Welcome to the 2021 Walt Disney World First Time Visitor Planning Guide courtesy of Mitten to Magic! Our goal here is to make your vacation planning as smooth as possible so that you can enjoy the magical moments that are guaranteed when visiting the wonderful world of magic. Below you will find the best guide to plan your stay!
Overview of Walt Disney World
While many think Walt Disney World is in Orlando, it is actually located in both Bay Lake and Lake Buena Vista, FL. It sits to the southwest of Orlando proper and encompasses both Orange and Osceola counties. It currently sits on nearly 25,000 acres of land, with roughly 50% actually in use.
Walt Disney World has 4 theme parks, 2 currently open water parks, and 1 permanently closed water park (River Country). Each theme park and water park is separate and all require a single day ticket, park hopper pass, or annual pass to enter.
Magic Kingdom Park
Magic Kingdom Park was the first property at Walt Disney World to open on October 1st, 1971. This park sits in the north eastern corner of the WDW property. It hosts 20 million+ visitors every year, which makes it the most visited theme park in the world, wow! For those of you that have been here before, you know that it is extremely busy at times. Disney houses 45 attractions in 6 different “lands:”
- Main Street, U.S.A.
- Liberty Square
Epcot was the second theme park to open at Walt Disney World on October 1st, 1982, exactly 11 years after the Magic Kingdom. It is twice the size of the Magic Kingdom at 305 acres and was built off of the idea of Walt Disney’s “Florida Project” of being an innovation center for the future of tomorrow. While it is not the city he dreamed of, it is aimed at being similar to a permanent World’s Fair. Epcot is centered by it’s geodesic sphere at the entrance that hosts “Spaceship Earth.” Epcot has 28 shows and attractions as well as 4 festivals throughout 4 “lands:”
- World Celebration
- World Discovery
- World Nature
- World Showcase
Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the third full size theme park at Walt Disney World and opened on May 1st, 1989 as Disney-MGM Studios Park. This was a new concept of having a working movie studio and a theme park on the same property. This eventually proved to not work as intended and the working studios were scaled back and removed throughout the 2000s. This did, however, pave the way for 2 of the most highly anticipated “themed lands” to be built within the park in the 2010s, Toy Story Land and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Hollywood Studios hosts 8 total “lands:”
- Hollywood Boulevard
- Echo Lake
- Grand Avenue
- Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
- An Incredible Celebration
- Toy Story Land
- Animation Courtyard
- Sunset Boulevard
Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Disney’s Animal Kingdom is the newest full scale theme park at Walt Disney World and opened on April 22nd, 1998. This was Disney’s first experiment into operating a nature preserve as a theme park and it turned out to be a great mix. Animal Kingdom is the largest theme park in the world standing at 580 acres. It has since added many areas and rides since its inception. It now has a total of 7 “lands:”
- Discovery Island
- Pandor – The World of Avatar
- Rafiki’s Planet Watch
- DinoLand U.S.A.
Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon
Typhoon Lagoon opened on June 1st, 1989 as Walt Disney World’s 2nd water park. Typhoon Lagoon is home to 18 attractions themed around a tropical island that gets hit with a typhoon, knocking the island into chaos!
Disney’s Blizzard Beach
Blizzard Beach opened on April 1st, 1995 as Walt Disney World’s 3rd water park. Blizzard Beach is themed around a freak snowstorm in Florida leading to the opening of the first ski resort. When the snow melted, it left behind what we know as Blizzard Beach. There are 15 attractions at the water park.
