Hidden Gems and Secret Hacks to Get the Most Out of Disney

Magic Kingdom, Disney World

Magic Kingdom, Disney World by Clément Bardot (CC BY-SA)

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Magic Kingdom, Disney World
Magic Kingdom, Disney World by Clément Bardot (CC BY-SA)

Magic Touch

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to Disney we go. Whether you’re planning a family vacation, honeymoon, or you just won the Super Bowl, Disneyland and Disney World are incredible places to visit for a fun time. But visiting can also be costly, exhausting, and overwhelming — making sure you get to everything is not easy at these theme parks. Cheapism spoke with Tabitha Bucknam, an independent travel agent who works with Your Magical Destinations, asking for insight on which things you simply must experience and some hacks to make a trip more enjoyable.

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Historic Train Station in Orlando

Skip the Park Hopper Passes

There are four parks at Disney World, each with “lands” within. When you buy tickets, you’ll see an option for something called a “Park Hopper.” This runs an additional $65 daily to allow you to visit more than one park within certain hours. “I do not recommend the Park Hopper, because you’ll easily spend an entire day at each park,” Bucknam says, “It’s a better idea to get more park days and visit each park, or extend your trip even longer to allow time to spend half of your day at the pool and half at the park so you’re not as tired, because Disney World is not a relaxing vacation.”

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Mickey and Walt Disney
Mickey and Walt Disney by Anna (CC BY-SA)

Find Where to Watch Fireworks

A new fireworks show called “Enchantment” was created as part of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary — but Magic Kingdom fireworks have been around for decades, becoming almost synonymous with the park. Bucknam urges visitors to budget time to find a good spot to watch: Head to the front of Cinderella Castle by the statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse and you’ll be able to see all clearly. The train station on Main Street is another good spot, if farther back. There are also ways to catch the show without paying to get into the Magic Kingdom: Visit Disney’s Wilderness Lodge for dinner or to check out the gift shop and you can see the show from the lodge boat; you can also see the display from the Contemporary Resort.

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Disney's Polynesian Village Resort | Walt Disney World Resort
Disney's Polynesian Village Resort | Walt Disney World Resort by casajump (CC BY-NC-SA)

Get an Adults-Only Experiences

The parks offer plenty of attractions just for adults. Bucknam says her favorite time to visit Disney World is during Epcot’s International Food & Wine Festival each July. (She likes to indulge in the event without kids, but it is family friendly.) The Speakeasy at Disney World’s Polynesian Resort is a hidden gem geared toward adults; on the other side of the country, adult visitors can enjoy tropical cocktails at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar at the Disneyland Hotel.

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Disney World: Epcot - United Kingdom Pavilion
Disney World: Epcot - United Kingdom Pavilion by Wally Gobetz (CC BY-NC-ND)

Visit the Gardens in Epcot’s U.K. Pavilion

You have to follow a long, winding path to get to the gardens in the U.K. pavilion at Disney World’s Epcot, and it’s easy to pass right by and miss the entrance. But this is a perfect spot to enjoy a lunch or relax for a minute.

Mad Tea Party, Fantasyland, Disneyland, Anaheim, California
Mad Tea Party, Fantasyland, Disneyland, Anaheim, California by Ken Lund (CC BY-SA)

Take One of the Original Rides

Disneyland is the original amusement park created by Walt Disney, and the only one he actually visited. Because of that, Disneyland has a rich history with an air of nostalgia. Lean into it by taking one of the original rides. From the spinning teacups on the “Alice in Wonderland” ride to the famous “It’s a Small World,” there are a handful of attractions that really capture the magic.

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Sunlight at Disney's Yacht Club Resort
Sunlight at Disney's Yacht Club Resort by Rhys A. (CC BY)

Pick the Right Resort

Disney World is appropriately named: It feels as big as one, with 32 basic, moderate, and deluxe resorts to choose from in addition to theme parks, waterparks, and restaurants. How do you choose the right resort? “Some resorts are geared toward adults and others appeal a lot to kids — the value resorts are bright, colorful, and themed, so they’re known as kid-friendly,” while the higher-level options are less cartoony but might offer a good value if you book far enough out, Bucknam says. “When you go into the moderate-resort group, you start to feel like you’re outside of Disney World, so it feels like two vacations in one. Deluxe resorts have better restaurants and transportation options, plus they have better pools.” Disney’s Yacht Club Resort has the best pool because it has a sandy bottom and a lazy river, and you can walk to Epcot from it. Each hotel features different transportation options you should ask about before you book.

