The year I turned 21, I worked at Disney World in Orlando, Florida. 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 of the Disney Cast Member secrets, like why to always point with two fingers (it’s impolite in some cultures to point with only one), how to make Magical Moments, where to find Hidden Mickeys, the correct answer to “How many Mickeys ARE there?” (ONE), and I even lived with a very good friend of Mickey & Minnie Mouse! *wink* One very useful thing I learned from my time as a Disney 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’ll never visit Disney World or Disneyland the same way ever again. And I want to share all of my insider Disney tips with you, too! Here are the things you need to know before you go to the Disney Parks!
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Disney for Adults
Here’s the thing: I know everyone thinks of visiting the Disney parks as a thing to do with kids. But I didn’t really appreciate trips to the Disney parks until I was an adult – especially, after I was a Cast Member. And I have a sneaking suspicion that I’m not the only one who didn’t crack the Disney code right away. I can’t tell you how many screaming children, exhausted parents, 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, hemorrhaging 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 stupid magical day. As my old Soarin’ manager would say, that’s 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. And yes, we’re all pretty sure Pixie Dust is supposed to be Disney crack.)
But don’t worry: Disney is NOT just for kids, and frankly, it’s often best enjoyed as an adult. I’m about to reveal a whole new, wonderful world of Disney for you, so that 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 and nursing your aching feet. These days, 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 generally have an amazing at Disney … yes, as an adult!
By the way, if you’re looking for a magical way to bring your next Disney World trip to the next level, how about trying our Disney World Scavenger Hunt? We’ve created a 75 question, 250 point Scavenger Hunt for Disney World, from Disney Resorts to each of the parks – and beyond. It’s epic, and a LOT of fun – and totally makes the most of Disney for adults! Sign up to download your FREE Disney World Scavenger Hunt!
Without further ado, let me teach you my ways. Here are the things to know before going to Disney World or Disneyland!
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.
Disney Parks Tips
- Dress for comfort, not to look cute. There is no looking cute at Disney. There is only inner thigh chafing and sore feet. I learned my lesson the hard way: I landed myself in a wheelchair with a stress fracture after attempting a long day at Disney World in cute sandals. Oops. These days, I basically dress like I’m going on a long hike, which makes 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! They’re called Extra Magic Hours because you get to spend 3 extra hours running from ride to ride like you’re going for the Goofy in the Disney Marathon). You’re going to be hot and walking all day long, so dress accordingly.
- Don’t forget to bring a rain jacket! Florida weather can be unpredictable, particularly in the winter. Plus, you can protect yourself from a Splash Mountain or Kali River Rapids deluge! My favorite rain jacket weighs nothing and packs away into a fist-sized bundle so I can carry it all day long – and my husband has the same one.
- Bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks with you. I actually bring a hydration day pack with a 100oz bladder filled with water and stuffed to the brim with snacks, sunglasses, 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 ear shapes. They’re everywhere! Start spotting Hidden Mickeys and you’ll never be bored in the parks again. If you want to really up your Hidden Mickey game, these are the best Hidden Mickey books for everything from Disney World and Disneyland to Disney cruises.!
- Bonus Disney Tip: To take things up a notch, download our FREE Disney World Scavenger Hunt. It’s like hunting for Hidden Mickeys on steroids.
- 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.
How to Avoid Lines at Disney World & Disneyland
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? Or at least pull a Johnny Depp and show up in a Captain Jack costume just to run around doing whatever we want? I bet he never has to wait in line! (By the way, that’s not just a rumor. He does it whenever he’s preparing for a new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and I’ve spoken to many a Cast Member who’s met him in character in the parks!) Disney 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 for regular folks to avoid lines at Disney World and Disneyland.
- Time your trip to Disney to avoid seasonal crowds. Use the How Packed Is It? site for your park and plan to go whenever it’s less crowded. January and February are my favorite months to visit Disney World. The park is almost empty and there are practically no lines for anything!
- Get to the Disney parks before they open in the morning. There’s a little opening 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 precious Fast Pass! Sometimes you can even get in a few more 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 to pick up a paper Fast Pass at Disneyland, ALWAYS have one lined up. Fill the time between Fast Passes with rides that have shorter lines.
- Parades are for shmucks. If I want to meet characters, I go to character dining, so I can stuff my face with delicious food while they come to me. In general, I’m not the character type – you’ll never find me standing in line to meet them (but all bets are off if there’s no line!) and I’m not into watching 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 know that kids go nuts for that kind of thing – 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 at 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 bawl like a baby and I can’t resist them. Although it is freaking magical to ride Big Thunder Mountain during the fireworks show at Magic Kingdom in Disney World – you have a perfect view of the castle!
- By the way, in case you were wondering what time the 3 o’clock parade is, it’s at 3 o’clock. And here’s a fun Disney Cast Member secret: that’s the most frequently asked question in Magic Kingdom. You think I’m joking?! Google it. Disney Cast Members have the patience of saints.
- To figure out which rides have shorter lines, use the smartphone app for your Disney 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 nearby has a line under 20 minutes. 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! Download the app for Disney World or Disneyland.
