this one up, I recommend checking it out. Be sure to watch the a cappella group The Voices of Liberty perform in the rotunda before watching the animatronic show The American Adventure staring Mark Twain and Benjamin Franklin. Both of these are highly recommended.
Every trip through Japan includes a stroll through the Mikimoto store, where we usually get a pearl from a live oyster and peruse the thousands of items available for purchase. Take a few minutes to stop and look at the gardens and bonsai trees that are expertly manicured and put on display around the Japan Pavilion.
The Morocco Pavilion smells of burning incense and feels like a scene from Casablanca. The marketplace is a fun place to look around, and the restaurants serve exotic options from this beautiful country. We cannot help be find ourselves donning fez hats and chasing each other through the interconnected shops.
When it comes to the Epcot countries, France is our favorite. We love to get a silhouette, portrait, or caricature from one of the street artists. There is usually a photopass photographer by the fountain in the main plaza, and the “Impressions de France” film is a popular attraction. The pastry shop Boulangerie Pâtisserie has incredible macaroons and éclairs, amongst other delicacies.
In the United Kingdom we like to visit the shops packed full of Beatles memorabilia and Dr Who swag. Listing to the live piano at the Rose & Crown Pub or The British Revolution on the outdoor stage makes the perfect backdrop to a cold cider or pint of stout. Sometimes you will find Mary Poppins or Alice roaming the streets, and don’t forget to take a photo in an classic red phone-booth.
Like the country it models, the Canada pavilion is a vast complex with an incredible garden, world class dining at Le Cellier, and Martin Short in Circle-Vision 360. His show O Canada! is hilarious and family friendly with majestic views of our northern neighbor.
Each of the countries in the showcase can take hours to truly enjoy. Every time we make our way around World Showcase, we see new things and have new experiences. The street performances and live entertainment are great to catch when making the round, and dinner reservations to one of the table service restaurants is highly advised.
I was fortunate to visit Hollywood Studios the year it opened, when it was still called MGM Studios, and will always remember being an extra in the Indiana Jones Stunt Show. It was especially fun to watch my son, and then my wife and sister all participate in this same show experience decades later.
Set in Hollywood’s golden age, this park brings Star Wars, Indiana Jones, The Muppet’s, Pixar’s Toy Story, and Hollywood’s great movies all together. Star Tours is a must ride for any Star Wars fan, and kids under 14 can train as a padawan in the Jedi Training Academy.
The shows are amazing, Indiana Jones brings The Raiders of the Lost Ark to life, with audience participation included. The Lights, Motor, Action! stunt show is fun every time, and Beauty and the Beast is a favorite for my family.
Be sure to take the time to enjoy The Great Movie Ride. A trip through the Hollywood greats is the perfect way to set the stage for a day in movie-land.
The love of Star Wars is strong in my family. I have it. My son has it. We can ride Star Tours over and over again. This 4D ride offers randomly mixed trips through scenarios in popular locations of the Star Wars universe. If the wait time is short we are known to take a half dozen turns, then hang out in Tatooine Traders browsing all the unique Star Wars merchandise.
If you only have time to ride one thing in this park, it must be Toy Story Midway Mania. This ride is epic, bringing 3D gaming to a new level. The queuing area is fun, but a Fastpass makes this ride so much better.
The exit from Toy Story Midway Mania features a Hidden Mickey that is visible from the queue. Do you see it?
I really enjoy walking though One Man’s Dream, a tribute to Walt Disney. This mini-museum displays the history of Walt Disney and his studios. With replicas of early creations and ideas, we can see the evolution of the man and his company grow over time. There is a short movie at the end of the walking area that I can watch every visit.
My wife and our family love to attend the drawing classes in the The Magic of Disney Animation building. A Disney artist leads the class and shows how to draw a classic Disney character. You get to draw on a professional light table and take home your final product. We have prints from each trip — this is a fun experience and comes with a free souvenir.
Take a drawing class from actual animators at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
For the older kids and thrill seekers in your group, be sure to ride Hollywood Studio’s two great coasters. The Tower of Terror mixes The Twilight Zone with great views of the park and several free falls. Last time we rode this, we ended up with a video in our Memory Maker when we got home. My favorite coaster at Disney is the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster featuring Aerosmith. This indoor coaster mimics a high speed ride through Los Angeles, it is like Space Mountain on steroids.
