In summer and during other holidays, it’s wise to get to the front gates of the park about 30 minutes ahead of opening, partly because you can waltz right onto a marquee ride that way. Try not to leave any park as it closes, when crowds surge and waits for the parking tram become burdensome. Instead, depart early or linger awhile in the shops, which will be open a bit longer than everything else.
PARKING—Each park has its own parking lot ($17 a day; free for Disney hotel guests and annual passholders). As you drive in, attendants will direct you to fill the next available spot. This is probably the most dangerous part of your day, as the people around you will be distracted and you’re at risk of hitting an excited child or knocking off an open car door—take it slow. Parking lanes are numbered and given names; at the very least, remember your number. Don’t stress out if your row is a high number; at Epcot, for example, the front row is 27. (Tip for remembering where you parked: Open your phone’s mapping app, zoom in, and stick a pin in your location. If you still forget, at least remember what time you arrived; Disney tracks which sections are being filled minute by minute.) You’ll board one of the noisy trams (fold strollers during the wait), which haul you to the ticketing area. At the Magic Kingdom, you still must take either the monorail or a ferryboat to the front gates, but at the other parks, the tram lets you off near the doorstep.
SECURITY—Guests with bags larger than a small purse must queue at a checkpoint where they will open them for park security to probe with a stick. If you are not carrying a bag, there will be a faster entry portal for you.
TURNSTILES—To validate your ticket, you must place a finger on a clear plate. That fingerprint is “married” to your ticket so that you can’t share it with anyone else. Disney swears your personal information is eventually expunged from the system, but what it doesn’t publicize is that if you do not wish for your fingerprint to be scanned, you may use standard identification instead, right there at the gate.
ORIENTATION—Once you get inside the gates at all the parks, be sure to grab two free things that are kept in conspicuous racks: a “Guidemap” and a “Times Guide” listing the day’s schedule (Animal Kingdom also has an Animal Guide). If you forget, you can pick both up at any shop or at the park’s tip board, which is a roundup of wait times found a short walk into all the parks (they’re marked on the maps). Also, cast members carry full schedules (it’s called the “Tell-A-Cast”), or you can ask at the park’s Guest Relations desk (marked on the maps, always near the front; Guest Services, outside the gates, is mostly for ticket issues). The estimated wait time for any attraction is posted where its line begins; this number is accurate, although Disney often pads it by 5 minutes to give guests the sense of exceeded expectations.
HEIGHT RESTRICTIONS—They’re on the maps. Take them seriously. They are always enforced. At Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Mission Space, and a few other major rides, kids who are sized out may be offered a card entitling them to jump to the head of the line when they finally grow tall enough. (At Space Mountain, it dubs them a “Mousetronaut,” at Splash Mountain, a “Future Splash Mountaineer.”) Do not fill in the date yourself; that’s for the ride attendant to validate on the day you return.
FOOD—Gone are the days when you could amble blithely and decide on a whim to have a table-service dinner wherever your fancy took you. The Disney Dining Plan wrecked that. Now you must plan ahead by racking up Advance Dining Reservations, called ADRs, or risk waiting for cancellations that may not materialize. Having a reservation does not mean you will sit down at that time. There is frequently a wait anyway. If you have no reservations, you’ll be eating from counter service spots.
Breakfast ends around 10:30am, and lunch service generally goes from 11:30am to 2:30 or 3pm. Prices for buffets and character meals shift according to the day of the week and time of year. Counter service locations, which Disney calls Quick Service, do not require reservations, and their listings can be found with each theme park’s chapter. To avoid lines, eat between 10:30am and noon (lunch) and 4 and 5pm (dinner). Kids under 3 may eat without charge from an adult’s plate, and high chair and booster seats are readily available.
Optional Park Services—As you roam, roving photographers may ask to take your picture. They’re here for convenience, not value. Let them snap away; you won’t pay anything if you don’t want to. They will give you a PhotoPass (mydisneyphotopass.disney.go.com) Web account that allows you to check your shots out later and order prints (or ornaments, albums, mugs, mouse pads—you name it) if you fall in love with them. Sometimes, they can enhance the picture with fun special effects, such as Tinker Bell flying from your child’s hands. You’ll have 30 days to make your decisions. Only when you decide to buy does money change hands. Buying costs much, much more than it would cost you to make them yourself: 5x7s are $13, 8x10s are $17, two 4x6s are $15, plus shipping and so forth. But now and then, you’ll find an occasion that you think is worth the expense, and the Disney photographers are excellent at what they do. PhotoPass is separate from those hilarious pictures taken on board rides, which are available to purchase (from $17) after you get off. Prices for those are similar, but you may purchase those right away. For $50, you can buy the Attractions plan, which allows you to download some of your ride photos later (you still have to check in after each ride so your pass can be married to your image). Spend $200 ($150 if you buy at least 3 days ahead of arrival) on Memory Maker and you can download all your photos, including restaurant and photos on some major rides (not standard with the PhotoPass without this purchase), as many times as you like for a month. Discs of all your images cost $169.
Guest Relations and some resorts sell Disney Dollars, a private scrip you can spend anywhere, even mixed with actual U.S. currency. These brightly colored notes (in declining use) are fun to use, but too often, people bring them home as souvenirs, which is an abject waste of money. There are some clever ways to use them to your advantage—say, by giving your kids $15 worth, and not a dollar more, as an allowance. My favorite trick: Instead of getting a cash advance from an ATM with your credit card, which racks up banking fees, buy Disney Dollars instead. They’re charged as a purchase (up to $50 a day), incurring no fees.
You can send cumbersome souvenirs to the pick-up desk by the park gates, but delivery will take 3 to 5 hours. You can also send them to your Disney resort room. You should make your purchase before noon to receive it the next day. If you make it later, be staying for at least another 2 nights or you could miss the delivery.