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The Ultimate Walt Disney World® Resort Travel Guide

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The hardest thing to do is talk about Walt Disney World® Resort without sounding biased -- so this author isn’t going to do that…

Walt Disney World® Resort is, without a doubt, the most magical place on Earth. Even if you think it’s just for kids (which, spoiler alert: it’s not), the wonderment and awe will find you and make you believe when you least expect it. It might happen after your first spin on Space Mountain or maybe when you take your first bite of a Dole Whip (more on that later) -- but it’s guaranteed to happen. Of course, expert planners get to experience this magic over and over again.

The best part is that you can be one of those people with a little forethought. We put together the ultimate Walt Disney World Resort travel guide, so you can experience all the fun, excitement, and the feeling of magic around every corner.

Magic Kingdom® Park

Behold: a park so magical there’s literally nothing else you can call it. The first of the theme parks to open on October 1, 1971, Magic Kingdom Park is dedicated to fairy tales and beloved Disney characters. (By the time the park opened, the world’s first Imagineer had already given us Mickey Mouse, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Dumbo, Cinderella, and so many more.)

With Cinderella Castle at its center, Magic Kingdom Park is divided into six themed lands, including Tomorrowland® and Fantasyland®, where memories are made daily.

Things to do:
The rides at Magic Kingdom Park are not to be missed. Thrill seekers flock to take a galactic trip on Space Mountain, a spooky spin through Haunted Mansion®, and a wild and bumpy ride on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad®. Don’t forget that when you ride Pirates of the Caribbean, the Johnny Depp figurines aren’t actually Johnny Depp. (Just super accurate lookalikes that you should definitely not try to hug.)

Each and every day, Magic Kingdom Park comes alive with the 3pm Festival of Fantasy Parade. Here, classic Disney characters plus state-of-the-art floats make their way all the way from Frontierland® down Main Street. For a post-sundown celebration, check back at Cinderella Castle for Happily Ever After. The dazzling fireworks show captures your heart with Disney songs and characters from your childhood, ensuring a good happy cry all the way home.

Epcot®

Epcot was a concept dreamt up by Walt Disney in the 1950s. Though no one ever got to live in his unrealized utopian society, WED Enterprises turned the idea into a second Orlando theme park in 1982. Today, Epcot is divided into two themed areas: Future World and World Showcase -- both of which pay homage to Disney’s original idea.

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Each and every year, girls’ trips, bachelorette parties, and families flock to Epcot’s famous World Showcase. Here, 11 countries -- including Japan, Canada, Germany, and more -- are represented with restaurants and shops. But unlike the other parks, each country in World Showcase sells items that can only be found there (think school bread in Norway and Japanese beauty products in Mitsukoshi Kiosk). The park is well known for its many annual festivals, including the upcoming Epcot International Food & Wine Festival and the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival during springtime.

Over in Future World, there’s the NASA-style Mission: SPACE® (which this author was way too chicken to ride). Here, you can choose between two missions: On Orange, blast off on a thrilling NASA-style mission to Mars; On Green, orbit Earth on a more gentle ride through space. There’s also the fastest ride in all four parks, Test Track® Presented by Chevrolet, which reaches 65 mph, Soarin™, and Spaceship Earth, a ride located literally in Epcot’s distinguished geodesic sphere.

 

Disney’s Hollywood Studios® Theme Park

If you’ve ever wanted to step into your favorite worlds and stories, Disney’s Hollywood Studios Theme Park (established in 1989) is the theme park for you. Here, you can fully immerse yourself in film and television -- plus create your own adventures. In short: It’s insanely cool.

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Disney’s Hollywood Studios Theme Park is, without a doubt, home to some of the most thrilling rides at Walt Disney World Resort. Take the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster® starring Aerosmith, for example. It accelerates from 0 to 57 mph in 2.8 seconds -- then keeps the party going by blasting hits like “Walk This Way” and “Sweet Emotion.” Then there’s the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror™, which, unlike the campy horror of The Twilight Zone, is actually terrifying. Those who love steep, sudden drops will be lining up.