Fantasmic is the Hollywood Studios closing show, and my son thinks it is the best thing in all Disney. When he first saw the show he was still pretty young and it was days after Christmas. He turned to me at the end of Fantasmic and said “Mickey Mouse has more magic than Santa Claus”. To this day it is his favorite show.
If you are going to eat at the park, be sure to get a Fantasmic Dinner Package for better sections. We have had incredible seats many times, and it really makes a difference to have the dining package in my opinion.
Animal Kingdom is far better than any zoo I have ever visited in terms of interaction with the world around you. The opportunities for education are everywhere, with conservation and awareness in the forefront of every attraction.
The Kilimanjaro Safari is a great ride to hit first thing in the morning. We usually get a Fastpass for the first hour, and when the park opens we go straight to the standby line, ride it, then use our Fastpass to ride it a second time. Once the morning is over the animals are harder to see, so the earlier the better in our experience.
Keep your cameras ready on The Kilimanjaro Safari for some great shots of African wildlife.
The Maharajah Jungle Trek is a great way to get see some tigers, birds, and other wild animals. It requires a bit of walking, but it is worth every step and is very well shaded. The best part is you can enjoy it at whatever pace you choose. We also like the Flights of Wonder bird show, where a variety of birds are presented by knowledgeable keepers and researchers.
Expedition Everest is a good roller coaster with a cool queue full of authentic gear from Mount Everest. It is one of the better coasters at Walt Disney World.
DINOSAUR is one of my son’s favorite rides, where you take a time machine to prehistoric earth and bring back an Iguanodon seconds before a major extinction event. A bit bumpy at times, this ride is perfect for elementary aged kids and above. Pay close attention as this ride is full of easter eggs and fun features.
DinoLand USA is a fun carnival like experience set in prehistoric times. A midday viewing of Finding Nemo – The Musical is perfect to start an afternoon in this area. My son can ride the Primeval Whirl countless times, and the area offers other rides, games, and shops for kids of all ages.
At the time of this writing, there is not a closing show at this park but it is rumored that one is coming soon.
Should we stay on property?
There are several benefits to staying at a Walt Disney World resort. They certainly make it convenient and pleasurable to stay on property with transportation, food, shopping, and entertainment available at every turn.
Disney Magical Express
We do not rent a car when we travel to Walt Disney World. Months before we leave we add our flight information to the My Disney Experience app, alerting Disney of our travel times. They send yellow luggage tags with our names and resort information on them a few weeks before we leave, and we keep them for our day of travel.
Our typical travel day is pretty simple. We try to catch the flight that will get us to Orlando the earliest. We tag our bags with the yellow luggage tags they sent, and check them at the airport. We check as many of our bags as we can depending on the airline we are flying.
When we arrive at Orlando International Airport we simply go down to the Disney Magical Express counter, skipping baggage claim. We board a bus to our resort and watch classic Disney cartoons while enjoying the view of central Florida.
When we arrive at our resort, we quickly check-in using the express on-line check-in line and then go to our room to drop off our personal items to relax for a bit. Then we are free to go to the park of our choice or enjoy some of the resort amenities. Our bags will all arrive in our room in 4-5 hours, whether we are there or not.
Disney’s Magical Express is free both to and from the airport and the resorts on property offer airline check-in for your return flight, including baggage services. On the morning we leave, we simply check our bags, get our boarding passes, and then enjoy our day until the time for our bus to the airport. Because the resort will also hold any personal items, we usually can squeeze in brunch at one of the parks on our final day.
Transportation at the Parks
Once at the parks, we have never found a real need for a rental car. We may get one in a future trip to explore Universal and other areas, but for years we have been happy enjoying the Disney experience completely on property. Not having to worry about directions, driving, parking, traffic, etc makes for a better vacation for me and my family. Thankfully they make it very easy to get to all the parks, resorts, and Downtown Disney through a myriad of transportation options.
The bus system can be frustrating at times, but in the vast majority of cases it is very convenient to grab a bus from your resort to any of the parks, or vice-versa. Wait times are typically under 20 minutes, however, at peak times (like park closing time) it may take several buses to accommodate the waiting crowd.
The monorail is a fun way to travel between Magic Kingdom and the connected resorts: the Contemporary, Polynesian Village, and the Grand Floridian. This same line also connects to the Transportation and Ticket Center, where you can catch another monorail line to Epcot.
The ferries are a great way to travel around Walt Disney World.
Magic Kingdom offers water taxis to and from the Grand Floridian, Polynesian Village, Fort Wilderness Campground, and Wilderness Lodge. You can also take ferryboats from Magic Kingdom to the Transportation and Ticket Center.
