I live in a magic kingdom. Sure we seem normal at times: we worship Saints on Sunday and manage to fry all things edible and sometimes inedible, but the truth is in New Orleans things are different. There are moments that transcend reality and down here they happen more often than you think. From the hours spent waiting for Endymion at the spot you've waited since you were in diapers to the palpable, visceral joy of dancing to your favorite artist at Jazzfest in a mud-caked thunderstorm New Orleanians have managed to make fantasy an almost everyday occurrence with the help of a mystical city, unique storytelling, and of course endless humidity.
It is no secret that Walt Disney loved New Orleans. Disney was named an honorary citizen of the city by then-mayor Victor Schiro shortly before his death in 1966. The themed area of New Orleans Square in Disneyland, a stylized representation of the French Quarter; and the Port Orleans Resort in Disney World are two tributes to Walt's love for the mysticism and authenticity of a city we call home daily.
This mindset makes planning trips for us a little different. The world is our oyster, but no oysters can compare to the ones we shuck down here. It would be different if we were from a place where culture is delivered out of box store, but our box stores ain't dere no more. So how can we quantify the collision of culture that is a Louisianian travelling to Disney World, a place that is the amalgam of every other culture on the planet and even appropriates a bit of our own? That is what this guide aims to reconcile so hopefully the next time you travel to Walt's Magic Kingdom you can understand the stories that tie Mardi Gras and the Mouse together.
Part 1: Essentials and Logistics
Walt Disney World is divided into four theme parks, two water parks, and various resorts and entertainment areas. This article will focus on packing, planning, and preparing for a trip to Walt Disney World.
The easiest way to approach a trip to Disney World is to pretend like it's Mardi Gras. For the people who have been it's all about the routine: where to go, who to see, what to pack. But if you're a first-timer there are some things you need to know:
1. This isn't your ordinary vacation. Most trips can be planned on the spur of the moment with the help of a city guide and a review of a tourism or CVB website. A trip to Walt Disney World requires hours of pre-planning, preparation, and even fitness training! Without it a trip to WDW can be disastrous: mediocre food, long lines, and missed opportunities to see the best of each park. An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure. Be prepared (Tiana prepared, not Scar prepared).
2. Pack a backpack or purse with essential items (water bottle, medicine, phone battery, change of clothes if going on water rides, sunscreen). You are allowed to bring a bag smaller than 24"x15"x18" into the parks and many people tend to do so. This will increase your time in the security line at each park you visit, but it will definitely be worth it if you are planning on spending an entire day in the parks and also is a convenient way to carry gifts and other trinkets you may purchase at WDW. My personal favorite is the Amazon Basics Daypack daypack (https://smile.amazon.com/AmazonBasics-Ultralight-Packable-Day-Pack/dp/B01AIVT2AE/ref=sr_1_12?s=sporting-goods&ie=UTF8&qid=1483546986&sr=1-12&keywords=daypack).
It's a cheap, water resistant daypack that has a good amount of storage space and a front pocket that can hold electronics or smaller items that need to be accessed quickly. It is packable and can be stored easily in a suitcase or duffel for flights. It also has mesh pockets that can hold a water bottle, a necessity no matter what season you visit WDW (note: you can request a free cup of water at any quick service location in WDW. I usually do so and fill up my water bottle while I'm walking. Be sure to use a double walled tumbler to prevent condensation and leakage).
3. Yes, you can bring food into Disney World. This is a lifesaver for anyone travelling to the World on a budget or convinced no one makes peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as well as they do. Coolers are also permitted, though I would not recommend bringing one unless a member of your party has dietary restrictions. Stick to food that can stay unrefrigerated and will not melt. The key to an enjoyable day in the Disney parks is to pack simply and bring only what you need. As the miles and temperature increase during the day the extra weight will definitely drag you down in more ways than one.
4. Expect to walk about 8-10 miles a day, even if you plan to take a break from the parks during the day. I consider myself an active person and at the end of each day in the parks even I was completely spent. The combination of walking, waiting, and riding will wear you down sooner than you think. In the weeks leading up to your vacation, start a walking or couch to 5K plan. In addition to the fitness gained, the habit of having to walk long distances will get you into the right mindset for tackling a Disney vacation. If you'd like to have fun with your training, listen to Disney planning podcasts (my personal favorites are Be Our Guest and WDW Radio) or create a vacation playlist with sounds and songs from the Disney parks. This is an easy way to build your fitness level and count down the days together until your vacation.
5. Take a break! I know I've spent a thousand words urging you to have plans, and plans for your plans; but the easiest way to ruin a WDW vacation is to push through a problem and let it blow up later on in the day whether it's a tantrum, serious case of hangry, or even a lingering injury. Everybody will reach a limit at Disney World. The combination of anxiety over missing attractions, walking long distances, and often brutal Florida weather is a cocktail ripe for disaster. So how do you prevent this? The easiest way is to plan a long break in the middle of the day. If you can return to your resort for a quick shower and nap. If you have to stay in the parks, take a long lunch while the crowds swell and find a place in the AC to regroup. Other options include a trip to Disney Springs, the monorail resorts, or even travelling to an off-property attraction or mall, which helps cut down on food costs while giving every a nice air-conditioned ride to cool off. If this break isn't enough, taking unplanned breaks to stop and have a drink or bite to eat as necessary will keep everyone happy and fed, instead of fed up.
