Walt Disney World
At the Walt Disney World Resort , you can explore human innovation and cooperation; enjoy rides both thrilling and enchanting; relax and recuperate on the beach or the golf course; and discover an entire resort where children and adults can have fun—together.
Walt Disney World, located in Bay Lake, Florida, (mailing address is Lake Buena Vista, Florida), near Orlando, Florida, is the flagship of Disney's worldwide theme park empire. It is, by far, the most popular theme park resort in the world. Some visitors describe it as a place of magic, wonder, and fantasy; others speak of fun, excitement, and relaxation; and still others complain of crowds, artifice, and unrelenting tackiness. As with most things, the essence of Walt Disney World lies near the intersection of those three views.
The centerpieces of Walt Disney World are the four theme parks: The Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Disney's Animal Kingdom. Walt Disney World also has two of the world's three most popular water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach, both heavily themed. Two shopping and entertainment districts, Downtown Disney and Disney's Boardwalk, provide extensive shopping, dining, and entertainment options. If none of that strikes your fancy, check out some of the lesser-known activities: golf, tennis, boating, race car driving, spas and health clubs, backstage tours, sporting events, character dining, and much more.
Simply put, if you can't find something fun to do at Walt Disney World, you just aren't trying hard enough.
Walt Disney World can be divided into five distinct areas—one for each of the four theme parks, plus Downtown Disney. The various resort hotels, and the attractions and restaurants found within, are grouped with the nearest park.
The most important thing to understand about the Walt Disney World Resort is that it was designed to be fun for everyone. Don't make the mistake of staying away just because you don't have kids. Singles and couples without children who think a Walt Disney World vacation is just for kids ignore the many "adult" entertainments available throughout the resort. Gourmands, sun-worshippers, world travelers, thrill-seekers, comedy-lovers, film devotees, sports fans, club-hoppers, and history buffs will all find plenty of ways to have a great time.
Of course, if you do have kids, the best part of your Walt Disney World vacation is in experiencing the parks through their eyes. That is when you really understand Walt Disney's vision of a place where kids and parents can have fun together.
Walt Disney World is enormous, a multi-day resort destination. Each of its four theme parks is big enough to occupy visitors for a full day (and often two, depending on crowds). Unless you live nearby, four days is considered the bare minimum length of visit to even begin to experience the resort; some people stay as long as two weeks and still bypass some attractions.
Traveling to Walt Disney World represents a major pilgrimage for many American families. The "typical" visit involves flying into Orlando International Airport, busing to an on-site Disney hotel, spending about a week without leaving Disney property, and returning home. There are infinite variations possible, but this remains what most people mean when they talk of "going to Disney World".
Everything at Walt Disney World is carefully constructed and choreographed to maintain your perceptions of visiting an idealized world. Company jargon frames every aspect of customer service as part of the "show": employees are "cast members", visitors are "guests", and every prop and costume must be completely "in-character" while "on-stage" (visible to guests).
Disney prides themselves on customer service and friendliness. You will never find garbage lying in the streets or bathrooms that are too dirty, and anything that is damaged is either removed or fixed immediately. The streets are almost sparkling and the buildings look brand new no matter what time of the day or year you are there.
While some people find this attention to detail cloying and artificial, the vast majority of visitors are happy to immerse themselves in this relaxing, carefree environment. Even so, the realities of Walt Disney World can be stark: long lines, sweltering heat, rude guests, and expensive merchandise are common. There are ways to avoid the worst elements (namely by carefully choosing when to visit) and customer service is almost universally impeccable, even (or perhaps especially) when things go wrong.
Many first-time visitors try to do too much during their stay. Unless crowds are unusually small, this is a sure-fire recipe for burnout and exhaustion. You need to have a basic schedule in mind, but you should remain flexible in order to account for closed rides, full restaurants, special events, and just changing your mind. If the crowds get too heavy or the weather gets too hot, smart guests staying on-site head back to their hotels to relax, grab a snack, or take a swim, then return later in the day. Trying to adhere to a rigid schedule will only frustrate you and your family, and you're not going to Walt Disney World to get frustrated, are you?
With some careful basic planning, an open mind, and a cheerful attitude, a visit to Walt Disney World can be whatever you want it to be: fulfilling, exciting, relaxing, enlightening, or just plain fun. Whatever you chose to do, your visit is guaranteed to be an experience, in every sense of the word—one you'll never forget.
Disneyland was an unmitigated success. Walt Disney had created not just an amusement park, where children could ride kiddie rides while their parents watched from a bench, but the world's first theme park, a place where children and grown-ups could both have fun, together.
But it was not long after Disneyland's 1955 opening that Walt realized that the available space in Anaheim was too small. He had his park, but he and his Imagineers were constantly coming up with new ideas, ideas that just weren't going to fit inside Disneyland. In the sixties, Walt began looking to the east coast, for a place with enough space to hold all of the ideas his team could dream up. He found such a place in Central Florida, southwest of the sleepy city of Orlando. Here, along the new Interstate 4, there was plenty of space, far more than would be needed for just a single theme park. Walt had grander ideas in mind for this "Florida Project" of his.
After buying up over 27,000 acres (11,000 ha) of land on the sly, Walt announced his ambitious Disney World plans to the world. A theme park would be built, of course—a Magic Kingdom on the north end of the property. But to get there from I-4, guests would need to pass through the true centerpiece of the project: EPCOT, the Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow.
EPCOT was Walt Disney's largest, most revolutionary idea yet—a real city, with 20,000 real people living and working within, making use of the most advanced technologies to grow food, provide transport, and enhance quality of life. Much of the technology was already in use at Disneyland—PeopleMovers and monorails, for instance—but these would not be amusement rides. EPCOT was to be a place where the Imagineers' ideas were put to practical use, for the betterment of all mankind.
Alas, it was not to be. Walt died in December 1966, just as the Florida Project was coming to fruition. Without Walt to drive the project, the company board refused to undertake the ambitious EPCOT plans. But Walt's brother Roy O. Disney insisted the project as a whole go forward, starting with the Magic Kingdom. Roy changed the project's name to Walt Disney World; this new resort would be a tribute to Walt's vision, but would never really be the fulfillment of it.
The Magic Kingdom opened on October 1, 1971, with two hotels, a campground, and two golf courses nearby. It was an immediate success, single-handedly sparking the development of the Orlando area as one of the country's busiest vacation destinations. Though Roy died before the year ended, he had succeeded in getting his brother's final project off the ground.
Walt Disney World's first decade passed quickly, and by the time of its "Tencennial" celebration in 1981, a new theme park was being built in the space Walt had envisioned for EPCOT. The new park would be called EPCOT Center, though it bore little resemblance to Walt's original plans. Instead, EPCOT Center would be a sort of "permanent world's fair", combining Future World, made up of grand pavilions devoted to human progress, with a World Showcase of meticulously detailed recreations of foreign lands. EPCOT Center opened in 1982, and was followed by a combination theme park and movie studio called Disney-MGM Studios in 1989, and then by Disney's Animal Kingdom, a zoological theme park, in 1998.
Over the years, numerous resort hotels and recreational activities were added to support the increased attendance at the multi-park resort. Two large water parks were added in 1989 and in 1995. In addition, a remote area of the property that started as Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village evolved into the Disney Village Marketplace, and eventually expanded to become Downtown Disney, an adult-oriented shopping and entertainment district.
Walt Disney never would have imagined what Walt Disney World has become, and it is far removed from his original vision. But one of his guiding principles was to "keep moving forward", and Disney World has done just that, becoming the largest and most popular theme park resort complex in the world.
Enough books have been written about Walt Disney World to fill a good-sized bookshelf. One very informative set of books are the Imagineering Field Guides; there's one for each of the four parks (plus one for Disneyland). They go through each park area-by-area and feature great concept images (some rarely seen), behind-the-scenes details, and tricks of the Imagineering trade. They're also small enough to carry in your pocket as you tour the parks.
Surprisingly, not much fiction has been written about the parks themselves. Ridley Pearson has an ongoing series of young-adult novels set inside the parks, called The Kingdom Keepers. There's also Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a science-fiction novel by Cory Doctorow that takes place primarily in a future version of the Magic Kingdom.
The Walt Disney Company is a multinational media conglomerate, so video productions featuring Walt Disney World are ubiquitous.
