The ultimate guide to Walt Disney World Resort

For those looking to make a road trip to the entertainment mecca of Walt Disney World in Florida, there’s no better time to visit than now: The resort is celebrating its 50th anniversary with extra doses of entertainment, new attractions, glittering decor, and more, through March 2023. But for first-time visitors—and those who haven’t been in a few years—there’s a lot to know about this theme park destination.

From where to stay and what to eat, to itinerary suggestions and tips for navigating the crowds, here are the key things to know when plotting a getaway to Walt Disney World in Orlando.

What is Walt Disney World Resort?

The Walt Disney World Resort encompasses four theme parks, two water parks, several golf and miniature golf courses, Disney Springs and BoardWalk entertainment districts, ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, and more. The property is roughly the same size as San Francisco, so first-time visitors can often be overwhelmed by the sheer volume of offerings available.

Most parents consider ages 5 to 10 to be the “sweet spot” for taking kids to Disney as they’re old enough to remember the trip but young enough to still be wowed by the magic. However, in recent years Disney has worked hard to expand its audience. It’s doubled down on new offerings designed to appeal to preschoolers, with tot-friendly new attractions like Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and worked to expand tween and teen appeal with new experiences that highlight stories from Marvel, Star Wars, and other popular franchises.

To make things simple, here are the key areas to know:

Maleficent towers over guests during the “Disney Festival of Fantasy Parade” in Magic Kingdom Park. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Magic Kingdom Park

Step inside this iconic family-friendly park and you’re soon greeted by the stunning sight of Cinderella Castle. For lovers of fairytales and families aspiring to make lifelong memories with their children, Magic Kingdom offers an unrivaled level of charm and romantic appeal. Here you can take flight on a soaring elephant, explore dense forests on a jungle cruise, get lost on an adventure to Neverland, and watch as your favorite Disney stories come to life throughout six themed lands. 

What not to miss: Watching fireworks explode above the castle is truly a must-see experience. Showtimes for the nightly performance, Disney Enchantment, can be found on the My Disney Experience app. 

Noteworthy seasonal events: The Magic Kingdom hosts separate ticketed events to several after-hour parties throughout the year. The most popular is Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, which stretches from August through October.

Insider tip: If you’re driving to the Magic Kingdom, you’ll need to take a tram in the parking lot, and then either a boat or the monorail to the park itself, so allow extra travel time. 

a replica of a french village at night
The real is made fantastic in a reimagining of Paris in a new section of the France pavilion at EPCOT. | Photo courtesy of Disney

EPCOT

Though EPCOT opened more than a decade after Walt Disney’s death, the park was a passion project for the legendary innovator. His original vision for the park was that it would serve as an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) that allowed people to both live and play in a futuristic society—at least by 1960s standards. While this vision never came to fruition, the EPCOT of today offers an edu-taining look at topics such as space travel, agriculture, and the history of communication, as well as the opportunity to explore the food and cultures of 11 countries throughout its World Showcase.

What not to miss: EPCOT’s first roller coaster, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, opens May 27, 2022, taking riders on an exhilarating intergalactic chase.

Noteworthy seasonal events: It’s almost always festival season at EPCOT, beginning each January with an art-focused fest. Spring brings a flower festival, while the popular food and wine offerings roll out in summer and fall. The park also celebrates holiday traditions around the world each winter.

Insider tip: Each of the four EPCOT festivals centers around unique, limited-time food offerings, and you’ll want to leave ample time and stomach space for snacking on small dishes throughout the day. Skip scheduling a sit-down meal during your visit and taste your way around the world instead.

a starcruiser is lit up at night
The first full-size Starblaster ever built stands outside Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Disney’s Hollywood Studios

While you won’t find any actual recording studios at Disney’s film-themed park, Hollywood Studios still serves as a love letter to your favorite movies, television shows, and entertainers. It’s here that you can pilot the Millennium Falcon, step into The Twilight Zone, and ride aboard a larger-than-life Slinky Dog toy from the Toy Story movies. 

What not to miss: The most immersive land in the park is Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, which offers the park’s most popular and innovative attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

Noteworthy seasonal events: Disney’s Hollywood Studios comes to life with holiday joy each winter with Christmas-themed light shows and entertainment spread throughout the park.