Disney Skyliner, October 2019
Disney Skyliner, October 2019 by Jedi94 (CC BY-SA)

Take Transportation Into Account

Disney World provides transportation from the airport to your Disney resort or the parks. In addition, “if you’re staying on-site, transportation is included by bus. Deluxe resorts provide transportation by boat, monorail, or Skyliner, except the Animal Kingdom resorts because it’s farther out and only offers bus transport,” Bucknam says. Disneyland’s monorail works differently than the one at Disney World, because rather than transporting guests between parks and resorts, it has only two stops: inside Disneyland and on the edge of Downtown Disney. If you take it, ask the cast member in charge if you can have one of the four seats in the front nose of the monorail — the view is one-of-a-kind.

Swallowing the Disney Dining Plan Marketing
Walt Disney World/facebook.com

Save Money on Food

Disney trip costs can add up quickly, especially when paying for meals. But Disney World and Disneyland allow you to bring in food as long as it’s not in a cooler, Bucknam says — so load a backpack with snacks to carry, or rent a locker to store your goodies. If you’re staying in one of the resorts, go back to your room to eat. Visit one of the quick-service restaurants at Disney World and order a kids' meal; the portions are still decently sized while being a lot cheaper. You can also share a meal at quick-service restaurants, while full-service, sit-down restaurants will not let the same hacks fly.

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Beach Club Walt Disney World, Florida
Beach Club Walt Disney World, Florida by Lee (CC BY-NC-ND)

Get the Must-Try Foods

After saving money on run-of-the-mill meals, there are plenty to indulge in. At Disney World, go for the Kitchen Sink dessert at the Beach Club Resort; the Loaded Buffalo Tater Tots at the Friar’s Nook in the Magic Kingdom; or the Night Blossom frozen limeade drink from Pongu Pongu in the Animal Kingdom. Bucknam also recommends dining at Chef Mickey’s at the very beginning of your trip. “That’s the only restaurant where you can meet ‘The Fab Five’: Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy, and Pluto. You don’t have to wait in line to meet the characters, plus you get to eat a good meal.”

Disney Vacation Club Open House at Disney's BoardWalk

Join the Disney Vacation Club

The Disney Vacation Club is Disney World’s timeshare offering, allowing you to buy slots in certain resorts that Bucknam calls a good way for frequent visitors to save on lodging. “When you buy into it, you buy a price per point and get an allotted amount of points per year. You can use your points to book your resort or you can bank and borrow the points, pushing them forward if you don’t plan a trip for that year. It’s particularly beneficial if you go every three years,” Bucknam says. But keep family size in mind when buying in: If you have more than six family members, you have to book two bedrooms, although you can get an exemption for one child under 3.

At Disney World

Use the 3-and-Under Loophole

Speaking of kiddos under 3, if your child is 1, 2, or even two-years-and-364-days-old when you arrive at Disney World, they get in free. Even if your child turns 3 the day after you arrive, entrance is free for the duration of the trip as long as they were still technically 2 upon arrival — something to keep in mind if you’re looking for a huge way to celebrate a little one’s third birthday.

Magic Kingdom Main Street at Christmas
Magic Kingdom Main Street at Christmas by Justin Brown (CC BY-NC-SA)

Visit at the Best Times

Disneyland and Disney World are full of visitors no matter the time of year, but some times are busier than others — the busiest being spring break — while Disney World is hot and crowded during the summer months. Bucknam’s favorite time to go is at the beginning of December, when it’s cooler and Christmas decorations are out. January and February are other good times for a Disney vacation, and the parks do special things for Halloween too.

Sleeping Beauty Castle
Sleeping Beauty Castle by HarshLight (CC BY)

Know Hidden Things to Do and See

Disney World and Disneyland are riddled with details, attractions, and experiences that aren’t widely known. Next time you visit Sleeping Beauty Castle at Disneyland, check out the walkway that retells the story of “Sleeping Beauty” in intricate detail; if you pass by the Haunted Mansion at night in the Magic Kingdom, look up in the window of the top floor and you’ll see ghosts dancing around. Speaking of the Haunted Mansion ride, if you see a sign outside it or the Tower of Terror in Hollywood Studios saying “13 Minute Wait,” that actually means there is no wait at all. At Epcot, if you stand in the middle of the temple in the China pavilion and say something, you’ll hear your own voice as it sounds to other people rather than the way it sounds in your own head, a trick of the perfect acoustics in the room.

Chuck Taylor's sneakers
Chuck Taylor's sneakers by Rachel Patterson (CC BY-NC-ND)

Think About Your Feet

In preparation for a trip, Bucknam suggests going for walks to build up stamina. Don’t buy a brand-new pair of shoes to debut at Disney; if you get shoes for the trip, wear them for at least a week before to break them in. And though it’s hot in California and Florida, refrain from wearing sandals the entire time unless you want some seriously sore feet, and opt for sneakers instead. One of Bucknam’s favorite hacks is to keep a pair of flip-flops in a backpack for water rides so you can swap out your footwear and keep your socks and shoes dry.

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