How to Do Disney: A Guide by a Former Cast Member

The Everest ride in Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

How to Do Disney: tips, tricks, and hacks by a former cast member - with brutally honest advice AND a few highly illegal backstage pics!

 The semester I turned 21, I did an internship through the College Program at Walt Disney World and worked at Soarin’ Over California, in Epcot. Of course, it was magical (and yes, Drinking Around the World is the BEST way to celebrate turning 21). I learned all about pointing with two fingers, making Magical Moments, finding Hidden Mickeys, the correct answer to “How many Mickeys ARE there?” (ONE!), made friends with both Minnie and Mickey Mouse, and so much more! One very useful thing I learned from my time as a cast member was what I call Disney Parks Strategy (“strat” for short, because it makes me sound like a spy or someone very important).

I didn’t really appreciate trips to the Disney parks until after I was a cast member, even though growing up with family in California meant the occasional Disneyland day trip. I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only one that doesn’t know how much fun a day at Disney can be: I can’t tell you how many screaming children, exhausted grown ups, and miserable people of all ages that I’ve seen at Disney. How can you be miserable in the happiest place on earth? Easily, actually. After a few hours of baking in the hot sun, spending hours on your feet, spending an insane amount of money, and pushing past thousands of equally grumpy people, it doesn’t take much to turn your Disney excitement into hatred for every bubbly, happy person you see enjoying their own stupid magical day. As my old Soarin’ manager would say, thats when you could really use a little sprinkle of Pixie Dust. (Note to my old manager: nothing makes a sour mood worse than being sprinkled with imaginary Pixie Dust.)

But it doesn’t have to be that way! You, too, can skip through the parks like you’ve had one too many churros, Mickey Bars or Dole Whips, spending your time shrieking with glee on ride after ride rather than waiting in line feeling sorry for yourself. When I visit Disney and implement my Disney Parks Stategy (strat), I never wait in any line for longer than 20 minutes, I see a TON of attractions and rides, I spend much less money, and I generally have a much better time than I ever did pre-strat!

Without further ado, let me teach you my ways. Here are my tips for maximizing your trips to Disneyland and Disney World!

Let’s Talk Disney Strat!

Feel free to yell this all day long in the middle of the parks to your fellow Disney-goers as needed. I do.

Relaxing at Epcot in Walt Disney World with the Eiffel Tower behind me.
Here I am at Epcot, still steaming about the time my manager sprinkled Pixie Dust on me because I didn’t smile hard enough while trying to tell a rebellious guest to “stand behind the yellow line, please.” They’re there for your SAFETY, people, just stand behind them, is it that hard!?!?!!! Anyway, the real point is, the Eiffel Tower is actually a lot closer than it appears, because of Imagineer magic.

 How to Spend Less Time Waiting in Line at the Disney Parks

We all know waiting in line is the worst part of visiting the parks. Why can’t we all be famous celebrities and just rent the whole park? Disney World minus all the people is my personal idea of heaven – which is why I LOVED closing and opening the parks! A silent, empty Disney park… ahhhh. Peace. But since I’m not a cast member anymore, nor am I a famous celebrity, here are the best ways to avoid waiting in long lines at the parks.

