Visiting The Most Confusing... er, Happiest Place On Earth
June 26, 2014 12:34 PM   Subscribe

Help two (practically) first-time adult visitors plan a trip to Walt Disney World / the Wizarding World of Harry Potter next January. Snowflakes inside.

So my friend and I are planning a week-long stay in Orlando in early January. We'll be flying in on Friday, 1/9, and leaving the Saturday after, 1/16. We've attempted to plan this on our own but quite frankly the detail on some of the Disney sites overwhelms/scares us, so we thought to throw ourselves upon the mercy of the Hive Mind instead.

Pertinent details:
-We've both been to WDW before, but I've only ever been to Epcot and my friend hasn't been in almost thirty years. So we're pretty clueless.
- I'll be running in the Princess Half-Marathon, she won't; we haven't decided on ChEAR packages yet.
- At this point, we're looking in at flying in Friday morning, spending a relaxing day at the parks/in Orlando, running the marathon Saturday, and then escaping to the WWHP Sunday. We'll spend the week in the parks. This schedule isn't set in stone, though, we're amenable to changing pretty much all of it.
- We've got a budget of about $3000 for both of us, which we can increase to $3500 if necessary. We'd prefer to keep within it, though, so any money-saving tips are appreciated.


- Like I said, we've never been. What are your tips for the first-time visitor to WDW?
- All the sites I've seen so far are super kid-oriented. Any adult (but not romantic) ideas? FWIW, we're already planning on seeing Nouba, if it's there.
-What's the weather like in Orlando that time of year? Every guide I've seen seems to assume we'll be visiting FL in summer.
- We're not the zomg-must-see-everything types, but we would like to maximise our days at the parks. Any recommendations for apps or sites that will make figuring out how to beat the lines easier?
- We'd like to stay on-property (one of the Value resorts) and are debating if the Dining plans are worth it for us, since I'm vegetarian and diabetic and my friend is a poor eater. Any food/snack recs would be welcome, though.
- I've registered for the marathon, but we haven't done any other bookings yet. I'm debating just going with a Disney travel agent- does anyone have any experiences using one? Are they worth it?

Thanks in advance!
posted by Tamanna to Travel & Transportation around Orlando, FL (24 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

The weather in Orlando is changable from one day to the next in the winter. We went from Christmas to New Year, and one day we roasted, the next we were cold. For that time of year, I'd plan on jeans and t-shirts, and augment with a pair of shorts, or a sweatshirt.

There are a few options for you for lodging.

1. Holiday Inn Orange Lake Resort. We stayed in a two-bedroom unit and it was SO comfortable. It's an apartment. Ours was right by the Lazy River, so we could go there, put our feet in and relax, or hop in with a tube and ride around (we didn't actualy do that.) The plus on this is that you can cook in the kitchen, so you're not eating out all the time. You need to have a car for this one too. There's a Publix grocery store right at the back entrance. This is a timeshare, but you can reserve rooms on the Holiday Inn website and bypass the nonsense.

2. Stay on the Disney Property. I LOVE doing the whole package. Stay in a resort room (they're all good at all levels), get the meal plan, and buy an attraction ticket for all the days you're going to be there. The meal plan is BRILLIANT, and if you plan on being on Property for all but one or two days, this is the way to go.

3. Park Hopper passes let you go from one park to the next. This is good because Animal Kingdom closes at night fall, and you can then go to Magic Kingdom for parades and rides and stuff. Also, you can do a water-park during the day (there are three) and then hit Epcot for Beers around the world and dinner at night.

4. Epcot. This has changed so much over the years. The cool sciency stuff has been replaced with the Nemo show. There's still stuff to see there, just don't get your hopes up.

5. Fantasyland has a bunch of new stuff in the Magic Kingdom.

Disney has their own app and it's pretty cool.

My favorite Disney site is All

No matter what, you can't screw this up. Disney IS magical, and everyone there is committed to your having a great time.

I will recommend that you book the popular dinner places in advance, you can always change at the last minute, but you can't get a reservation at Be Our Guest the day before.

Have a BLAST! (I kind of envy you!)
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:47 PM on June 26, 2014 [3 favorites]

Easy WDW is the best (and certainly funniest) Disney Touring blog/site I know of. Get started via the links on the right-hand side of the page. Tons of photos, snarky commentary. It will be invaluable. He also has photos of the hotels on property, has an app that talks about wait times, has 'touring plan' style "cheat sheets that help miminize standing in line time, and apparently just wrote a book. I'm sorry if I sound like a fangirl, but I cannot recommend them highly enough.