Several television programs have filmed on-location at the resort. The 1990s-era revival of The Mickey Mouse Club (the one that gave Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake their starts) was filmed entirely at the production facilities inside Disney-MGM Studios (now Hollywood Studios). Full House, Roseanne, Family Matters, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch are among the sitcoms (mostly on Disney-owned ABC) with episodes showing the characters visiting Walt Disney World. Another fun option, if you can find it, is 1990's The Muppets at Walt Disney World, which was intended as a precursor to Disney's purchase of the Muppets (which finally happened in 2004).
Those shows only used the park as a backdrop, though, so they have limited "tourist" value. For meatier fare, there's always the yearly Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade, which often includes segments showing the latest and greatest attractions around the World. If you're going to watch the parade just to get planning information, though, you might as well just call Disney at +1 407 W-DISNEY and ask for their free vacation planning video . As expected, you won't find much official material that addresses the problems you might encounter at Walt Disney World, but they do offer a good introduction to the resort for first-timers who are trying to get a feel for the place before they go. Another good source of information is the official YouTube channel of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts .
Disney has also made a few full-length features based on various rides in the parks—the four Pirates of the Caribbean films being by far the best—but don't expect the rides to have much of anything to do with the films. Okay, yes, Jack Sparrow can now be spotted inside the Pirates ride, but it's just a cameo appearance.
Last but not least, Walt Disney World is featured in three "Disney Sing Along Songs" titles. Campout at Walt Disney World is set at Fort Wilderness Campground, Beach Party at Walt Disney World covers a wide range of activities including the two water parks, and Flik's Musical Adventure is set at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Like all of Central Florida, the climate at Walt Disney World is humid and subtropical. Summer (May–October) is hot and sticky and winter (November–April) is mild and drier. Visitors from higher latitudes are often surprised by the sheer intensity of the summer sun in Florida, which can rise to within a few degrees of straight overhead in June and July. In June through September, late afternoon thundershowers are very common; plan accordingly.
That said, climate problems are well known at Walt Disney World and there are several means to cope (see "Weather" in the Stay Safe section).
Inclement weather can often lead to the temporary closure of outdoor rides and live performances. In the case of rides, they will re-open after the weather improves, and FastPass tickets will continue to be accepted, even if the printed time interval has expired. Live performances may be either delayed or canceled outright. On the other hand, inclement weather could work to your advantage, as it drives some visitors away from outdoor areas, or out of the parks entirely.
When to visit
There used to be some times of year when the parks were relatively deserted, but not so much anymore. Now they just vary from "moderately busy" to "completely insane". Still, deciding when to go remains a game of trade-offs: you must decide whether to favor lower crowds or longer park hours, and decide whether you prefer scorching days or chilly nights.
The peak periods for attendance are late December, mid-June to mid-August, and mid-February to mid-April. Why? That's when kids are on break from school. If you have kids, you may have no choice but to go during these peak times. The bad news is that you'll be packed like sardines next to 50,000 of your new closest friends, you'll wait two hours to go on rides like Splash Mountain and Soarin', and you'll be paying a premium for the privilege. In the summer, you also get to listen to the kids complain about the heat. On the bright side, though, you'll have plenty of company, the parks are guaranteed to be open late, and as many rides as possible will be up and running.
If your schedule allows any flexibility at all, you should avoid these peak periods. Attendance is lowest in October, November (pre-Thanksgiving), December (pre-Christmas), and January. These can be very good times to go; crowds are low and prices are too, but keep in mind that you may find that several rides are shut down for maintenance, and the parks have shorter operating hours. In the winter, it's often too cold to go to the water parks, and you'll need a jacket at night.
The weeks between Easter and Memorial Day are another slow period, as well as the months of August and September; both periods provide a good balance of price, crowds, temperature, and operating hours, but you may need to take the kids out of school if you're bringing them along.
Of course, you may want to coordinate your trip with a special event. (It's no coincidence that these events are scheduled during otherwise-slow periods for the parks.) Epcot has two months-long events: the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival runs from March to mid-May, and the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival runs from October through mid-November. Hollywood Studios is the location for Star Wars Weekends in May and June.
The Magic Kingdom hosts two special hard-ticket holiday events, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party in September and October, and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party in November and December. These events, which let you stay in the park past the normal closing time, cost more than $50 per person, but tickets are limited so the crowds stay small.
Speaking of Christmas, the month of December may just be the most magical time of year at Walt Disney World. The entire resort goes all-out to decorate everything, with huge themed Christmas trees in each of the parks and each of the resorts, and the spectacular Castle Dreamlights draped onto Cinderella Castle. There are also countless holiday events at the resorts, the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights at Hollywood Studios, the Candlelight Processional at Epcot, and much much more. And as long as you avoid Thanksgiving week and Christmas week, the crowds really aren't that bad.
If your vacation dates are flexible, plan to arrive to the Orlando area on Thursday. Both Friday and Saturday are transition days for park visitors, especially in the summer months. Saturdays do draw in more Annual Pass holders to the park, but that is the major day that people either arrive or leave the area. This causes attendance figures to be down, making it a perfect day to visit the parks.
If you are planning to have a day of rest in your vacation, by arriving on Thursday you can enjoy two days of parks with reduced crowds and then use Sunday to rest. If during those first two days you are planning to visit the Magic Kingdom, plan to do it on Friday. Attendance figures pick up for that park on Saturday. You will be able to do more attractions in the first two days while you are revved up, and then it will allow you to relax and enjoy the park on the more crowded days.
As in most places in the United States, English is the default language throughout the Walt Disney World Resort. The cast members at World Showcase in Epcot are largely citizens of the featured countries, and so will be fluent in their native tongues as well as English. Other cast members throughout the property may also be bi- or tri-lingual; any such cast members can be identified by language signs on their name tags, representing the languages they speak . Spanish is also very common in Florida, and the US as a whole. Spanish speakers will not have any problems navigating the resort.
All four theme parks have an information center known as Guest Relations, near the main entrance. Cast members, who usually are multilingual, will be available here to answer any questions you may have.
Disney's Ears to the World is an audio headset that provides foreign-language translations of the dialogues of selected attractions in French, German, Japanese, Portuguese, or Spanish. It may be rented at Guest Relations, but there are a limited number of them available; a $25 deposit will be collected and refunded upon return.
For guests with visual disabilities, linguistic services are in the form of audiocassette tour guides and Braille guidebooks, also available for rent at Guest Relations.
For hearing-impaired guests, assistive listening devices and captioning (handheld, reflective, or video) are available for selected attractions. Cast Members with knowledge of American Sign Language can be identified by the appropriate symbol on their name tags, and interpreters are available by appointment.
Orlando-Sanford International Airport (IATA: SFB)  is a bit farther away from Walt Disney World than Orlando International. Aside from domestic flights on Allegiant Air, the airport primarily handles flights from the United Kingdom and Iceland. Disney's Magical Express is not available here. Florida State Road 417 connects the airport to Interstate 4.
Interstate 4 is the most direct driving route into Walt Disney World. Depending on your point of origin, the Florida Turnpike can be quite useful. This is particularly true when you might be arriving from Miami or other points south. If you will be arriving from a cruise at Port Canaveral, Florida State Road 528 gets you to I-4, with Orlando International Airport and the Turnpike en route.
Amtrak's  Silver Service Miami–New York City routes serve Orlando and Kissimmee. Service is four times daily, with two trains in either direction. Northbound trains from Miami arrive at the Orlando station at 1:43 PM and 7:08 PM; southbound trains from NYC arrive at 10:17 AM and 12:55 PM. The Auto Train, which can carry both passengers and automobiles, serves nearby Sanford non-stop from Lorton, Virginia (near Washington, D.C.). If you're coming from Volusia or Seminole Counties or from Maitland or Winter Park on a weekday, you might find it easier to take the new SunRail  service which runs between Debary, FL and Sand Lake Road in Orlando, where you could transfer at Lynx Central Station to Walt Disney World via the Link 50 Bus. Note that SunRail does not run on weekends or federal holidays and the trains operate every 30 minutes during rush hour periods (i.e. between 5:00 AM and 8:30 a.m and between 4:00 PM and 7:00 PM) and every two hours during off-peak periods.
Disney's Magical Express  has proven to be a very popular option for guests staying at Disney resort hotels; it provides free transportation to and from the airport. Be sure to book service ahead of time, though!