  • Plan your trip in advance to avoid crowds. Use the How Packed Is It? site for your park and plan to go whenever it’s less crowded. Tip: January and February are my favorite months to go. The park is empty and there are practically no lines for anything!
  • Get to the parks before they open in the morning. There’s usually a little ceremony which is cute and all, but the real reason is so that you can hustle to your first ride of the day and have NO line, without wasting a fast pass! Sometimes you can get in a few rides before the rest of the crowds start showing up. Most people who show up early have a ride in mind – usually a very popular one – and will make a mad dash for it the second they’re allowed to. Don’t get trampled – throw some elbows if you have to. (Kidding! Everything at Disney is magical and nobody throws elbows. At least, not unless you’re a cast member. But that’s a story for another post…)
  • Use Fast Passes religiously. NEVER waste a minute of time in the park without having a fast pass. Whether you are using a magic wristband at Disney World or have to run from ride to ride the old school way to pick up a paper fast pass, ALWAYS have one lined up. Fill the time between fast passes with rides that have shorter lines.
  • Parades are for shmucks. I’m not the character type – I don’t care about getting their autographs or standing in line to meet them, and I don’t care about seeing them wave repeatedly to catchy music while I’m getting shoved around in a crowd of people. If that’s your thing, great, and I’m glad, because you help make this tip possible: parades are the BEST time to ride rides! Everyone lines up to watch the parade and nobody’s in line for rides. 3pm in Magic Kingdom? Rides. Electric light parade? Rides. If I wasn’t a big softie for fireworks shows I’d recommend rides during those too, but they make me tear up and I can’t resist them.
  • To figure out which rides have shorter lines, use the smartphone app for your park. All of the apps have wait times that are updated live. After you exit a ride or pick up a fast pass, pull up the app to figure out where you’re going next based on whatever has a 20 minute or less line. As a bonus, this will guarantee that you experience an attraction that you’ve never done or didn’t put on your must-try list, which is a great way to make new favorites. I would never have developed my love for Turtle Talk with Crush or Captain EO without this strategy! Tip: choose a nearby ride or attraction, since sometimes in the time it takes you to walk through the park the line gets longer! Download the app for Disneyworld or Disney Land.
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Tower of Terror, a Disney classic ride, at dusk.
Here’s a bonus tip: ride Tower of Terror at sunset or dusk. It’s the best time of day to ride it, just trust me!

How to Maximize your Enjoyment at the Disney Parks

Less time being a crankypants means more time having a blast at the happiest place on earth.  Ever looked at a screaming toddler who is uninterested in everything because she just wants to have her nap and been like, “damn, toddler, I feel you”? Me too. Here’s how to avoid Disney misery.
  • Dress for comfort, not to look cute. There is no looking cute at Disney. There is only inner thigh chafing and sore feet. I basically dress like I’m going on a long hike, which makes perfect sense because according to my fitbit I average around 14,000-25,000 steps per day when I go to Disney (the 25k days are when we stay at a Resort and take advantage of Extra Magic Hours)! You’re going to be hot and walking all day long, so dress accordingly. 
  • Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks with you. I actually bring a Camelbak day pack with a 100oz bladder filled with water and stuffed to the brim with snacks and sunscreen. I may look like a dork (and barking things like “let’s talk strat!” at my husband certainly doesn’t help), but I’m also a well hydrated, not sunburnt dork who isn’t spending all of her money on expensive Disney food! Always use SPF 50+, and re-apply frequently.
  • When, not if, you get grumpy because you’re tired, hot, thirsty, or hungry, attend to those needs immediately. If you don’t, you will be miserable all day long. It is inevitable that you will hit a point in the day when you just want to sit down and do nothing. DO THAT. Do not feel guilty for spending an hour or so just relaxing in the parks. Better yet, time your break with your indulgent restaurant meal of choice for a perfect pick me up!
  • Finding Hidden Mickeys are a fun game that make even standing in line manageable. What’s a Hidden Mickey, you ask? The official definition is “a partial or complete impression of Mickey Mouse placed by the Imagineers and artists to blend into the designs of Disney attractions, hotels, restaurants, and other areas.” AKA, the funnest game of I Spy ever! All over the parks are secret, hidden Mickey shapes. They’re everywhere! Start spotting Hidden Mickeys and you’ll never be bored in the parks again. Tip: Here’s one to get you started: in the Haunted Mansion, during the ghost ballroom dancing scene, look down at the banquet table – one of the place settings is in the shape of Mickey’s head and ears!
  • Cast Members are there to help.  We’re all Disney loving magical moment obsessed nerds and we just want to make your day. In fact, making guests happy is the entire reason we took the job. If you need help, or anything at all, just ask a Cast Member. Dropped your ice cream cone? Ask a cast member. Need some advice about rides or food? Cast member. Looking for Hidden Mickeys? Cast member. Confused about what time the 3 o’clock parade is at Magic Kingdom? We get asked that so often that some of us have t-shirts that say “what time is the 3 o’clock parade?” All joking aside, just approach your nearest friendly Cast Member – but remember that they’re a person too, and please be respectful. And if they go above and beyond to make your day, please get their name and go to Guest Services to let them know! We get huge warm fuzzies when a guest gives us kudos, and sometimes we get rewarded in other ways as well.
Backstage at Disney World: Safe D Begins with Me!
I will give you 3 guesses why the Disney safety motto, “Safe D Begins With Me!” cracks me up. These signs are everywhere backstage and I giggled like a 2nd grader every time I saw one.

