Planning that long desired trip to Walt Disney World can be exciting but as newbies soon learn, it can also be overwhelming.

Between the abnormally high number of option combinations for lodging and dining, combined with conflicting information found online, many begin to question the magic that makes Disney so popular with kids of all ages.

We have been visiting Walt Disney World regularly since the mid 1990s and believe me, we are still learning and sometimes find ourselves struggling to keep up with the changes. The biggest change lately has been the Fastpass system but more on that later.

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Booking Accommodation

The first thing that must be seen about when planning a vacation is lodging. Walt Disney World, WDW from this point onward, has accommodation options in abundance.

The question to answer before booking is, “What exactly are you planning to do in Central Florida?” If the answer is “Duh, visit Walt Disney World (WDW)!” then your best bet in most cases is an on property accommodation. If the answer is “Go to Magic Kingdom one day and The Wizarding World of Harry Potter the next” then you will want to consider a hotel off property.

There are pros and cons to both types of lodging and although we generally stay on WDW property, we have stayed elsewhere with excellent results.

WDW Property

On property accommodation tends to be our favorite for several reasons. WDW just has an overall safe feel. We’ve never had anything stolen poolside and for a family that is notoriously careless with cameras, bags and phones, that is saying something. The staff, also known as cast members, are as pleasant and helpful at the resorts as in the parks.

The themes, which some see as overkill, we find absolutely delightful. Pop Century and Animal Kingdom Resorts are among our favorites for theme fun. Transportation is plentiful, brighter, and runs with higher frequency and fewer stops than off property transportation.

Having said that, there are definite perks to staying off property, especially if you have a larger than average gathering. While WDW has several resorts offering 2 and 3 bedroom accommodations, they are smaller in general than hotels outside Disney property and more expensive by hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars, per stay.

For instance, Disney’s Art of Animation Resort is particularly small, with tiny uncomfortable beds but a very high price tag per night. We found the kitchen area to be a waste of space since there isn’t even a two burner stove or small oven. The only option for cooking in room is microwavable frozen entrees or popcorn. Frankly, it would have been better to simply leave it out and extend the living room area or invest in better beds. Considering the cost, guests can do much better off property.

Disney’s Boardwalk Resort offers a room with a queen bed, a fold out sofa and a trundle or murphy bed on the opposite wall for a child under 5 feet tall. You will still only have one bathroom for getting 5 people ready and the room may feel crowded but it’s certainly doable.

The cabins at Fort Wilderness are spacious and the kitchen is full and easy to use for meal preparation. Plus there is a grill right outside each cabin for steaks, burgers and hot dogs which is fun to do on a non-park day. The surroundings are beautiful and pleasant. Rent a golf cart and go cruising around. Check out the various playgrounds, pools and of course, make sure to see the nightly Electric Water Parade on the lake. The drawback here is one bathroom which is pretty tight for a family of 6.

OFF Property

If staying off property sounds more appealing based on how you’re spending your time in Central Florida or your family simply functions better in a larger space, you have plenty of outstanding choices. One of our favorite off property hotels is staySky Suites I Drive Orlando (http://www.stayskysuitesidriveorlando.com/). The condo style units are large, one or two bedrooms with full kitchens, and comfortable living areas. The beds range from queen to king depending on room arrangement. If a relaxing place to spread out sounds good, this is the place. The bang per buck spent here is tremendous since you can often stay a week for the same amount spent on a night or two at some Disney resorts.

We also enjoy Hawthorn Suites Lake Buena Vista (http://www.hawthornlakebuenavista.com/) for the suite style set up and central location to both Downtown Orlando activities, WDW and Universal. The pool isn’t as exciting but it is very pretty and a continental breakfast is offered.

Both Hawthorn Suites and staySky Suites I Drive have transportation shuttles free of extra charge, as do many of the better hotels in the area. Just make sure the one you choose offers service to the places you wish to visit. They also both offer complimentary breakfast, which is a great way to save extra money. You are also able to stock your refrigerator with food to make meals. Havig access to the free shuttle to and from the parks, makes going back to the room to prepare a meal very easy.

Groceries and Snack Delivery

For anyone staying in a hotel with a full kitchen, take advantage of one of the grocery delivery services in the area. Gooding’s or Orlando Grocery Express are two examples. You can order online from a generous selection of grocery items before leaving home and arrive to a fully stocked kitchen. The prices are reasonable and you won’t have the hassle of trying to find the local grocery store and fighting traffic. Newbies to the Central Florida Region, beware! The traffic here is crazy for the uninitiated.

What Walt Disney World calls “quick service’ foods, are basically fast foods, mostly fried, that are prepared quickly with the intention of keeping crowds moving. Taking a mid day break to go back to the suites to have lunch is a great way to take a mid day break, have a healthy and cheaper meal, and rest up to take on the evening portion of your park experience.

Park Tickets, Parking, and Fastpasses

If you haven’t done so online, purchasing passes for the various theme parks and local attractions can be done through the Concierge Desk at most hotels.

Parking at the various theme parks can get expensive which is why we take advantage when possible of shuttle services.

For those staying on WDW property, you’ll receive a magic band and will want to see about your Fastpass options up to three weeks before your vacation if possible. A Fastpass allows you to walk up to an attraction during a specific time frame, typically one hour long, and ride without waiting in line.

Using the Disney-my-way app for Apple or Android, you can load in guests by name and sync Fastpasses to attractions that you consider must-experience. It used to be that a family had to enter the park and then hand off their passes to the fastest runner and that person would race to the attraction and get Fastpasses for everyone from a type of vending machine. It was fun in a way and sometimes we miss that method but it was easy to lose park tickets along the way. Also, running through the parks is generally frowned upon by the cast members and other guests. We learned how to walk very fast without being obnoxious and ruining the magic for others, I hope.

For those staying off property, you can use kiosks located throughout the parks for loading your park ticket with Fastpasses. If you prefer a magic band, you can purchase one at any of the parks and see Guest Services for aid in loading and syncing.

General Tips

When visiting WDW, one of the biggest mistakes newbies make is trying to see and do everything and finding themselves downright annoyed that they seem to be lost or waiting in line constantly. It’s easy to feel this way, especially when the temperature and tempers rise.

The best thing to do is slow down and simply enjoy what comes. Yes, at some point you’ll want to experience the attractions that everyone has excitedly told you about but remember, WDW is huge. Try splitting up now and then. This is much easier now with cell phones in hand versus the old days when you had to name a specific meeting place and time and hope nobody got lost. Split up within ‘lands’ if and when possible.

Almost all areas of WDW offers something for children of all ages. The exception to this rule lies mostly in EPCOT. For newbies, EPCOT can be an overwhelming and exhausting experience. It’s wonderful but spread out with a tremendous amount of walking from exhibit to exhibit. Animal Kingdom is even larger but doesn’t feel that way for some reason. Maybe it’s the never ending animal related scenery along every path.

The Kitchen Sink is Not Necessary

Please don’t bring two large backpacks and the kitchen sink for a theme park day. Despite the fact that Animal Kingdom has a ‘Safari’ you aren’t actually going to the plains of Africa and don’t need three weeks worth of supplies to get you through. With all the walking, carrying such a load is silly, not to mention a big holdup when entering the parks as you go through bag inspection.

Basically, slow down, stay cool, enjoy your surroundings and your family. After all, you’re at WDW for a vacation. Relax and have fun making new memories.