The Disney Cruise Line  provides a similar bus service for their passengers, between the Walt Disney World resort hotels and their terminal at Port Canaveral. The one-way fare is $35 per person, although it's included in the price if you book a land-and-sea vacation package.
If you're not staying at a Disney resort, or aren't coming in via Orlando International or Disney Cruise Line, you do have some other choices. Mears Transportation  is the big dog in the area; in fact, Disney contracts with them to run the Magical Express and the Disney Cruise Line buses. But they also run their own shuttle buses and town cars that can take you to any of the local attractions or hotels.
Long-distance bus company Greyhound  serves both Orlando and Kissimmee, with the latter being closer to Walt Disney World.
LYNX  is a public bus service of the Central Florida Regional Transportation Authority. Ten LYNX routes provide service between Walt Disney World and the surrounding area. All except 56 travel via I-4 and Downtown Disney and serve the Downtown Disney West Side Transfer Center.
The Park Hopper option in particular is often overlooked, but it's strongly recommended because of the flexibility it offers. Without it, you could be stuck with nowhere else to go after doing everything you want to do at one park; or you could run out of time to do one last attraction and be unable to come back another day to pick it up. If you have seven-day tickets, it only costs about $8 a day to add this option; the value of being able to visit one park in the morning and another in the evening should not be underestimated.
With the Water Park Fun & More option, you receive a number of admissions to attractions outside the four main parks. The number is equal to the number of days on your Magic Your Way ticket (or two admissions for one-day tickets), though they can be used anytime. You can use these admissions at Typhoon Lagoon, Blizzard Beach, DisneyQuest, ESPN Wide World of Sports, and the nine-hole Oak Trail golf course. You can also use an admission for a round of golf at the Fantasia Gardens or Winter Summerland miniature golf courses, but only before 4PM. Depending on which attractions you visit, the cost of the option may be covered by the money you save on admission after just two visits.
Multi-day tickets do not have to be used on consecutive days. However, these tickets will expire 14 days after they are first used, so be sure to use all the days purchased prior to that. A no-expiration option can be added to any multi-day ticket with at least one day remaining; with this option, the ticket expires when the last purchased day is used, which can be months or even years after the initial use. A side benefit of this option is locking in your admission price for your next visit(s). The price for this option is variable, based on the number of days purchased.
The best feature of a Disney admission ticket is its flexibility. Options can be added even if the ticket has already been used at least once. For example, a base ticket (no park-hopping) can be upgraded to include park-hopping by paying the $55 cost for the option. Or, if a change in travel plans will not allow the user to utilize all purchased days prior to the ticket's expiration date, the "no-expiration" option can be purchased for the remaining days. These changes may be made at any ticket window or at the Guest Relations office inside each theme park as well as the Concierge desk at Disney Resort Hotels. Any ticket upgrades must be made within 14 days of the first date of use, and you have to still have some remaining value on the ticket.
There are Magic Your Way Premium and Magic Your Way Platinum packages available as well; they add some interesting luxury options to your vacation package. They both include the Deluxe Dining Plan, preferred fireworks viewing, unlimited access to select recreational activities, tours, and a portrait session. The Platinum package adds to that a spa treatment, a fireworks cruise, and more. If you're sure you're going to use the benefits these packages provide, they may just be worth the extra cost. Purchasing these packages does require booking and staying at a Disney owned resort hotel.
Florida residents who provide proof of residence get discounts of varying degrees, but they can't purchase beyond a 7-day ticket (meaning that Florida residents who ask for the discount can't purchase 8-, 9-, or 10-day tickets). Annual passes are also available for frequent visitors or residents.
Disney resort guests (those staying on-site at Disney hotels) are usually best served by getting package deals that include both lodging and admission.
Getting around Walt Disney World is easy and often fun. You may walk, drive, or ride public transit (in this case, buses, monorails, or ferryboats). In most cases, the service is direct and non-stop. All Walt Disney World transit vehicles are wheelchair-accessible, and there is no additional fee to use any of them. If you are traveling with a stroller, you must take your child out of the stroller, then fold it and hand-carry it onto the vehicle.
Keep in mind, though, that you'll be doing a lot of walking within the parks, especially at Epcot and Animal Kingdom, so don't tire yourself out early!
Strollers, wheelchairs, and electric convenience vehicles (ECVs) are readily available to rent at the entrance to each park. If you have a problem standing too long, or if walking on the hot pavement makes your feet ache, renting a wheelchair or ECV can make a big difference. Wheelchairs can be brought up to the loading area of most rides, where you'll usually need to transfer to the ride vehicle. Both wheelchairs and ECVs are accommodated in most theater and stage attractions. Strollers will usually need to be left outside; most attractions have a designated stroller parking area.
A Single stroller rents for $15, or $13/day for multi-day rentals. Double strollers are $31, or $27/day. Wheelchairs are $12, or $10/day. ECVs are $50, with a $20 refundable deposit. Even if you park-hop, you only have to pay once per day; simply show a same-day receipt to avoid paying a second fee.
Learn to love the ubiquitous Walt Disney World bus system. You'll be using it a lot, especially if you didn't bring a car.
The bus routes are set up to facilitate travel from a resort to a park, but not from one resort to another or from one park to another. Most resorts have five bus routes originating from them, providing direct service to all four theme parks and Downtown Disney. Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach are served by the Downtown Disney and Animal Kingdom routes respectively.
Disney's Boardwalk is actually part of a resort, so visitors from other resorts (except Swan/Dolphin or Yacht/Beach Clubs) will have to travel there via one of the parks. The most convenient option is Disney's Hollywood Studios, which has two connections to the Boardwalk: walking or ferry. (Although Epcot is the closest park to the Boardwalk, using it as an interchange is not recommended, as it would require entering through the main entrance and exiting out the back entrance, thereby costing the admission fee.)
Note that there is no bus service to the Magic Kingdom or Epcot from the Magic Kingdom-area resorts; they are served by the monorail system. Likewise, service to Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios from the Epcot-area resorts is by ferry or walking. There is also no direct bus service between the theme parks and Downtown Disney. To travel to Downtown Disney from a theme park, or vice versa, you must travel to any resort and change buses. The most convenient resort for this purpose is Disney's Saratoga Springs Resort, which is right next door to Downtown Disney; you can get there via a pedestrian bridge, bus, or ferry.
The buses are reliable, fairly efficient, and reasonably comfortable, but they can be slow and inconvenient if, for example, you are traveling with young children or strollers. Expect to wait up to fifteen minutes for a bus to your destination, and another ten to thirty minutes to get there—possibly longer during the busy season. Also keep in mind that guests in wheelchairs have first priority when boarding.
Walt Disney World's monorail system is one of its signature attractions, and it's not even inside one of the parks. They do a great job of getting large numbers of guests from place to place, but they're also quite comfortable and fun to ride.
The monorail service is limited and only goes to certain areas, all originating from the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC). There are three monorail lines:
If you are going to Epcot from the Polynesian Resort, you may walk to the Transportation and Ticket Center to get to the Epcot monorail; it's usually faster than taking the Resort monorail completely through the loop. It is also possible to walk to the TTC from Disney's Wilderness Lodge, which is not connected to the monorail. The distance is about ½ mile (800 m), and takes around 10 minutes.
Walt Disney World also has several waterways which are used by ferryboats to transport guests.
If you are staying on-site, a car is not necessary, unless you wish to travel off-property during your stay. Some people purchase groceries to use during their stay; while there are a couple of places on the property to buy them, better selection and prices are found off property. Other people use a car to avoid the delays that can sometimes affect the public transportation options.
If you are staying at a hotel off Disney property, on the other hand, a car is strongly recommended. Many off-resort hotels offer shuttle service to the parks, but the schedules may not be convenient.
Getting around Walt Disney World by car is not much of a problem. All you need to do is follow the purple directional signs with black Mickey Mouse ears to your destination. Your WDW resort will also provide a map of the complex. If you run into problems, just drop by the Walt Disney World Car Care Center on World Drive, near the Magic Kingdom toll plaza.
The five golf courses (see below) are accessible only by car; however, complimentary taxi service is available for guests of Disney-owned hotels.
