Our Disney Experience
All the details of our trip including the things we loved and things we would do differently.
Since our daughter was a baby, my husband and I have had a lot of conversations about an eventual trip to Disney. We knew it would one day be a big deal to our daughter as it is for most kids, and we knew we wanted to try to plan it for an ideal age. As the years passed, we both agreed that six felt like a great age for her first Disney trip because she was tall enough to ride the rides, old enough to understand the magic of it all but not too old to believe in it, and past the point of requiring naps or getting grouchy during long days.
We started really building up Disney World to our daughter on a regular basis about a year before our trip so she would understand what a huge deal it would be should we ever get the chance to go. I told her that we put our names on a Disney wish list which is how they would know that we wanted to go, but that it still wasn’t a guarantee and ultimately Disney would decide when we got to go by sending us the Magic Bands to enter the parks. I told her that Disney would check in with me from time to time and I would update them on how she was doing in school and at home, and also continue to let them know that we still wanted to visit some day. I also made sure she understood that Disney was a big expense and that our family would have to pay for it so that there wasn’t any confusion or magical theory behind why our family was "chosen" to go.
We watched videos on Disney World, studied the park maps, and learned as much as we could about the park rides and hacks as a family so that 1) the adults were informed in advance and 2) our daughter continued to build the excitement around the dream of one day getting her chance to go. We surprised her with a mysterious princess gift bag on our porch on the afternoon before we flew out for the trip early the next morning. The bag included a personalized princess luggage that was filled with items she could wear and use at the park as well as our Disney Magic Bands. The moment of the reveal was one of my favorite experiences to date with my daughter and a memory I don’t think any of us will ever forget.
While I’m not a travel planner or a Disney expert, I learned so much throughout this process and gained a lot of helpful tips along the way. Feel free to scroll the sections that interest you to learn what our trip experience was like, including things we highly recommend and things we would do differently next time.
DISNEY TRAVEL AGENT: If you’re extremely overwhelmed at the thought of planning such an elaborate (and expensive) trip, you’re certainly not alone. Once we had started seriously getting to the point that we were ready to talk about planning and booking our trip, I began by polling my Instagram blog community and was contacted by several travel agents who specialized in Disney World trips. We decided to use a local travel agent who helped us choose ideal dates, narrow down resort options based on our accommodation needs, decide which parks would be best for our daughter’s age and interests, and covered all the little details that otherwise would have had me drowning with anxiety. The best part is that the travel agent cost us nothing. We paid a small initial deposit toward our trip once we had made the resort and park reservations and had the option of making payments along the way or paying off the trip in full about a month before.
MY DISNEY EXPERIENCE APP: The first thing we did after reserving our trip through our travel agent was download the My Disney Experience app. You can link all your park plans and your resort information through the app, link any Magic Bands, link credit cards for payments at Disney, enter your top attraction interests at each park to customize your plans, and check in to the room at your resort before you arrive so you never have to wait in line in the lobby. Each adult traveler on your trip can have their own account so they always have access to the plans on the account. We constantly utilized the "Tip Board" to plan our rides out as it shows wait times and any Genie+ reservation details, and the map to locate rides and character interactions easily at each park.
DISNEY RESORT: Since we were taking my mom along on our trip, we wanted a suite or something that included two bedrooms with a shared living space. This narrowed down our options and our travel agent explained the “value,” “moderate,” and “deluxe” level resorts. We ended up going with a “value” level resort because of the significant price difference (several thousand dollars less than a “deluxe” level suite).
We chose a Finding Nemo themed family suite at Art of Animation which had a primary suite bedroom and private bathroom as well as a living room with a pull out couch bed, pull down murphy bed in the dining room/entrance, and second full bathroom. Since we were only staying four nights with three full days of parks, we knew our time in the room would be absolutely minimal. We arrived on a Sunday afternoon, spent about an hour at the pool and then spent the evening at Disney Springs. On our park days (Monday-Wednesday), we left our room at 7:30am and didn’t return until 10:00/10:30pm each day.
As a Disney resort guest, you get the privilege of early admission to the parks which is usually 30 minutes to an hour ahead of general admission times. Art of Animation had a nice cafeteria which was convenient for grabbing things on the go and had free transportation to anywhere in Disney. The Nemo suites were clean, cute, and conveniently located right by the Skyliner which took us directly to Epcot and Hollywood Studios as well as buses every 20 minutes to Magic Kingdom, Disney Springs, and anywhere else within Disney.