Dining plan probably isn't worth it, unless you're BIG eaters. There are entire sites dedicated to "maximising" your dining plan dollars, and it actually requires some thought and planning to come out "ahead" on the cost of meals.

Absolutely get the park hopper. I also highly recommend the pre-buy on the photo pass thingy. I was surprised how much I loved having all those (actually very good) group photos, and we've used them in a ton of different ways. is pretty much the go-to place for ticket and other vacation deals, if you want to go the travel agent route.

Have fun -- feel free to PM me if you have specific questions. I was "dragged" as part of an extended family vacation and thought I'd hate it, but after visiting I can't wait to go back!
posted by anastasiav at 1:08 PM on June 26, 2014

I was just down there with family the first week of January 2014. I was astonished at how cold it was! (high 20s/low 30s F! In Florida!) I had packed assuming we were visiting Florida rather than Maine, so I didn't have any cold-weather gear other than a sweatshirt. Walking around the parks was often unbearable because of this; we sought indoor rides and shows, and spent more time in shops than I think is usual.

WWHP was so very crowded and full of kids on winter break from school. It was tough to even walk around, and they should have had better crowd control. Universal should have the expansion of WWHP completed by next January, though, so it may be easier to tolerate. Lesson Learned the Hard Way: Universal is now two parks (used to be just one the last time I was there), and if you go in one and realize it's not the one that WWHP is in, you'll have to deal with a two hour wait in a customer service line to exchange your tickets to go in the right park.

Yes, download their apps using the link upthread. You can make ride reservations and (I think?) meal reservations through it, and you can see where the other people in your party are if you get separated.

If you are staying on Disney property and you decide to get a meal plan, milk it for all it is worth. Example: if you have a refillable mug, use that for your drink at breakfast, and also get a bottled drink on your meal plan; then you can take the bottled drink into the parks with you.

If I ever go back, I would definitely not go in January. I would also make meal reservations WELL in advance of my arrival; we could not get reservations at a lot of places where we wanted to eat.
posted by tckma at 1:11 PM on June 26, 2014

Get The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. It is a thoroughly researched in-depth guide. I recommend it to anyone going to WDW.

Good luck with your planning!
posted by Fleebnork at 1:25 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Unofficial Guide. My wife and I have used it (and the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney Land) to plan four trips as adults (none with children), including my first trip to any Disney property. These have ranged from two week-long trips to a day-trip. and the Disney app are also highly recommended.
posted by jedicus at 1:30 PM on June 26, 2014

I wanted to add something about the Dining Your Way. We got the two meals per day. One Quick Service and one Sit Down Dining. You don't need more than that.

We'd use our Quick Service dessert as our breakfast, and then just make coffee in the room. Disney resort rooms have coffee pots and small fridges, so this was easy to do.

The quick service meals at the hotels were slightly better than in the parks, but either way, knowing that you can get whatever and that it's already paid for is pretty sweet.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:39 PM on June 26, 2014

I've been at both Disneyland and Disney World in the last six months - first time at Disneyland for about a decade, first time ever at the World and at the California Adventure.

Buy the Touring Plans app to help you maximize the fun. Very much worth the money. Multiple plans to hit attractions effectively, and will tell you if the day you're planning on going is lighter or heavier in audience. You can update via wifi on the fly, and also adapt your plans generally.

If you can tell me what you are more interested in overall at the parks (do you like roller coasters? more into Disney storytelling? more of a fantasy fan? etc.) I can recommend which rides are must sees, but I tell everyone they have to go to the Haunted Mansion. Period.

Plan on spending most of the time in the Magic Kingdom, and maybe a bit of time in Epcot. Getting a park hopper will probably be worth it for you. You'll have time to go to the Hollywood Studios at Disney World, but I think the water park will be closed.

Food -
People on Chowhound rave about the corn dogs at the red carriage stand, to the right side of the Magic Kingdom entrance. Pretty spiffy.

You have to try a Dole whip, preferably with pineapple juice. Only available in Adventureland, in the Magic Kingdom. Most people love it - I did.

In Epcot, the French neighborhood food is OK, in Les Halles, but not quite as good as La Madeleine (a friend of mine who lived in Paris said LM is about par with French 'fast food'). We had soup and I had a pretty good eggplant dish.

