There are plenty of Disney posts here at Figs and Flights. Start with the Disney Parks Basics if you're new to the MAGIC and keep exploring using the Disney page.
Recently I went on a family trip to Walt Disney World, in Orlando, Florida. While I covered the trip overview already, when I started to write about our first day in the parks the post was just TOO LONG with the happenings of our day and explaining all of the Disney-speak. I created this guide to help you to decode Disney before your next visit! If you never intend to visit and just want to read along, I also appreciate that!
This post also hints at my thoughts on staying at a Disney property (yes, it is absolutely worth the money) and why you don't actually need a rental car, even if you have small kids needing car seats.
There are so many Disney features and options to know of before you visit Walt Disney World (WDW), in Orlando, Florida. It doesn't help that most of them include the word magic. This Decoding Disney Guide will help you learn the most important terms and understand a bit more of just what I'm talking about in the series of WDW posts to follow.
Many of these features are reserved for guests (which is your first Disney-speak term, always used instead of "customers") who are staying at Disney hotels or properties. I'll call out which apply only to Disney hotel guests and which are for all park-goers.
While many of these things are included with your hotel stay, you still need to get super friendly with the My Disney Experience website and/or app to customize your Magic Bands, arrange for your transportation to and from the airport, and so on. Just because they're included in your stay once you've paid doesn't mean you don't have to give Disney your flight information and first born child... OK OK, you get what I mean!
Here's a quick overview:
Magic Bands are lightweight and waterproof bracelets that serve as park tickets, hotel room keys, and more. These are specifically for guests staying at Disney hotels. Each person in your group gets a Magic Band. In the months prior to your visit you can customize your Magic Band with your name and favorite color. We were excited to find out that the bands can be manipulated to fit tiny kid wrists comfortably and that you can easily take them off and put them back on again. (Yinz guys, these ain't the Kennywood bracelets of the 1990's.)
You just tap your Magic Band on your hotel door's keypad and it unlocks the door in an instant. Nobody is ever without a key to the hotel room which gives you one less reason to argue on a family vacation. Magic, folks.
At the parks you need to scan a fingerprint, in addition to scanning your Magic Band. This process takes 2 - 3 seconds, I'm sure you'll manage. It's so much easier than carrying park tickets around in your purse or wallet.
You can connect a credit card to a Magic Band for payment while we stayed away from that sort of sorcery. If you choose to do a Disney Dining plan you can also redeem your meal credits with your Magic Band.
Let's remember two important things about Magic Bands:
Disney's Magical Express
Disney's Magical Express is a motor coach service that takes you to your Disney hotel from the Orlando airport. (Hey Disney, thanks for using the words Disney AND Magic here. Yeah, you're overdoing it.) The Magical Express is just for Disney hotel guests. This method of transportation is a true Godsend.
If you're wondering how I feel about the added cost of staying at a Disney property vs the value, let's just clear this up right now. I'm here, in the rabbit hole of the Magical Express to tell you THAT IT IS WORTH IT. From the first moment you scan your Magic Band to get on the Magical Express (double-magic-gag) you're are whisked away in an air conditioned motor coach. As you inch further away from the airport and all signs of real, adult life your Disney vacation has BEGUN. My two previous trips to Orlando were both AWFUL and expensive when it came to airport transportation. I've run high and low around that airport looking for the downstairs-back alley Uber pickup location where you can only order a black car, the upgraded level of service that's nicer than a Prius and therefore more expensive. I dropped nearly $100 to get - one-way - from the airport to the Magic Kingdom and I'm ONE person with just a carry on bag and a personal item. On another trip to Orlando we arrived around midnight and had pre-arranged for a transportation company to take us from airport to hotel. Once the van was half-filled we left the airport, only to circle back TO THE AIRPORT to arrive at the other terminal to wait for the next flight to arrive, since it hadn't yet. We took our bag, jumped out of that van, and took a taxi to our hotel. We got all of our money back from that backwards company and still can't understand how you don't send TWO VANS TO THE AIRPORT FOR THAT. Ok, ok, ok. You get it, Disney's transportation made my freaking day. The convenience of the Disney resort and their transportation to almost everywhere makes it worth it, to me. Disney takes care of you when you stay with them.
Back to the Magical Express... Upon arrival in the Orlando airport, you follow the signs for Disney's Magical Express and walk to a far corner of the airport. You scan your Magic Band for the very first time, get into a line based on your hotel, and take off. Depending on the number of people on your bus you may stop at more than one hotel. We arrived at 6:15 am with only carry on bags. There were hardly any other people around and we were the second stop on the route, it was a breeze. We were checking into our hotel, Saratoga Springs, at 7:00 am.
If you've flown with checked bags, Disney will collect them for you and get them to your hotel later on in the day. This is why you need to have your Magic Bands with you at the airport!
You'll need to arrange for Magical Express return trip to the airport, as well. Between your hotel and the Magical Express, they'll coordinate for you to leave your hotel 3 hours before your flight. If you want to go earlier, just hang out at the Magical Express pickup location. If a previous motor coach isn't full, they'll let you on!