 

How to Save Money at the Disney Parks

We all know going to a Disney park is expensive. And we all suck it up and pay it because oh my goodness, it’s so worth it. But it doesn’t always have to be “We can’t afford a resort so we’re staying at the Buena Vista Motel 6 in a shared room.” The last time I visited Disney World, we stayed at a resort like ballers (I love you Pop Century!) but also brought packets of oatmeal and ramen for meals like broke college students. Read on to learn how to save money when visiting Disney parks.

  • Pick only 1 restaurant per day to have a really good meal, and 1 Disney snack. Disney food is well worth the expense, and the time will come when you will need an ice cold Mickey bar, or a delicious meal and a long sit-down in A/C. But, only buy 1 meal and 1 snack in the parks – choose wisely and make them count! – and bring snacks for the rest of the day to save money.  Tip: My favorite snacks to bring to Disney parks are also my favorite high-energy hiking snacks: tuna fish packets with crackers, protein bars, string cheese, apples or apple chips, nuts, beef jerky, and peanut butter pretzels.
  • If you have a credit card that gets you points at certain stores, use it to buy Disney Gift Cards to get a little cash back. You can use the gift cards everywhere in the parks, including for your tickets! For example, I have an American Express card that gets me 6% cash back at grocery stores. So I buy Disney Gift cards from the grocery store for a 6% discount on my Disney trip! You can also buy Disney Gift cards from Target, which has a 5% discount card, or warehouse clubs like Costco or Sam’s Club.
  • Don’t buy a souvenir – pick up a free button instead.  The merchandise inside the parks is overpriced and not worth it for almost anyone except the most saavy collector. Instead, get your souvenir needs filled at Guest Services and other select locations throughout the park. They have a variety of free buttons that they’ll give out to anyone who asks for one! There’s everything from First Visit to Happy Birthday to Just Married, and a bunch in between! As an added bonus, cast members will congratulate you all day long while you’re wearing the button!
  • Utilize the First Aid stations. The First Aid stations in the Disney parks give out ibuprofen, band aids, and other health supplies for free – even though you can also buy them in stores throughout the parks. Why pay money for something that you can get from a friendly Nurse cast member? They also have water and A/C if you just need a place to sit down and chill out!
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The Boardwalk and Paradise Pier, with roller coaster California Screamin', at Disney's California Adventure in Disneyland.
The Boardwalk at Disney’s California Adventure is WAY cooler than the Santa Cruz Boardwalk that it’s based on, in my humble opinion.