As previously mentioned, classic movies are on full display at Disney’s Hollywood Studios -- including some favorites from childhood. The recent addition of Toy Story Land (and attractions including the Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers) has gotten a ton of attention from fans. Here, everything from the movies come to life -- from the characters (the famous Green Army Men march through the park several times a day) to the food (enjoy a snack at Woody’s Lunch Box). And that’s not all; the soon-to-open Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge will be a land all its own. You can create your own adventure by choosing either the Resistance or the First Order; it’s basically your own trilogy.

There are also tons of options when it comes to evening entertainment, but Fantasmic! is a can’t-miss. The 30-minute show begins each night at 9pm. Combining live performers, pyrotechnics, and music, it follows Mickey Mouse through a dream-turned-nightmare. But, fear not: If there’s anything a Disney story is known for, it’s a happy ending.

Disney’s Animal Kingdom® Theme Park

Last but certainly not least is the adventurous Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, which opened on Earth Day (April 22) in 1998. The park distinguishes itself from the other three by featuring not just traditional attractions, but also about 2,000 animals across 300 species -- and heavily focusing on wildlife and environmental conservation. That’s why if you’re looking for a plastic straw, cup lid, or balloon, well... you won’t find one in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. Additionally, its nighttime show doesn’t include fireworks (no scaring the animals!), but more on that later.

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Getting up close and personal with the creatures is easy at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park. If you want a closer look at those living on Harambe Wildlife Reserve (110 acres of open plains, shady forests, and rocky wetlands) for instance, just hop on a Kilimanjaro Safaris. You never know what you’re going to see -- and often, you’ll even have to stop for passing rhinos or giraffes.

Despite all the real-life animals, there’s still plenty of magic. Thrill rides including Expedition Everest - Legend of the Forbidden Mountain and Avatar Flights of Passage nod to fictionalized beasts like the Yeti and Avatar’s famed flying banshees.

And at night, when all the birds, giraffes, lions, and tigers tuck in for bed, the Tree of Life awakens. A dazzling light show complete with music and the ability to make you weep, envelops the park’s 145-foot-tall fixture every night at dusk. It’s a perfect reminder to preserve the planet, not just for us, but for our furry friends.

Listen here: A well-planned trip to Walt Disney World Resort can and will change your life. A poorly-planned trip to Walt Disney World Resort... will never happen if you keep reading this guide. But there are some things you need to know to ensure you have the greatest time possible.

The My Disney Experience app is a game changer. As much as we’d like to be your tour guide through Walt Disney World Resort, we have full-time jobs -- and the My Disney Experience app is extremely efficient and doesn’t need to hop on a conference call every 15 minutes. Simply download the app before your trip and you’ll have a wealth of knowledge in your pocket. Here, you can browse attraction wait times, make FastPass+ selections and dinner reservations, place food orders, and navigate the park super easily with the new Get Directions function. We weren’t kidding when we called it a “game changer.”

You don’t have to wait in those crazy lines with FastPass+. As one would expect, the really popular attractions often have very long wait times. Luckily, Walt Disney World Resort offers an awesome (and free!) perk with the purchase of park tickets. Starting 30 days before your visit (or 60 if you’re staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel), simply log onto your computer or the My Disney Experience app to make your FastPass+ selections. Here, you simply plug in the dates you’ll be at the park and check if FastPasses are available for your desired rides and attractions. Make your selection and just show up to the attraction at that time. (The reservation automatically loads onto your MagicBand.) There might still be a wait, but it’ll be significantly shorter with FastPass+.

A MagicBand will make your trip seamless. MagicBands are multi-functional colorful wristbands that can unlock your resort room door, hold your theme park admission, check you in at FastPass+ entrances, and even charge food and merchandise to your Disney Resort room. They come free if you’re staying in a Disney Resort hotel -- or if you’re a Walt Disney World Resort Annual Passholder. If not, they can be purchased online or at the parks and linked to your Disney account. Trust us: Knowing all of your FastPass+ reservations and tickets are secure and on your wrist is totally priceless.