Several car rental agencies have locations on Walt Disney World property:
There are three Hess gas stations within the resort: at the Car Care Center on World Drive, on Buena Vista Drive near the entrance to Hollywood Studios, and on Buena Vista Drive across from Downtown Disney. The Hess stations on Disney property do charge market rate for their fuel, unlike a few Orlando gas stations where the cost of fuel is still outrageous despite the recent drop in gas prices. Gas stations along State Road 535 (Apopka-Vineland Road) near the Downtown Disney Hotel Plaza are notorious for pricing well above the market rate for fuel.
However, for sheer chutzpah, you gotta hand it to Suncoast Energys, located on State Road 436 (Semoran Boulevard), just outside the Orlando International Airport. Its location across the street from the Hertz and Thrifty rental-car lots makes it a tempting top-off-the-tank stop, but be sure you take note of the pump price, which is usually $1.50-$2 higher than the local average.
Visit Orlando Gas Prices  to find the local average price and get addresses for other handy gas stations.
The parking fee at the four theme park lots is $14 for most vehicles (campers and trailers are $15; buses and tractor trailers are $18). Parking is free, though, for guests staying at any of the on-site Disney Resorts (your Key to the World card serves as your parking ticket), or who have a valid Annual Pass. The four theme park lots are huge, and are divided into subsections; this is to enable you to remember your car's location. To save you from having to walk the long distances, there are trams that will shuttle you from the parking lot to the park gates and back (except in the case of the Magic Kingdom, where the tram will take you to the Transportation and Ticket Center, from which you may take the ferry or the monorail to the park).
Parking at the two water parks or Downtown Disney is free. However, there are no parking lot trams available, so be prepared to walk.
Valet parking is available at Deluxe resorts (see the Sleep section) for $12/day.
See and Do
Most importantly, though, none of these rides, shows, and stores just "sits there". Each one tells a story, in much the same way that Disney's animated films do, and each is crafted with the utmost care and attention to detail. There are also the bigger stories to be found in each themed land, and in the park as a whole. When you enter the Magic Kingdom, and the entrance tunnels give way to the vista of Main Street, with Cinderella Castle at the far end, you're raising the curtain on a new production—and you're the featured player.
You won't find dirt or peeling paint or run-down mechanics at a Disney Park, not even at the oldest attractions. Disney takes quality very seriously, and if anything intrudes on your perception of the "show", it gets fixed quickly. It's all about suspension of disbelief: total immersion into worlds of imagination, art, and history.
The sheer number of attractions—including rides, stage shows, parades, and fireworks displays—at Walt Disney World's four theme parks can be intimidating to guests. It's usually best to have a plan going in. Check the guide map for the park you plan to visit and decide which attractions will be your highest priorities before you leave for the park. Keep in mind that parades and some shows occur only at specific times, and plan your route to put you nearby in time to get a seat. Be flexible, though—once you've hit your priority attractions, you can go back and pick up more if you have time remaining.
The traditional amusement park advice of arriving early and heading to the back of the park first tends to work well, although more and more guests are starting to catch on, so the benefit may be reduced.
Be aware that during the busiest times of year, lines can be up to two hours long for the most popular attractions. One option for avoiding these lines is the free service known as FastPass, available only at select attractions. Simply insert your park ticket into the machine, and you'll get a FastPass ticket with a time interval stamped on it. At any time during that interval, you may enter the attraction using a separate, shorter queue. You can only have one FastPass at a time, so you won't avoid every line, but it can still be a great time-saver. Note that the FastPass queues may bypass some or all of the scenery and theming found in the longer lines, which for some guests is a significant part of the Disney experience. Consider what you may be missing if you choose to get a FastPass.
The Magic Kingdom
The Magic Kingdom is the main park, based on the original Disneyland in Anaheim, California. It is organized around the central landmark of Cinderella Castle, with various "lands" arrayed around a central hub. The lands are, starting from the main entrance and going clockwise around Cinderella Castle: Main Street USA, Adventureland, Frontierland, Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and Tomorrowland.
The park is the oldest, most popular, and the most child-friendly, although many adults love it as well. Adult visitors who do not enjoy rides such as it's a small world, where you sit in vehicles that take you in a circle through a tunnel as animatronic figures sing children's songs to the riders, may want to visit Epcot or Hollywood Studios instead. On the other hand, roller coasters like Space Mountain and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad provide plenty of thrills, and dark rides like the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean are classics that only the most curmudgeonly would dismiss.
The lines at the Magic Kingdom's rides can be endless, but they always keep moving. Though the FastPass system works well, it is not available for all attractions. Even just walking around, you will likely encounter bottlenecks where there are huge masses of people, and they all seem to be going to the same place you are. Then there's the food and the merchandise, which can be pricey, but not too bad considering where you are. Despite it all, most people would agree that the lines, the crowds, and the prices are worth it for the experience.
Epcot is an "educational park." It is divided into two distinct areas, Future World and World Showcase. Future World features eight indoor pavilions, each one focused on a specific area of human achievement or endeavor. World Showcase replicates, on a small scale but with great attention to detail, eleven of the world's nations, complete with authentic food and merchandise.
Don't miss the cheesy but fun Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros ride in the Mexico pavilion, or the extravagant Maelstrom ride in the Norway pavilion. In Future World, the Test Track, a recent addition in which visitors go through the motions of tests for new cars, is probably the most fun, and the most traditionally theme-park-y, of the Epcot rides. Recent additions to the park include Soarin', a ride where visitors "hang-glide" through many landscapes, and Mission: SPACE, a centrifugal spaceflight simulator.
Epcot has a bit of a reputation as a more "grown-up" park. While some of the slower, more intellectual attractions may be over the heads of the youngest visitors, the park still has plenty to keep them entertained. Of course there are character greetings, especially at World Showcase, but there are also Kidcot Fun Stops, which encourage children to work on a craft and interact with cast members who are representing their home countries. The Seas with Nemo & Friends is great fun for fans of Finding Nemo, too.
Epcot may also be considered a little bit of a "grown up" park because of the "Food and Wine Festival". The Food and Wine Festival is a time where they celebrate food around the world and have samples of foods from around the world. Booths set up around the counties of Epcot feature great foods that you may have never experienced before. Not only are there booths of food, but celebrity chefs come down for the event, there are night time performances throughout the countries, wine tastings and the Party of the Senses, which is where famous chefs make one dish that is paired up with a fantastic wine. The Food and Wine Festival is only held in September, October and November.
Disney's Hollywood Studios
Disney's Hollywood Studios (formerly Disney-MGM Studios) opened in May 1989 as the third theme park of Walt Disney World. The park is themed around film and television, and features a variety of live shows and attractions based on some of the most iconic productions in Hollywood history. Upon it's opening it was described as, "the Hollywood that never was, and always will be."
Among the attractions are a few exceptional thrill rides, most notably The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (which drops you 13 stories) and the Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith (which launches you 0–60 in 2.8 seconds). The 3-D shooting gallery Toy Story Mania! also grabs big crowds, as does the Star Wars-based simulator ride Star Tours: The Adventures Continue.
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney's Animal Kingdom, a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, is a wildlife discovery park, a mix between a zoo and a theme park. Naturalistic animal exhibitions are interspersed, and sometimes integrated, with typical Disney rides. Among these are Kilimanjaro Safaris, a jeep safari past live animal enclosures; Kali River Rapids, a raft ride through the deforestation of a tropical rainforest; Dinosaur, a time travel ride which includes close encounters with dinosaurs; and the newest and most popular ride, Expedition Everest, a roller coaster that includes an encounter with the Yeti.
The park is organized in a Magic Kingdom-like format, with different continents revolving around the central Tree of Life. While light on rides, there are also shows and plenty of animals to view (though the variety of species seems a bit sparse when compared to many larger city zoos). Animal Kingdom is more of a kid-friendly theme park with many animals that would attract the attention of younger generations as well as Camp Minnie-Mickey, a special space for youngsters where they can meet all of their favorite characters.
Meet the characters
Especially for kids, character greetings are one of the most exciting reasons to visit Disney World. Kids and adults alike can give hugs to, take a photo with, or get autographs from many of their favorite Disney characters. Some kids like to bring or purchase a special autograph book in which the characters can inscribe their names.
Character appearances tend to be surprises (to avoid huge lines), so keep a close eye out. If there's a character your child really wants to see, you can ask at Guest Relations if they know of any upcoming appearances, but nothing is ever guaranteed. And remember that it's hot inside those character costumes; sometimes the character has to leave even if there are people still waiting to say hello. It's disappointing but necessary for safety.
