Why Two Weeks?
We’ve all seen advertisements for Disney World featuring happy smiling families carelessly strolling along uncrowded walkways, with parents and children both experiencing the wonder and adventure all around them. Yet for many people, the reality of a Disney World vacation is exactly the opposite—it’s a mad dash through hot and crowded theme parks, and hours spent standing in line surrounded by hordes of screaming children.
I think the underlying problem is that many people—even those that have visited Disney World in the past—don’t understand just how vast the property truly is.
Walt Disney World is a big place. Really big. Like, roughly the size of San Francisco big. It has roads and six-lane highways with speed limits as high as 50 mph. It has a privately-run transportation system—featuring buses, monorails, boats, and ferries—that rivals the public transit systems of many large cities. In fact, Disney’s onsite fleet of watercraft would rank as the world’s fifth largest navy!
In addition to Disney’s collection of core theme parks, the property hosts two water parks, four golf courses, nine sports venues, two entertainment complexes, and 36 resorts and hotels. There’s a ranch for camping and horseback riding. There are lakes for bass fishing and parasailing. You could literally spend months on the property and still not manage to experience everything it has to offer.
I could go on listing Disney World’s attractions and amenities, but this blog post would last forever. There are entire websites dedicated to cataloging all that Disney World has to offer. Some of my favorites are AllEars.net and The DIS. If you’re planning a trip, definitely check out those two sites.
So what’s the secret? Here’s the TL;DR version: Pace yourself and plan ahead.
First off, if you want the full experience a week or less isn’t going to cut it. Sure, it’s possible to cram a decent amount of park time—and maybe even a couple of extras—into that schedule, but it’s going to be grueling. A more realistic visit is 12-14 days. Of course, you could stay longer (and many people do) but for me, that’s the sweet spot.
The reason for this is simple: Two shorter days at a park are much more pleasant than trying to jam everything you want to do into a single long and exhausting day. Still, if you end up spending those two days stuck in huge crowds or standing in long lines it’ll be just as unpleasant.
That’s where the planning part comes in. You don’t need to design a minute-by-minute itinerary, but try to plan what general areas you want to visit each day long before your vacation begins. And I really do mean long before. Like six months out.
Why plan so far ahead of time? For two reasons: ADRs and FastPasses. These are reservations for dining and attractions, and people start booking them 180 days and 90 days out respectively. They’re also key to avoiding crowds and long lines. So be ready to book them as early as you can.
Theme Park Days
- Magic Kingdom: East
- Magic Kingdom: West
- Magic Kingdom: Extra Day
- Epcot: Future World
- Epcot: World Showcase
- Epcot: Extra Day
- Animal Kingdom: Africa
- Animal Kingdom: Asia
- Hollywood Studios: North
- Hollywood Studios: South
You should stay in a Disney resort if you can. There are 18 uniquely-themed resorts operated by Disney throughout the property, so you’ll have no trouble finding something that fits your personality and your budget. You’ll also want to get a 10-Day ticket to the theme parks, which provides the most bang for your buck.
Crowd levels (and prices) vary throughout the year, so when you book your trip try to find a time of year that works with your schedule and budget, while also avoiding the busiest seasons. It’s also a good idea to check if any of your favorite rides or attractions have scheduled closures.
After your trip is booked, the time to start planning is approximately six months prior to arrival. This is when Disney publishes park hours and events, and also when you can start booking those ADRs. Don’t wait too long because the best restaurants fill up quickly.
Although there’s a lot to do outside the parks, you’ll probably still spend the bulk of your time there. Take a look at the schedule for each day and pick a park that doesn’t have Extra Magic Hours. The parks tend to be more crowded on those days, and you don’t need the extra hours anyway. Remember, you’re pacing yourself!
These parks are big. In fact, Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the largest theme park in the world! If you plan on spending more than a day at any one park, it’s a good idea to spend each day in a different area to minimize time spent walking. My recommendations for how to do this are below.
Magic Kingdom East
The entire eastern half of the Magic Kingdom is dominated by its two largest lands, Fantasyland and Tomorrowland. Given the massive expansion of Fantasyland that was completed in 2014, you could easily spend an entire day exploring these two areas.
Book a FastPass for the nightly fireworks show as well as afternoon FastPasses for Space Mountain and The 7 Dwarfs Mine Train. If you don’t like roller coasters, get FastPasses for Peter Pan’s Flight and the Princess Fairytale Hall instead. I’d also recommend getting a late dinner reservation at Be Our Guest. (They’re hard to get though, so book early.)
Have a lazy morning and arrive at the park in the late morning or early afternoon. Take your time making your way down Main Street. Take in the sights, sounds, and smells. There is a lot there that often goes overlooked. When you get to the end of Main Street, head into Fantasyland or over into Tomorrowland.
After dinner, slowly make your way back towards Main Street. There’s no need to rush, because you’ve got a FastPass for a reserved spot with a great view of the fireworks.
