Walt Disney World Lessons from a Disneyland Family

We’re not in Disneyland anymore. We made our first family visit to Walt Disney World recently, which had a little bit of a learning curve for this West Coast family. For those in a similar position, here’s what you need to know to make this new adventure go smoothly:

Use the Magical Express. It’s a free shuttle from the airport to the resort for resort guests and it is awesome. Even better, they take care of your checked luggage from the airport to your hotel room. We didn’t touch the luggage after we checked it in San Francisco until it showed up in our room after we checked in at the hotel (we were already at Epcot, which means we don’t know how long the luggage delivery took). It is a little strange at first, trusting that everything will work out and your bags won’t get lost, but it does work. I wish Disneyland offered the Magical Express.

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WDW has hotels for all price points. There is a huge price range for the WDW hotels, making them designed to fit any budget. My only other trip to WDW was a million years ago when I was in my mid-20s and we stayed off property. We had to take the hotel shuttle onto the grounds, then tap into the WDW transportation. Staying at a WDW resort and experiencing Disney-quality 24-hours a day is always worth it for us. We stayed at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, which was fabulous, and my husband holds on to a childhood dream of someday staying at the Polynesian Resort.

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The Magic Bands are amazing. If I needed any more convincing that the Apple Watch will ultimately succeed, the Magic Bands are the proof. Everything is on these truly magical bands – our room key, credit card for purchases, park hopper tickets, FastPasses, PhotoPass, reservations, pool entry, and probably more. It was liberating not to have to worry about a room key, admissions cards, paper FastPasses, credit cards and an ID. I went into each park with my Magic Band and a phone. That covered everything, including Starbucks.

A few weeks before our trip, each member of our family picked out a color for their band and they were personalized with a name (or nickname, if you want) on the inside, which means less confusion if they get mixed up or if family members really want the same colors. If you lose them, they can be deactivated and replaced, too, plus you set a pin code, which helps keep your information secure.

Fun fact: they are water proof. The RFID chip is safely protected, which means the bands can be worn while swimming.

If they told me the number of steps I took while wearing them, it would be the most perfect creation ever. You can even use them for multiple trips, if you wish. The bands were included in our resort stay and don’t cost anything extra for those staying at the resort and Passholders.

I remember hearing about a few bugs when they were rolled out a few years ago, but the big issues seem to have been worked out as they worked great for us. They are coming to Disneyland in 2016, and we look forward to it.

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Make food reservations early. People freak out about WDW reservations and for good reason. Coming from Disneyland, we knew character dining would be a priority, but the other meal reservations seemed like overkill. It turns out, those reservations are important. First, there are more people at WDW than Disneyland and the dining feels a little more competitive. Second, we didn’t find as much seating at quick serve food locations as we would in Disneyland. Third, unless you’ve spent a lot of time in humidity, it’s hard to imagine how much you will welcome a/c and drinks with free refills during a hot day.

You don’t need reservations to eat, which is something we’d worried about in the panic beforehand. Of course there are plenty of places to buy a burger, turkey leg, and other meals and snacks. You will have food options. Because this felt like an exotic vacation to us, we wanted to try the fun themed places and those all booked up prior to the visit. When you make a reservation, you have to put down a credit card with a fee of $10 per person if you cancelled with less than 24 hours prior to your reservation. I made a bunch of reservations early, then tinkered and watched for openings until we left for our trip. Once there, I made some changes, too, on the My Disney Experience app, as slots opened up as other people cancelled their reservations. We made reservations at Beaches and Cream, 50’s Prime Time Cafe, Sci-Fi Drive-In Theater, the Biergarten Restaurant, and Liberty Tree Tavern. All were excellent and we’d go back again (and again…).

Consider lunch reservations over dinner ones. If you want some restaurant dining, but don’t want to blow your budget, consider eating at restaurants for lunch, not dinner. It’s nice to escape the heat and recharge mid-day; the prices tend to be a little less at lunch (options may be different, too, but you can check the menus online); drinks come with refills (not alcohol, obviously, but it was nice to have someone refilling our water and soda glasses while we ate); and we found lunch filling enough that a light dinner was all we needed.

Park hopping takes thought. Switching between Disneyland and California Adventure is quick and can happen spontaneously. That is less the case at WDW. Generally, we spent the bulk of each day at a single park, with a little switching up in the evening. Our hotel (the Yacht Club, which is awesome) was near Epcot, allowing for quick jaunts into that park. That came in handy at dinner time, as Epcot is full of great restaurants of international cuisines. For us, other than Magic Kingdom, the individual parks didn’t require a full day. For a first family trip, we wanted to make sure we saw everything at each park, but if I had to do it again, I’d plan to stay in a park from morning until early afternoon, maybe return for a swim, then head out to a different park.

Downtown Disney is less central than at the Disneyland Resort. I love Downtown Disney and we spend a lot of time there when visiting Disneyland. Downtown Disney is farther out at WDW, requiring more effort to get there. A renovation is underway that will transform it into Disney Springs.

Pack an umbrella. We bought a micro compact, teeny tiny umbrella before we left, which of course meant it did not rain, but Florida can produce a downpour in a second. I felt better knowing we had the umbrella and wouldn’t need to buy ponchos.

The rides are different, even the ones that are the same. Side-by-side Dumbos, a larger surface area for Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Country Bear Jamboree lives on in Florida, and tons of other differences in the attractions that they have at both resorts. We made sure to seek out attractions not in California, including riding the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and the Rock n’ Roller Coaster, both of which they don’t have at Disneyland.

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Pools that are like water parks. WDW does have two water parks, but our hotel pool – Stormalong Bay – was so awesome that it felt like a water park. We had a lazy river, a big waterslide, and a beach area for little ones, all right outside of our hotel. Instead of spending each night watching fireworks in the different parks, we relaxed poolside. We love the pools at the Disneyland Resort, but this went beyond a pool. We could have spent a day at Stormalong Bay without going into the parks and our kids would have been happy.

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Make memorable splurges! We did some things that we know the kids will remember forever, things that we can’t do at Disneyland. We got the Kitchen Sink dessert at Beaches and Cream, we got pearls from an oyster in Japan at Epcot, we danced to German music during dinner at the Biergarten. We will hold onto those memories forever.

Overall, which one? Disneyland or WDW? We’ve found that preferences on which Disney resort really vary, especially based on where one grew up. We love Disneyland intensely, but we were thrilled to have an opportunity to experience the WDW resort parks. Now we’re counting down to our next Disney trip: Disneyland in September!

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