Most often, character greetings will happen in the parks, in particular the Magic Kingdom, but they can happen just about anywhere! The Magic Kingdom does have the widest variety of characters, though; everyone from Mickey Mouse to Captain Jack Sparrow. Disney's "Big Six" (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Daisy, Goofy, and Pluto) might be found anywhere in the park—for example, you might see Donald Duck in a Davy Crockett-like outfit in Frontierland. Other characters stick to the themed land most appropriate for their genre: Jack Sparrow in Adventureland, Buzz Lightyear in Tomorrowland, and so on.
At the other parks, character appearances are somewhat rarer. At Epcot, for instance, you'll generally only find characters who hail from one of the themed foreign lands of World Showcase—Mulan in the China pavilion, for example. Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom tend to have more structured greetings, where characters will make scheduled appearances at designated locations, but stay out of sight of most of the park. Kids looking for autographs won't want to miss Camp Minnie-Mickey at Animal Kingdom, though; there are always at least a few characters there happy to meet some young guests.
If you miss out on random encounters with the characters, be sure to look into character dining options. While restaurants that offer character dining are extremely popular, if you can get a table, you're virtually guaranteed a few minutes of face time with the characters. See Character Dining in the Eat section, below.
The trading of commemorative pins has been popular at Olympic Games for decades. At the turn of the millennium, Disney decided to get in on the act and began creating metallic lapel pins specifically for trading. The monster they created has endured for over a decade, and it has grown to mythic proportions. More than 60,000 different pin designs have been produced since the beginning.
Getting started is easy. Most every store has pins for sale, along with lanyards on which to display them. These pins are not very valuable, so you'll need to trade up to get the more interesting (and much more rare) pins. The most reliable way to do so is to keep an eye out for Cast Members wearing pin lanyards. Cast Members are required to trade one-for-one if asked (up to two per guest per day) and can't refuse a trade based on pin rarity or design (although they can refuse to accept another copy of a pin they already have displayed). Cast Members with green lanyards will trade only to kids under 13.
You can also trade with your fellow guests, and here things can get interesting. You may need to offer several more common pins to get your hands on a single rare pin. Dedicated traders carry a supply of common pins for just this purpose. Your best way to find people willing to trade is to head to a dedicated pin kiosk or store, such as the one underneath the Sorcerer's Hat at Hollywood Studios, but there is also ample opportunity for trading while waiting in lines or while riding the monorail or bus.
Some tours and special events have unique pins that can only be obtained by participants. These pins are thus very rare and highly coveted. Make sure you (and especially your kids) don't trade these pins away without getting something really nice in return—but even then, think very carefully. Many people treat these more as souvenirs than commodities.
Each of the theme parks offers at least one tour, some of which are very popular. For an extra fee, a cast member will take you and a small group and introduce you to some of the "secrets" behind Disney operations. Many of these tours go into backstage areas where guests are not normally allowed, although children may be restricted from these to avoid spoiling the "magic".
The gold standard among the tours is the Keys to the Kingdom tour at the Magic Kingdom, a five-hour tour that includes a peek into the park's Utilidors. At Epcot, the Around the World at Epcot tour is a great chance to try out Segway vehicles, and there are several tours at The Seas with Nemo & Friends that take you into the huge aquarium to get up close to the animals who live there. The newest tour offering is the Wild Africa Trek at Animal Kingdom, which will let you go on-foot into some remote areas of the park's African savanna and forest.
Walt Disney World's two water parks, Blizzard Beach near Animal Kingdom and Typhoon Lagoon near Downtown Disney, are the most-visited water parks in the country (for Typhoon Lagoon, in the world), with a combined total yearly attendance of almost 4 million. Unlike most ordinary water parks, each has a unique central theme. Blizzard Beach brings to life the absurdity of what would happen if a ski resort suddenly melted, while Typhoon Lagoon makes use of the runoff from a tropical storm for sliding and floating fun.
Both parks are big enough to spend several hours sliding, floating, or just soaking up the sun. Counter-service restaurants provide for a hearty lunch. If you have an extra $250 to spend, consider renting a private cabana for the day; they come with towels, lockers, a cabana attendant, and all the bottled water you can drink.
Shopping, dining, and nightlife
Sometimes you just want to get away from the theme parks for a while. Maybe do some shopping, have a quiet meal, or get away from the kids and go out dancing.
Downtown Disney is just what the doctor ordered: an outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment paradise, geared primarily toward adults. Most of the entertainment activities are found on Downtown Disney West Side; the featured attraction is the Cirque du Soleil show La Nouba. DisneyQuest, a five-story indoor theme park focusing on interactive "virtual" rides and featuring some of the most innovative technology at Disney World, is also on the West Side. The east side, known as Downtown Disney Marketplace, is made up largely of shops and family restaurants.
Disney's BoardWalk, located next to Epcot, is a smaller collection of nightlife themed as a 1920's Eastern Seaboard boardwalk. The Boardwalk is also home to carnival midway games, tandem bike rentals, the Atlantic Dance Hall, and the ESPN Club.
Often overlooked during a Walt Disney World vacation—whether due to time constraints or just lack of knowledge—are several recreational activities that have nothing to do with theme parks and rides.
Walt Disney World is home to four 18-hole championship golf courses, plus a nine-hole walking course and two different miniature golf experiences. 
The Lake Buena Vista and Osprey Ridge Golf Courses are in the Downtown Disney area; they're the most scenic of the courses. The Magnolia and Palm courses, which host the PGA Tour's Children's Miracle Network Classic, are in the Magic Kingdom area, adjacent to the Shades of Green resort. The four championship courses require standard golf attire, and metal cleats are not allowed. Golf clubs are available for rent. A golf cart must be used, but it is included in your greens fee.
The Oak Trail Golf Course, in the Magic Kingdom area next to the Magnolia and Palm courses, is a nine-hole walking course. It's designed for less-experienced golfers and older children. The same rules and regulations apply here as at the championship courses, except golf carts are prohibited.
The five golf courses can be reached only via car or, in some limited cases, walking. The Disney-owned resorts offer complimentary taxi vouchers for their guests traveling to the golf courses. For more information or assistance, or to reserve a tee time, call +1 407 WDW-GOLF (939-4653). Tee times can be reserved up to 90 days in advance if you're staying at a Disney hotel (up to 60 days in advance otherwise).
The miniature golf courses are Fantasia Gardens, across the street from the Walt Disney World Swan Hotel in the Epcot resort area, and Winter Summerland, right next to Blizzard Beach. Each has two 18-hole layouts, with whimsical, kid-friendly holes and decor.
Walt Disney World boasts a number of expansive waterways, and that means boating and other watersports can be a great way to spend a few hours away from the parks.
The Magic Kingdom-area resorts each have a small marina with a selection of recreational boats, but it's the Contemporary Resort that boasts Sammy Duvall's Watersports. You don't have to be staying at the Contemporary to enjoy the marina's offerings; you might try waterskiing, wakeboarding, or even parasailing!
At the Yacht Club Resort (adjacent to the Boardwalk), Bayside Marina offers SeaRaycers, pontoon boats, and a variety of chartered cruises, including an IllumiNations fireworks cruise to Epcot. At Downtown Disney, Captain Jack's Marina will rent you a "water mouse" or canopy boat, or take you out for a bass fishing excursion.
The Walt Disney World Speedway is located south of the Magic Kingdom and offers both Indy car and NASCAR-style racing experiences, although neither is cheap.
On the other hand, if spectator sports are more your speed, you may want to check out the ESPN Wide World of Sports, a state-of-the-art sports complex near Hollywood Studios. The biggest event there is in March, when the Atlanta Braves host spring training baseball games, but there are events all year, especially high school and collegiate-level sports.
Spas and health clubs
If you feel the need for a bit of pampering, Walt Disney World's spa facilities offer a full array of massage, skin, and nail treatments. The Spa at Disney's Saratoga Springs near Downtown Disney recalls the heyday of Saratoga Springs, New York, with its healing mineral baths. The spa is operated by Niki Bryan Spas . On January 16, the spa will close for renovation but will reopen in the summer.
The Grand Floridian Spa & Health Club, which closed in September 2011 for refurbishment, has been remodeled into Senses: A Disney Spa. Scheduled to open on December 17, it will be fully owned and operated by Disney.