Magic Hours are extended hours in the Disney parks, either before opening or after closing. These hours are, you guessed it, just for Disney hotel guests. Not only do you get more time in the parks, but Magic Hours are hardly crowded so photo opportunities don't have dozens of other folks in the background and ride lines are short and quick!
We planned most of our park visit days around the schedule of Magic Hours, maximizing 1-2 hours before a park opens. On our first night we stayed in Magic Kingdom until 10 pm (vs 8 pm) and on our full Magic Kingdom day we got in at 8 am (instead of 9 am). This worked out really great for us on this trip, with 4 adults and two young kids (8 and 2 years old). Morning Magic Hours, however, aren't great with my 5 teenaged cousins!
Most rides in the Disney parks have two lines: the general line and the FastPass+ line. The general line is what you'd expect, get in it and wait your turn. The FastPass+ line is shorter and faster, therefore better! You can sign up for FastPass+ reservations in advance of your visit, then report to the ride at the time you selected and hop right into the FastPass+ line. You can pre-load yourself, and the rest of your party, with 3 FastPass+ reservations, then add more once you've used those for the day. The app keeps track of all of your reservations.
FastPass+ is great for favorite rides and those with the longest wait times. There are tons of resources and apps to see which rides have the longest lines. Plan your FastPass+ schedule accordingly!
I'm happy to tell you that FastPass+ is FREE and for everyone! Disney Hotel guests can reserve them 60 days in advance while others can reserve 30 days in advance. You scan your Magic Band or park ticket at the entry to the FastPass+ line to verify.
It's worth noting that FastPass+ works a little bit differently in the Disney parks all around the country and world. WDW is the only park that does it digitally for now. Disneyland in California issues little paper tickets. Disneyland Paris told us that the end times mean nothing so you're never too late for FastPasses!
There are Disney photographers all around the parks who are at the ready to take your photo at any given moment. They're around the castle, at the meet-a-character locations, and anywhere else there's a great photo opportunity. They take high-quality photos of your crew and know just how to pose you, where to park your stroller, and they're QUICK. They snap a handful of pictures for you, scan your Magic Band or park ticket, and send you on your way. In just a few hours the photos are loaded on your account in the Disney app.
There are PhotoPass cameras on the rides so those hilarious pictures of everyone screaming on the downward hill on a roller coaster are captured. Disney adds more magic to pictures, like Tinkerbell flying overhead near the castle, that you only notice later!
There are many levels of this service. You can pay for ALL of your park photos, buy them one at a time, and so much more.
Disney Park Bus
Perhaps the very best perk of staying at a Disney hotel are the ongoing and seemingly never-ending busses to the parks. The busses circle the hotels day and night like honey bees and deliver you from your hotel bus stop right to any and all of the Disney parks. The bus stops have a digital screen showing which bus will arrive next so you have a pretty good idea of how long you'll be waiting.
We never waited long, at all. The Disney app now also shows you the times for your particular bus stop. I'm happy to report that getting back home to your hotel from the parks is also very simple. After exiting a park there are very clear signs to the busses. Then you find your hotel and the corresponding pickup location number. Wait there, then hop on the bus to get home!
While the busses are for hotel guests, there isn't a verification process at all, you just hop on board. On a previous trip when I wasn't staying onsite I'd met my family at their Disney hotel and taken the bus to the park with them without issue.
Minnie Vans by Lyft
Minnie Van is Lyft and Disney's adorable creation of a Minnie Mouse themed van. Each van comes with two car seats for toddlers. We used a Minnie Van to take us from our hotel to dinner at the Campsites at the Wilderness Lodge area. Free bus service is available, but we'd have to take two busses and didn't have the time or energy.
I'd recommend setting up a Lyft account at home before your trip, if you don't already have one. Once you're in Orlando and in the Lyft app, just scroll through the vehicle options until Minnie Van appears.
Minnie Vans can be used by anyone regardless of hotel status but they only operate on Disney turf. so getting elsewhere must be done via regular Lyft or Uber.
Non-Magic Lyft and Uber
While Disney's busses and Minnie Vans are spectacular for getting to the parks, sometimes you may want to go someplace else. Maybe? If that's the case, there is regular non-magic Lyft and Uber in Orlando.
As a non-parent, I never thought about ride-sharing with small kids needing car seats. Well, both Uber and Lyft have options for car seats.
I don't think you'd ever really need to rent a car if you were staying at a Disney hotel. Disney's transportation has you covered for most things. You can get strollers onto the busses, Minnie Vans, Lyft, and Uber all have car seats, and you can get groceries delivered to your hotel (we used Amazon Prime Now). Isn't 2019 a fun time to be alive?
I hope this guide will help you in planning your visit to WDW! Stay tuned for weekly posts and the day to day magic of our recent Orlando visit.
Hello, I'm Angela.
Figs and Flights is all about traveling near and far & eating great food both at home and away.