The Theme Park Adventure Guide
On each of our previous adventures to the Disney Parks and Universal Orlando we inevitably run into someone who looks like they are literally at the SADDEST place on earth. They are wrestling a miserable kid, arguing with their partner, or frustrated when they realize the reservations that they thought they had don’t exist. In order to manage your time in the parks and come out wondering “when can I come back”, just follow these 10 Rules of Engagement.
1. Get up early: Yes, you do have to get up early. And not just “when the park opens” early. Plan to get to the park gates around an hour before the park opens every day. There is a little wiggle room here for longer adventures, where rest days are often necessary. On most trips and most days, the benefits of arriving early can not be overstated.
At Universal Orlando, we have found that the benefit of an early arrival is even more magnified. While many Disney travelers have learned the trick of early mornings over the years, it seems that Universal fans are a little behind on that curve. We have found that at Universal the crowds really start to pick up around noon, whereas with Disney it starts to pick up about an hour after park opening.
It's also important to note that a day at Hollywood Studios now requires that you arrive prior to opening for any chance of riding Rise of the Resistance (our top ride in all of Disney World). This means that everyone else is also doing this, making transportation to the park and the security and ticket checks even more crowded, so plan accordingly. It also throws off traditional touring plans for these days as the parks are now packed as soon as they open, removing the benefit of arriving early. We have found that a quick ride on one of the major attractions then using our three fastpasses plus a show or two is a good morning and that evening is now the best time to visit.
2. Do “Rope Drop” right: You arrived early, now what do you do? Managing a rope drop can actually be quite challenging. There are large crowds all trying to get to the same place. Pushing and bumping definitely will happen. Be kind and look out for others, but stand your ground when necessary and walk FAST.
Disney parks will often let guests into the park starting about 30-45 minutes before park opening and then hold all guests at a location a little ways into the park. In some cases they will hold all the guests at one location. For example, at Animal Kingdom, they hold all guests at the walkway leading to the Tree of Life. In other parks, like Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, they allow you to choose between the entrance to the different lands. Universal Orlando on the other hand will hold all guests at the gate until park opening.
Once the park opens, you also must know where you are going. One missed turn or hesitation could cause significantly more wait when you get to the ride. Some parks are pretty obvious and you can just follow the crowds. At Islands of Adventure in Universal Orlando, go straight to Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure (pro tip: go LEFT when you get to Dr. Seuss Land!). At Animal Kingdom, Flight of Passage is the choice. However, Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios are a little more tricky with multiple top options in several different directions. Having a plan and knowing the park is vital.
3. Know where to go second: Nearly as important as going to the right attraction first, is following that up with a solid plan for the rest of your morning. Once you get off that first major attraction, take a little time to enjoy whatever awesomeness it was that you just experienced and then be on your way. In some parks the next best choice is the ride next door. However, sometimes, you may need to traverse the park for your next ride.
For example, if you decided to go to Frontierland at Magic Kingdom and rode Big Thunder Mountain Railroad first, hop right on over to Splash Mountain right next door. In Islands of Adventure, after Hagrid, the next stop should be Forbidden Journey, then followed by a cross park venture to The Incredible Hulk or Spiderman. Using the Animal Kingdom example again, once you ride Flight of Passage, you will likely want to go all the way across the park and ride Expedition Everest.
4. Understand the “pass” system: With each park having a different system, it can often be confusing as to how each one works. Take time before you go to read up on the specifics. And note that while Disney World does not charge for FastPass+, the MaxPass at Disneyland and Express pass at Universal Orlando do come with a fee.
The FastPass+ system at Disney World is free for everyone, but requires reservations up to 60 days in advance for guests staying on site and 30 days for those staying off site. You can only get 3 per day in advance, but can then reserve more once those three are complete.
The Express Pass at Universal is free only for guests staying on site and is an extra fee for all other visitors. With this pass you can skip the line for each ride once per day (or an unlimited number of times if you upgrade to the Unlimited Express Pass). There is no reservation required.
The MaxPass at Disneyland is a day-of reservation system and also comes at a modest fee. You can’t make reservations until you are in the park and once you are, you can only reserve one at a time. You will be assigned a return window based on when you make the reservation.
As you would expect, these different systems have a major impact on how to plan your day in the park. We have written an entire article on the FastPass+ and Maxpass systems. You can find them by clicking on the links for each pass type above.
5. Leverage the “pass” system: Once you understand how the system works, it's important to use it to its fullest potential. For example, at all the parks, never use a pass first thing in the morning when there is no wait. If you have a pass, ride in the standby line first thing in the morning and then wait for the lines to get longer to use your pass and ride it a second time. We can pretty much guarantee that if you are rope dropping a ride, you will want to do it again!
