LIVING THE DREAM
15 hacks for the ultimate American theme park experience
Did you know that about 55,000 people visit Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom a day? That’s 20 million a year, just a few short of Australia’s population – and reason enough to start planning your theme park itinerary months ahead of time.
Visiting a Disney Park is viewed as a rite of passage by American vacationers. To ensure your trip is the happiest on earth, we’ve rounded up top tips that’ll help get the most out of your time, and dollars, in America’s most popular theme parks.
LAY OF THE LAND
America’s top theme parks are located in California and Florida:
Walt Disney’s original theme park, Disneyland, located about an hour’s drive from Los Angeles in Anaheim, is made up of Disney California Adventure theme park, Downtown Disney District, three Disney hotels, plus shopping and dining.
Walt Disney World (WDW) in Lake Buena Vista, Florida, is the world’s number 1 theme park, home to Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom featuring Pandora – The World of Avatar, Disney Springs (formerly Downtown Disney), Disney’s Boardwalk, and two major water parks: Typhoon Lagoon (wave pool) and Blizzard Beach (slides).
Universal Studios Hollywood, Los Angeles, features the all-new yearround Walking Dead Attraction, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Springfield USA, alongside plenty more movie attractions.
And Universal Orlando comprises Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (The Wizarding World of Harry Potter features across both), and the new Volcano Bay water park.
WHEN TO GO 1 BYE-BYE CROWDS
No patience for crowds? Then you’d best avoid Disneyland on Mondays, Saturdays, summer and holiday Sundays, the weeks around Easter Sunday, Thanksgiving weekend, and the weeks leading up to Christmas through the first week of January.
2 RAIN, RAIN … YAY!
January is a good time to visit Orlando, as is September through November, though the chance of thunderstorms is high. That said, rainy days call for shorter lines, so pack a raincoat and brave the showers – they’re usually short-lived.
3 MEGA FANDOM
Crowds aside, special events and themed holidays attract hardcore fans. Those in the know book Disneyland’s Mickey’s Halloween Party way ahead of time. At Universal Hollywood, there’s “Grinchmas”, and starting this year, an all-new “Christmas in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter” experience that’ll transform HogwartsTM castle into a lightshow spectacular. Choose your events wisely though: WDW’s Epcot International Food & Wine Festival is more for fun-loving foodies than families with little kids.
TOP TICKETS 4 PARK HOPPER
To jump from Disney park to Disney park over the course of a few days, a park hopper ticket is your best bet – it works out less expensive than buying single park tickets. Buy them in advance and online because buying at the theme park, WDW for example, can tack on a surcharge. Note: the single-day park admission
TO JUMP FROM DISNEY PARK TO DISNEY PARK OVER A FEW DAYS, A PARK HOPPER TICKET IS YOUR BEST BET
price to any one of WDW’s four theme parks is subject to seasonal demandbased pricing (Peak, Regular, or Value), though the multi-day ticket is not. Check the Disney Parks website for prices based on your exact dates of visiting.
Once you’ve purchased your Disney tickets, link them to your My Disney Experience account AND print them out to exchange for a Magic Band or Key to the World Card at the park’s guest services counter. Easy!
At Universal Orlando, an Unlimited Express park-to-park ticket is a good option, especially for Harry Potter fans because it allows admission to both theme parks and priority access to unlimited rides.
5 AHEAD OF THE LINE
At WDW, too much down time is a drag, but too little can make for chaos. Prioritise those rides you want to go on by booking them in advance (if available) via the FastPass rider-eservation system. This saves waiting in lines for popular rides such as Splash Mountain in Magic Kingdom and Toy Story Mania in Hollywood Studios. WDW resort guests can make FastPass reservations 60 days before the trip and offsite hotel guests 30 days prior. Making day-of reservations will likely result in disappointment as only a certain number of rides are reserved per hour. But you can get lucky with last-minute cancellations.
So keep refreshing those time slots on your MyExperience App to get lucky!
A new feature is the MaxPass. Unlike the FastPass, it isn’t free, but for $10 you have a better chance of scoring a FastPass reservation and will receive unlimited downloads of PhotoPass images (photos taken by Disney cast members).
DINING TRICKS 6 MEAL TIMES
At slower times of the year, usually in autumn and winter, Disney offers “free dining” plans. For that you will have to buy a nondiscounted Walt Disney World Resort hotel and park hopper ticket package. Value and Moderate resorts receive the Quick-Service Dining Plan, and Deluxe and Deluxe Villa resorts the Free Disney plan. If you’re keen for the latter, ask whether your Quick-Service plan can be upgraded. Information on 2018 availability is updated on wdwinfo.com as this offer is not always a sure bet.
7 RESERVATIONS & CHARACTER DINING
At WDW you can make dining reservations 180 days before your arrival (disneyworld.disney.go.com/ dining) and it is a good idea to do so, especially if the restaurant hosts character dining – like The Crystal Palace Restaurant with its Winnie the Pooh meet-n-greet, or Cinderella’s Royal Table, where Cinderella welcomes guests in the castle lobby prior to seating.