Finding souvenirs is one of the easiest things to do at Walt Disney World; avoiding the expense is considerably harder. Many attractions, especially the most popular ones, route their exit queues directly into a merchandise store, usually one themed to the attraction. (In fact, several rides even take your picture, which will be available for purchase in the shop.) On the bright side, this does make it easier to find merchandise with a particular theme. Disney's Hollywood Studios is a particularly rich source of themed merchandise, especially for fans of Indiana Jones, Star Wars, and the Muppets.
Sometimes overlooked by shoppers are the various resorts. All of the resorts have a gift shop of some sort, but many go further. The Grand Canyon Concourse on the fourth floor of Disney's Contemporary Resort, underneath the monorail platform, has several specialty shops selling merchandise such as jewelry, sundries, and housewares. Zawadi Marketplace at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge has unique African merchandise not available elsewhere. At Disney's Boardwalk, look for the Wyland Galleries, with underwater-themed prints and paintings, featuring the work of the artist Wyland. In fact, each of the resorts has something a little different that you won't find elsewhere on the property, and it can be fun to look for those little hidden gems.
Realizing that many of its souvenirs such as the giant Mickey dolls simply aren't made to be lugged around a theme park all day, Disney will save the day with its package pickup and package delivery services, available at all Disney-run stores. Guests staying at an on-site resort hotel can have their purchases delivered to their hotel gift shop, while everyone else can have their purchases held at the Package Pick-Up window at the front gate of each theme park. The service is free of charge, but be sure to factor in delivery times—allow 24 hours for a package to be delivered to your hotel, or about three hours for it to reach the front gate of the park.
If you're stuck at home and dying to get some merchandise from the parks, you're in luck:
Like everything else, food is expensive at Walt Disney World. Fortunately, the food is pretty good, top to bottom.
At the bottom you'll find portable food carts and fast counter-service (or "quick-service" in Disney's parlance) options. Once upon a time, these options were dismal; each counter service location served the same bland menu of burgers and chicken fingers, to the point where even the kids were sick of them by the end of your vacation. Happily, this has all changed in the last 15 years or so.
The small stands usually sell pre-packaged treats and snacks. The counter-service restaurants are on par with most chain fast-food joints in quality, but significantly more expensive in price. Still, it's not your typical amusement park fare; some of them are in fact quite good, and there's a lot of variety to be had. Three excellent options are Cosmic Ray's Starlight Cafe in Tomorrowland at the Magic Kingdom, the Seasons Food Court at The Land pavilion in Epcot, and Flame Tree Barbecue on Discovery Island at Animal Kingdom. The ABC Commissary at Hollywood Studios has a surprisingly international menu, and Toy Story Pizza Planet in the same park has arcade games to pass the time.
For the lowest possible prices, there is one McDonald's restaurant on WDW property, at the intersection of Buena Vista Drive and Osceola Parkway, between Blizzard Beach and the All-Star resort hotels.
Moving up the scale, there is a fairly big gap between the counter-service and the lower-end table-service restaurants. If anything can be said to fill that gap, it's the buffets, but there are not many around, and most of them feature walk-around characters. For table service, you'll find the menus tend to be surprisingly limited; although the food is generally good, if your party has a lot of picky eaters you may have trouble finding a restaurant everyone can agree on. (Fortunately, Disney is very accommodating of special requests, so don't be afraid to ask for the demi-glace to be left off or to substitute fries for the au-gratin potatoes.)
At the high-end of Disney dining, you'll find some options on par with the best in the country, including perhaps the fanciest restaurant in all of Central Florida, Victoria and Albert's at the Grand Floridian. These high-end restaurants do tend to be found at the resorts; few people want to go out to a fancy dinner after walking around the parks all day without changing first. Don't feel like you have to leave the kids behind, either; every restaurant on property (except Victoria and Albert's) welcomes kids and will accommodate them as best as they can.
If a dietary restriction requires you to bring your own food into the parks, it is permissible to do so, on the condition that it does not require heating or any other kind of preparation. To ensure freshness, carry it in an insulated lunch box or bag. Keep in mind, though, that Florida Department of Health regulations prohibit Disney's Culinary Cast Members from preparing, or even handling, foods brought in by guests.
If you're interested in making sure your kids (or your spouse) get healthy meals and snacks, keep an eye out for the new Mickey Check logo, introduced in 2012 and prominently displayed next to the healthiest options on menus and snack stands. Items with the Mickey Check meet Disney's new nutrition guidelines, which are aligned with U.S. federal guidelines.
Walt Disney World uses a four-part "dollar sign" dining price classification system:
Most counter service restaurants have $ ratings, and most table service restaurants are either $$ or $$$. "Signature" restaurants are usually $$$. Victoria and Albert's is the only restaurant with a $$$$ rating.
One of the unique attractions of dining at Walt Disney World is the opportunity to interact up-close with favorite characters during Disney's character dining meals. Needless to say, these opportunities are extremely popular; for all practical purposes, advance reservations are required. In exchange for planning ahead, though, you will get to meet and take pictures with the characters, making for a memorable experience.
The range of characters to be found is enormous. Mickey and Minnie and the gang are the most common of course, at places like Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary Resort, but you might also find Mary Poppins at 1900 Park Fare at the Grand Floridian, or characters from Disney Junior at Hollywood & Vine in Hollywood Studios. And of course the (fairy) godmother of them all is Cinderella's Royal Table, inside the castle in the Magic Kingdom, where little girls can indulge their princess fantasies to their hearts' content, so long as their parents can actually get reservations.
Disney Dining Plan
Guests purchasing a Disney vacation package with hotel stay are eligible to participate in the Disney Dining Plan. For a flat additional fee, the plan allows guests a set number of meals per person per night of their stay. The Disney Dining Plan is accepted at any Disney-run restaurant on the property except Victoria and Albert's. In addition, all of the restaurants at Downtown Disney, even those run by outside companies, also accept the Dining Plan.
The Dining Plan is available at three different levels (prices are approximate):
The Magic Your Way Premium and Platinum packages also include Deluxe Dining. The "Wine and Dine" option offered in previous years is no longer available. A "snack" as part of the dining plan is a single prepackaged item, piece of fruit, or soft drink at any counter-service, snack cart, or merchandise location.
All dining plans also include a resort refillable drink mug. This plastic mug can be refilled at the quick service location at a guest's resort for their entire length of stay. It cannot be refilled in the parks, but during the hot summer months, you can fill it with water from the many water fountains.
Some "signature" restaurants, plus the dinner shows, require two table-service credits for one meal. These restaurants are Artist's Point, California Grill, Le Cellier, Cinderella's Royal Table, Citricos, Flying Fish Cafe, Fulton's Crab House, the Hollywood Brown Derby, Jiko-The Cooking Place, Narcoossee's, Wolfgang Puck's The Dining Room, and Yachtsman Steakhouse, plus the Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue, Mickey's Backyard BBQ, and Disney's Spirit of Aloha dinner shows. Room service, where available, also takes two table-service credits, except for pizza delivery.
To use the Dining Plan, simply present your Key to the World card to your server. Gratuities are not included, but you can charge the tip to your room account with your Key to the World card.
Advance Dining Reservations
Walt Disney World restaurants do not take reservations, per se. Disney's system for its table-service restaurants is called Advance Dining Reservations (ADRs). An ADR is sort of like a restaurant FastPass. Essentially, when you make an ADR, you are reserving a spot on the restaurant's waiting list. When you arrive at the restaurant at your reserved time, you will immediately be placed at the top of the waiting list and get the next available table suitable for your party.
The importance of ADRs cannot be understated. During the slowest times of the year, you may find you don't have any problem walking up to a restaurant and getting a seat within 15-30 minutes. If you don't particularly care where you eat, or are willing to eat early or late, you can probably get by without ADRs. But if you have your heart set on a particular restaurant, or you want to make sure you can eat right at noon or 6PM, you'll want an ADR. And if it's peak season, better safe than sorry; without an ADR you may find yourself searching high and low for a table even at 8PM.
Of course, you can also get by without ADRs if you decide to only eat at counter-service restaurants (which don't take reservations at all).
