Things You Must Book in Advance for a Walt Disney World Vacation
The days are long gone when you could just buy a ticket as you entered the front gate and still expect the full Disney experience. There are too many visitors now, and too many new ways for the resort to make extra money. If you're planning a Disney World vacation, you're required to make plans ahead of time. Don't miss out by waiting until the day you arrive to book the following tours, shows, activities, and dining experiences.
You will never see a Disney hotel as empty as this. They can sell out in peak periods. It's easy to find places to stay off the resort's property (here are Frommer's picks among those), but if your heart is set on a particular Disney-run hotel, like Disney's Wilderness Lodge (pictured), you'd better book early. Ideally, you should have your reservation set at least two months ahead of time, and the reason why is next.
FastPasses, if you don't know, are reservations that allow you to get into attractions and shows using a shorter line or a better viewing area. If you hold a reservation at a Disney-run hotel, you can get a jump on everyone else by making FastPass choices as far as 60 days ahead. If you are staying somewhere else, you only get a 30-day advance, which means some of the slots of the most popular rides will be taken. If you expect to show up on the day of your park visit and get a last-minute FastPass for the most popular attractions, think again. They're often long gone.
Sit-down dining reservations
Disney dining reservations open 180 days in advance (call 407/939-3463), and because of the packaged meal plan that the resort sells to guests, you'd better believe that they're popular. If you don't walk into the front gates with a prior reservation, you will often find it impossible to get into any of the table-service restaurants in the parks (including Disney's Hollywood Studios' 50's Prime-Time Café, pictured). Inside Disney hotels, the two toughest bookings are Victoria & Albert's, at the Grand Floridian, and a table during fireworks at the California Grill, at the Contemporary Resort—unlike for most places, you should work the phones 180 days out for those. Sometimes, you can forage for last-minute cancellations by calling 24 hours ahead, but don't count on it. All this folderol is why people who just visit the park for the day have to stick to counter-service meals, where reservations aren't required.
Having a meal with one of the staple Disney characters is considered one of the must-do activities if you have kids. The most popular "character dining" event outside the parks is the daily breakfast at Chef Mickey's in the atrium of the Contemporary Resort (pictured). Like regular restaurant meals, they book up ahead of time, so starting 180 days out, you should call 407/939-3463 to snag a slot. The toughest two tables to secure are Cinderella's Royal Table inside the Magic Kingdom's castle and the Princess Storybook Dining at Epcot's Norway pavilion. It's not uncommon for those to fill up on the very first day they go on sale. If you fail, and many have, try again 24 hours ahead, because that's when most people tend to cancel.
Unknown to many, the resort offers a healthy selection of special backstage tours that show visitors how the park works (like Animal Kingdom's Wild Africa Trek, pictured). You could learn about how the Magic Kingdom's steam trains run, swim with dolphins in Epcot's The Living Seas tank, or dive into a seven-hour exploration of the resort's hidden tunnels and fascinating maintenance routines (that's the coveted Backstage Magic tour). But group sizes are small, so you have to get in while the getting's good, and that means advance planning. Go to www.disneyworld.com/tours or call 407/939-8687.
Special seasonal events
Over the last half of every year, the Magic Kingdom capitalizes on the holiday season by mounting two separately ticketed theme nights, Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, which have their own parades, fireworks shows, and amenities. If you don't have a ticket, you'll be kicked out of the park around dinnertime before the festivities begin. Each year, many of the dates hit capacity months ahead of time, so try to book at least three months early to increase your chances. The same goes for Epcot's Candlelight Processional, a resort tradition dating to the early 1970s, which books a parade of celebrity guests to read the Christmas story.
The resort is always trying to find new ways to upsell visitors—special dessert parties with excellent fireworks sightlines, lunch with an Imagineer and no more than nine other people, and so on. Offerings may only pop up briefly and then go away, which keeps fans on their toes and also results in frequent sellouts. Keep tabs on what's coming at www.disneyworld.com/events-tours and leap if you see something you like, because you can bet the passionate Mouseheads certainly will.
The package that grants you unlimited downloads of the pictures taken of you by park photographers is called Memory Maker, and it's often about 20% cheaper if you buy it at least three days ahead of your visit. That can be done online at disneyworld.disney.go.com/memory-maker.
Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique and Pirate's League
If your kids want to get makeovers as princesses, princes, or pirates, they'll want to go to the special kids' salons that do that—either in Disney Springs or behind park gates at the Magic Kingdom. The number for reservations is 407/939-7895.
Harmony Barber Shop
Similarly, the Harmony Barber Shop on Town Square, near the front gates of the Magic Kingdom, has been giving toddlers their first haircuts since 1971. Staff members are experts at it—you'll get a baby mouse-ears cap reading “My First Haircut,” a Certificate of Bravery, and wrappings of your child’s first trimmings for posterity. Grownups can get trims and shaves, too, and older kids can get sparkly gel combed into their hair. The salon accepts walk-ins, but don't count on there being space; call ahead at 407/939-7529.
Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue
Like character meals, dinner shows are kid-friendly, which makes them popular fare. The Hoop-Dee-Doo Musical Revue (pictured), running since 1974, starts booking six months out. Disney's Spirit of Aloha Show and Mickey's Backyard BBQ are also snagged early on. At Disney Springs, the House of Blues' popular Gospel Brunch on Sundays can also fill up 3–4 months ahead.
Because of changeable Florida weather, mornings are the best time to go parasailing or jet skiing over Bay Lake, so those slots book early, leaving latecomers to risk bookings for the afternoon, which may be canceled due to inclement conditions. Those activities are handled through Sammy Duvall's Watersports Centre. Disney golf tee times are scheduled via golfwdw.com—Disney resort guests can start scheduling golf 180 days ahead, but if you're staying somewhere else, you only get a 30-day jump.
There's more in the Frommer's guide
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