The best meal I had there was at the Polynesian resort, in the Kona Cafe, for brunch. First of all, you make a reservation on Disney Go. Then, you bypass the regular parking - you get 3 hours minimum validated parking if you have a dining reservation at one of the resorts. Some of the best coffee I've ever had, solid breakfast, and the French toast is very good - a little too big and sweet for me, but I understand why people rave about it.

Aaron Wallace's The Thinking Fan's Guide to Walt Disney World is a fun read on your way there, especially if you're also a film buff.

Wallace fills the book with history and connections to various rides and sections of the park. It's also really well written, especially compared to most books about Disney.

There's good theatre and lots of other things to do in Orlando besides the park. About an hour from the park, we went to an awesome drive-in in the dead of winter (never really got a lot colder than 50 or 60 degrees).
posted by mitschlag at 2:05 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

I should add, we accidentally took the main parking entrance and had to ask to be let over to the right location, the morning we did the Kona Cafe.

Also, if you decide you want to go to some of the better dining locations, you may want to reserve now. There are a few Epcot restaurants that have a good view of the fireworks nightly, for dinner, and those book up first. Victoria and Albert's is extremely expensive but supposedly the best meal you can have in central Florida. Otherwise, TripAdvisor, Chowhound and the Disney blogosphere will fill you in well on other stops to eat.
posted by mitschlag at 2:12 PM on June 26, 2014

Response by poster: Wow! Great stuff so far, thanks so much, everyone!

mitschlag, I'm interested in pretty much everything BUT the super-character-heavy stuff- I don't really care for the character-meet-and-greets, for example. But my friend loves shows and needs time she can use to sit down and relax, so any recs for those would be great. And yes, rollercoasters, too!
posted by Tamanna at 2:12 PM on June 26, 2014

Response by poster: Oh, also! We are looking to do one or two 'splurge' experiences- Nouba, if it's available, is a definite possibility, and maybe one more show/tour. Any recommendations? Tours/shows rather than just fancy meals preferred, even if they're outside Mouseland.
posted by Tamanna at 2:20 PM on June 26, 2014

The Disney Behind The Scenes tours are adults-only and pretty fascinating, though they can be pricey.
posted by Mchelly at 2:26 PM on June 26, 2014

I paid $3.99 for The Dark Side of Disney on my Kindle and enjoyed it. It's basically one guy's guide to doing adult things in Disney parks (both legal and illegal).

Read the sample and see if it gives you anything you haven't read before.
posted by tacodave at 2:38 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

Buy the Touring Plans app to help you maximize the fun.

Protip: Touring Plans is made by the Unofficial Guide folks. Buy the book, and you will receive a discount on the subscription to their website and app.
posted by Fleebnork at 2:40 PM on June 26, 2014

Also, last time we were there, my wife, who has interest in gardening, took the Behind the Seeds tour at Epcot and really enjoyed it.
posted by Fleebnork at 2:41 PM on June 26, 2014

Nthing Kona Cafe. We were trying to get into Ohana, the luau place, and we couldn't so we went to Kona Cafe. LOVED IT! A real gem considering it's a hotel coffee shop.

We didn't like the Boma Flavors of Africa buffet. People swear by it, but I just didn't get it. It was sort of like a cruise atmosphere, lots of kids, older folks, familys, and NOISY! Also, the food did not float my boat. YMMV, but for the price, I was so disappointed.

The Coral Reef Restaurant in Epcot is part of the Living Seas. The fish is so fresh and YUMMY!

Epcot restaurants tend to be the best. The German place is a hoot, the Mexican place is okay (they used to have a green chili enchilada, but it's gone now,) Canada's steakhouse is supposed to be good. Chefs De France was pretty great too.

I will say this. Unless you have a recommendation from a local, don't bother with places outside of the parks. All those joints on International Drive and Irlo Bronso/141 are rip-offs. We either eat in the park, cook in the timeshare, or hit a known quantity like Outback Steakhouse or IHOP.

Fulton's Crab House, and the place at the Grand Floridian are better than they have a right to be.

The shows are all through the parks and are perfect places to get out of the elements and rest. See them all, even the goofy ones are good fun. Country Bear Jamboree, Turtle Talk, Carolsel of Progress. You just can't lose.

Also, a nice quiet, outdoor activity is Fantasia Mini Golf. Lots of pretty topiary and Putt-Putt.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 3:30 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some further tips:

If you're staying at a Disney hotel, and you've rented a car, you get free parking at all of the parks. There are also busses between the hotels and the parks so that isn't really an issue, but I just thought I'd throw it out there.