DISNEY SPRINGS: Disney Springs is basically a large outdoor mall with both moderate and upscale shopping, tons of restaurant and bar options, live music, a movie theater, bowling alley, and more. There are buses constantly running to the location from all the different Disney resorts. This is a great place to visit during any off time you may have from parks. We spent a few hours shopping and made a dinner reservation at Disney Springs through the app on the day we arrived, and we ended up making a dinner reservation and letting our daughter shop there a bit more on our last night as well.
There are a lot of optional add-ons that can feel a little overwhelming when you're planning your trip. Below are some of the options we chose and what our experiences were with each. If you're just looking for info on park experiences specifically, just scroll a bit farther down!
MAGIC BANDS: Magic Bands are not a requirement for Disney, they’re just a fun and convenient option. They can be ordered on the Disney website for about $30-50 each or they can be purchased at the hotel or parks (though I noticed the selection at Disney locations was definitely not as good as the online options). You can pick your favorite color or design for each person, and if you’re planning to surprise someone with a trip, they’re a fun way to represent their “ticket” to the parks. You can use them as the key to enter your hotel room, pass to scan in and enter the parks as well as lightning lanes and memory maker spots so photos are sent directly to your app, and for payment anywhere at Disney if you link a card to the app in advance. All you have to do is set the bands up on the app for each person through Bluetooth, and they are reusable for future trips (assuming some new technology doesn’t take their place before your next trip).
GENIE+: We opted to add the Genie+ to each of our park days for $15 per person per day. This gave us the ability to preschedule some of our rides so that we could “hop the line” and guarantee that we’d get to ride some of our top choices. I felt a little overwhelmed by Genie+ at first, but after watching videos and knowing that I'm a schedule oriented person, it wasn't as intimidating as it seemed. You can schedule your rides every two hours, beginning with the first selection at 7:00am (second selection being 2 hours after the park opens). Your reservation gives you an hour window to arrive and jump to the front of the line on your ride, and I usually tried to schedule our first rides to begin about an hour after we could enter the parks just to leave some wiggle room. If you are using Genie+, I highly recommend waking up prior to 7:00 each morning and having your top two rides for the day in mind so you can book one early as soon as it hits 7:00am sharp.
For our first reservations each day, we chose rides that we definitely wanted to ride and that were very popular at the parks because we knew those would be hard to snag as the day went on. There’s only so many reservations available for park visitors that can be made through Genie+ throughout the day, so for the more popular rides, they can run out pretty early in the day.
For us, Genie+ was definitely worth it for Magic Kingdom. We rode 9 total rides at MK from about 9:00am-7:00pm with a break for lunch and a few character interaction stops, and 5 of the rides were through the lightning lane reservations, so had we not had Genie+ we would’ve spent a lot more time waiting and wouldn’t have been able to do as many rides. At EPCOT we only used the Genie+ on the Ratatouille ride, and even with me booking it right at 7:00am, I was only able to get a later afternoon spot before they eventually were gone for the day. The Frozen ride reservations were already gone before my two hour window was up, so we did have to wait for well over an hour to ride that one. Other than purchasing the lightning lane add on for Guardians of the Galaxy (which did not require Genie+ - I'll talk more in detail about this down in the EPCOT section), most of the other rides at EPCOT had lower wait times so reservations weren’t necessary. At Hollywood Studios, I was hoping to get Slinky Dog reservations when that 7:00am time hit, but the only available reservation time was after 6:00pm, so we went with Tower of Terror first thing and Slinky Dog reservations were very quickly gone for the day. Most of the other rides at Hollywood Studios did have reservations available throughout the day.
Overall, I'd say for the low price of the Genie+ and my affinity for schedules and low patience for long waits, it was definitely worth it for our trip.
MEMORY MAKER: We purchased the Memory Maker add on, which allows you to stop at any of the professional photograph spots in any of the parks, scan your Magic Band or park card, and have photos taken and immediately uploaded to your Disney app. While I did like the convenience of this option and we got some great family pictures and character interaction photos from it, I’m not sure that it was worth the $200 add on since I was also constantly taking photos and videos on my phone. I think this just depends on your personal preference and whether you are someone who tends to document well on your own or would prefer to leave that up to the pros.