Insider tip: Disney’s Hollywood Studios also offers live shows themed to everything from Beauty and the Beast to Indiana Jones. Be sure to check showtimes in advance and make note of any must-see entertainment as these offerings only run at set times throughout the day.

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an open air safari vehicle holds people while they look at a small rhino
On Kilimanjaro Safaris, guests can marvel at animals and meet the newest arrivals. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Disney’s largest theme park allows you to explore the sights and animals of Africa and Asia, as well as fantastical lands devoted to dinosaurs, the Avatar franchise, and more. It’s a mix of real-world wonders and epic fantasies made real in a setting that’s so much more than a traditional zoo. 

What not to miss: If you see one show at Disney, it should be Animal Kingdom’s Festival of the Lion King. A mix of Cirque du Soleil-style acrobatics, elaborate costumes, and appearances by favorite characters such as Timon and Pumba, the show is visually stunning and always entertaining.

Noteworthy seasonal events: True to the park’s conservation theme, Earth Day brings a bevy of special offerings to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, each with a focus on protecting and preserving the natural world around us.

Insider tip: If your little ones enjoy completing Junior Ranger activities at national parks, they’ll also love Disney Animal Kingdom’s Wilderness Explorer program. Complete nature-themed challenges throughout the park and collect more than 25 badges as you earn this honorary title.

a building with a deck overlooks a green waterway
Town Center at Disney Springs. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Water parks, Disney Springs, and more

If you’re planning a longer visit to the Disney theme parks, be sure to allot time for some of the resort’s other offerings. Here are a few favorites:

  • Disney Springs: Stroll through a mix of Disney-exclusive and big-name designer brand shops, one-of-a-kind restaurants, and entertainment options at Disney Springs. 
  • Water Parks: Cool off at Disney’s two water parks. Blizzard Beach ski resort-themed with snow that’s melting in the Florida sun, while Typhoon Lagoon offers a beachy, tropical oasis.
  • Miniature golf courses: Disney’s Fantasia Gardens offers a miniature golf course themed after the 1940 movie, whereas Disney’s Winter Summerland offers two Santa-themed courses that take you either through the North Pole or to Mr. Claus’ summertime getaway.
  • Traditional golf courses: Golfers have their choice of four courses, with Disney’s Magnolia Golf Course, Disney’s Palm Golf Course, and Lake Buena Vista Golf Course all offering 18 holes of enjoyment. The fourth, Disney’s Oak Trail Golf Course, is a nine-hole walking course.

Resort hotels

Disney’s on-property lodging options are vast. Offerings range from a campground and value-priced resorts to deluxe villas that can sleep up to 12 people. Here’s a list of available Disney hotels for your stay.

the inside of a hotel room with two beds and polynesian touches
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort at Walt Disney World Resort. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Magic Kingdom Resort Area

The Campsites at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort (Campground Resort)
Disney’s Contemporary Resort (Deluxe Resort)
Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (Deluxe Resort)
Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort (Deluxe Resort)
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (Deluxe Resort)
Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows (Deluxe Villa Resort)
The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa (Deluxe Villa Resort)
The Cabins at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort (Moderate Resort)

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Resort Area

Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (Deluxe Resort)
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Jambo House (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort (Moderate Resort)
Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort (Value Resort)
Disney’s All-Star Music Resort (Value Resort)
Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort (Value Resort)

EPCOT Resort Area

Disney’s Beach Club Resort (Deluxe Resort)
Disney’s BoardWalk Inn (Deluxe Resort)
Disney’s Yacht Club Resort (Deluxe Resort)
Disney’s Beach Club Villas (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s BoardWalk Villas (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s Riviera Resort (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort (Moderate Resort)

Disney Springs Resort Area

Disney’s Old Key West Resort (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa (Deluxe Villa Resort)
Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter (Moderate Resort)
Disney’s Port Orleans Resort – Riverside (Moderate Resort)

Wide World of Sports Resort Area

Disney’s Art of Animation Resort (Value Resort)
Disney’s Pop Century Resort (Value Resort)

Visitors looking to get the best bang for their buck should consider RV or tent camping at the sprawling Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort and Campground, which is bursting with family-friendly amenities and offers easy boat access to Magic Kingdom Park. For those looking to splurge, consider a stay at the recently refurbished tropical oasis of Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, or a modern suite at Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

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The Orlando area includes hundreds of other hotel options within close proximity to the parks, often at a more wallet-friendly price point. Many of these offerings provide complimentary theme park transportation, and some, such as the Walt Disney World Swan and Dolphin, are just a short walk or boat ride from EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. 