Okay, I will readily admit that the FastPass+ (FP) system took me longer than I am willing to acknowledge to understand. It's one of those things that become much easier to explain once you have actually used it and with the functionality on the My Disney Experience (MDE) app you will have no problem using FP once you are in the parks. Essentially, the FP system reserves a spot in line for you for one hour on your MagicBand or card at the attractions you select. When you arrive at your intended attraction you will enter the ride via a separate queue which will bring you to close to or at the front of the line. You get a minimum of three FPs a day and no maximum. Pretty awesome, right? Here is where it gets tricky. You have to pre-book the first three FPs and they must be book at one park. This is much easier to explain using an example:
I have a single-day Park Hopper ticket which entitles me to unlimited admission at all four WDW parks. 60 days before I arrive at WDW I decide I will start my day off in the Magic Kingdom then go to Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios in that order. I open the My Disney Experience on my phone and go to the FastPass+ tab. I select these three attractions and times for my first three FPs: Space Mountain (900-1000), Haunted Mansion (1000-1100), and PhilharMagic (1100-1200). The system will usually not allow you to select overlapping times.
Upon arriving at MK at 900 I head straight to Space Mountain, scan my MagicBand, and ride. I do the same for the Haunted Mansion at 1000 but don't get to PhilharMagic until 1155 (too many churros, y'all). When I exit PhilharMagic I open the MDE app and go to the FP page to see that I'm eligible for another FP! I quickly selected a 1205 FP for Splash Mountain and ride it. After that I check the MDE app and I'm eligible again! I select a 105 FP for Mission:Space in Epcot to give myself enough time to get to the park and I'm off. After you use your initial FPs you are entitled to unlimited FPs until the parks close for the day. Like I said it's easier in practice than in theory and once you are on property you will get the hang of it fairly quickly.
Annual Dining Reservations
Annual Dining Reservations, or ADRs, are an acronym you hear tossed around on Disney World podcasts like a football against the Saints secondary (sorry, too easy). While it's easy to eat at Disney, it's a little harder to eat well. The restaurants you always hear about at WDW like Be Our Guest, Chef Mickey's, and Kona Cafe are almost impossible to get into without a reservation. Luckily it's very easy to make dining reservations. All you need is the MDE app and a valid credit card to hold the reservation on. You have up until 24 hours before the reservation to cancel without incurring a charge, but if you do slip into the penalty window all you need to do is reschedule the reservation to the next available date and time and then cancel. It is important to find the restaurants you need to dine at and make ADRs ahead of everything else because your movement at mealtime will determine your movement for the rest of the day. For example if you need to have breakfast at Chef Mickey's in the Contemporary Resort but want to have lunch at Akershus in Epcot you will need to make sure you have enough time to travel to Epcot from the Contemporary, stand in the security line, and walk to the Norway pavilion by your reservation time. This may impact your time in the other parks or travel time from your hotel to the restaurant. WDW is full of eclectic and smart choices for dining so be sure to peruse each menu and not select a place based on reputation, unless you really need to meet a character or eat a signature dish. For example, I will never not miss out on the Breakfast Casserole at the Crystal Palace. Make reservations early and always have a backup!
Travelling on Disney Property
Disney transportation is wonderful. An extensive network of monorails and buses are able to transport you to all corners of the property for free. There is, however, one major caveat: time. Whether it's in a bottle or after itself Disney transportation tends to eat up a lot of it. The reason for this is logistics. It is much more efficient to wait for buses to load up and make multiple stops. Unfortunately at 100 AM when you are dead tired from a day in the and miss the bus logistics don't seem so logical. Nothing does at that point, except rage and sleep. So my advice for you is the same as Mardi Gras: find a place to park in the morning, take public transportation during the day, and plan to arrive back at your car so you can make an easy exit. I'm an annual passholder so parking is covered for me, but I do understand the price of parking (~20 dollars at each park) can be steep. In that case park for free at Disney Springs and take the park buses or park at a resort (allowed with dining reservations even if you're not staying there) and either walk to or take transpo to the parks. The majority of your transportation on the Disney system will be by bus, unless you are commuting between the Magic Kingdom and Epcot. I understand you've heard about how awesome the monorail is, but in actuality the monorail only operates between MK and Epcot. You can get to Epcot and Hollywood Studios via boat as well. I will cover each park's transportation option in detail later, but as a rule if you're using the buses be prepared to wait and give at least 45 minutes to get to where you're going.
Don't Forget the Resorts!
The most unique places on Disney property may not even be the theme parks. There are a score of themed resorts that invite you into their own little world, from the Polynesian theming of the Polynesian to the New Orleans-themed...Port Orleans resort. Okay, so maybe the names and themes are easy to associate for a reason, but the secret among those who visit WDW often is that the best food and shopping can often be found at the resorts. Even if you can't afford to stay or dine at the Victorian-themed Grand Floridian, just walking into the expansive lobby and perusing the menu at Victoria and Albert's, the flagship five diamond restaurant of Disney World, will make you feel like Jay Gatsby. You know, before the unfortunate car ride and all. Likewise can be said for the Boardwalk Inn, which evokes the 1920s and features spectacular dining on Disney's own Boardwalk. I know you've paid a lot of money for park tickets but some of my best experiences have been at the resorts. Make sure you block out some time to experience your favorites. You won't be disappointed.
These are but a small list of things to prepare for and consider when planning a Disney vacation. In short: make your ADR and FP reservations far in advance, start a couch to 5K program now, and figure out a walking and transportation plan that makes everybody happy. Stay tuned as I will be updating this post regularly with tips and tricks on how to maximize your Disney vacation!