The meal plans are actually fairly generous. We had the Quick Service plan (not our choice; the trip was booked by my mother-in-law and they got some family package). That is a refillable mug for your entire trip, plus 2 meals and 1 snack per day. That was more than enough food. Seriously. At the end of the trip we ended up throwing out or giving away our accumulated snacks and desserts because we could not finish them. (on-property hotels have mini fridges and microwaves so you can hoard desserts, drinks, and snacks from the meal plan) We thought it wouldn't be enough and that if we were planning the trip we would have gone for the higher dining plans. Now if we do go back I'm not sure we'd get the higher class dining plan. Meal options at the hotel were a bit better than in the parks. We splurged one night and went to Boma and paid for it with a credit card -- totally worth it.

We stayed in one of the "cheaper" hotels (again, not our choice, but even the cheaper on-property hotels are very nice). It was a bit difficult for my wife (who is vegetarian and also has lots of dietary restrictions on top of that for medical reasons) to have many options at the hotel's dining hall, until she found the head chef instead of just talking to the line cooks. Elsewhere, we found they were VERY accommodating of dietary restrictions. As long as you let them know of your dietary restrictions when making a reservation or showing up to eat, usually a chef will greet you and take you around and show you what you can and can't eat, and will even do special requests (e.g. "I'd really like to eat this but I am lactose intolerant." "No problem, I'll make a non-dairy version special for you.")

If we went again we would probably try to book a better class of on-property hotel.
posted by tckma at 3:39 PM on June 26, 2014

As for hotels on the property, for the most part, they're all the same. We've stayed at the Moderate resorts and they're pretty nice, but I doubt they're a LOT nicer than the Value resorts.

Coronado Springs is a convention center and that property is VAST! They have a great on site Quick Service restaurant. Kind of like a Vegas buffet (and that's a GOOD thing!)

Port Orleans has a very nice pool area. And you can get to the Downtown Disney by riverboat.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:51 PM on June 26, 2014

Sooo.. I hate to be that guy but I hated staying on Disney property.
We've gone 6 times in the last five years. Stayed on and off Disney properties and think staying in Disney is inconvenient and expensive. If eating decent food is at all important, I'd stay off property. Also, if good service is important Id stay away from their hotels.

I really thought we'd love staying their but everyone was happier elsewhere. Bigger rooms and nicer hotels, less walking, better food, nicer beds, less lines, better pool, WAY better service.
posted by beccaj at 6:33 PM on June 26, 2014

Yay! You'll have so much fun. I thought for ages that Orlando was lame until I actually went for a work conference at the Dolphin, and I've been going back to Disney a couple of times a year since. It's a GREAT place for kidless adults.

First-timer tips:
- Consult, and decide at least six months out what parks you want to do on which days, based on crowd levels and what parades/firework shows you want to see (I love Wishes and Illuminations; I could take or leave Fantasmic!, and I vastly prefer the night parade in the Magic Kingdom to the day one, although now they have a fire breathing dragon)
- DON'T book your travel as a package through runDisney. It looks more convenient, but you won't get access to your tickets to book FastPasses far enough in advance. Just do it yourself - then it's easier to change your mind about dates or hotels if you want.
- Figure out what restaurants you most want to eat at, and make those reservations six months out from your arrival day. On the dot. Seriously, if you're interested in eating in Cinderella's castle or Beast's castle or a number of other things, they book up IMMEDIATELY. (But pro tip about Beast's castle...I like the lunch menu better, and you can easily get a Fastpass for lunch to skip the line, because you'll be staying on property!)
- Resorts - you said you wanted to stay in a value. If you can swing it, stay in Pop Century or Art of Animation. They're both neat places to look at, they have superior food courts to the All-Stars, and both have better bus service than many much more expensive hotels on property. If you decide to stay at a moderate, rather than a value, the biggest difference I've noticed is that the resorts are MUCH bigger, and the pools have waterslides and hot tubs, while the value resorts' pools do not. That may or may not matter to you.
- Skip Downtown Disney, it's a hot mess of construction. Since you want to see La Nouba, plan to take the bus, and give yourself lots of time. Don't drive there.

