Disney Tips for Beginners

The Wife and I went to Disney World for our honeymoon and we’ve gone every year since we started having children. I’m sure that over the course of this blog, I’ll end up trying to pass along tips we’ve gleaned from our experiences. For now, while I’m thinking of it, let me throw out some basic tips for anyone who hasn’t been in a while or hasn’t taken children before.

MAGIC BANDS. If you haven’t been to the land of the Mouse in the past five years or so, then you probably have never heard of Magic Bands or FastPass+. Learning about them is essential, as these bracelets can serve as your admission ticket, act as your room key if staying at a Disney resort, and replace the Photopass cards. They’re keyed to your fingerprint so you can’t swap them around, and the RFID chips in them are used to track everyone’s movements inside the parks to help Disney’s number crunchers calculate wait times and traffic patterns. Most importantly to you, they are connected to your FastPasses.

The way it used to be, many of the rides offered “fast passes” in the form of a kiosk that printed out tickets. The tickets were good for an hour window sometime later that day and let you go through the Fast Pass line, which was shorter than the regular line. It kept the lines shorter and let people plan their experience a little. We liked being able to look around and say, “Hey, the wait for Peter Pan is an hour, but It’s A Small World across the way is only a 15-minute wait. We can get Peter Pan fast passes for a couple of hours from now, ride Small World, grab a bite, and then go through the short line for Peter Pan.”

That has all been replaced by FP+, which demands that you get online and schedule your three daily fast passes in advance. That information is stored on your Magic Band, which gets scanned (twice!) to let you in the Fast Pass line. In theory, you can use Disney’s app to schedule or re-schedule your passes that day, in the park. In practice, the app can be frustratingly buggy at times, and you’ll find wi-fi and cell reception are quite poor inside the parks. Even if everything worked for you, you’d find all the good rides had been booked up by people who planned their vacations nine months ago. We liked to be a little more spontaneous than that, but setting up your fast passes ahead of time is just how it works now. Give yourself some room between your scheduled rides for potty breaks and doing other things through the “stand-by” line.

All of the above, you can glean from readily available sources, such as Disney itself. My tip is this: the Magic Bands are not just good for one trip only. They’ll give you new ones every trip, but the old ones continue to work. So hang on to them if you think you’ll need spares in the future (maybe because your kids like to play with them or take them off and on or are otherwise likely to lose some). Also, if you want to be paranoid, keep in mind that the RFID chip inside could be storing all of the personal information you gave Disney, right down to your fingerprint.

RIDER SWAP. Let’s say you and your spouse both want to ride Space Mountain, but your six-month-old obviously can’t go along. What do you do? You could take turns, with one of you staying behind with junior while the other rides. The stand-by line has a wait time of 30 minutes — not too bad for a popular ride, but your dinner reservation (or your next Fast Pass window, or junior’s nap time, or whatever) is in an hour and a half, so if that line gets any longer, the second person may not be able to go. You could be a gentleman and let your wife go first, or try to bargain and see if she’ll do that “only on your birthday” thing if you don’t get your turn, or you can say to the attendant, “We need a rider swap.”

Presenting your too-small-for-the-ride child while saying those magic words gets you a ticket that let’s the second rider go through the Fast Pass line, without being restricted to a specific time. They used to be good for the rest of the day. The ones we’ve gotten on this trip, though, are saying they’re good for the rest of the month!

They work for rides you already have a Fast Pass for, too. If you’re lucky, all parties can get on the ride within the Fast Pass window and you’ll have the rider swap ticket to use again later. This is not taking advantage of the system; leveraging your rider swaps is what makes enjoying the rides even possible when you have an infant along. Savvy practitioners will note that you don’t have to make all your party’s Fast Passes for the same thing — if you get a Fast Pass for ride A, your partner can get one for ride B, and with rider swaps the two of you can go on both rides.

It’s not unusual for us to have rider-swap passes left over at the end of the day. If they’re still valid, we try to give them to strangers (once we make sure they will actually be able to use them) and throw a little Disney magic their way.

ADJUST YOUR EXPECTATIONS. When the Wife and I went to Disney World for our honeymoon, we were able to go everywhere and do everything, all at our own pace. Going with small children, on the other hand, limits what you’ll be able to handle and the key to not being frustrated is to understand that from the outset. I could devote a whole post just to this, but for now I’ll keep it short. With a single infant in a stroller, you only have to factor in time to feed and change the baby. We’ve found that a good, full day at a park, without making ourselves miserable, means that we can expect to make our Fast Pass selections, and maybe do one other thing, which might be a ride with a short line, but could also be a parade or fireworks show. Even so, on this trip, with two toddlers and a newborn, we had several days where we would get to the park late in the morning, see one show or do one ride, eat lunch, and then need to leave for a nap; we probably could have rushed back for an evening fireworks show but usually decided not to push ourselves.

GO IN THE OFF-SEASON. If Sun Tzu were writing a Disney planning guide, this would be his advice for winning the battle before it’s even fought. If you’re able to, plan your vacation for the slow times in the winter, when there aren’t big holidays or events. Of course, Disney has been hard at work making sure there is no “off-season” by manufacturing events for themselves. So check to make sure there’s not a marathon, food and wine festival, Star Wars weekend, or other such hootenanny going on if you’re looking for low crowd numbers. In general, though, winter means fewer people, which means shorter lines for everything. Also, Florida is hot as balls, even in the spring and autumn; it’ll still be warm enough in December and January to go swimming.

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