Pay for it all in advance with a Disney Dining Plan. The easiest way to ensure you’ll be fed and energized throughout your Walt Disney World Resort trip is by selecting a Disney Dining Plan ahead of your visit. Options include the Disney Quick-Service Dining Plan (fast casual and kiosks), the Disney Dining Plan (inclusive of table-service restaurants), and the Disney Deluxe Dining Plan (inclusive of appetizers and desserts). A Disney Dining Plan can be booked anytime before your vacation, and meals can be redeemed via those handy dandy MagicBands. Plus, each Disney Dining Plan consists of two snacks per day. Checking what you have left is simple, too; guests can keep track via their most recent dining receipt, the My Disney Experience app, or with a resort concierge.

Give your feet a break with Walt Disney World Resort’s transportation benefits. As you know by now, everything’s been thought of at the parks -- including how to get around most efficiently. If you’re staying at a Disney Resort hotel, you’ll receive complimentary access to the Walt Disney World Resort monorails, buses, boats (yes, boats!), and starting this fall, Disney Skyliner gondolas -- which can get you to the parks. (Just check the My Disney Experience app for directions.) Other perks include being able to book a “Minnie Van,” (a car resembling Minnie Mouse) through the Lyft app, as well as access to the complimentary Magical Express to and from the Orlando International Airport.

Determine which Walt Disney World Resort hotel is right for you. As previously mentioned, there are tons of perks to booking a Walt Disney World Resort hotel, but it’s important to not lose sight of the most important benefit: They’re all uniquely themed and very cool. The Walt Disney World Resort hotels are divided into three categories -- Deluxe Resorts, Moderate Resorts, and Value Resorts -- but which you choose depends on a number of factors.

Deluxe
Here, choices include Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge (where African wildlife roam free around the property), Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort and five others. Deluxe resorts have themed pools with slides and games, signature restaurants, and other custom on-site recreational activities like outdoor movies, bike rentals, arcades, and more. Some are even within walking distance to the parks; for example, when you stay at Disney’s Beach Club Resort, Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, or Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, you’re just steps away from Epcot and Hollywood Studios and you can find yourself at Epcot in just 10 minutes.

Moderate
There are four Moderate Resort hotels for those looking for something lower priced -- which is the main difference between the categories. Moderate Resorts are still fairly secluded, and are a quiet escape from the parks. Resorts in this category include Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort and Disney’s Port Orleans Resort - French Quarter among others.

Value
Those looking to spend their money in the parks rather than the hotel will want to choose a Value Resort. They’re a great fit for any budget -- and are great options when you’re looking to reboot after a long day at the park. Options include Disney's All-Star Music Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort, plus more.

Aside from the attractions, we at Thrillist think the most exciting part about a trip to Walt Disney World Resort has got to be the sheer volume and variety of food and drink available. To break it down, Walt Disney World Resort has over 584 food and beverage locations and more than 34,000 recipes in its arsenal. And yes, it’s hard to imagine trying even a fraction of those during your visit, but it’s important to stake out some things you’ll want to taste before you go to make every delicious bite count.

What is DOLE Whip® anyway? Dole Whip is a non-dairy soft serve made from frozen fruit puree. While available at other venues, Disneyland helped put Dole Whip on the map -- and has created a huge fanbase of “Dole Whip devotees.” Pineapple is considered the original flavor, but the treat can be found in orange, vanilla, lime, lemon, and more. It’s often turned into floats using pineapple juice -- or in the case of the Peter Pan Float (available at Storybook Treats at Magic Kingdom Park), it’s even mixed with Sprite. Dole Whip can be found at Aloha Isle at Magic Kingdom Park, Pineapple Lanai at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, and several other locations.

Go back in time at the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant. Modeled after a 1950s-style drive-in movie theater, this Disney’s Hollywood Studios Theme Park eatery features tables shaped like old school convertibles and all-American cuisine. Like most Walt Disney World Resort restaurants, the Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater has several vegan and vegetarian options -- including vegan tofu lettuce wraps -- so the whole group can enjoy a meal together. There’s nothing like the classic combo of a burger and a milkshake, but adults can switch things up with a Godiva Chocolate Martini.

Taste some authentic flavors at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park.Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park is representative of many cultures and countries -- with themed lands including Africa and Asia. For this reason, you can try snacks here that aren’t available anywhere else at Walt Disney World Resort. At Pongu Pongu (located in Pandora - The World of AVATAR), try Pongu Lumpia, aka pineapple cream cheese spring rolls. Lumpia is commonly found in Indonesia and the Philippines and can be filled with anything from meat to veggies -- but Walt Disney World Resort’s version is not to be missed. Over in Africa, highlights include sausages served with green papaya slaw and a curry-ketchup relish at Harambe Market.

