I’m a theme park journalist who’s stayed at almost every Disney World resort with my kids.
When we visit the parks, we love to cool off on the boat rides and go on the coasters at night.
There are lots of great free entertainment options on Main Street and the BoardWalk.
We like to stay at a resort that offers extra hours at the parks.
I’ve stayed at nearly every Disney World hotel with my kids. Because of my job as a travel writer, our unique adventures have involved splitting our stays between as many as 10 different hotels in a 10-day period on a bare-bones budget.
Staying at an early entry resort has always been one of our best strategies for ensuring a great Disney World experience, especially because we’re early risers.
Disney changed its extended-hours programs in 2021, but early entry remains, and it’s a great way to maximize your vacation investment. The current program allows select hotel guests 30-minute advance access to all four Disney World theme parks.
Participating properties include all the on-property Disney resorts, Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin, Four Seasons Resort Orlando, Waldorf Astoria Orlando, Signia by Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek, and the Disney Springs-area hotels.
I love letting my kids experience the rides at night.
For little kids, it’s a major thrill to stay up past bedtime in an illuminated theme park.
Riding the Magic Carpets of Aladdin at night with a shimmering view of Adventureland is truly magical. In Frontierland, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad is equally awe-inspiring for older kids.
Our favorite way to experience the Magic Kingdom at night is by buying tickets to a Disney After Hours event because the crowds are limited. There are also fun extras, like special photo ops and Mickey ice-cream bars.
Toy Story Mania remains one of the best family rides at Disney.
Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios never disappoints. We always try to ride it at least twice.
We like to rope drop (arrive at the park first thing) and head directly to the ride. Then we’ll return later for a family rematch.
Our family members get seriously competitive seeing who can rack up the highest score on the interactive ride.
At Magic Kingdom, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin is a similar ride that’s almost as enjoyable.
Soarin’ is the best way to travel around the world without a passport.
Since it opened at Epcot, Soarin’ Around the World has been a family favorite.
Cruising over famous landmarks across the globe, the simulated hang-glider ride is simply fantastic.
My favorite part is the flight over California, where you can smell the sweet scent of citrus. Experiencing the thundering roar of South America’s Iguazu Falls is also amazing.
Before our kids were tall enough for Soarin’, we used Disney’s rider-swap service so none of the adults had to miss out.
A slow boat ride is blissful on a steamy day.
Disney’s indoor boat rides are perfect for escaping the Florida heat.
Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros is a hidden gem inside the Mexico pavilion in Epcot’s World Showcase.
The delightful slow boat ride takes guests on a comical musical cruise along the Rio Grande. It offers a blissful seven minutes of dark, air-conditioned peace, and you can often ride again with little wait.
We always make time to visit the pool.
Splashing around in a Disney hotel pool has always been a vacation highlight for our kids.
There’s even poolside entertainment, such as dance parties, games, trivia contests, and evening movies.
Some of our favorite Disney pools include the zero-entry Fuentes del Morro pool at Caribbean Beach Resort, the serene Copper Creek Springs pool at Wilderness Lodge, and the sprawling Stormalong Bay pool at Beach Club Resort.
I love to spend some downtime at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
When we need midday downtime, we like to take the monorail from Magic Kingdom or Epcot to Disney’s Contemporary Resort.
I love to admire the Pueblo Village mural by famed Disney artist Mary Blair on the fourth-floor Grand Canyon Concourse. The 90-foot masterpiece features 18,000 hand-painted ceramic tiles. Walk around to see if you can spot the five-legged goat.
Nearby, we like to shop for souvenirs at Fantasia and then stop in at the Game Station Arcade.
Before heading back to the parks, we’ll grab a bite to eat at the Contempo Café or, if the weather is nice, enjoy a burger or hot dog at the Sand Bar by the pool.
The entertainment on Main Street USA is underappreciated.
At Magic Kingdom, we love to take extra time walking down Main Street USA when the park opens.
It’s where the Dapper Dans barbershop quartet gives a welcoming serenade, the Citizens of Main Street interact with guests, and the always entertaining Women’s Suffragists take delight in reminding fellow women to “unite.”
We always try to save room (and money) for a kitchen-sink sundae.
Beaches and Cream Soda Shop at the Beach Club Resort is famous for its kitchen-sink sundae.
The super-sized treat features as many as five types of ice cream, all smothered in hot fudge and sprinkled with toppings. It also comes in a cute souvenir “sink” that makes a great sand toy or snack container.
At the to-go window, you can get a slightly smaller (but still enormous) version.
The street performers on Disney’s BoardWalk are a cheap thrill.
We absolutely love seeing the jugglers, mimes, acrobats, and magicians in Disney’s BoardWalk district.
The shows are completely free, very kid-friendly, and occur between 6:30 and 9:30 p.m. nightly.
Watching the entertainers while the sun sets over Crescent Lake — with a distant view of Epcot’s World Showcase — is not to be missed.
I try to plan a special experience for each trip.
On each Disney trip, I try to plan a special experience for my family.
It might be a splurge like a special tour, an after-hours theme-park party, a boat rental, a character meal, or a night out at Cirque du Soleil or Splitsville at Disney Springs. Or, it could be a cheap thrill like a scavenger hunt, an afternoon at Fort Wilderness, or a prepaid game card at a resort arcade.
It’s fun to share plans before our trip so that everyone can savor the anticipation.
Disney Springs has great dining options, and there’s always something new and delicious to try.
Disney Springs is home to tons of great restaurants.
When we’re in a rush, some of our favorites include The Polite Pig for barbecue and the Earl of Sandwich for subs.
If you’re looking for kid-friendly table-service meals, Splitsville offers a surprisingly tasty menu, including sushi and sandwiches. And Raglan Road combines great entertainment with Irish pub fare.
At the Rooftop Beverage Bar at the Coca-Cola Store, we recommend the Around the World Tray, which includes your choice of still and sparkling beverages.
Souvenir shopping can be an adventure in itself.
On every trip, I give each family member an allowance to purchase one special souvenir.
For younger kids, we try to stick with one shopping trip. Older kids enjoy stretching the selection process over several trips before reaching their final purchase.
Some of our favorite buys over the years have been exclusive park merchandise, like a Figment beach towel and a Wilderness Lodge Lincoln Logs set.
Some of our favorite shops are Disney Tails (for four-legged family members) and World of Disney at Disney Springs, Fantasia at the Contemporary Resort, and Creations Shop at Epcot.
We get to Epcot’s World Showcase early to enjoy extra elbow room.
Epcot’s World Showcase opens a little later than the rest of the park, and it tends to be less crowded the first hour after opening.
If we’re staying at one of the BoardWalk resorts, it’s an easy stroll to the International Gateway entrance. We arrive right at opening time and head to the bakery in France to treat ourselves to a flaky pastry. France is also a great place to meet up with Disney princesses.
Next, we like to check out what’s new at the Kidcot Fun Stops in each of the country pavilions.
Later at night, we often return to enjoy some evening entertainment.
Window-gazing at the Disney resorts is a guilty pleasure.
One of my favorite free activities at Disney World is taking a stroll around our resorts to see how families have decorated the windows of their hotel rooms.
Some of the most festive windows can be seen at value properties, like Disney’s All-Star Resorts.
At Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort, frequent guests go all-out in decorating cabins and golf carts according to the season — especially around Halloween, Easter, Fourth of July, and Christmas.
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