The Transportation and Ticket Center, Animal Kingdom, and Epcot always have plenty of taxis on hand. If there is not one at your resort, one can be there quickly after a quick stop at the concierge desk. We have used the taxis a couple of times, usually when we did not want to wait on a long bus line or had a reservation we are running to catch.
This really is a major perk of staying on property - if you purchase (most) merchandise from anywhere in the parks, you can have it shipped to your resort instead of carrying it around all day. This does not work on your last day in the resort as all deliveries arrive around 3PM the following day. We take advantage of resort delivery with the majority of our purchases.
Other options available to all guests are delivery to the front of the park (usually takes a few hours) where they will hold your bags for pickup, or the lesser known home delivery. When we purchase large or fragile items, we fill out a form and ship our items home, where they usually arrive in 1 - 2 weeks.
Extra Magic Hours
All resort guests enjoy the benefit of Extra Magic Hours. Every day one park will either open early or stay open late for resort guests only. These times have less crowds and are a great way to enjoy some of the rides and attractions that may be hard to manage during regular park hours. We plan which park we visit each day on several factors, and Extra Magic Hours plays a big part in that decision making process.
Each resort guest is now issued a MagicBand — a “smart” wristband that can perform many tasks including:
- Admission to parks (with linked passes)
- PhotoPass or Memory Maker card replacement
- Room key (the band unlocks your room door!)
- Dining plan “card”
- Room charges when you have a credit card on file
- Fastpass+ admission
We have experienced the parks both with and without the MagicBands. We were lucky enough to “test” them at a resort early in their existence, and they are quite cool. Added features now include videos on several rides included in your Memory Maker, and all ride photos magically appear in your Memory Maker when you wear your magic band on the ride.
An important reason we stay on property is the legendary Disney service. Our vacation dollar is well spent when we compare the service we receive from Disney compared to other vacations, dollar for dollar, and this certainly extends to their resorts and hotels. We have stayed at value, moderate, and deluxe properties and loved them all. We are now DVC members with our home resort at Saratoga Springs, and have visited many of the other DVC resorts as well, including The Polynesian. I can say that the level of Disney service is stellar, no matter where you stay on site.
Special Offers and Add-ons
The Disney Travel Company offers several vacation package offers throughout the year that can make a sizable difference in the cost of a Disney vacation, especially if you can travel during the slower seasons. Other add-ons include the ability to participate in the dining plans and Memory Maker programs.
How should we book our Disney World vacation?
For our first two trips we used a travel agent, but now we use the Disney Travel Company.
The advantages to using this service are ease of use, discounts, and My Disney Experience. Almost every year the special offers roll out that offer free dining or other discounts. With our trip planned though the Disney Travel Company, we simply call in and get the special offers applied to our existing travel arrangements. We have used both the website and the phone to book trips, and both options proved to be easy. The wait times for a cast-member can be long, but in one call you can book almost everything.
What time of year should we visit?
It is easier to answer which time of year to avoid: summer. Summer may be your only option, but if it is not, I would highly recommend exploring the off-season. Holidays like Christmas and Easter bring the crowds, but the decorations and cooler weather seem to make up the difference.
The Magic Kingdom at Christmas is decorated beautifully.
If you are able to travel during either the International Flower and Garden Festival, usually in March, April, and early May or the International Food and Wine Festival in late September through mid-November, then your chances of seeing us will greatly increase. We love both of these times as the weather is better than normal, the crowds are lower than summer, and Epcot comes alive with beautiful topiaries and fresh foods in the Spring and exotic and exciting food and wine offerings in the Fall. On a good year, we will hit both of these festivals.
Disney characters come to life as topiaries at the International Flower and Garden Festival.
Our favorite week is the last week of October. We all dress up for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party where we trick-or-treat, dance with the characters, watch the Villains show, and see one of the best fireworks presentations ever. This event goes on from late September through the end of October on select nights, and is not included in the normal admission ticket. The extra cost is worth it of you have children with you, and dressing up makes it that much more fun.
Christmas is also a special time at Disney. The decorations are magnificent, with every park, resort, shop, and cast-member in full celebration mode. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party mixes hot chocolate with Christmas cheer. The crowds are certainly higher than usual, but the experience is well worth the extra time in line. Like the Halloween party, admission is extra, but we find these special events worth the price.