Her Fairytale Breakfast is one of the hardest reservations to score (along with breakfast or dinner at Magic Kingdom’s Be Our Guest Restaurant), because it accommodates only 130 diners at a time. Walk-ins are rarely accommodated anywhere, so make reservations. Check out unofficial touringplans.com/walt-disneyworld/character-dining for a full character dining list.
At Universal Orlando, characters from Scooby Doo, Shrek, and The
Simpsons will visit three resort hotels on Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday nights.
8 BYO SNACKS
Bring nuts and granola bars, perhaps a picnic, to keep energy levels up and food costs down. Insulated water bottles can be refilled with iced water for free at Disney concession stands. Cool off by adding a one-day water park ticket. At WDW you’ll save with a Ticket with Blockout Dates if not travelling over summer and peak periods. (For 2017 this was May 27-August 27).
PRIORITISE THOSE RIDES YOU WANT TO GO ON BY BOOKING THEM IN ADVANCE
If celebrating your birthday, anniversary, or other special event, tell guest relations and restaurants ahead of time – you never know what bonuses will come your way. At Disneyland, head to the City Hall to receive a free celebratory badge, or as Americans call it, a “button.” 10 DISCOUNTS
Check your receipts for discounts and offers. They could be stated in fine print.
MISCELLANEOUS 11 SQUEEZE IN MORE TIME
Stave off long lines by arriving at the park 30 minutes earlier and making a beeline for rides without priority access. Want to meet Mickey Mouse? Head to Disneyland’s Toontown House as soon as possible.
During parades and lunch hour, 11am to 2pm, the crowds descend on
restaurants and other areas of the park, meaning lines at certain attractions will be shorter. Opt for a later lunch and take advantage!
Conserve your energy by getting to the parks earlier, napping or swimming in the afternoon, and returning for the evening’s festivities. Make sure to get your hand stamped upon exit as some parks may require this as identification upon same-day re-entry.
12 BATTERIES NEED CHARGING?
Don’t forget to bring your camera or phone charger. On-site photo shops should allow you to recharge batteries that are running low.
WHERE TO STAY 13 DISNEY RESORTS
Perks of staying at an on-site Disney resort are many: proximity to parks, free shuttle service from/to the airport and theme parks, early park access, preferred admission if the park is at capacity, charging purchases to the room, and free package delivery from theme park to hotel (good for souvenir shopping as it saves you lugging bags and boxes).
Save costs but maximise your experience by booking the least expensive room and requesting an upgrade upon check-in.
Also: Ask in advance about on-site parking costs as these might be extra (and might determine whether you even need to rent a car).
Those WDW hotels located on the monorail line and with boat access are most convenient.
14 UNIVERSAL ORLANDO RESORTS PERK
The Universal Express ticket option comes complimentary with guests booked into these Orlando resorts: Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Loews Hard Rock Hotel, and Loews Royal Pacific Hotel. This means you’ll save some bucks!
PLANNING TOOLS 15 DIGITAL LOW-DOWN
@DisneylandToday is the official in-park Twitter feed for Disneyland, Disneyland California Adventure, Downtown Disney and Resort Hotels, and is most responsive with live park updates and responses between 8am and 10pm. Ditto for Walt Disney World, @WDWToday, a Twitter feed responsive between 5.30am to 5pm local time.
Check out Disney Park’s official website, disneyparks.disney.go.com, for offers and discounts on Disneyland Resort Hotel rooms.
A reputable third-party site for discounted California- and Orlandobased tickets, character dining, and theme park vacation packages is getawaytoday.com.
Look out for the Bundle & Save Disneyland® Resort & Universal Studios Hollywood Combo passes.
Download the Disney Experience App to plan your Disney Parks trip – you’ll need it for FastPass+ ride selections (disneyworld.disney .go.com/plan/my-disneyexperience).
Wdwmagic.com is an unofficial WDW fan site – good for news and forums. Allears.net is also an unofficial planning site with helpful blogs, newsletters, and hotel and dining reviews.
Check mousesavers.com for handy tips, such as where NOT to buy cheap Orlando theme park tickets, such as eBay. The Orlando Sentinel publishes daily columns on what’s happening at WDW, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld (orlandosentinel.com/ travel/attractions/theme-parkrangers-blog).
And download The Official Universal Orlando Resort App to see the latest on ride wait times, maps, and more.
CONSERVE ENERGY BY GETTING TO PARKS EARLIER, NAPPING OR SWIMMING IN THE AFTERNOON, AND RETURNING FOR THE EVENING’S FESTIVITIES
Whether you’re into Halloween, TV and movie characters such as The Simpsons, Harry Potter or Mickey Mouse himself, exhilarating rides or being taken to your dining table by Cinderella, there are many ways to get the best experience at Disney parks.
FLIGHT OF THE HIPPOGRIFF
MICKEY’S FUN WHEEL