 Disneyland  Tips & Tricks

Every park is different. For example, Orlando weather makes my hair frizz out like a balloon, but Anaheim weather means I can wear my bangs down like a normal person! Here are some Disney Hacks that are specific to Disneyland and California Adventure.
  • What if you want to ride something that’s really popular, and always has a long line, but don’t want to wait more than 20 minutes? How about 2 or 3 of those popular rides? Yes, it’s possible. Arrive before the park opens. As soon as you’re allowed inside, hustle to Popular Ride #1. Pick up a fast pass. Then, hustle to Popular Ride #2. If you got there fast enough (and if it’s nearby), you should get there before the line manages to build up very long. After Popular Ride #2, either use your fastpass – it should be for pretty early in the day – and get a fast pass for Popular Ride #3, or check the line at Popular Ride #3 and you might be able to do StandBy before it gets too long. I typically get in all of my top 3 popular rides this way before noon!
  • Get a park hopper, and start your day in California Adventure. Most people start in the other park, and there are less lines but just as many great rides in California Adventure. A park hopper will let you switch back and forth all day long depending on the ebb and flow of the crowds – use your app to help guide you.
  • Get a Dole Whip without waiting in line. Just walk into the Tiki Room like you’re going to watch the show, but instead of going inside, go directly to the right. There’s a perfectly good Dole Whip stand that never has a line. After you’ve got your Dole Whip, just walk through the Tiki Room before the next show right through to the exit! (Or I guess you can stay and watch the show, but frankly it’s probably my least favorite attraction, so I would never recommend that. Truth hurts, Tiki Room.)
  • Need a spot to sit and cool down? The Turtle Talk with Crush building has A/C and couches to relax on during the heat of the day – all while enjoying 3 different attractions or just watching the giant screens showing scenes from Disney movies.
  • Want a free snack? The Bakery Tour and Ghiradelli both give out free samples, tucked into a little corner of California Adventure. Besides, they’re both from San Francisco, so that makes them automatically a must-do in my eyes!
Everest, a roller coaster in Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World.
Everest, my favorite ride at Disney World!

Disney World Tips

Ah, my old stomping ground. Tip One: to see backstage, all you need to do is get really lost while driving around trying to find the entrance to your resort. Similarly, if you’re running late for work at Disney World, you’ll probably end up in a resort parking lot (no? just me? really??). Here are some Disney Hacks that are specific to Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.
  • Want to ride Everest over and over again without waiting in line? Duh, it’s the best ride in the parks, of course you do. Use the single rider line! There’s usually very few folks in it, and it moves pretty fast. The great thing about Everest – other than EVERYTHING – is that it doesn’t get less boring the 15th time in a row. Plus, you can become an expert at planning your “pose” for the photo, which if you’re me is a great way to amuse yourself.
  • Want a free soda? How about 8 different types of soda, in an unlimited quantity, all for free? Stop by the Club Cool Epcot and sample different kinds of Coke from around the world. So refreshing on a hot day!
  • Want to save money on transportation? Don’t rent a car when you go to Disney World – you don’t need it! Save on the rental, gas, AND $20 per day parking. If you’re flying into Orlando, and staying at a resort, you can get the Magical Express to take you to your airport. Then, Disney shuttles will take you all over Disney World for free! If you’re staying at a non-resort hotel, make sure they have a Disney Shuttle to get you onto Disney property – most hotels near Disney do. Take an Uber to your hotel from the airport and then Disney shuttles will take you anywhere you need to go throughout Disney World.
  • Want a Backstage Tour for cheap? You can either look pitiful and hope a cast member offers you a Magic Moment backstage pass, OR you can head to The Land Pavilion in Epcot and pay around $20 for the Behind the Seeds tour.  It’s educational and you get to sample some free food. Maybe I’m biased – being a former Soarin’ cast member and all – but The Land is highly underrated!
  • Staying at a resort really does make a difference. If you book early enough and go during off-season, there are some affordable resorts to be had at around $100: look at All Star resorts or Pop Century, for example (click here for pricing maps for each resort). Some of the benefits to staying at a resort: Extra Magic hours (less lines! More park time!), setting up Fast Passes and restaurant reservation months in advance (allowing for serious strat advantage), free transit to and from the airport as well as throughout the parks, more Hidden Mickeys to find, discounts on park tickets for multi-day trips, less standing between you and your bed at the end of an exhausting day. If you want to ball out, check out the food plans, but personally I’ve never found them to be worth the expense.
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Backstage at Epcot behind Soarin' and Canada, in Walt Disney World!
Here’s a free sneak peak at the backstage of Epcot, behind Soarin’ and Canada (which are actually next to each other backstage. We shared a breakroom). The Land backstage tour goes close by, but I guess you can see why there’s no tours back here: it’s super ugly! Sorry to ruin the magic, y’all! The Utilidoors are WAY cooler.