New Year’s Eve can be a very busy day at the parks. Our last New Years at Walt Disney World was met with Magic Kingdom and Epcot both halting admissions early in the day as the parks both reached capacity before lunch. We spent the day at Epcot, where each country celebrated the New Year based on their homeland’s timezone. We found the adventure to be a lot of fun, but the crowds and large number of inebriated groups made New Year’s Eve something we are not interested in doing at the parks again.
What is Downtown Disney?
Downtown Disney is a fairly large area of shops and restaurants ranging from Disney merchandise to the Lego store. Some of the restaurants participate in the Disney dining plan, and many of the shops offer merchandise that is hard to find in the parks. Buses and water taxis provide transpiration to and from Disney resort hotels, making this shopping wonderland easy to experience. We have found this destination to be a better place for adults, especially those that enjoy shopping and nightlife. We are not frequent visitors to this area, however, it is a good place to go if you want to get away from the parks and hotels for a few hours.
Should we use the Disney Dining Plan?
We have, but it is not for everyone. To qualify for the plan, you must be staying at a resort on property.
The dining plan can be advantageous if your family likes to eat a lot and you use the plan wisely. Our main reason for using it is it allows us to prepay for most of our food, reducing the stress of keeping up with finances during the vacation. To get the most “bang for the buck” we usually order the more expensive menu options for each meal when we are on a dining plan.
If you go during the International Food and Wine Festival or Flower and Garden Festival, the food kiosks accept snack credits for many of the food offerings. We have found this is a great way to use our snack credits, especially if we order bottled waters and snacks from the Garden Grocer (see “What are good money saving tips?” below).
Should we purchase the Memory Maker package?
The Memory Maker package gives you and your party access to all photos taken by PhotoPass photographers, ride photos, and special videos from some attractions like The Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and the Hollywood Tower of Terror. If you purchase in advance, the $30 discount makes this worth the purchase in my opinion. We always buy the Memory Maker, and get a photo by every PhotoPass photographer we see. After our first trip we quit carrying a camera, and my wife is a professional photographer.
Which restaurants should we eat at?
Since there are over 135 restaurants at Walt Disney World, it would take more than a blog post to cover them all. There are restaurants to suit almost every genre, atmosphere, and price range. In this post I will share some of our family’s favorite places, but I would not consider this an exhaustive guide by any stretch of the imagination.
Disney restaurants fall into two main categories: table service and quick service. Table service restaurants can be either buffets or menu, with the latter offering servers to deliver your food. Quick service restaurants are more akin to fast food, with the meals rapidly available for the guest.
Our family usually eats breakfast at the resort, often fruit and pastry from the Garden Grocer (see below), a quick service for lunch, and a table service for dinner.
The Magic Kingdom offers a variety of dining atmospheres, with themes ranging from perpetual Thanksgiving at the Liberty Tree Tavern to the space age entertainment of Sonny Eclipse at Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café.
If you want to enjoy one of the table service restaurants at the Magic Kingdom then reservations are advised, especially for dinner service. Each trip we make we watch dozens of people be politely turned away from restaurants while we wait to be seated. Tens of thousands of people visit the Magic Kingdom every day and there are limited seats at their seven table service restaurants.
The Crystal Palace allows you to meet Winnie the Pooh and friends while enjoying a large buffet and dining area. This one of our favorite table service restaurants in the Kingdom, and is a great place to start or end a day at the park. They are open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and will have something for everyone.
Meet Winnie the Pooh and Friends at The Crystal Palace while enjoying an outstanding buffet.
Tony’s Town Square is themed from the movie where once of the most famous kisses in animated storytelling happened, Lady and the Tramp. In the back corner of the restaurant you can look out the window and see Tramp dining with his Lady, enjoying some pasta for two. The menu offers Italian favorites, and on an nice evening an outdoor table is a great way to soak in Main Street. We can be found at Tony’s almost every trip we make to see The Mouse.
We love to eat at Be Our Guest, enjoying one of the three spectacular dining rooms themed after Beauty and the Beast. The Grand Ballroom offers fantastic Gothic architecture, the West Wing allows dining next to the Beast’s enchanted rose, and Belle’s library has a relaxing mood. The food is great, and of course they have the gray stuff. Like Cinderella’s Royal Table, this restaurant will book up 6 months out so get your reservations early. Dinner at Be Our Guest is a table service, however, they do offer quick service dining for lunch.
You can view the enchanted rose in the West Wing of The Beast’s Castle at New Fantasyland’s Be Our Guest restaurant.
