Visiting Walt Disney World in Florida is a mission that many families and individuals undertake every year. For some it is an annual or multi-annual event, for others it is a rare opportunity. For most it is a very enjoyable vacation, which is why it is the most popular set of theme parks in the entire world.
When many people think of Walt Disney World, they think of the Magic Kingdom, the first park built on the property, with its trademark Cinderella's Castle. However, there are a number of other parks on property that are equally enjoyable, even if they aren't as well known. These include EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, Disney Hollywood Studios, two waterparks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon), and the Downtown Disney area, which features shopping, entertainment, and dining. Along with all of these attractions, there are also many resorts on property, ranging from budget class to luxury class.
The main key to enjoying your visit to WDW is to go in the off season. If you go in the summer it will most likely be crowded with long lines, have hot and humid weather, and also more rainy. The best times to visit are in the fall, winter, and spring months, avoiding holidays. If you go on a holiday, many times the parks fill to capacity and you may even be turned away at the gate if you arrive too late. Many people make this mistake and don't enjoy their trip as much as they could.
Another thing to remember is that most of the parks will take an entire day to get through, if not two days. If you go in the off-season you can generally get through all the attractions in a park no problem as long as you arrive before park opening, but in the summer or holidays, long lines will hold you back. The best strategy is to devote a week to the parks if you want to see everything, and that will make it so that you don't have to rush everywhere and have time to enjoy yourself. Although some people can run through the parks and even cram multiple parks into a single day, it is very challenging and not as enjoyable. You can plan on spending an entire day at the Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Disney Hollywood Studios, but Animal Kingdom will generally take about a half day to get through.
Another effective strategy is to always arrive at the gates 15-45 minutes before the park officially opens. In some cases, they will allow people in early but restrict you to a certain area, particularly at the Magic Kingdom. Arriving early allows you to beat the crowds and lines and will make it much easier to see everything in a day. Towards the end of the day, lines at major attractions can approach 1-2 hours.
Disney has a feature called fastpasses that allow you to obtain tickets for certain attractions that allow you to move to the front of the line once during a certain time frame. For example, you might get a fastpass for Space Mountain that is valid between 1:30 PM and 2:30 PM. You can only have one fastpass at a time and you get them by going to dispensers near attractions and inserting your park entrance ticket. When the time window arrives, you present your fastpass ticket to the cast member at the entrance to the attraction and they will let you in. Fastpasses can help you get through more attractions, but there are only a limited number given out in a given day. It is also a good idea to only get fastpasses for the most popular attractions since they are pretty much useless for shows.
If you are staying on property, you can take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, which are reserved for resort guests. Extra Magic Hours will let guests enter a park before opening times and stay late after park closing, while other guests staying off property have to leave. However, it should be noted that the park with EMH on a given day will typically be the most crowded since all the resort guests will be there. Therefore, some people will go to a park during EMH and then go to another park after the lines get too long.
If you want to visit all of the attractions in each park, it is wise to visit the rides in a sequence that allows you to miss the lines. Many touring plans have been developed to direct you through the parks in the most efficient fashion and although it may sound silly to follow a plan at a theme park, it will generally decrease the time you spend in line.
Getting around the parks is easy in your car, but please note that you will have to pay over $10 for parking per day if you aren't staying at a hotel on property. If you are at a hotel on property, you are allowed to park for free. Disney also has other transportation methods, including a monorail, buses, and boats. If you are visiting EPCOT or Magic Kingdom, you will have to take the monorail to them from the Transportation and Ticket Center. If you are visiting Animal Kingdom or DHS, you can park right outside of the parks.
The Magic Kingdom is divided into a number of lands, including Adventureland, Tomorrowland, Main Street, Fantasyland, and Frontierland. Each area has its own theme and set of attractions and all are arranged around Cinderella's Castle with paths leading to them like spokes on a wheel. This makes it easy to move between the areas since there aren't many dead ends. The main attractions are Space Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and the Haunted Mansion.
EPCOT is divided into two different areas: Future World and the World Showcase. The World Showcase opens later than Future World, typically at 11 AM. Future World contains most of the popular attractions, including Mission: Space, Test Track, and Soarin'. The World Showcase is a rather unique collection of pavilions devoted to different countries, including England, the USA, France, Germany, China, Japan, Norway, Canada, Italy, Mexico, and Morocco. Each country has a number of restaurants, shops, and even some rides. Each country is also typically staffed by natives from that country.
Animal Kingdom is a large zoo that also contains a number of rides and live shows. There are a lot of different animals to see and one of the best rides, Kilimanjaro Safaris takes you on a safari ride among the African animals. Other rides include Expedition Everest and DINOSAUR, both of which are very popular.
Disney Hollywood Studios is themed as a movie studio lot and features a variety of rides and shows. The highlights are the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Rock'n'Rollercoaster, Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular, Toy Story Mania, and the Great Movie Ride. There is also a very popular stunt show featuring stunt men performing dangerous tricks in cars and motorcycles.
At the parks it is not a bad idea to carry around a poncho in one of your pockets just in case it starts raining. In Florida, rain can start unpredictably on a sunny day, then quickly disappear. You can get a cheap poncho at a store and avoid paying a lot for a Disney poncho. If it starts raining you can also dart around to indoor attractions to wait it out.
As far as park etiquette goes, there are a number of things that you should avoid doing. Try to be nice to other people, avoid cursing, etc. since it is a family vacation spot. If you use a stroller, do not ram your way through a crowd with it (some people do this). Treat cast members with dignity and respect. And above all, remember that you are on vacation and should be enjoying yourself, so don't sweat the small stuff!