Illustration of Mickey Mouse by Natasha McDonald on article about Disney World
Every child and adult has perhaps dreamed of going to Disney World. This article has all the tips you need to start planning for your visit to the Magic Kingdom. (Illustration by Natasha McDonald, Columbia College Chicago)
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Illustration of Mickey Mouse by Natasha McDonald on article about Disney World

Yes, you need to download the app.

Walt Disney World is one of the most popular theme parks in the entire world. Anyone, from superfans of the classic movies to the everyday rollercoaster junkie, can find something there for them. Here I have compiled a list of things you need to know when planning a trip to the famous House of Mouse. It might seem a little overwhelming at first, but trust me, it is so worth it.

The Disney World App

Before you do anything, you absolutely have to download the My Disney Experience app. This, along with the website mydisneyexperience.com, is where you will be doing everything. It houses all of your plans, Fastpasses, reservations, hotel information and more. Anytime you have a question about anything in the parks, there is usually a simple answer just a tap away on the app. It even has a newly-integrated shopping feature where you can scan an item’s price tag in the park and see the location of other sizes of that item on a map. The most important part of it is that it connects to your MagicBands, which are like room keys, charging cards and Disney IDs all on your wrist. I know that it sucks having to add yet another data-guzzling, storage-stretching app onto your phone, but it is very necessary.

Booking

Now, this is probably the most important step because everything you do from here is going to depend on where you stay. I suggest — no, I beg — that you stay at a Disney World hotel or resort. As in, on the Disney property. Not only does it add to the experience of feeling fully immersed in Disney World throughout your entire stay, but there are so many benefits. If you stay on property you have access to “Extra Magic Hours,” a system in which certain parks open early or close late for people that are at Disney hotels. You should really decide which parks you will visit each day based on this (unless you buy a Parkhopper ticket so that you can go wherever, whenever).

You also get MagicBands for free and have access to Fastpasses 60 days out rather than 30 and can make dining reservations a whopping 180 days out. And trust me, if you want to hit the best rides, attractions and restaurants, you will need that. There are a few nearby hotels that are off property and have partnerships with Disney to do this, but they are few and far between.

The best part of staying on property though, is the free transportation services. Rather than having to drive in and park yourself at every place you go or having to shuttle from the transportation center, you can take a free bus, boat, monorail or even gondola from your hotel straight to the parks. And you even get free transportation to and from the airport via the Disney Magical Express bus service. It is so simple and takes much less time than the alternative.

There are options when it comes to on-property vacationing. You can stay at one of the more value hotels, like any of the Pop Centurys. They are the smallest, but also the cheapest. Then there are the mid-tier places, such as Port Orleans and Coronado Springs. They are a little nicer and pricier. And then there’s the best of the best: hotels like The Contemporary and The Grand Floridian. These luxurious babies will really set you back, but it’s like staying at the Ritz and they are usually the closest to at least one of the parks. My family is personally a part of the Disney Vacation Club, which is a whole other discussion, but we can stay at separate condo-like timeshare resorts, such as Saratoga Springs.

Fastpasses

These are like line-skippers. You are given an hour time window in which you can come to a ride you previously selected and essentially go straight to the front. As I said before, if you are staying at a Disney World hotel or resort, you can select your Fastpasses up to 60 days in advance of your trip, which you will absolutely want to do. My mom usually wakes up at six in the morning when we hit our 60 days out mark so that she can get the best ones.

Certain attractions that are more popular than others are in their own category and you can only get one of them per day. Overall you can get three per day. If you do all three, then you can acquire one more while you are still in the park via the app, but it is usually for a pretty bad ride because all of the good ones are gone.

The one really sucky thing about Fastpasses is that they all have to be in the same park each day even if you have a Parkhopper ticket, so you really have to try to get the rides you want early and then plan the rest of your trip based around what you were able to collect. If you don’t get something you really wanted, I suggest getting to the park as soon as it opens and running (I mean walking) straight to the line.

Dining

Obviously dining doesn’t have to be that big of a deal. You can just eat at the cheaper food stands or bring your own food if you want to. I mean, with the new ordering feature on the app, you don’t even have to wait in line at the stands anymore. But there’s something so special about the fancier restaurants. They complete the experience and really turn the theme parks into fancy vacations.

If you’re on the Disney Dining Plan (don’t be), you can only eat at certain places and order certain things for a fixed price. But if you are not, you can order whatever, wherever. I highly suggest Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom and the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They are my favorites and demonstrate the two types of menus perfectly.

Be Our Guest is a character dining experience where you pay a flat rate per person and get to eat amazing food and interact with a costumed human (in this case, the Beast). The Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater does not have a character greeting, but it is per item and has the really cool atmosphere of a 1950s drive-in theater. Make sure you book 180 days out if you’re staying on property. They’ll go fast.

Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge

This will only be pertinent a little while longer, but I thought I should include it because it has really changed everything recently. The newest addition to Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge section. This area offers delights to space travelers from all over the universe with its unique “Star Wars”-themed rides, atmosphere, food and games on the Play Disney Parks app. It truly is otherwordly.

However, its main attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, has created such a stir that they have had to implement a brand-new entry system: boarding groups. Once in the park, you and your party go on the app and request a boarding group. You are assigned a number and when that number is reached, you have two hours to get to the ride to line up.

The difficulty here is that there are so many people trying to ride that it is extremely hard to actually do it. Right now you have to get to the park at least an hour before it opens just to be able to get in line and in the park about half an hour before opening and then wait and click on the request on the app right at opening or else you won’t get a group — that’s how fast they run out. Some people have had their apps freeze and then not get a boarding group even though they requested only a few minutes too late. I recently had to do this and thankfully, I did get a group (it is so worth it by the way), but it was a lot of work. You have to be really dedicated.

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