The Tomorrowland Terrace Fireworks Dessert Party offers prime seating and a dessert buffet featuring ice cream, cakes, pies, and other treats. The area makes for fantastic viewing of the nighttime fireworks show Wishes. If you want to have this experience for your trip, be sure to reserve this ahead of time, it books out far in advance.
If you want an even more private viewing of the evening fireworks at Magic Kingdom, check out Specialty Cruises by Disney. While the Grand 1 Yacht is available for rent, we have opted for one of the pontoon boats for a Celebration Cruise. This package gives you a boat, driver, and the option of adding food, beverages, banners, and balloons. Our captain drove us out on Bay Lake and Seven Seas Lagoon, ending the night with the perfect view of the fireworks, with the music piped in to the boat.
Taking a Celebration Cruise is a great way to enjoy the Magic Kingdom fireworks over a bottle of wine.
Casey’s Corner is the place to get a hot dog in the Kingdom. The seating offers great views of Mail Street, Cinderella Castle, and the Crystal Palace. A family favorite for lunch, you can’t go wrong with some nachos and a chili dog.
If you are craving some Italian food, Pinocchio Village Haus has great flat-bread pizzas and meatball subs. Some of the tables overlook the entrance to It’s a Small World, with boats full of people passing by below.
The cinnamon rolls at Gaston’s Tavern bring us back every trip. The Nutella and fruit covered waffles at Sleepy Hollow are a must have, with a photo perfect view of the Castle as a background. The silhouette and portrait artists can be found across the street, and the Christmas shop is a great place to go look around while finishing your coffee.
Meet Gaston outside of his Tavern after a glass of LeFou’s Brew.
Another addition New Fantasyland brought was Big Top Souvenirs, which does indeed have a good selection of merchandise, but the real treat lies inside. Big Top Treats offers circus themed snacks from popcorn and peanuts to exquisite candied apples.
Big Top Souvenirs in New Fantasyland has incredible treats and a friendly staff.
After a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean, a taco salad from Tortuga Tavern is a great choice. The taco salad is served in a fried tortilla bowl, and the salad bar is available to add lettuce, tomato, salsa, and other toppings. This can be a great value and the restaurant has plenty of good seating.
While in Adventureland, we always grab a Dole Whip from Aloha Isle. These are a rare treat, and if you have never tried this famous pineapple soft serve, then hop in line and order two. After you eat the first one, you’ll thank me.
The hamburgers and hot dogs sold all over Disney properties are usually the same, but when you find a spot with a full condiments bar including hot cheese sauce, you’ve got a winner. Several of these exist on property, but our personal favorite is Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Café. A seat in the lounge will feature animatronic entertainment from your host, Sonny Eclipse.
There are other great dining opportunities around the Magic Kingdom, with too many to list. Every place we have tried we would visit over and over again.
There is no way to do justice to the culinary wonderland put on display at Epcot, especially not in a subsection of a blog post. Any restaurant you get a reservation for will surely delight.
While Future World is known for the rides and attractions, there are some very good food options available.
My wife loves Starbucks, but there is one Starbucks on Earth that stands above all others. While the rest of us visit Epcot for the trilling rides Test Track and Soarin’ or the inspiration of Innoventions and Spaceship Earth, my wife makes the journey to visit The Fountain View, Future World’s own Starbucks coffee shop. I will admit, enjoying a hot coffee and pastry while watching the Fountain of Nations is a great way to start the day.
A hamburger or meatball sub from the Electric Umbrella is a lunchtime staple, and the restaurant offers generous amounts of seating. The location is great, easily accessible in the center of Future World.
Our favorite quick service in all Disney is in Future World, specifically inside The Land pavilion. The Sunshine Seasons offers a fresh take on quick service from Ahi Tuna and Salmon to fantastic sandwiches. This food court is one of the largest on property, and has something for everyone.
A ride on Living with the Land will reveal the how interns and agriculturists at Disney work with science of growing plants and fish. Fresh fruits, vegetables, and fish are harvested from this attraction, and served all over Disney properties. Overlooking the ride is the ever rotating Garden Grill restaurant. Family style and fun, this restaurant is a perfect place to end a night in Future World. Chip and Dale bring their friends to dinner, and on a good night The Mouse will drop by for autographs.
We always enjoy walking around the aquarium after a ride on The Seas with Nemo and Friends. This aquarium is so large the entire sphere of Spaceship Earth can fit inside. After a stroll through the aquarium and a visit with Crush, we love to grab a meal at The Coral Reef. A beautiful restaurant with a wide variety of seafood dishes and view of the magnificent aquarium, this is an all time family favorite.