Walt Disney World is home to 43 world class resorts and hotels. Disney owns and operates 31 of the 43 and leases the land to outside companies for the remaining 12 hotels and resorts. The Disney owned properties are broken down into 4 categories:
Deluxe resorts are the premium resorts to stay at when you visit Walt Disney World. When you stay at one of these, there are less rooms and typically you’re given a more premium environment for getting to the park areas. You are either within walking distance, have your own transportation option, or have a higher volume of buses to people. Not only this, you also have a more immersive theme to your resort than both the moderate and the value resorts. On top of these two, your dining experience will be drastically different. At a Deluxe resort, you will typically have multiple table service options and a signature dining option. The following are the Walt Disney World Deluxe Resorts:
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge
- Disney’s Beach Club Resort
- Disney’s Boardwalk Inn
- Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort
- Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Disney’s Yacht Club Resort
- Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser (opening 2021)
Moderate resorts are the middle option at Walt Disney World. They offer more theme than the value resorts, but not quite as much as a deluxe. The rooms are larger than a value, but not quite as spacious and in-depth as a deluxe resort. They offer both a quick-service and table-service meal option and the transportation can be a little iffy. For example, Port Orleans Riverside and French Quarter share a bus with 4 total stops, where as the Caribbean Beach Resort is connected to the Disney Skyliner. Here are the 4 Walt Disney World Moderate Resorts:
- Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
- Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort
- Disney’s Port Orleans – French Quarter
- Disney’s Port Orleans – Riverside
Value resorts are exactly what the name implies: value. You won’t find a cheaper option to stay on Disney property than in a value resort. You will find a quick-service dining option but no table-service options. 2 out of the 5 are serviced on the Disney Skyliner, while the other 3 share buses to get to the parks. These are the 5 Walt Disney World Value Resorts:
- Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort
- Disney’s All-Star Music Resort
- Disney’s All-Star Sports Resort
- Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
- Disney’s Pop Century Resort
Disney Vacation Club
The Disney Vacation Club was started on Decemeber 20th, 19991 as a vacation timeshare program operated by Disney. The first property to open under this program was Disney’s Old Key West Resort. This is different from a traditional timeshare program in that you’re not purchasing a fixed week of the year, you’re instead buying points that you can cash in at various properties. All properties have different point values and you still have a “home resort” that you belong to. The 12 Disney Vacation Club properties at Walt Disney World are:
- Bay Lake Tower
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas
- Disney’s Beach Club Villas
- Disney’s Boardwalk Villas
- Disney’s Old Key West Resort
- Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
- Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
- The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
- Boulder Ridge Villas
- Copper Creek Villas & Cabins
- Disney’s Riviera Resort
- Reflections – A Disney Lakeside Lodge (coming 2022)
Walt Disney World is a one of kind resort experience in that you never have to leave the property once you check in! There are 5 main ways of getting around the property without ever getting into your car. 4 are free, and 1 is using ride share apps like Uber or Lyft (including Disney’s own taxi service under the Lyft banner). Below I will outline the transportation methods and what you can connect to when using them!
The primary method of getting around the Walt Disney World property is by using their bus system. Every resort has a bus stop that will take you to the parks, unless you’re staying right next to one or on the monorail loop at the Magic Kingdom Resorts. If you’re looking to resort hop at Disney, you cannot go from resort to resort on the buses but you can easily take a bus from one resort to the nearest park. After arriving you can then transfer onto the bus that will take you to the resort you want to go to.
The second method of transportation at Walt Disney World is the monorail system. There are 3 monorail routes on property. All 3 come into the “Ticket & Transportation Center” (TTC) that sits across Bay Lake from the Magic Kingdom Park. This is the head of the Magic Kingdom parking lot. One route runs direct from the TTC to the front of the Magic Kingdom Park, and back. The second route runs from the TTC to the Polynesian Resort to the Grand Floridian Resort to the Magic Kingdom Park to the Contemporary Resort and back to the TTC. The last route is the TTC to Epcot and back.
The cool thing about the monorail is it was originally intended by Walt Disney himself to run from the “Walt Disney Airport” to the “Disney Welcome Center” to the “Industrial Complex” to the “Residential Area” and finally stopping at the “Magic Kingdom.” Of course, plans changed after he passed and we got a different version, but it is cool to think about his original intentions.
The third transportation method at Walt Disney World is via boat! There are many different boat routes and all feature fun and interactive experiences with your “guide,” a.k.a. the captain of the boat. Below you can find a table highlighting the stops and routes of the various boats:
|Ticket and Transportation Center
|Disney’s Polynesian Resort
|Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
|Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
|Disney’s Contemporary Resort
|Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground
|Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
|Disney’s Port Orleans – Riverside
|Disney’s Port Orleans – French Quarter
|Disney Springs – Marketplace
|Disney Springs – West Side
|Disney Springs – The Landing
|Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
|Disney’s Old Key West Resort
|Disney’s Boardwalk/Yacht/Beach Club/Swan & Dolphin Resorts
|Disney’s Hollywood Studios
|Epcot – Future World
The Disney Skyliner is Walt Disney World’s newest transportation method and uses an elevated gondola system to move riders around the property. This system is setup with one “hub” in the middle that services 3 separate gondola lines. This “hub” is located at the Caribbean Beach Resort. Line one goes from the “hub” to the World Showcase Entrance at Epcot, then goes to the Riviera Resort, before returning to the “hub.” Line two at the “hub” goes to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and back to the “hub.” Finally, line three goes from the “hub” to the middle of The Art of Animation and Pop Century Resorts, then back to the “hub.”