 How to Help Keep the Disney Magic Alive

Part of being a Disney fanatic is buying into that magical feeling that you can only get in a Disney park. As a former cast member, I still get goosebumps remembering how good it felt the first time I helped cheer up a grouchy kid and their desperate family. I walked on air all day. There’s a reason why giving Magical Moments is the assignment that every cast member wants to get on rotation – it’s incredibly gratifying and fun! Here are some ways that you can help keep the magic alive as a guest.
  • Help preserve the magic for kids. It’s not technically lying, persay … okay, maybe it is … but unless it’s YOUR kid (and you’re kind of a dick), don’t spoil their fun. You wouldn’t tell some stranger’s kid that Santa wasn’t real, so don’t point out that cable running between Tinkerbell and the Castle during Celebrations (don’t worry kids, that’s just Prince Eric’s ESPN antenna! It connects his TV directly to the ESPN Wide World of Sports park). Instead, if you want to interact with a little price or princess, try pointing out something magical – a hidden mickey, a walking tree, a talking trash can,  or one of these gems.
  • If you have a paper fastpass you aren’t going to use, find someone to give it to. It’s your very own opportunity to make a Magical Moment. Maybe you’re leaving the parks, maybe a ride broke down and you got a 6-person paper pass but your party is only 3 people… if you ever find yourself with a fast pass you won’t use, find someone that looks like they could use a pick-me-up and give them the fastpass. It’ll make both of your days, trust me.
  • Say Congratulations to everyone wearing a button. This is another cast member move. If you see someone wearing a button that says “Happy Birthday,” tell them Happy Birthday! Likewise if it’s their anniversary, they just got engaged, etc. There’s nothing like having hundreds of people wish you a Happy Birthday to make that day memorable and magical.
  • Just be considerate. Everyone at Disney is tired and grumpy at some point. Don’t be the one to make their mood even worse. Help keep Disney a safe haven of magic where dreams really DO come true, by being a kind and considerate person. Let the elderly, disabled, and pregnant have your seat or cut in front of you in line. Help out tired parents by asking their little prince or princess who their favorite Disney character is and keeping them entertained. Make cast members happy by staying behind the yellow line at all times, listening to and following directions, never trying to get them to “break character,” and letting their managers or Guest Services know when they’ve done an excellent job. Keep the magic of Disney alive by being a part of it yourself!
There are so many more tips out there – these are just a few of my favorites. Here’s another really good list of Disney tips and tricks. What’s your favorite Disney hack or Disney secret?

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6 Comment

  1. Very detailed. I have a lot of research to do! Thanks for sharing your advice!

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Happy to help! Let me know if you have any questions about Disney 🙂

  2. Simone Ranes says: Reply

    Most enjoyable Disney post I’ve read…engaging, helpful and thoughtful…I look forward to reading your other posts

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Thanks Simone! We’re planning our next trip to Disney in February and have some really exciting Disney content planned, coming soon!

  3. Laura says: Reply

    Dissing the tiki room?! You monster 😉 as the child of Disney fanatics, I first saw the show when I was old enough for it to be real. The fond memories still remain 🙂

    1. Lia says: Reply

      Aww! That’s really sweet! I don’t have the benefit of nostalgia, so my first memory of the Tiki Room is having the song stuck in my head for roughly 72 hours. Not the fondest first impression, let me tell you.

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