- Disney Secret: Usually, ride times are totally accurate. But sometimes, just sometimes, a ride with a certain wait time actually has no line at all, like in the case of the Haunted Mansion or Tower of Terror. If either of those rides have a wait time of 13 minutes, guess what? There’s no line! Spooky. You can find out about other magical Disney World Secrets by doing our epic Disney World Scavenger Hunt!
How to Save Money at the Disney Parks
We like to play a fun game: it’s called buy a house and pay off our student loan debt, or keep going to Disney World regularly? It’s a silly game because the first option isn’t possible. No, YOU’RE crying! 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 all 6 of us are staying at the Buena Vista Motel 6 in a single room.” The last time I visited Disney World, we stayed at a resort like ballers (I love you Pop Century!) but we also brought packets of oatmeal and ramen for our meals like broke college students. Why Oatmeal and Ramen? Because our room had a coffee maker to heat up water for us … but nothing else. Saving money at Disney World or Disneyland is all about striking a balance. Read on for our best budget-friendly money saving tips for Disney.
- Pick only 1 Disney 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.
- Disney Tip: My favorite snacks to bring to Disney parks are also my favorite high-energy hiking snacks: tuna fish packets with crackers, protein bars (these are my favorite), string cheese, apples or apple rings, 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 Disney gift cards everywhere in the parks, including for your tickets! For example, I have an American Express Blue Cash preferred 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 World trip! You can also buy Disney Gift cards from Target, which has a 5% discount card.
- 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 savvy 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 Disney parks. Why pay money for something that you can get from a friendly nurse for free? They also have water and A/C if you just need a place to sit down and chill out!
Disneyland Secrets & Tips
Every Disney park is different. For example, Orlando weather makes my hair frizz out like a balloon, but Anaheim’s dry, comfortable 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.
- Never wait more than 20 minutes – even for the most popular rides at Disneyland. Want to ride the most popular rides at Disneyland without waiting more than 20 minutes? You know, the ones that always have an hours-long line? How about 2 or 3 of those popular rides? Yes, it’s possible. Here’s how:
- 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.
- After Popular Ride #2, either use your Fast Pass – 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 using the Disneyland App and you might be able to do StandBy for under 20 minutes.
- 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 Disneyland 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! (O you can stay and watch the show, as long you’re OK with having the song stuck in your head for the rest of your life.)
- 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 your favorite Disney movies. It’s a great place to eat some snacks and get your energy back up.
- 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!
Disney World Secrets & Tips
Ah, Disney World: 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 World secrets & tips for Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios.
- Take your Disney World game to the next level with our epic 75 question, 250 point Disney World Scavenger Hunt. Packed full of Disney World secrets, insider tips from your favorite Cast Member (me, duh) and magical ridiculousness, this is the best Disney World Scavenger Hunt ever – and best of all, it’s designed specifically for grownups! Compete with your friends and loved ones (because competition makes the heart grow fonder) at every single Disney World park AND the Disney World resorts! Best of all, it’s totally FREE! Sign up to download your FREE Disney World Scavenger Hunt here, or enter your email address below:
- Ride Everest, Test Track, and Rockin’ Roller Coaster over and over again without waiting in line. How? Use the single rider line! There’s usually very few folks in the single rider lines at Disney World, and they move pretty fast – often even faster than the Fast Pass line. From experience, I can tell you that these rides do NOT get boring after riding them alone for the 25th time in a row.
- 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! Psst – a Club Cool Taste Test bonus round is one of our Disney World Scavenger Hunt challenges!
- Save money on transportation in Disney World. 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 and from the 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.
- Take 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 Disney World resort is surprisingly budget-friendly. If you book early enough and visit Disney World during the off-season, there are some affordable resorts to be had at around $100 a night, like the 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 (a HUGE savings), more Hidden Mickeys to find and Scavenger Hunt Challenges to unlock, discounts on park tickets for multi-day trips, and 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.
How to Help Keep the Disney Magic Alive
- 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 Fast Pass 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 it to them. 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, or whatever it is that they’re celebrating! I totally still say “Welcome!” to everyone I see wearing a “1st Visit” button and I get a lot of weird looks, so I guess that one isn’t transferable to non Cast Members. But the other ones totally are. 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. 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!
Super Secret Disney World Backstage Photos!
I know you all want to see the dark secrets hidden behind the scenes at Disney World! And while I’m still writing up a post about my favorite ridiculous Cast Member stories, I can share these super secret, highly illegal backstage photos with you. I only have 2 backstage photos, because if someone spots a Cast Member backstage with a camera backstage, they’ll be fired faster than they can say “Jiminy Cricket!” Also, because backstage – unlike the rest of Disney World – isn’t terribly cute. The Utilidoors underneath Magic Kingdom are pretty much just hallways with giant sewer pipes running through them and half-dressed Cast Members scurrying frantically about. And Epcot, as you’ll see below, is mostly just an empty lot. But I totally get the curiosity! If you’re dying to see it for yourself, you can always take the official Backstage Magic tour! You can also catch a glimpse of Epcot’s backstage while riding Test Track – look out over the parking lot while you’re riding outside and you’ll see the the Epcot Cast Member entrance, which leads to a hidden door next to the Mexico pavilion.
Feature image original photo credit: “BALLOONS – Magic Kingdom” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by lhbrizzante. Disclaimer: this post contains Amazon affiliate links. By purchasing through these links, I will receive a small commission at no expense to you that will help cover the costs of running this site.