STROLLER RENTAL: If you’re traveling with little park goers, or you’re bringing backpacks or coolers, I highly recommend renting a stroller at the parks. The cost was $13 a day for a single stroller and it included pouches to hold items and drinks, plus spared our daughter’s energy so she was able to hang in there for long park days. It also stored our bags while we were on rides. The stroller rental is available as soon as you walk into each park and we never had much of a wait to get one. You can return them quickly and easily as you're exiting the parks each day.
DISNEY GIFT CARDS: I used our Target red card to purchase Disney gift cards in advance because of the 5% savings with the red card, and Sam’s Club also has discounted gift cards with savings totaling about the same amount. We tried to make an educated guess on a reasonable amount for our meals and souvenirs for four days and I kept them virtually on my phone so they could be scanned for all of our food purchases. We gave our daughter a spending allotment for the entire trip so she could use the gift cards to purchase souvenirs and toys each day until her amount ran out. (Yay for a bonus practical math lesson on budgeting!)
Now, let's get to the good stuff! Below are the details about the three parks we visited.
MAGIC KINGDOM: We did MK on our first day because I knew we’d have the most energy and it would be the most hyped of all the parks. I got on the app, refreshed my Tip Board right at 7am and booked Space Mountain for our first Genie+ ride since it is one of the most popular and usually has longer wait times. We were ultimately able to ride nine rides (including all of the ones that were our top choices) and would’ve had time to ride a few more but our daughter was tired by 7pm and ready for dinner. We grabbed dinner, did a little shopping, and found our spots for the Enchantment firework show at 8pm. The firework shows don’t begin until 9pm, but if you want a good seat, you’ll definitely want to start looking for your spot in front of the castle about an hour in advance. Enchantment was an audio/visual show spanning the Cinderella castle with perfectly timed fireworks, including a consistent message that “YOU are the magic” and was the perfect way to end our first day at Disney.
In terms of food, everything we had at MK was grab and go, overpriced, and underwhelming. Most of our meals and snacks were reminiscent of local fair food. A simple way to save money here would be to pack your own easy lunches and snacks; and if you're looking for better meal experiences, do the research to book reservations in advance. For this trip and our first MK experience as a family, the food wasn't a priority and we didn't want to spend too much time with meal reservations.
EPCOT: Let me just start by saying the number of people that told me in advance to skip EPCOT had me telling my travel agent that IF we included EPCOT in our plans, we’d only need a half day park hopper pass there. This is a case in point example of why I am SO glad we used a travel agent who knew the parks and knew what was important to our family. She told me that EPCOT was where we’d find the vast majority of the character meet and greets, plus it was home to the Frozen and Ratatouille rides.
We did EPCOT on the second day of parks, and I woke up early and very thankfully at the last minute decided to read a blog post about the brand new Guardians of the Galaxy ride. I decided to splurge the extra $14 a person for a lightning lane upgrade that bypassed the queue and guaranteed our chance to ride (otherwise there is no standby and the only option is to join a limited “virtual queue” at either 7am or 1pm and ultimately be told a random time in the morning or afternoon to arrive to wait in a standby line). When we first got to the park, we had a little time before our reservation so we located a full service Starbucks inside the park (hallelujah!) and found Minnie Mouse right around the corner. Those two simple experiences followed by the Guardians ride being the first ride of the day really set the tone of EPCOT for us.
During our visit, it was the annual food & wine festival which meant there were tons of speciality foods and cocktails in all of the different countries throughout the park. My favorite country was France for the orange slush cocktail and the bakery with so many yummy sweet treats. My only regret with EPCOT is that we didn’t have a second day there. (Yes, I went from thinking we'd maybe spend half a day at this park to wanting a second full day back!) We spent a majority of our afternoon locating and waiting in line for princess meet & greets, which was a perfectly magical experience that I cherished, but that meant that we didn’t have much time for food tasting throughout the countries or some of the rides we would have liked to do. We stayed for Harmonious which was another amazing firework and audio/visual show featuring well known Disney characters and songs (not as magical as Enchantment at MK, in my opinion, but many argue that it’s even better and it’s absolutely worth staying to see).