Epcot’s World Showcase is a foodie’s dream come true. Culinary creations from all over the world await the adventurous palate. Beer, wine, and spirits represent their homeland and are served by their countrymen. White tablecloths and street food are steps apart from one another. Mixed between the restaurants and kiosks are shops, attractions, and picturesque views.
The grand pyramid in Mexico may look like a simple marketplace at first glance, but inside you will find a boat ride, restaurant, and tequila bar. La Hacienda de San Angel is one of my favorite places to enjoy a margarita, and if you watch the volcano eruptions you may spot a hidden mickey. If you are in the mood to try some authentic tequila, La Cava del Tequila can have a long line, but it does boast a nice selection of tequila and tapas.
The pyramid at the Mexico Pavilion houses more than just a marketplace. Inside there is also a restaurant, Tequila bar, and boat ride.
To my family, there is no better place to eat breakfast than Norway’s Akershus Royal Banquet Hall. A character dining experience with the Disney Princesses, this restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Here family style meets buffet, and Norwegian flair packs a hearty punch. I highly recommend this dining experience, it never ceases to amaze our family. We usually end every trip with a meal at Akershus.
While in Norway, eat like a Viking in the Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe. Pretzels and beer, or coffee and salmon, this place is hard to pass up. When we are not dining at Akershus, we are likely to be found having a coffee or pastry in this Norwegian bakery.
Germany’s Biergarten is a great place to drink beer, enjoy a buffet, meet new people, and watch a show all in one stop. Unless you are a party of eight, expect to make new friends as every table seats, well, eight people. They do have beer in boots and a buffet that represents Germany very well, with sausage, schnitzel, sauerkraut, and other favorites.
If you do not have time for a table service meal in Germany, the quick service restaurant Sommerfest offers beer, brats, sauerkraut, schnapps, strudel, and, well, just about everything. Karamell-Küche (the Caramel Kitchen) has some of the best treats in Disney, with brownies, tarts, and other caramel creations that are not only fun to look at, but they taste great too.
We cannot pass Italy without making a pit stop at the wine cart in the square. They serve cold beverages, with a Moscato that keeps us coming back. Tutto Italia Ristorante has the best Italian cuisine at the parks, and a late lunch starting with antipasto and a bottle of wine is never a bad idea.
If you prefer a pizza made in a wood fire oven, then Via Napoli is for you. Watch your food cook while enjoying imported Italian beers or cocktails. Lunch or dinner, this restaurant offers a great menu and atmosphere.
Disney trips establish traditions and one of ours lies in Japan. Every trip includes the purchase of an oyster inside the Mikimoto store, where it is opened and a pearl is revealed. They will mount the newborn pearl to jewelry or give it to you bare, but the experience is one of my wife an son’s favorite things.
After getting our pearl at the Mikimoto store, we are torn between two great Japanese restaurants. Teppan Edo offers teppanyaki style dining with entertaining chefs and great food. For sushi and other authentic Japanese dishes, Tokyo Dining combines food and atmosphere with the perfect touch. Either of these restaurants are a good selection; we love them both.
The France Pavilion warrants a post to itself. Pastries, wine, street artists, shops, and a cinema — this pavilion has it all. If you don’t have time for a full meal in France, at least drop by Les Halles Boulangerie Patisserie and grab a treat. If you are looking for a great view and French cuisine then Les Chefs de France has both. This is a great restaurant for either lunch or dinner.
The other table service restaurant in the France Pavilion is one of our favorite places to dine. Monsieur Paul boasts elegance, a stunning wine list, and gourmet food. From the entrance to the restaurant through the desert, Monsieur Paul never fails to exceed expectations.
We love this restaurant so much, we made a special trip on our wedding anniversary for one night at Epcot, just to visit Monsieur Paul.
No trip to England is complete without a round at the pub. The England Pavilion’s Rose and Crown Pub is a must stop for a pint, and the dining room offers table service seating with a full menu. This is a great spot to grab an appetizer and round of beers in the evening, often with live piano and lots of laughter filling the air.
The Rose and Crown Pub in the England Pavilion.
Our friend from England, Margaret, swears the only good fish and chips in this country is at the Yorkshire County Fish Shop at Epcot. On beautiful days, it is hard to beat a cold beer and pile of fish outside while overlooking the World Showcase lagoon.