Tickets and reservations

There are many different types of Disney World tickets available, including multi-day ticket options that allow you to save on longer stays. Florida residents can get discounted tickets and annual passes. Annual passes are currently not available to non-Florida residents.

To enter a theme park, you will also need a park reservation for the park you plan to visit—for each day you’d like to visit. This is a relatively new process that helps better ensure that the parks don’t reach their capacity limits. Before purchasing a theme park ticket, please check to see if your desired date and theme park is available. The current availability calendar is found on disneyworld.com.

the large spherical building surrounded by flags
EPCOT. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Here are a few of the tickets available:

  • Room and theme park ticket packages: If you’re planning to stay at one of the Disney hotels mentioned above, consider booking everything together as a package deal to save money. Often there are promotions running on packages, so check disneyworld.com for the current rates.
  • Standard theme park tickets: These tickets include one theme park per day and are the best for those looking to save money and avoid the logistics of traveling between parks.
  • Park Hopper option: By adding this to your ticket, you can visit more than one park on the same day. If you have a short stay and are looking to pack in a lot, this is a great option.
  • Water Park and Sports option: This option allows you to visit one theme park per day, in addition to the water parks, miniature golf courses, and traditional golf courses. This is a great add-on for longer stays.
  • Park Hopper Plus option: This provides park hopping and the Water Park and Sports option. It’s the heftiest add-on and should be reserved for those who think they’ll truly make the most of all the benefits it includes.

Food and drink

Mickey-shaped food items abound at Disney, from ice cream bars to waffles, pretzels, cookies, and more, and these mousey confections make for the perfect treat. But the parks offer so much more to enjoy, including gigantic turkey legs, popcorn in collectible themed buckets, pineapple Dole Whips, and even the legendary “gray stuff” referenced in Beauty and the Beast. There’s also a seasonal rotation of limited-time offerings, including more than 150 food items that were added for the resort’s 50th anniversary.

a desert shaped like mickey mouse
The special food and beverage offerings for the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney World. | Photo courtesy of Disney

But it’s not all junk food and sweet treats. Each park also offers an array of themed dining experiences. From blasting off to space at EPCOT’s Space 220 restaurant to dining alongside Cinderella in her namesake castle at Magic Kingdom, there are lots of fine dining, buffet, and character dining options to choose from. For these dining experiences, you’re going to want to plan in advance, up to 180 days before your visit, to secure the most coveted reservations.

With all these amazing treats on tap, you’ll want to add some dining splurges into your budget. But bringing your own food is allowed too; just keep in mind that only smaller, handheld coolers are allowed. Loose ice (including ice in a plastic bag) is not permitted, so bring reusable ice packs to keep items chilled in the hot Florida sun.


Planning your trip

There’s more to explore here than can be accomplished in one week’s time, so when planning your trip, it’s important to prioritize the places and things you most want to experience. Here are suggestions for how to map an itinerary, no matter how much time you have.

A weekend: Weekend visitors should plan to see just two theme parks. If it’s your first visit, try Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios to see a mix of classic favorites and newer offerings. If you have a little extra time, park hop from Disney Hollywood Studios to EPCOT for an evening of fun or enjoy dinner at one of the restaurants at Disney Springs.

3 to 5 days: A slightly longer stay gives you enough time to visit each park once. Plot out what you want to do at each spot, while still leaving time for leisurely sit-down meals as well as opportunities to unwind and recoup at your resort pool.

7 days or more: A weeklong vacation gives you enough time to visit each park, plus an extra day to double back and experience things you missed. For this length of stay, you can also work in time to visit a water park, do some golfing or other recreation, and even head beyond the parks to see what else Central Florida has to offer.