HOLLYWOOD STUDIOS: Our third day of parks was spent at Hollywood Studios. We entered the park and walked toward the Hollywood Tower and saw that the Aerosmith Rock n’ Rollercoaster was just opening for the day, so my husband and I were able to walk right on to it while my mom took our daughter to the Cars show right next door. If you gain early entrance to the park from your resort and you're okay with a thrill ride to wake you up, those lines are much shorter first thing in the morning and continue to get longer as the day goes on. The rollercoaster was an intense way to begin our morning, and when we got off the ride and there was still not yet a wait, we decided to hop right back in line and ride it a second time before the Cars show even ended.
After, we went over to the Tower of Terror for our first lightning lane reservation. Since we weren’t able to get a good Slinky Dog Genie+ reservation and the passes for the day went fast, we ended up having a 90 minute wait to ride it. The wait went quickly with all the fun Toy Story props to look at and it ended up being our daughter’s favorite ride of all three parks. While in Toy Story Land, we snagged a Genie+ reservation to ride Toy Story Mania which was an arcade-style interactive ride and we also had to make a stop at Woody’s Lunch Box to grab one of the super fun and tasty lunch box tarts.
Character interactions were a huge part of our trip with a six year old princess fanatic, so below are some of the tips that we found extremely helpful.
USING THE APP TO FIND CHARACTERS: If you are looking for character interactions and autograph signings, EPCOT did not have the characters listed on the Disney app under the attractions or wait times tab the way that Magic Kingdom does. I spent a good part of our late morning at EPCOT doing a lot of googling where princesses were located in the park, then walking to those countries and asking cast members exactly where and when we could find them. Thankfully after our first few wild goose chases seeking the princesses, I learned a huge hack waiting in line with another kind princess chasing park goer. She showed me how to toggle the app when you’re on the park map to change the selection from “wait times” to “characters,” and that’s how we found all of the princesses on the map along with the specific times they would be available at EPCOT. This made the rest of our afternoon a breeze and guaranteed we would locate the princesses our daughter wanted to see!
GETTING THE "BEST" CHARACTER INTERACTIONS: I watched a lot of videos and read blogs with tips on how to get the most intimate and memorable interactions from the characters, and to spare my and my family’s sanity, I decided not to go too crazy here. We didn’t have any elaborate costume changes or quirky props, but I still felt that our daughter had incredible interactions from all of the characters she met. First and foremost, it’s the cast members' job to provide a great interaction to every person they meet at the park, so I don’t think too much extravagance is even necessary here. However, one thing we encouraged our daughter to do that I think made some of her interactions really unique was to think of a personalized question for each princess/character. For example, she asked Merida if she could tell her about the times she saw Mor'du, and she got some really awesome stories from Merida about her run-ins with the bear as well as the advice her mom, the queen, gave her.
OUR PERSONAL FAVORITES FROM THE TRIP: My daughter and I agreed that we loved EPCOT best for the princesses and Guardians ride, and I personally enjoyed the culture and food/beverages in the different countries. My husband liked Magic Kingdom best for the nostalgia and overall ideal Disney experience. My husband and I are naturally thrill-seekers and agreed on our top three favorite rides being 1) Guardians of the Galaxy at EPCOT, 2) Aerosmith Rock N’ Rollercoaster at Hollywood Studios, 3) Tower of Terror at Hollywood Studios. Our daughter's favorites were 1) Slinky Dog rollercoaster at Hollywood Studios, 2) Guardians of the Galaxy at EPCOT, and 3) It’s a Small World at Magic Kingdom.
We planned a fast paced 4 days at Disney with three full consecutive park days, and then moved on to St. Pete for the second half of the trip so we could relax before heading home. I really liked having the down time at the beach with our family after a whirlwind Disney experience, but could also definitely see the benefit of staying in a Disney resort all week and breaking your park days up throughout the week. There’s so much to see and do in the Disney resorts alone that you could take it easy or stay entertained at the resorts even on your off days from parks.
If you made it this far, I hope this was helpful if you are currently planning or thinking about planning your own Disney trip. No matter how you do Disney, I promise it will be a great experience! Oh, and don’t forget comfortable shoes - we walked between 20 and 30 thousand steps per day! A backup battery and charging cords for your phones and Magic Bands are also a must as ours drained pretty quickly each day.
If you have any questions or comments to add, feel free to comment below or send me a message!