A few restaurants are so popular that they regularly fill up even during the slowest periods. ADRs are essential for these. The one that takes the cake is Cinderella's Royal Table, inside the castle in the Magic Kingdom, which is usually booked solid within minutes of reservations opening. Le Cellier in the Canada pavilion at Epcot has a reputation as the best steakhouse on the property and so is very popular. Victoria and Albert's at the Grand Floridian also strongly suggests ADRs so that you can get a menu customized to your tastes. ADRs are also a good idea for any of the dinner shows, and any meal featuring the Disney characters.
To make Advance Dining Reservations, do not try to call the restaurants directly. Call Disney Dining at +1 407 WDW-DINE (daily 7AM-10PM ET) to make all of your reservations. ADRs are accepted up to 180 days in advance of the date of the reservation. If you want to get in to any of the restaurants mentioned above, especially Cinderella's Royal Table, start dialing at 6:55 on the first day you can make the reservation, and keep hitting redial until you stop getting told they're closed.
As of June 2009, you can book ADRs online. Go to Disney's restaurants page , find the restaurant you want to eat at, and see if it has an orange "Book a Reservation" button. Many people continue to stick with the tried-and-true phone call, though, because the operators can quickly suggest and check for alternatives if your first choices aren't available.
Note that guests staying at a Disney-owned hotel are allowed to make ADRs for their entire trip on the 180th day before they arrive. That means you can make an ADR for the seventh day of your trip 186 days in advance; this is a big perk of staying at a Disney hotel.
If you're already on your vacation, you can visit Guest Relations at any park or Downtown Disney, or even your hotel concierge, to book your ADRs. Restaurants frequently get cancellations, so don't be afraid to ask if that popular restaurant you've had your eye on has an opening tomorrow, especially if you're willing to eat early or late.
In most cases, cancellations can be accommodated without penalty, especially if done in advance. However, select restaurants will charge a $10 cancellation fee if the reservation is canceled fewer than 24 hours in advance. When making an ADR for one of those restaurants, the agent will ask for a credit card number; the card will only be charged for a no-show or a late cancellation. If you need to cancel an ADR, use the special cancellations line, +1 407-WDW-CNCL (939-2625).
Every park has low cost meals in the $3–$4 range for kid meals and $6–$8 for adult meals at the sandwich shops, ethnic specialty nooks, cafeterias, and communal dining halls. They provide ample food for the money. You can often feed your whole family for little more than the cost of one expensive entrée at any of the upscale restaurants.
All of the Disney Resorts have at least one restaurant, ranging from food courts and buffets all the way up to award-winning table-service restaurants. The Value resorts only have simple food courts, but the dining options expand as you go up the price scale. Best of all, some of the hotel restaurants have Disney character greetings.
Most people, when visiting other hotels, make reservations at the resorts' buffets and sit-down restaurants. However, what they don't always realize is that some of the hotels' most delicious and unique foods can be found in their food courts and smaller dining areas—and they're cheap, too. Check out some of these hidden gems:
Once upon a time, Pleasure Island was a hot and happening nightspot, right on Disney property—and after a certain hour you knew there'd be no kids around. Today, Pleasure Island's nightclubs are but a memory, but that doesn't mean adults can't have some grown-up fun after dark.
Certainly Downtown Disney is still a vibrant and active place at night. Several of the restaurants there, especially in Pleasure Island and on the West Side, have full-service bars; Raglan Road in particular is really more an Irish pub than a restaurant. And the DJ at Bongos Cuban Cafe will keep you dancing throughout the evening.
Despite the closures at Pleasure Island, don't think Walt Disney World is completely devoid of nightclubs these days. If you take a trip over to Disney's BoardWalk, you'll find a modern dance club called Atlantic Dance Hall and a dueling-pianos bar called Jellyrolls. The rest of the BoardWalk also stays brightly lit until late at night, with sidewalk cafes, strolling magicians, and other quaint beach-style nightlife.
Most of the resort hotels have their own lounges as well. While they're not exactly a good place to dance the night away, they do offer a more intimate, relaxed atmosphere and plenty of adult beverages. And if you just want to have a drink with dinner, most of the restaurants on property offer at least a few alcoholic options—though you won't find any in the Magic Kingdom.
In Epcot, a popular stunt is called Drinking Around the World: have a drink in each of the countries of World Showcase. (Or, for a fun, free, and sober trip "around the world", try a variety of international Coca-Cola products at Club Cool in the Innoventions pavilion.)
One of the most important choices you must make when planning a Walt Disney World vacation is whether to stay on-site at one of the famed Disney resorts, or off-site at one of countless less expensive but more traditional hotels.
For many visitors, a vital part of the Walt Disney World "experience" is staying at one of the 24 Disney-owned and -operated resorts. Each and every one of the Disney resorts is strongly themed, impeccably maintained, and a vacation experience all to itself. Although none of the resorts can really be called cheap—in fact, most of them are luxurious and priced accordingly—the least expensive resorts have rooms for as little as $82 a night in the off-season.
On the other hand, staying off-property can have its own perks. Lodging and food costs are indisputably cheaper—often significantly so, with frequent discounts. You can book condos or home rentals for large groups, which allows you to cook meals making dining costs even cheaper and lodging costs very cheap. Many off-site resorts do have shuttle service to the Disney parks, although the service can be limited, potentially inconvenient, and may carry a fee.
One possible compromise between the two approaches is to stay at the Walt Disney World Swan or Walt Disney World Dolphin, which offer a more traditional hotel experience with most of the Disney resort benefits available. Another option is to stay at a hotel in the Downtown Disney Hotel Plaza; they're fairly generic and have few Disney amenities, but they're just across the street from Downtown Disney.
Check-in time at Disney resorts is 3PM (4PM for the All-Star Resorts), and check-out time is 11AM—but don't fret if your flight schedule doesn't match up. You can do an early check-in starting at 8AM; leave your bags with bell services and they'll be delivered to your room when it's ready. You'll get your Key to the World card, so you can go enjoy the parks right away. Likewise at check-out; you can get into the parks all day on the day of your departure, so just leave your bags with bell services and pick them up before you leave for the airport.
Please see each district's Sleep section for details on individual hotels.
Please note that all Disney hotel rooms and other indoor areas are 100% smoke-free.
Disney classifies their cheapest options as Value resorts. These resorts are great for guests with a limited budget, or for families with young kids on whom the sophisticated theming and amenities at the other resorts would be wasted. Prices (one room, two adults and two children) range from $82/night for a standard room in the value season to $160/night for a preferred room during Christmas week. There is a $10 fee for each adult beyond two per room.
The Value resorts have basic rooms with exterior entrances and minimal amenities. The theming is bold and colorful—kids love the larger-than-life decorations—but not particularly evocative of any particular environment. Hotel amenities include food courts and swimming pools, but no sit-down restaurants or other on-site recreation options.
If you have a tent, camper, or motorhome, perhaps the best value on Disney property is at Fort Wilderness (near the Magic Kingdom), where you can rent a campsite for as little as $43 a night.
These are Disney's Moderate resorts. Guests who want the full Disney resort experience without paying for the extra luxuries and amenities at the Deluxe resorts will be more than satisfied by the Moderate resorts. Prices (one room, two adults and two children) range from $149/night for a standard room in the value season to $250/night for a preferred room during Christmas week. Prices can go even higher for the new pirate-themed rooms at Caribbean Beach and club-level rooms and suites at Coronado Springs. There is a $15 fee for each adult beyond two per room.
The Moderate resorts have basic rooms with exterior entrances. The theming is straightforward but fun and evocative of the appropriate time and place, from the Louisiana bayou at Port Orleans-Riverside to the warm Caribbean colors of the Caribbean Beach. Hotel amenities include food courts, sit-down restaurants (usually), limited room service, swimming pools with extras (such as a slide), and some on-site recreation activities.
Disney's Deluxe resorts and the Deluxe villas fall into this category, the largest by far.
The Deluxe resorts are for guests who want the ultimate in Disney hospitality, with luxury-hotel amenities and signature Disney experiences. Prices in this category vary widely. Some basic rooms can be had for as little as $240 a night in the value season, but more commonly start at $355/night and go up to $835 or more for the best single rooms. Luxurious suites are available at most of the resorts, starting at over $1,000/night and going up from there. There is a $25 fee for each adult beyond two per room.
Deluxe resorts feature well-appointed rooms with interior entrances and extensive theming to match the resort. A Deluxe resort's decor is evocative and all-encompassing, with as much attention paid to detail as at any of the Disney theme parks. Hotel amenities include multiple full-service and casual restaurants, often with character dining; full room service; extensive pool and beach facilities with plenty of extras; numerous on-site recreation activities; and valet parking.