When we are able to get a reservation, we love to end an evening at World Showcase with a meal at Le Cellier. Canada Pavilion’s prime steakhouse is one of the best restaurants in Disney’s portfolio. The pretzel bread is incredible, the steaks are perfect, but the thing that brings us back is the best bowl of cheddar cheese soup ever made.
EPCOT hosts two annual festivals that bring dozens of additional options to their already stunning year-round collection of food wonderments. The International Food and Wine Festival in the fall is known for its display of annual treats, world-class chefs, cooking classes, and specialty dining. The lesser known Flower and Garden Festival is a springtime cornucopia of fresh food and drinks, served on a background of colorful topiaries and some of the best weather Florida has to offer.
Ghost pepper tilapia with melon slaw from the Urban Farm Eats kiosk at the Flower and Garden Festival 2014.
We make every effort to attend one, if not both, of these festivals every year. If you have a chance, be sure to check these out.
Paying homage to Hollywood’s golden era, Disney’s Hollywood Studios brings the movies to life with a side of some great food. The uniquely themed restaurants at this park are like none other, and have some amazing eats.
When the park first opened as MGM Studios, I was lucky enough to visit as a child. The memory that stuck with me though the years was the peanut butter and jelly milkshake from the 50’s Prime Time Café. Here mom is ready to make you a plate of your favorite home cooked meal while you watch your favorite shows, all set in the 1950s. Uniquely themed with classic childhood meals galore, this place is a must. And that peanut butter and jelly milkshake may sound questionable, but it really is out of this world.
The 50’s Prime Time Café at Christmas.
For another far out 50s experience, we love to have lunch at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater. Sitting in a replica of a 1950s car, you order classic comfort foods while watching the Sci Fi favorites of the fifties. We love the fried pickles, and their milkshakes give the Prime Time Café a run for their money.
Your carhop will deliver comfort foods while you watch classic sci-fi reels.
The Writer’s Stop shares an “alleyway” with the Drive-In, and it is a great place to grab a coffee, book, and a snack. We love to drop in for a rest on every trip and there is almost never a crowd in this shop.
Fantasmic! Dinner Package
The buffet at Hollywood and Vine has the standard Disney buffet items, but adds a custom pasta station. Mama Melrose has great Italian food and the atmosphere is fun and relaxing. The Brown Derby is themed after the Hollywood legend, and is amongst the top tier of Disney’s dining park-wide.
All three of these restaurants participate in the Fantasmic! Dinner Package, where you receive premium seating passes to the Hollywood Studios night-time spectacular. We have been able to snag very good seats using the passes, and all three of these restaurants are worth visiting.
Greeting you at the entrance to Animal Kingdom is the Rainforest Cafe. We have not eaten here as we have this restaurant chain in our hometown, but I assume it offers the atmosphere and food that the chain is known for.
Inside the park, our favorite is Tusker House with a combination of unique buffet options and character dining with Mickey, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy in safari gear. They serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The breakfast buffet is one of our favorites, and their African margarita is a personal favorite, and my wife loves the various Bloody Marys. If you are on the dining plan, this is a good value especially if your children enjoy the character dining experience. The food ranges from traditional Disney buffet options to unique African offerings.
Meet Mickey and the gang on safari at Tusker House in Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Nothing beats Kusafiri Coffee Shop & Bakery after a morning ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris. The pastries are family sized, and a warm cup of coffee is always welcome. For Napal inspired Asian fare, the Yak & Yeti Restaurant is a fun place, and their lunch and dinner menus have a lot to offer.
One of our favorite quick service restaurants is Flame Tree Barbecue on Discovery Island. This is a great value for dining plan participants and the outdoor seating is one of the best areas in the parks. We have had ducks running under our feet with great views of wildlife and Expedition Everest in the background. Some of the tables are a bit more isolated, offering a more peaceful dining experience, except for the occasional bird attempting to steal some food.
Animal Kingdom is packed with other quick service and snack locations including pizza, Asian fare, mixed drinks, and ice cream.
When should we book our reservations?
Like all things Disney, the more you plan ahead, the easier your vacation will be. We usually begin planning our next trip at least a year in advance, deciding on dates and exploring our options as soon as we can.
If you are booking online, the website does restrict how far out you can book your trip, so you may have to check back often to see when the next year’s pricing is released. Generally this is each summer, so 2016 trips will not become available until sometime in summer of 2015. You can call for booking a trip up to 500 days in advance, but we usually just use the website and have not had any problems. Our rooms are usually booked 7-11 months in advance.