Sample the world at Epcot. Foodies flock to Epcot’s World Showcase to try flavors from around the globe -- and these 11 countries do not disappoint. It’s a true accomplishment if you can make it to all of them, but it’s totally fine if you don’t. Just do a little research beforehand to figure out your personal must-try dishes. Here’s a little something to get you started: At Mexico’s Choza de Margarita, you’ll want to stop for both a sip and a bite. The Fiesta Frozen Margarita is a combination of three flavors -- wild strawberry, mango loco, and classic lime -- and pairs perfectly with the guacamole and fried flour chicharrón. Then there’s the famous school bread at Norway’s Kringla Bakeri Og Kafe. This custard-filled cardamom bun is covered with icing and toasted coconut -- and is a favorite of Disney insiders. Table-service restaurants are scattered throughout the world showcase as well, so if you’re looking for something a bit fancier, try Italy’s Via Napoli Ristorante e Pizzeria. You can treat the entire crew to giant wood-fired pizzas and specialty cocktails. (Just make sure to make those reservations!)

Now, aside from everything you already know -- which, if you’ve read this far is a lot -- Walt Disney World Resort has surprise and delight moments to keep you smiling throughout your entire trip. You simply need to know where to look.

The quest for hidden Mickeys. Undoubtedly, one of the most fun things to do while walking from one destination to another is to look for “hidden Mickeys.” Throughout the four parks and resorts, mouse ears are hiding in plain sight. They’re hidden in designs, architecture -- you name it. It’s a rite of passage to find as many as you can, so keep your eyes peeled for Mickey-shaped windows, shrubbery, and more.

Shop around at Disney Springs. Disney Springs is the ultimate shopping, dining, and entertainment destination. With an endless variety of brands including Mac, Uniqlo, and DisneyStyle -- plus the world’s best collection of Disney and co-branded merchandise anywhere -- Disney Springs will satisfy all of your shopping needs. There are also restaurants by celebrity chefs, including Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill, Planet Hollywood, and Wine Bar George. But if you’re still on the hunt for more after a full day of shopping and dining, there’s AMC 24 Disney Springs, The NBA Experience, and The VOID virtual reality adventures.

Rejuvenate at a Walt Disney World Resort salon and spa. Long days at the parks mean lots of walking, sun, and standing, but Walt Disney World Resort has plenty of opportunities for you to feel refreshed. With a number of gyms, spas, and salons, you never have to feel too run-down for long. If you’re feeling so inclined, book yourself an appointment at Senses - A Disney Spa and Salon at Disney's Grand Floridian Resort. An aromatherapy massage might be just what you need before hitting the next park.

Cool down at a Disney water park. Whether you crave action or relaxation, there’s no better place than Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park. This tropical paradise is full of twisting slides, sandy beaches, and the largest inland wave pool around. Here, experience the thrills on Miss Adventure Falls, or the twisting, turning Crush ’n’ Gusher water coaster. Or visit Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park, aka the polar opposite of other water parks. From bunny slopes to black diamonds, this place is packed with plenty of ways to chill. Zip down the 120-foot-tall Summit Plummet water slide, tackle a fast-paced tube run, or enjoy a leisurely float along a creek.

Make some memories at Disney’s “Instagram Walls.” Scattered throughout the parks are perfectly placed walls that just so happen to make excellent photo backdrops. The growing trend has caught on in the past few years, and now you’ll always find people snapping pics (so feel free to do it shamelessly). Some of the most beloved are the #purplewall, near the entrance of Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom Park, the #mosswall, located next to Satu’li Canteen in Pandora - The World of AVATAR in Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, and the newly added #popsiclewall -- which is gaining fandom over in Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Toy Story Land.

Now that you have all the know-how, it’s time to plan the most epic Walt Disney World Resort trip ever. Grab your friends, your family, your My Disney Experience app (seriously, it’s a life-saver), and go experience each and every magical moment.

Illustrated by Gica Tam