When Walt Disney opened Disneyland in Anaheim, California, in 1955, he introduced a magical place where parents and children could have fun together. His vision revolutionized the American vacation. But despite Disneyland’s success, Disney quickly realized that his 160-acre flagship theme park wasn’t big enough to contain all of his dreams. What Disney truly wanted was to create a fully immersive, theatrical experience. Because he didn’t own the land surrounding the park, however, tacky hotels and fast-food restaurants began popping up outside the park gates, tarnishing Walt’s glittering fantasyland.
In 1964, the Walt Disney Company began scouting locations for “Disneyland East.” Under the guise of shell companies with tongue-in-cheek names like M.T. Lott Real Estate Investments, Disney secretly scooped up huge tracts of Florida swampland for about $180 an acre. The location guaranteed that Disney’s new vacation destination would be protected from commercial sprawl. “In Florida, we have something special we never enjoyed at Disneyland — the blessing of size,” Disney said in a 1965 television program announcing the company’s Florida project. “There is enough land here to hold all the ideas and plans we could possibly imagine.”
Sadly, Walt Disney never realized those ideas and plans — the pioneering animator died just six weeks later. But the Florida project lived on through Walt’s older brother Roy, who postponed retirement to take the helm. In October 1971, Roy Disney stood beside Mickey Mouse and officially named the park Walt Disney World as a tribute to his brother.
Last October marked the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World, which encompasses 43 square miles and includes four theme parks, two water parks, 25 hotels, more than 200 restaurants and a 120-acre shopping and dining complex. Whether this will be your first trip or your 50th, prepare to be wowed — the resort has already rolled out plenty of golden anniversary magic, including brand-new attractions, dazzling park decor and unparalleled nighttime spectaculars. And because the festivities are due to continue through March 2023, there’s even more in store in the coming months.
Here’s our guide to getting the most out of your trip to the “Most Magical Place on Earth.”
Most visitors to Disney World will fly into Orlando International Airport, which is about 20 miles from the resort’s entrance. As of January 2022, Disney eliminated the Magical Express, its complimentary airport transfer service. Travelers on a budget will want to reserve a shuttle like Sunshine Flyer or Mears Connect, which costs about $32 round trip. Ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft are another good option. Prices start around $45 one-way and depend upon demand and vehicle size.
On-site transportation throughout Walt Disney World, which consists of everything from buses and boats to monorails and the new Disney Skyliner, is free and efficient, making renting a car unnecessary if you opt to stay at one of the on-site Disney hotels. Finally, be prepared to do a lot of walking. The average Disney guest walks 7 to 10 miles per day during his or her vacation. Folks with mobility issues can rent wheelchairs and electric conveyance vehicles (ECVs) at each of the four Disney theme parks, as well as at the water parks and Disney Springs. Additionally, several off-site companies offer multiday wheelchair and ECV rentals at lower prices than you’ll find on Disney property.
When to Visit
The most important considerations when choosing the dates for your Disney vacation are cost and crowd levels. Because both price and park attendance peak during summer and holiday school breaks, try to plan your trip while school is in session. Best bets include September after Labor Day weekend, early through mid-November, early December, late January and early May.
Traveling with school-age grandchildren? Try to avoid April, especially around the Easter holiday, as well as the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Although it will be hotter than Hades, prices often drop and crowds dissipate during the second half of August, making a late-summer trip a solid option — just be sure to factor in lots of pool time! If you have no choice but to travel during a peak period, don’t dismay. Busy times offer the bonus of longer park hours, and thoughtful itinerary planning can help you stay ahead of the fray.
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Where to Stay
For sheer convenience, you can’t beat staying on the Disney property. Disney organizes its hotels into three categories — deluxe (including deluxe villas), moderate and value. The most important thing to keep in mind is that no hotel at Walt Disney World is the “best.” What makes a particular hotel perfect for one family will be different for another. While cost certainly plays a primary role in choosing your hotel, be sure to consider your cast of characters as well.
A group of friends might try Disney’s new Gran Destino Tower, which offers an upscale, Las Vegas vibe at a moderate price point. Couples who plan to spend as much time as possible in the parks will enjoy Pop Century Resort’s colorful ambience and affordable rooms. For grandparents traveling with kids and grandkids, a three-bedroom villa provides lots of space to spread out, along with full kitchens and living rooms. One money-saving trick? Renting Disney Vacation Club points through a reputable point rental company can often be a way to book a deluxe villa for a fraction of the price.
Make Your Theme Park Reservations
Disney began requiring guests to make advance reservations for its theme parks in summer 2020, when the resort reopened at reduced capacity following a four-month closure due to the coronavirus. Although park operations have largely returned to normal, the resort has opted to keep the reservation system in place for the time being.
After purchasing your theme park tickets, choose the parks you’d like to visit on each day of your Disney vacation and reserve a pass for each park in advance of your trip.
Everyone in your travel party must have his or her own reservation. Guests who purchase tickets with the added park-hopping benefit can still visit more than one park per day. Park reservations only need to be made for the first park you plan to visit each day. One important note: Be sure to check park availability before booking your trip, especially during peak periods. You don’t want to book flights, only to discover that the theme parks have reached capacity for your travel dates! Park pass reservations are currently available to book through January 2024.
Genie + is the new pay-to-play attraction reservation service Disney introduced last October to replace the complimentary FastPass system. Genie+ offers priority access to 56 shows and attractions throughout the four Disney theme parks via the Lightning Lane queue. It costs $15.98 per person, per day, to add Genie+ to a regular theme park ticket. Currently, you get the biggest bang for your buck if you use Genie+ at the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Genie+ can only be purchased on the day you intend to use the service, beginning at midnight. In addition to the basic Genie+ add-on, guests can also purchase Individual Lightning Lane passes for the headliner attraction in each park. The price for these passes varies according to demand, ranging from $7 to $17 per person, per attraction.
Guests can purchase both Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane passes through the My Disney Experience app, which means visitors are spending a lot more time on their smartphones than they were before. Folks staying in a Disney resort hotel can book their first Genie+ reservation at 7 a.m., giving them a leg up on off-site guests, who must wait until the theme parks open for the day. Finally, this new attraction reservation system has a pretty steep learning curve. The more you read about how it works — and about how to make it work for you — ahead of your trip, the more you’ll enjoy your trip.
Make a Touring Plan
Regardless of whether you opt to purchase Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lane access, having a solid plan of action is crucial to getting the most out of your time in the theme parks. Start by researching strategies for maximizing your time in each park — there are many online Disney experts who have this down to a science. Books like the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World can also be an invaluable itinerary-crafting resource.
Gina DeCaprio Vercesi is a New York-based journalist who contributes to National Geographic Traveler and Travel + Leisure.