This is definitely Walt Disney World’s transportation method of the future as it is continuously moving, seats 10 people per gondola car, and gets you from point A to point B without having to deal with stoplights, other cars, long waits for a monorail train, and is relatively cost friendly.
Minnie Vans (Lyft)
The last way of officially getting around using Disney Transportation is by calling a “Minnie Van” through the Lyft ride share app. This cab is decorated like Minnie Mouse and gives you a private ride around the grounds of Walt Disney World. It originally started as actual vans, but has since expanded to include large SUV’s (7 passenger Chevy Suburbans). This one is not free, and will cost you a differing amount depending on how far you are traveling, like a cab, but cleaner.
Cost of Walt Disney World
Walt Disney World itself is not a “cheap” place to go if you plan on utilizing the on property stays, dining at the resorts and parks, and seeing as much as you can. When planning your trip it is a good idea to figure out an initial budget. Once you’ve done this, you can see what you can do with that budget. Lastly, you can then adjust your budget as needed to scale back or scale up your trip.
Getting to Walt Disney World
Getting to the property tends to be one of the largest expenses if you don’t live near Florida. For people like Megan and I, we have two options: drive 19 hours from Michigan, or book a flight and get to Orlando in 3 hours. The cost is not always the same for either one.
If we really pushed it, we could drive 19 hours straight and not have the cost of a hotel room on the way there. And depending on the time of the year and day you book, a flight can be less or more expensive than driving. When you start your planning, look into the cost of getting there and back first. This will determine how much of a budget you have for park days and accommodations.
Staying on Property at Walt Disney World
Staying on property at Walt Disney World is, in my opinion, one of the most stress free ways to go to Disney. You can park your car, or take the Magical Express from the airport, and not have to worry about a thing for the rest of your stay. Your transportation is figured out (see above) and you can just have a great time enjoying the magical moments Disney provides. If your budget can swing it, definitely stay on property!
Staying off Property at Walt Disney World
Staying off property at Walt Disney World can be a great alternative to staying on property if you are limited on your budget, have a large group that wants to stay together, or you only want to visit Walt Disney World for a day or two. The last time we went with Megan’s family, we booked an entire house AirBNB for a lot cheaper than it would have been to get rooms for 4 couples and a sibling. AirBNB can be a great resource for securing a cheap and safe house/condo for your family.
Planning a Trip to Walt Disney World
This is where half of the fun is for your trip. There are a million different ways to go to Walt Disney World and using resources like our website can make it much easier and more fun! Below we will walk you through our process of planning a trip. It is a good idea to get a pad of paper and write down answers to some of the questions we will go through.
How many days should I spend in the parks at Disney?
This is both a budget and personal preference question. In the below chart, you can see the cost per day of getting a ticket. If you have kids under 10, it is probably a good idea to only do 1 park per day. So right off the bat, you either have to do 4 days of parks, or choose which park you don’t want to go to. If you’ve never been to Walt Disney World, or you don’t go very often, my personal recommendation is at least one day at each.
If you can make the budget work, 2 days at Epcot and Hollywood Studios. Then one day at Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom. And if you’re really feeling froggy, add a water park day in there. All told you’re looking at a 4-7 day ticket pass.
Should I go to all the parks on consecutive days?
I would recommend no more than 2 days in a row at the parks. I remember as a kid, my parents would plan rest days and we would go back to the room midday to rest up (assuming we went to the nighttime fireworks show). As an adult, Megan and I chose not to do that the first time we went together. We did 4 straight days in the parks and while we still had a good time, we were absolutely exhausted by morning 4.
The ideal plan is to do parks in groups of 2. If you are planning to do a water park, that would be a suitable “off-day” plan. On our off days we typically lounge by the pool, resort hop, and just take in the scenery of our own resort. This is something that often gets lost when you’re in a “GO GO GO” mentality of rushing to get to the parks. Take a rest and just enjoy the moment!
Do I need a car if we’re flying to Walt Disney World?
This one is more of a personal preference. If you want or feel better about having a vehicle to get around, definitely get one. Like I mentioned in the transportation section, Disney has free transportation available that will take you wherever you need to go on property. If you’re looking to venture off property multiple times, it might make it easier. Be advised there is a parking fee at the resorts now. If you’re parking overnight it will vary by which resort you’re staying at. It is $15/night at the Value resorts, $20/night at the Moderate resorts, and $25/night at the Deluxe resorts and villas.