What is there to do in Orlando besides Disney? Harry Potter fans should be sure to allow time to visit both Universal Orlando Resort theme parks, and the SeaWorld Orlando and Legoland Florida theme parks are also just a short drive away. Orlando’s International Drive is home to a variety of other family-friendly attractions, and the Atlantic Coast beaches, along with the Kennedy Space Center Complex, are just an hour away.

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Skip the lines

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the planning process, rest easy: There are some tools that help make your visit easier to navigate. Here are the most popular conveniences you can select for your stay.

MagicBands: MagicBands are colorful, waterproof wristbands that allow you to easily unlock your hotel room door, enter the theme parks, and pay for food and merchandise, all with a simple tap of the wrist. MagicBands are a popular way to simplify your stay, and you can choose from a variety of fun designs (all available for an extra fee). This summer, Disney is also introducing a new generation of MagicBand, MagicBand+, which will include even more interactive features. MagicBands can be ordered online up to 10 days prior to your visit, or they can be purchased when you arrive.

Disney Genie: Disney Genie is a complementary feature on the My Disney Experience app that provides attraction and dining recommendations based on your family’s interests, including suggestions on best times to visit to avoid crowds. The app also offers a tip board with wait times, as well as mobile food ordering.

For an extra fee, you can purchase Disney Genie+. This gives you all the features of Disney Genie, with the added benefit of selecting a window of time to enter an expedited queue line, called a Lightning Lane, for some of the most popular attractions. For the most highly demanded attractions, Lightning Lane entrance access is available on an individual, pay-per-ride, system.

mickey and minnie mouse visit with guests at a restaurant
Guests can dine with their favorite characters. | Photo courtesy of Disney

Best time to visit

Summertime and other school holidays are generally the busiest times to visit the theme parks. If these are your only travel options, choose a visit during the winter holidays when the parks are aglow with the magic of the season. 

But even if you’re not visiting during peak season, you can still expect crowds nearly any time of year thanks to the ever-revolving array of themed events, festivals, and other limited-time offerings that keep the parks full of eager visitors. For your best bet on avoiding congestion, try a visit in late January or early February. This is also when you’ll find the most temperate weather conditions. 

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Weekends are the busiest days to visit Disney as you’re navigating not only the regular tourist crowds but also locals and travelers in town for a long weekend getaway. When possible, plan a mid-week visit.

Road trip tips

Taking a road trip to Walt Disney World means you have the flexibility to maneuver the property in your own car, and travel easily to destinations outside of the Disney parks. But there are a few things you should know.

If you’re not staying at a Disney hotel, you’ll need to pay for parking at the theme parks. These fees can add up quickly. Consider staying at a resort that offers transportation to the parks to cut back on costs.

Signage makes Disney easy to navigate, but there’s still a lot of driving. In addition to calculating gas costs for your drive to and from Central Florida, you’ll also want to take into account the miles you’ll be driving from your hotel or campground to the parks. Use the Roadtrippers app to plot your course and get cost estimates.

Getting around can be slow going. Although traffic at Disney is generally well-managed, you’ll need to allow more time than you realize to reach your destination. Parking and getting from the parking lot to the park front gates takes quite some time, so you’ll want to leave your hotel room at least an hour (or more) before you plan to arrive.

Costs add up quickly. It’s no secret that Disney isn’t cheap. But in addition to the obvious costs associated with transportation, lodging, and tickets, you’re going to run into a lot of temptations in the form of cute souvenirs, upgrades and add-ons, and hefty food prices. Before leaving home, make a list of what’s most important to you and what you want to splurge on, and try to avoid getting swept up in the moment after you arrive. Save shopping for your last day, after you’ve seen everything, and set a strict budget for the items you’d like to see come home with you.

Set realistic goals and know when it’s time to call it quits. After all the time you’ve invested researching and planning, and the money you’ve spent building the vacation of your dreams, it’s natural to want to squeeze in as much as possible. But cramming too much into your visit is a surefire path to disaster. Though the thrills are exhilarating, putting in long hours and miles of walking in the Florida heat will quickly take a toll on you if you don’t give yourself adequate time to reset and regroup. Schedule plenty of downtime and try to avoid doing too much in one day. The key is to come back home still wanting more, so be sure to end your stay on a high note.