With the Disney World FastPass+ system you should make your FastPass+ reservations for as early in the morning as possible. This way you can get a 4th pass earlier, and then a 5th or even 6th. Most days at Disney we will end up getting and using 5 to 6 fastpasses. Also, keep checking the app throughout the day for an earlier time or better attraction to pop up. Because they definitely do! We have snagged passes for Space Mountain, Flight of Passage, and Slinky Dog Dash by doing this. Again, we have a whole article about leveraging the FastPass+ system here.
At Disneyland Resort, grab your first MaxPass as soon as the park opens and then grab an additional pass as soon as you use each one or 90 minutes after you booked your reservation, whichever comes sooner.
6: Use the App: From checking wait times, to viewing park maps and showtimes, to using the FastPass+ and MaxPass system at Disney, the Disney World, Disneyland, and Universal Orlando apps are must haves! Check it out before you go to familiarize yourself with it. It will be your most important ally on the days of your visit.
As the day passes, you will want to adjust your plan to match what you are experiencing. These apps will be super important to achieving that. Need to make it across the park for a reservation? Want to change plans and check out a show? Thinking about trying to squeeze in another ride before lunch? Check the app and make adjustments.
You can also use the app at all three parks to order quick service dining for mobile pick-up. You can skip the lines and go straight to the window to grab food when it's ready. This can be a time saver of up to 30 minutes at some of the more popular restaurants and super convenient every time.
Finally, you absolutely must have the app for getting a “boarding group” for Rise of the Resistance. We recommend that every adult in your party try to grab one the second the park announces that it is open. You can find more tips on securing a boarding pass here.
7. Get some rest and variety: Since getting up early is so important, it is also super essential to find times for rest every day. Trying to go to a park from sun-up to sun-down is a recipe for disaster. We recommend heading back to your hotel after lunch every day to grab a nap or spend time by the pool. It's these breaks that will allow for you to enjoy all of the early mornings and have truly fun and relaxing evenings without getting burned out.
We also recommend switching parks every day. There are several reasons for this, but the main one is that variety in your day can also lead to a fresh outlook. Whenever you walk into a new park, there is always a sense of excitement that can lead to a rejuvenation in your day. Plus, evenings often come with lower crowds and temperatures, so make sure to take advantage of these great times in the park.
8. Be prepared to adapt: Every day at Disney and Universal is different, so it's impossible to set a perfect plan for your entire day. You can follow the tips for where to go and in what order, but making wise decisions in the park can make or break your visit. Study up on park hours and show times. Take a look at park maps so that you can easily get around. Read about quick service food options and have a few spots in mind that you would like to try.
Overall, just don’t hold your plans too tightly. If you’re tired, go back to your hotel or maybe take a day to skip rope drop and just use your fastpasses. If you really want to ride a particular attraction, it's ok to wait in a longer line. If you are late, grab an uber or Minivan instead of waiting for the bus. You don’t have to be perfect. This is your vacation, do what you want. Just don’t get caught not knowing how.
9. Pack what you need: Getting the right content in your bag for a day in the park is the first rule of visiting a Disney or Universal theme park. Bring too much and you will have a sore back all day. Bring too little and you’ll end up having to purchase overpriced bandaids, snacks or water bottles. We recommend cleaning out the bag each night and ensuring you have just what you need for the next day. Here is our day-of packing list:
1-2 Snacks per person - don’t bring everything you brought on your trip into the park every day, just enough for what you might need
Refillable Water Bottle - fill it up at the hotel in the morning and then refill with free cups of water or at fountains throughout the day.
First Aid/Medical Kit - including bandaids, moleskin, and any essential meds
Flip Flops and Lightweight poncho - you never know when a storm is going to pop in Orlando, or when your best plans to stay dry on a water ride are thwarted
10. Ask for help: Our final rule of engagement for theme park adventures is to ASK. FOR. HELP! Every time we have set foot into a guest services building we could not have asked for a better experience. From closed rides, to changed plans, to even misunderstood rules, guest services has always been friendly and often able to solve our problems. Also, if you, or someone in your party, has a medical condition or different ability, you can also get a medical pass to help manage waiting in line or other challenges you may face while in the parks.
We know that this can be a lot for some people and that's why we are here! We would love to serve as your personal adventure guide, or Sherpa, on this journey. No matter where you are on your planning journey, we have a service to fit your needs and budget. Sign up for a free Embark session to get started!