How much are tickets to Walt Disney World?
Tickets are a hard subject to give you a straight answer on. The simple one is that it is as low as $109 for a single day ticket, depending on the day you want to visit. Weekends and holidays are more expensive, as well as some months are more expensive than others. The $109 for a single day is rare throughout the year. Here are numbers generated from a week long stay in September 2020.
As you can see, it gets cheaper per day the more days you go! A single day admission can get as high as $159 for the day (Christmas Day thru New Year’s Eve). Planning your stay and the time of year is important if you’d like to save on admission to the theme parks. Play with the Disney ticket calendar and you can see how much it is to visit on any given day.
How much is food at Walt Disney World and can I bring my own?
Food at Disney can be expensive depending on what part of the world you are from. For people that live in Hawaii or New York City, the prices probably don’t seem that bad. But for someone from a rural area, a $10 hot dog meal can shock you if you’re not prepared. There are dining plan options if you’re looking to make Disney a magical dining experience for yourself.
If you don’t feel like paying the premium prices to eat at Walt Disney World, they do allow you to still bring in your own food. Be advised, security will go through everything you bring into the park and you are required to inform them of any food or drink you are bringing in. Drinks must be non-alcoholic and cannot be in a glass container. Food that needs to be reheated, cooked, or kept refrigerated is not permitted. Disney does have an official page for this rules and guidelines.
Other Things to do Near Walt Disney World
Even though you are here reading all about Walt Disney World, there is still other stuff to do in the greater Orlando area. There are many theme parks that are not Disney, plenty of golf courses to choose from, you’re only an hour from the beach and the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, plenty of night life, and lots of sporting events to go to.
Other Theme Parks
If you’re visiting from a ways away, you might consider going to Universal Studios – Orlando, where you can check out The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. This interactive experience puts you on the streets of Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and Hogwarts Castle. There are plenty of other themed areas in the 2 parks at Universal, including Jurassic Park, Dr. Suess, and Marvel Superhero’s (that danged contract).
Orlando also has a Seaworld, Legoland is in Winter Haven, FL (about an hour west of Walt Disney World), and Busch Gardens is a little over an hour west in Tampa, FL. While there are other small ones, like Gatorland, I could devote a whole post to other theme parks in Florida (now there is an idea).
Florida is a golfer’s paradise. Warm weather year round, lots of rain and humidity to keep the course nice and green. It really doesn’t get much better than that. If you’re taking the family to Disney World and want a day out on the course to yourself or with someone else, be sure to check out the Disney Golf Courses. Walt Disney World boasts 3 18-hole courses, and 1 9-hole golf courses that are all world class. The Lake Buena Vista Golf Course has even hosted PGA, LPGA, and USGA events.
If you want to venture off the Walt Disney World grounds to golf, be sure to check out Grand Cypress, The Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes, Arnold Palmers Bay Hill, or Hawk’s Landing. All 4 are highly regarded courses in the Orlando area.
If you’re heading to Florida, you have to see the beach! Whether you head to Cocoa Beach, Daytona Beach, or St. Pete Beach, you’ve gotta see one of them! My families preference has always been St. Pete Beach, which is about 1.5-2 hours west, past Tampa Bay. Here you can see dolphins swimming, drink and dine on the roof while watching the sunset into the Gulf of Mexico, and check out the ultimate beach castle, The Don Cesar.
Orlando is home to the NBA’s Orlando Magic, the MLS’s Orlando City SC, the VRBO Citrus Bowl, and the University of Central Florida Knights athletic teams. Nearby you will find the Daytona International Speedway, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. If you have kids that play sports, scheduling a tournament at the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World would be a completely magical experience for the kids and the adults.
Are you a spacey person? That is an awful joke and I hate that I left it in here. But if you are, head over to the Kennedy Space Center in Port Canaveral where you can check out retired space shuttles, capsules, and rockets while you learn all about the origins of NASA, rocket travel, and the world beyond us. If you’re lucky, you might even catch a rocket launch from one of the 6 active launch sites.
Well, that is about as detailed as I could possibly be to give you a complete guide to Walt Disney World without writing a full book. There is so much I didn’t cover that I wish I could have, but it will have to go into other posts! If you think there is something major that I missed, be sure to tell me below. If you think I did an awesome job, I’d also love to hear it! If you don’t feel like telling me either, just tell me how many times you’ve been to Disney World and what your favorite park or ride or food is. I would love to read your responses!