Magic Kingdom West
The western half of the Magic Kingdom contains its other three lands: Frontierland, Adventureland, and Liberty Square. There is so much packed into these “small” lands that you’ll have no trouble spending a full day there.
Book a FastPass for the afternoon parade. Also consider getting morning or early-afternoon FastPasses for Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Jungle Cruise, or The Haunted Mansion. None of these attractions tend to have long lines in the morning, so just get FastPasses for your two favorites and do the rest early in the day.
I also strongly recommend booking the earliest breakfast reservation you can get at The Crystal Palace. They take breakfast reservations for an hour before the park opens to the public, which means your reservation will move you past all the people lined up outside and allow you to stroll down a completely empty Main Street. There is no better way to start your day!
A little before 3 P.M., head over to the parade’s reserved viewing area (which you scored access to with your FastPass) and finish off your day with some whimsical entertainment. After the parade is over, take your time leaving the park. This is a great time to head back to your resort and relax, or take a dip in the pool. You also might want to make dinner reservations at one of the fantastic restaurants located outside the parks—Sanaa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, for example, is a must-do for my family on every trip.
Magic Kingdom Extra Day
Although the Magic Kingdom is the smallest of the four theme parks, there are more attractions there than at any of the others. No matter how efficient your two-day plan is, chances are you’re going to need an extra day. Don’t book any FastPasses in advance—just see what piques your interest and use this as an opportunity for spontaneity.
Epcot Future World
Epcot is divided into two distinct areas, and I’d recommend dedicating at least a day to each. The first, Future World, is dedicated to earth, science, and technology. This is also where most of the major E-Ticket rides are located, as well as some great exhibits and attractions.
FastPasses work a little differently in Epcot. You can only have one FastPass at a time for the four most popular attractions in the park, two of which (Soarin’ and Test Track) are in Future World.
Soarin’ and Test Track are both must-visit attractions. If you’re an early riser, your best bet is to get a FastPass for one, and try to visit the other right after the park opens (before the line gets too long).
If you’d prefer a later start to your day, then try to book a FastPass for Soarin’ or Test Track for as soon as you plan to arrive at the park. Once you use it, you’ll be able to book another FastPass that day for the other one.
Epcot World Showcase
While Future World celebrates the achievements of mankind, World Showcase celebrates its history and culture. With eleven large pavilions—each of which is meticulously themed to represent a different country—it’s easy to spend a day or two there.
World Showcase usually opens later in the day than the other parks (generally around 11 A.M.). You’ll definitely want to book a FastPass for a reserved spot at IllumiNations—it’s breathtaking, and you’ll want a good view. There are also a ton of amazing dining options throughout World Showcase, so it’s a good idea to get ADRs for lunch and dinner.
If you’re a Frozen fan, you should plan on getting to the park about 30 minutes before World Showcase opens. When you arrive, head directly to the Norway pavilion. The new Frozen Ever After attraction is wildly popular, but you can’t get a FastPass for it if you already have one for IllumiNations.
If do arrive right when World Showcase opens, keep in mind that IllumiNations doesn’t start until later in the evening (usually around 9:30 P.M.). You might want to head out in the early evening to take a break, and then come back later for the show. Alternatively, if you want to spend two days at World Showcase you could get a FastPass for Frozen Ever After on one day, and one for IllumiNations on the other.
Epcot Extra Day
Like the Magic Kingdom, there is so much to do at Epcot that you’ll struggle to fit it all into two days without running around like crazy. And remember, that’s exactly what you’re trying to avoid.
Plan to spend an extra day at Epcot doing all the stuff you couldn’t fit into the other two. I’m a huge fan of World Showcase (especially the food—and there are only so many meals in a day), so I like to plan on spending most of my Epcot “bonus” day there.
Animal Kingdom–Africa, Discovery Island, and Rafiki’s Planet Watch
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is massive. It’s the largest theme park in the world. In fact, its largest attraction, Kilimanjaro Safaris, is bigger than the entire Magic Kingdom park! My recommendation is to tackle it over the course of two days.
On one of those days, book FastPasses for Kilimanjaro Safaris, Festival of the Lion King, and either Adventurers Outpost or It’s Tough to be a Bug!, depending on your preference. You should also try to get an ADR for breakfast, lunch, or dinner at the Tusker House.
When you arrive, take your time making your way through The Oasis and Discovery Island, enjoying the animal exhibits and taking in the views. Also, take your time exploring all the sights and atmosphere in Harambe, and be sure to explore the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail.
Not only is Disney’s Animal Kingdom huge, it’s also a few degrees hotter than the rest of Disney World because of its thick vegetation. Try to spend fewer hours there than you do in the other parks, and head out early to relax and recover back at your resort.