Adult stuff to do:
- There are a bunch of tours and special experiences that are well worth looking into. The last time we went, on our Magic Kingdom night we booked the Tomorrowland Terrace fireworks party, and it was really neat - there's a dessert buffet before the fireworks show, and you have a relatively uncrowded, covered place to watch the fireworks and projection show. They are constantly coming up with new special events, so keep an eye out for them.
- Resort-hopping. The hotels in Disney are like half the attraction, they are just so cleverly themed. The Boardwalk (near EPCOT) is a neat place to walk around, and some mornings they offer a free tour of the hotel, which sounds ridiculous, but isn't. A lot of "imagineering" went into the place, and there's a lot of information about 1920s Atlantic City on the tour. The Boardwalk is also fun at night. In addition, the resorts by the Magic Kingdom (Wilderness Lodge, Contemporary, Polynesian, and Grand Floridian) or the resorts by EPCOT (Boardwalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, Dolphin and Swan) can make for good bar-hopping.
- There's a free piano player at Port Orleans Riverside's bar some nights who is a hoot. The piano bar on the Boardwalk is pretty good, too, but there's a cover.
- Dining can be a great adult pastime! Sanaa at Animal Kingdom Lodge is tasty, and you can check out the animals on the savannah before or after your meal. There's a number of upscale "signature" restaurants if that's your thing. Kimonos in the Swan has karaoke. Drinking around the World Showcase is always fun.

Weather - Probably pretty hot mid-afternoon, and chilly at night/early morning. Bring a sweater, maybe a pair of pants, and you'll be fine unless there's a weird cold snap. Wear sunscreen even if it's cold. Don't fear Splash Mountain.

Apps/sites - Easywdw, far and away has the best and most approachable advice, and he just published a first-timer's guidebook. Touringplans offers an app that I like - you can build custom itineraries and get relatively good wait time estimates. It does cost a little money, though. Honestly, though, the only really big secret is to book your fastpasses, and be at the gates of any given park at LEAST 30-45 minutes before opening time to beat the rush.

Dining - - Don't bother with the meal plan. It's not worth the hassle of wondering WHY you can't get that corndog/cake pop/dinner/whatever with your credits. Just eat what you want and pay cash. It will probably be cheaper, unless you really devote yourself to "maximizing" your value.

Travel agent - Not worth it. You are a competent adult on the internet. Just check out easywdw/touringplans, make some decisions six months out so you can book your restaurant reservations, and you'll be fine on your own. Plus, if you are as fickle as I am, it's very, very helpful to retain complete control of your own booking.
posted by bowtiesarecool at 6:48 PM on June 26, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've only been to WDW twice, and both trips were planned by my parents so I don't have much practical advice to give. The Dole pineapple thing mentioned upthread is delicious. Trying to do the show/ride in every country in Epcot takes longer than you'd think. The Japan store has fun candy. We stayed off site at a Marriott resort and they had shuttles to and from the parks.

That being said, my first time was when I was 18. Even though I was an adult, I let myself get swept up like I was a kid again and I think that made the experience so much better. Before the trip I counted down the days to 'magic' because Disney is where magic lives. I rode the Dumbo ride with my sister, and the teacups with my father - things we had seen in the commercials growing up. We got mouse ear hats with our names on them and wore them everywhere. We let ourselves be silly and ate too much candy. Just thinking about how awesome that trip was and how excited I am for you to go gives me chills. I'm sure that the guide books and blogs are helpful, but I'd be hesitant to plan every meal and every minute of your tip. Just let your inner 6-year-old out!
posted by youngergirl44 at 7:02 PM on June 26, 2014 [1 favorite]

One thing I don't like about Disney is the food. Even the better restaurants inside the resorts are essentially buffets with poor service and very expensive prices.

However we did really like The Dining Room at Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe in Downtown Disney. It's pricey, but food is good and service is over-the-top nice.
posted by zeikka at 4:33 AM on June 27, 2014

California Grill for dinner, timed so that you're up on top of the Contemporary Resort while whatever the current Magic Kingdom fireworks show is going on. They pipe the audio in from the park and dim the lights, or you can go out on the balcony.

Nthing everyone who says Josh has a great writing style (at least to me) and lots of pictures. His crowd calendars have been dead-on as far as I've been able to tell, making it easier to identify which park to go to which day.
posted by neilbert at 7:05 AM on June 27, 2014

I've had an AskMe on visiting Disney, and I glommed onto another AskMe about Harry Potter World. You'll get good advice in both of those threads.
posted by MrMoonPie at 11:13 AM on June 27, 2014

« Older Mortgage dilemma: seems like there is no optimal...   |   Newish speculative "Rebuilding Civilization"... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.