The first visit to Walt Disney World is stressful, confusing, and a dream come true. I am not the first one to do an article similar to this. But as with most everything, everyone has different experiences. I had never gone to a Disney park during my childhood. When I was 19 years old, I was accepted into the Disney College Program. My parents drove me halfway across the country to Orlando to drop me off. We decided to visit the parks the day before check-in day. This way I could get the "OHMYGODOHMYGOD I'M AT WALT DISNEY WORLD!" out of my system before I had to appear professional inside the parks. We decided on a park hopper ticket to visit Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. We arrived at Magic Kingdom mid-morning, hopped over to EPCOT in the afternoon, and returned to Magic Kingdom in the evening. As with most people, there were definitely some things I wish I had known before my first visit. I'm sharing them so hopefully others can learn from my experience.
Things I Wish I’d Known
MK isn’t that big
Size-wise, Magic Kingdom isn’t as big as I thought it was going to be. My parents and I had a reservation at Be Our Guest, and I thought it would take about 15-20 minutes to get from the main entrance to the restaurant. It only took about 5 minutes at a normal pace in medium crowds. If you have never been to the parks before, it may be difficult to imagine just how big (or small) they really are. Especially if you’re bad at guessing anything that has to do with numbers, like I am. However, walking time can increase based on how crowded the park is. And it is always better to be early than late.
Epcot IS that big
Once I saw first hand how small MK was, I thought EPCOT would be about the same size. It isn’t. It’s twice the size of MK. The pavilions on the map look close together, but it’s quite a walk around the World Showcase. My family and were worn down before we even made it halfway through the World Showcase.
Tour in a path that makes sense
Running back and fourth through the park is taxing. If you get an adrenaline rush like I did, the tiredness might not hit you until after the excitement has worn down. But your legs will be sorry. Instead of having a rough idea of a touring plan, my family just kind of ran around. Most people pick a land to start the day in and then tour either clockwise or counterclockwise throughout the park. And I can say with first hand experience, that a smoother plan makes more sense than zig-zagging around. It’s less tiring, it makes sure you get to Fast Passes and restaurant reservations on time, and it makes for a more relaxing day.
Transportation takes a lot of time
Walt Disney World Resort is huge. The parks and resorts are spread apart, so it takes a while to travel between them. If you are traveling via monorail, bus, or boat, you will have to wait in line. The busier the park is, the longer the wait will be. And then there’s also the time it takes to park your car, ride on a tram, walk through the parking lot, go through security check, and get your tickets scanned. Make sure to plan about 20 minutes for travel time, and 30 during busy times like Christmas.
Try Different Attractions
You might find one you never though you’d like. During my first trip, we stuck to dark rides and Dumbo. When I went to the parks with my roommates for the first time, I let them take the lead in choosing what to do. One my roommates who had been to Walt Disney World almost every single year since she was born wanted to see Mickey’s Philharmagic. I was hesitant about it, mostly because I didn’t know what it was. I asked her, and all she said was “you’ll like it”. And I did! Philharmagic is now one of my favorite attractions. I wish I had explored it with my family on that first visit. Of course, you wont like every single attraction. But trying something new is part of the experience.
DAK is amazing
Like most people, I severely underestimated Animal Kingdom. I skipped it my first trip, but I will never make that mistake again. DAK ended up being my favorite park. My family also enjoyed seeing all the animals and The Festival of The Lion King show on a later visit. It's a highlight for every Walt Disney World visit!
Use Fast Pass to save time
I didn’t use Fast Pass at all during my first trip, as my parents don’t really like rides. But if I had done some more research, I would’ve found out that you could use Fast Pass for some character meets and shows. Even if we had used Fast Pass on the few rides we went on, it would’ve saved us a lot more time for exploring the parks.
Okay, so I did bring a bottle of sunscreen. But I left it in the car, thinking we’d reapply later. This was a mistake. Bring the sunscreen with you, and reapply every couple of hours. Your skin will thank you.
You can get free water
Like most people, my dad was a bit taken aback by the price of water at the parks. But you can get a cup of ice water for free at most quick service places. After we bought one water bottle, we refilled it for free at the many water fountains throughout the park. Four dollars isn’t that much of a setback, but every dollar saved at Disney counts.
Even though there were some things I wish I had done differently, my visit was not a disaster. There were some things I did right.
Things I did right
Went With The Flow
I said before that we didn’t have a structured plan (or really any plan at all) and that wasn’t such a good thing. So this might sound contradictory. Many first time visitors will try to schedule every single second of the trip. As a Cast Member, I’ve seen more than one parent start to yell at their kids because of the frustration when their schedule isn’t going exactly right. Please don’t be that parent. A rough plan with room for flexibility is usually the best way to visit the parks. Since we were in no rush, we could do whatever struck our fancy at the moment.
Took time to explore
The best part about the Disney parks is the detail. So many people put so much effort into the theming. There’s even Mickeys on the sewer drains. It is very easy to suspend reality once you're inside the parks. You really believe you stepped into a small town at the turn of the century, or in an African village, or inside the middle of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Allow yourself to really look around you and appreciate the park. Wander down an empty path. Take lots of pictures. Explore. This is how I discovered Cinderella’s Wishing Well in the Magic Kingdom. I saw the well on a completely empty path near the castle as we were walking from the Hub into Tomorrowland. Out of curiosity, I dragged my parents around the park to hunt for it. We found it, took some great photos with the castle and the moat in the background, tossed some coins in, and relaxed while enjoying the view. Cinderella’s Wishing Well is my favorite spot in all of Walt Disney World and I never would have found it if I hadn’t taken some time to explore.
Made dining reservations
What we based our visit around was our dining reservations. Several weeks before our visit, we made dining reservations online for Be Our Guest and Tony's. These are both table service restaurants, and both can fill up quickly. Be Our Guest in particular is very difficult to get a table without a reservation. Table service restaurants made the most sense for our family because it offered us the chance to sit down in air conditioning for an hour or so.
Took lots of pictures
Some people may not want to "live through their phones", and I understand that thinking. But even though my dad and I took a bunch of pictures, I still wish we could've taken more. Being apart of the Disney College Program meant that I had six months to experience things without looking through my phone screen, but I only ever had ONE first visit. Not only did we take a lot of pictures, we took a lot of pictures of ourselves. There are tons of pictures online of the Cinderella Castle or Spaceship Earth. Having pictures of the people we experienced the trip was what was important.