We just returned from visiting our daughter, who is interning at Walt Disney World this fall as a part of Disney’s College Program. She’s taking classes and working in the parks, so she’s learned all the ins and outs of Disney World. She held our hands through the planning, packing, and the visit itself. (Letting your adult kid be the “expert” is a fantastic way to bond with them, btw. More on that here.)
Honestly, if she hadn’t been working at Disney, I’m not sure we would have visited as adults. That would have been a giant mistake! Our trip put us back in touch with the kid inside, and by the end of our trip, we had given ourselves entirely over to that. We sang our way through the Little Mermaid ride and screamed our heads off on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We came home physically tired, but more refreshed and joyful than before we left. Today, I’m sharing a grown-up’s guide to Disney and letting you in on a few of the tips and tricks we learned.
Planning Your Trip
Know that this is not a trip where you can just show up. It takes research, planning, and preparation. A lot has changed since you took your kids, and you need to figure it out to make the most of your time at the park. The My Disney Experience website (and accompanying app) were tremendously helpful, as well as UndercoverTourist.com (which features a calendar that tells you which days are least crowded at each park). There are lots of Disney bloggers, and I’ve pinned several helpful guides on the Empty Nester Getaway board of my Pinterest page. (I’d love it if you’d follow me!) Above all, though, I would strongly recommend you use a Disney Vacation Specialist (aka an “Authorized Disney Planner”) to help you plan your trip. Their service is free to you, and they can customize your trip according to your budget, what you want to do and when, etc. The trip they plan for you is never more than you would pay by booking directly with Disney, and often less because they stay apprised of the latest Disney deals and discounts. I recommend Vacations by Shannon, which is owned by empty nester, Disney expert, and my long-time friend, Shannon. You won’t be sorry, I promise!
How to Prepare
Physical Preparation – You’ll be walking a lot at WDW! Weeks before we went we adjusted our workouts to focus more on stamina than our usual HIIT cardio and strength training emphasis. I traded my elliptical workouts for fast incline walks on the treadmill, and we also walked around our neighborhood after dinner every night. With some days of 20,000+ steps while at Disney, this paid off. Also, significantly increase your water intake before you go for more energy.
Park Preparation – We packed these lightweight collapsible backpacks with some essential items for our days in the parks:
√ Rain poncho (It rained almost every day for a few minutes.)
√ Snacks (This variety pack has something for everyone.)
√ Small Hand Sanitizer (This one attaches to your backpack. There’s not always a bathroom close by to wash your hands.)
√ Mini-fan for iPhone (Ingenious! Would make a great stocking stuffer.)
√ Portable phone charger (Trust me, you’ll need this.)
√ Collapsible, Insulated Water Bottle (We filled up with ice water before we left every morning—which saved us lots.)
√ Small Sunscreen (For frequent reapplication.)
√ Waterproof Pill Box (For Tylenol, Advil, GasX, medications, etc.)
√ Sunscreen Lip Balm (With tint for me, without for Bob.) 🙂
√ Sunglasses (Take a spare in case you lose your faves!)
√ Packable Sunhat (This is the one I took to Europe this summer. It was expensive but is such good quality it still shows no signs of wear.)
√ Sturdy, Waterproof Watch (This is the one we use when we snorkel.)
√ Emergency Meds (like Tylenol, Advil, Tums, GasX)
What to Wear
Wear good walking tennies all day, every day (perfectly acceptable even in the nicer Disney restaurants). I suggest packing solid color shorts and tees, but we also saw lots of people in funny graphic tees. (Wear a sports bra underneath because you’ll sweat.) The big fashion statement for women at Disney right now? Decorative mouse ears! Becca surprised me with mine when we arrived, and I wore them every day. I am not exaggerating when I say that probably 100 people complimented my cute ears while I was there (including Snow White, Cinderella, Minnie, and Daisy!). Ears can be customized with your favorite colors or Disney characters as inspiration. (Becca’s in the photo above are Rapunzel-inspired.)
Here are some of our favorite Etsy sites for ears:
TimbysiaCreations (Besides the ears, if you need Christmas gifts for a young granddaughter, don’t miss the darling hairbows at this shop.)
What to Do While You’re There
Be sure to strategically plan your Fast Passes in advance, with the help of the My Disney Experience website and app, but also plan to get to the parks a half-hour before opening in the mornings so you can head straight to popular rides that may not be available via Fast Pass.
There were some awesome off-the-beaten-path attractions that we might not have tried without Becca’s recommendations.
Animal Kingdom – The Kilimanjaro Safari is not to be missed. Go first thing when the park opens to see the animals at their liveliest.
Epcot – At Club Cool, you can taste popular soft drinks from around the world for free. (Be sure to try the “Beverly” from Italy!) We loved our lunch at the Coral Reef restaurant, situated right on the glass of the giant aquarium. The lunch menu is cheaper than the dinner menu, and reservations are easy to get.
Hollywood Studios – We thoroughly enjoyed watching the adorable Jedi Training Academy where 4-12-year-olds who are “force-sensitive” learn how to use a lightsaber and then get to “battle” Darth Vader. (Hysterical!) Also, be sure to check out One Man’s Dream, a 15-minute film about Walt Disney’s life and an exhibit featuring models of Toy Story World and Star Wars land, which are currently under construction. Be sure to try the new Toy Story Mania ride. It’s big fun! You blast moving targets with your laser gun while your cart zips around on the track. (Insider tip – depress the trigger the entire time and use your dominant hand to aim. You’ll beat everyone!) My favorite thing in Hollywood Studios, though, was the Frozen Sing-Along, where two hilarious emcees improv one-liners while guiding you through a synopsis of the story and all of the songs. We laughed our heads off and sang full out. It was awesome.
Magic Kingdom – There is so much to like here! We especially loved the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (Heigh-Ho!) and PhilharMagic, which is a 4-D film in which Donald takes over for missing conductor Mickey, the instruments rebel, and chaos ensues as they travel back through popular Disney songs. We also loved the Festival of Fantasy Parade and the incredible Happily Ever After fireworks show, which showcases both classic and modern Disney stories with Cinderella’s Castle as the backdrop. It was jaw-dropping.
We loved our time at Disney World and are so excited to be heading back to visit Becca again for a few days at the beginning of December. I’d love to know your don’t-miss attractions at Disney World. (Or must-haves for your backpack.) Hit me up in the comments below, and share your Disney tips, okay?