The Deluxe resorts are the Contemporary, the Wilderness Lodge, the Polynesian, and the Grand Floridian near the Magic Kingdom; the Boardwalk Inn, the Yacht Club, and the Beach Club near Epcot, and the Animal Kingdom Lodge near Animal Kingdom.
The rental cabins at Fort Wilderness (near the Magic Kingdom) have full kitchens, plumbing, and maid service. They sleep six for $265–$410 a night.
The Deluxe villas were created to be part of the Disney Vacation Club, a time-share program created by Disney, but when DVC members aren't using them, they're open to the general public. The villas offer a more "home-away-from-home" feel, with studios and one-, two-, and even three-bedroom suites available. Prices range from $295/night for a studio at Old Key West or Saratoga Springs during the value season to $2,215/night for a three-bedroom Grand Villa at the Boardwalk or Beach Club Villas during Christmas week. If that price seems astonishing, consider that those villas sleep twelve people!
Studios have a kitchenette; the suites have full kitchens, and the largest ones, Grand Villas, have full dining rooms. Most of the DVC resorts are attached to one of Disney's Deluxe resorts, sharing amenities with the "parent" resort; the others (Old Key West and Saratoga Springs) are standalone but have comparable amenities.
The DVC resorts are Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary and the Villas at the Wilderness Lodge near the Magic Kingdom; the Boardwalk Villas and Beach Club Villas near Epcot; the Animal Kingdom Villas near Animal Kingdom; and Old Key West and Saratoga Springs near Downtown Disney.
This section covers only those resorts that are not owned/operated by Disney, but are located on Disney property.
If you're going to stay off-property, there are scores of options, but be sure to research your selection well. Lots of hotels advertise themselves as being close to Walt Disney World, often with the word "Maingate" in their names, but they could be several miles away in reality. See Lake Buena Vista and Kissimmee for off-property listings.
If you or a family member is an employee or retiree of the United States Department of Defense, including the military, you're in luck. Shades of Green, near the Magic Kingdom has rooms starting at $93, depending on the employee's pay grade. Amenities are somewhat limited, though; see the full listing for details.
For everyone else, affordable deals can be found at the Downtown Disney Hotel Plaza located adjacent to the Downtown Disney Marketplace. There are seven franchised or independent hotels in the Downtown Disney Hotel Plaza. Disney amenities are virtually nonexistent; only their proximity to Downtown Disney separates them from the other hotels in Lake Buena Vista. Their prices are quite reasonable, though, considering their location.
The Walt Disney World Swan and Walt Disney World Dolphin, located near Epcot and not far from Hollywood Studios, have most of the amenities of Disney Resorts but are not operated by Disney. They are ideal for guests who want a more traditional hotel experience while still being right in the middle of Disney property. The whimsical exteriors are a sight to see all by themselves.
Generally, visitors enjoy coming to Walt Disney World for a break from daily life, but that doesn't mean you want to be cut off completely. Mail can be dropped off at locations just inside each theme park's gates. Or, to really get into the spirit, drop your postcard in a real vintage mailbox on Main Street U.S.A.; cast members pick up such mail daily. Deluxe hotels might provide copies of the local newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel; ask at the front desk.
After years of guest grumbling, Internet access is improving significantly. All resorts now offer free Wi-Fi in each guest room (free wired access at Fort Wilderness campsites) and in most common areas. As of Summer 2012, free Wi-Fi is also available at the Wide World of Sports and the Magic Kingdom, soon to be expanded to the other parks; this is expected to help alleviate the many cellular network load issues currently experienced at the Disney parks. The speed may not be great, but at least you'll be able to check your e-mail... and use Disney's mobile apps!
But remember, Walt Disney World is designed to be an immersive environment; you'll miss a lot if your eyes are locked onto a mobile device. Make an effort to keep the electronics usage to a minimum, and just enjoy a respite from the world outside the World.
Walt Disney World is a very safe area, and the company spends a lot of time and money ensuring that it remains so. Still, it's wise to take common-sense precautions; even Disney can't account for every contingency. People have been victimized, injured, and even (very rarely) killed while visiting Walt Disney World, but there are plenty of steps you can take to minimize the chance of anything happening.
The above warning applies to the following attractions:
Stitch's Great Escape in the Magic Kingdom has the same restrictions, except for the prohibition on pregnant women.
If your child does not meet the ride's height requirement, there is a "rider swap" service available. This service enables one person to wait with the child while another goes on the ride; afterwards the person waiting with the child may board the ride without having to wait in line. Ask a Cast Member for more information.
Also note that lap children are not permitted on most rides, especially if there are restraining devices.
Especially during the spring and summer, heat is the most likely weather-related issue you'll encounter.
If your trip is in the late summer or early fall, you'll soon learn about the daily afternoon thundershowers. They are usually brief and won't ruin your whole day. If you want to stay dry, rain ponchos and umbrellas are sold throughout the parks. Walt Disney World does not close down due to rain, though some outdoor rides and attractions may temporarily do so.
Hurricanes, though, are a different story. The Orlando area is as far from the coasts as anyplace in the state, so hurricane-related closures are very rare. If the parks do end up closed for high winds, though, your resort hotel will make sure you stay entertained, sometimes with special appearances from the Disney characters. The hotels are perfectly safe in high winds.
There's a way to get just about anything you might need while at Walt Disney World, although some may be more convenient than others.
All resorts have coin-operated laundry facilities, daily maid service, and at least one shop selling basic essentials and sundries.
Most of the resorts have exercise facilities; at the value resorts, though, you'll have to be content with just using a jogging path or swimming in the pool. Deluxe resorts will have more extensive "health club" facilities—in particular, the Grand Floridian's health club, attached to the spa, is quite spacious.
If you find yourself in need of a haircut, there are a number of options. Most interesting is the Harmony Barber Shop on Main Street U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom; first haircuts are their specialty, but anyone can walk in for a trim. The Contemporary Resort, Coronado Springs, the Grand Floridian, and the Yacht and Beach Clubs also have hair salons.
Sometimes, parents want to spend some time for themselves at Walt Disney World, be it going to a fancy dinner, enjoying some alcoholic beverages, or even sneaking another ride on Space Mountain without the kids tagging along. Parents of teenagers can just set them loose in a theme park and trust they'll be all right, but younger kids require more supervision.
What's a parent to do? There are a number of options.
Several of the resorts offer safe and secure Children's Activity Centers, and you don't have to be staying at the resort to take advantage of them! The Centers are open daily from 4:30PM until midnight, and are well staffed by trained and certified child care personnel. Children must be potty trained and be between the ages of 4 and 12 (inclusive). The cost is $11.50 per hour per child, with a two-hour minimum; dinner is included if the kids are there between 6PM and 8PM. Your children will enjoy so many games, crafts, and activities that they won't even care you're off having fun without them. Of course, you'll be given a pager in case there's an emergency, and you can call at any time to check up on your kid.
If your kids are too young for the activity centers, or you want to stay out past their bedtime, you can get in-room babysitting. WDW recommends Kid's Nite Out , +1-800-696-8105, but other equally reliable services operate in the area as well. Some, including Kid's Nite Out, offer 24/7 service. Rates run about $12–$25 an hour, depending on time and number of children.
If you are planning to visit the other Orlando theme parks, you might want to consider getting the Orlando Flex Ticket  ($265), which is valid for 14 consecutive days beginning with the first use, and gives unlimited admission to Universal Orlando Resort (both parks), SeaWorld Orlando, and their water parks; or the Orlando Flex Ticket Plus ($304), which covers Universal, SeaWorld, and Busch Gardens, and also includes a free round trip shuttle bus to Busch Gardens from Orlando.
For a broader spectrum of entertainment options, the Go Orlando Card  is available in increments of 1, 2, 3, 5, or 7 days and gives free admission and express entry to a number of attractions in and around Orlando and Kissimmee. Unfortunately, Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal are not included in the Go Orlando Card. The complete list of attractions where it is accepted may be found here .
International Drive  is Orlando's dynamic tourist corridor. With a multitude of attractions, dining, and shopping, it makes for the perfect side trip. Here you can also find Orlando's two other world-famous theme parks:
It's not just about Orlando, either; Central Florida is packed with attractions from coast to coast.