Animal Kingdom–Asia, DinoLand and Pandora
This day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be a little more exotic, thrilling, and fantastic. Book FastPasses for Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids, and AVATAR Flight of Passage (opening this summer). You also might want to get an ADR for lunch or dinner at Yak and Yeti.
Try to arrive early and head directly to DinoLand. There are some really great attractions there that tend to get busier as the day goes on, so you’ll want to go early and beat the crowds.
Like Harambe in Africa, the kingdom of Anandapur is full of sights and rich details that you won’t want to miss. It tends to get crowded, but try to spend some time there taking it all in.
All the rides, exhibits, and attractions in these areas of Disney’s Animal Kingdom will be sure to wear you out early, so don’t spend all day in the park. Head out early and take a relaxing evening to recover.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios North
Disney’s Hollywood Studios is described as the “Hollywood that never was—and always will be.” Although the park is currently in a state of transition, much of it still holds true to that description.
That’s true especially for the northern half, which is comprised of Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and Echo Lake. While you might not spend a full day there, this area makes for a great afternoon and evening after a lazy morning at the resort.
Get afternoon or evening FastPasses for Rock n’ Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, and Star Tours. If you don’t like roller coasters, get a FastPass for Fantasmic! instead of Rock n’ Roller Coaster. And if the Tower of Terror is too intense for you, get a FastPass for Beauty and the Beast or Indiana Jones instead.
If you didn’t get a FastPass for Fantasmic!, I highly recommend considering the Fantasmic! dining package. And if you did, consider getting an ADR for lunch or dinner at Hollywood and Vine, the Brown Derby, or the ‘50s Prime Time Café.
Arrive late in the day and spend some time enjoying the atmosphere on Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards and Echo Lake while visiting the attractions in those areas. At the end of the night, even if you have a FastPass (or a pass from the Fantasmic! Dining Package) head over to the amphitheater a little early to get a good seat for Fantasmic. It’s worth it.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios South
Like the northern half, the southern part of Disney’s Hollywood Studios—comprised of Commissary Lane, Pixar Place, and Muppets Courtyard—has enough attractions to fill part of, but probably not all of, a day. This makes for a great opportunity to visit some of the attractions outside the parks as well.
Get FastPasses for Toy Story Mania, Muppet Vision 3D, and Star Tours. Yes, you read that right: Do Star Tours on both days. Trust me. You might also want to consider getting an ADR for lunch or dinner at Mama Melrose’s or the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater.
Like always, take your time and enjoy all the little things. Despite the ongoing changes and construction, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is still full of charm, atmosphere, and lots of little hidden details.
Beyond The Parks
As you can see, it’s easy to spend 10 days visiting just the core theme parks. But there are a number of other attractions and areas that you’ll want to dedicate at least a couple of days to.
Disney World is home to two large water parks. Each is uniquely themed and features world-class attractions. If water parks are your thing, you could easily spend an entire day at either one.
Depending on how active you are, a full day at a water park might be exhausting. I like to arrive early in the day and leave around mid-afternoon. That leaves time to relax for a few hours back at the resort before heading out somewhere for a nice dinner.
There is no shortage of recreation in Disney World–surfing, parasailing, water skiing, tennis, archery, golf (themed mini-golf or the PGA variety), bass fishing, horseback riding, and more.
Some of these are full-day activities and some only take a few hours. There are too many possibilities to list here, so do some research and find something that interests you.
One of my favorite things to do is take a pontoon boat out on Bay Lake or the Sassagoula River and just cruise around. They’re large enough for the whole family and are great for a picnic lunch out on the water.
Disney Springs is a massive outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment complex. With 150 shops, restaurants, and theaters, you’ll have no trouble finding plenty to do there.
You might not want to spend a whole day there, but it’s a perfect spot for an afternoon or an evening out.
Also, if you haven’t seen it yet, La Nouba by Cirque du Soleil is an amazing show and you should definitely get tickets if you can.
Disney World’s other shopping, dining, and entertainment complex is simply called “The Boardwalk”. It’s not nearly as extravagant as Disney Springs, but it’s charming in its own way.
Again, there’s no need to schedule a full day here. Still, you could spend hours walking the promenade, playing the midway games, or watching the street performers. There are also some great shops, restaurants, and even a dance hall.
Like Disney Springs, this is a great way to spend an afternoon or evening.
There are 18 unique Disney World resorts, each complete with dining, shopping, entertainment and elaborate theming.
Some are extravagant, like the Grand Floridian which features live entertainment and world class dining. Others are exotic, like the Animal Kingdom Lodge with its authentic African artwork and hundreds of live animals.
And the dining. Did I mention the dining? I already suggested Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge. Another must-visit is the California Grill at the top of the Contemporary Resort.
If you’re looking for a fun dining experience, with servers that are real characters, check out the Whispering Canyon Café at the Wilderness Lodge. On the other end of the spectrum, Victoria and Albert’s at the Grand Floridian is the ultimate in fine dining.
Mark, you should write for Disney!