If you are traveling during the off-season, there may be special offers for free dining, upgraded resorts, or other perks. We usually book ahead of the specials, then call in when the specials are announced to receive a refund or upgrade. This has worked for ourselves and several family members on multiple occasions, including for our trip this coming October.
We book these 180 days from the first day of our vacation. The trick here is you can get reservations for all the days of your trip on this magical day, and if you are trying to get into one of the more coveted restaurants on property then sometimes even this is not enough. Guests that are staying for longer trips may have already taken all the available reservations for the restaurant of your choice. In this case we always grab a backup and then check back often for a table to open up.
We have found that around 21-30 days out we have a good chance of grabbing the table we wanted. It seems a significant number of people change their plans at the last minute.
The Fastpass is your ticket to ride — it allows you to take an often significantly shorter line to enter the attractions of your choice. You can book three Fastpasses per day, up to 30 days before your first day in the park. After you run out of Fastpasses, you can visit a Fastpass+ kiosk to try and get more, but only after you have used all of your experiences. We try to reserve our Fastpass+ times as early as we can for the attractions we must see, and then attempt to book more as allowed.
How long should we stay?
This really depends on your family, what all you wish to see in Orlando, and your tolerance for fun (and crowds). Our typical stay is nine days, including travel. With four parks, tons of resort amenities, Downtown Disney, the Boardwalk, and all the other areas, we find a few days is not enough. At the very least, I would recommend taking a full day in each park.
What are good money saving tips?
Every Disney vacation starts with a budget. To help us maximize our dollar, we opt to save where it is easiest and has the most value.
Book a Cheap Flight
Using travel sites or airline miles, we always go for the cheapest flight we can find, since the shortest amount of our vacation time will be spent on the plane. Because of where we live, we typically fly Southwest. This allows us to check two bags each, and for non-stop flights to Orlando they are usually the cheapest.
Bottled water, granola bars, fresh fruit, and other snacks and refreshments are more expensive on property than most convenience stores. To save money, we usually order these items from GardenGrocer.com and have them delivered to our resort. Using the in room refrigerator we have a constant supply of cold water, fruit, and snacks. This small trick saves us time and money every year.
Don’t rent a car
If you plan on staying on property and are spending your entire trip at Disney then there is no reason to rent a car. As noted above, the transportation provided by Disney to its resort guests is quite extensive, and we have never had a problem getting around without a car.
If you are traveling to other Orlando area theme parks or attractions, then Orlando does have some of the cheapest car rental rates in the country.
Quick Service to the Airport
Since we usually try to get an afternoon flight home, allowing us a breakfast or brunch in the park prior to returning home, we like to have our final Disney meal at the airport. It may be debatable if this is a money saving tip, however, we tend to save a quick service meal credit from our dining plan and make our final order at the resort’s quick service counter prior to boarding the bus. They will gladly pack up the meals to-go with plates and cutlery, bagged up and ready for your trip home.
Any other advice worth passing on?
The parks are huge, and the entire Walt Disney World complex is roughly the size of San Francisco, so be prepared to walk a lot. We usually buy a new pair of tennis shoes a week or two before the trip and break them in. You will be thankful you got new shoes once you realize how much walking you actually do at Disney.
Next, I would say check the cynicism at the airport and just enjoy the experience. Be a kid and see the parks as the wonderland they are. This is a place that is meant to inspire hope and bring happiness to people; try to enjoy that while you are on vacation. I know this seems out of place, but it really is important. If you are spending your vacation time and dollar on a trip to Walt Disney World, then go ahead and don a pair of Mickey ears and have a magical time.
Lastly, I would say that Disney cast-members are known to reward polite children. We have witnessed dozens of occasions where a child was rewarded for a simple please, thank you, or other kind words. This has been in the form of stickers, special treatment from characters, and even some truly magical surprises. These cast-members interact with thousands of people a day, usually with a smile and sincere desire to make our stay as perfect as possible. Treating them with respect and dignity is not only the right thing to do, when our children do it they notice.
If you are taking a trip to Disney World, whether it is your first or fiftieth, be sure to do a lot of planning ahead. Our first trip we did not want to plan anything, just take it in and enjoy a vacation. We missed out on a lot. Don’t go overboard, but do grab some dining reservation and book your Fastpasses early. Most importantly, I hope you have a safe trip and a magical time.