OP Note: I posted this to my blog. It’s mostly intended for people who are going on a “once in a lifetime” but have done some basic research. On my blog I included some super sketchy stuff, but have redacted some of it for public consumption.
Here is my opus on all the tips and tricks I discovered in my 9 months of research preceding our Dec. 2018 trip.
I distinguish tips and tricks here by defining “tips” as things which Disney clearly allows and publicly advertises. The “tricks” are techniques and secrets which range from “not the intended usage of something, but a cast member would tell you it’s okay if you asked” to “requires outright lying to multiple in-person cast members.” You can decide which are for you and judge people who use the others.
Tip: Listen to Backside of Magic.
Effort: Medium Value: High
More than 50% of what I know about optimizing a Disney vacation, I learned from the Backside of Magic podcast. It’s also really funny. Some of the stuff they talk about didn’t apply to us, some of it was more sneaky than I was willing to be, but quite a bit helped us a lot.
Tip: Just Ask
Effort: Zero? Value: Medium
Most Disney cast members are trained and empowered to make your vacation magical. In many instances, they are able to do a lot for you if you just ask.
There are also a LOT of Facebook and online communities where people get as much fun planning and helping others plan as they get from actually going. Look up your resort on Facebook and see if it has a group. See if the Disboards or Touring Plans forums have the information you’re looking for. Get an account and ask. Just about everything I didn’t learn from Backside of Magic, I learned from the Touring Plans forums or from the Caribbean Beach Resort Facebook group.
Trick: Just Ask
Effort: Zero Value: Low Sketch level: ?
If something goes wrong during your trip, whether you’re offered some kind of compensation, it can never hurt to ask for more. If you get stuck on a ride and they offer you one FastPass, it can’t hurt to ask for two. If a ride closes when you’re in line and they offer you a FastPass for that ride, it can’t hurt to ask for an “any ride Fastpass.” The worst that can happen is they say “no.”
Tip: Buy your vacation with gift cards
Effort: High Value: Very High
Right around Halloween time, BJ’s wholesale club started a sale on Disney gift cards at 8% off. Coincidentally, my credit card was offering 5% points on wholesale clubs up to $1500. We bought $1500 of gift cards on that card and $6500 on my normal 2% back card. I think we saved well over $700. At the time, BJ’s online would allow you to sign up for a $10 online membership and then when you went to checkout, remove the membership from your cart so you didn’t even need to be a member. I think that’s gone now, but $10 is a small price to pay for such savings. BJ’s occasionally has sales on Disney gift cards, so keep an eye out.
We had already paid for our vacation, so we had to call up the Disney reservation hotline and have them refund our credit card and then apply the gift cards. We did this about 60 days before our reservation and I think you can do it up to 14 days before, but I’m not sure.
Also, you can only buy $100 gift cards at the highest discount, so you have to use disneygiftcard.com to consolidate them all. (You don’t want to be reading 80 gift card numbers over the phone). The maximum a gift card can hold is $1,000 so you’ll end up with a handful. (This website is also a good backup in case you lose a physical gift card: if you have it stored online, you can buy a new gift card for $5 somewhere and transfer the balance from the missing card to the new one).
I know a lot of people have said that Target sells Disney gift cards and if you have a Target Red credit card, you automatically get 5% cash back on anything you buy at Target, so that could be another good way to save. I also know some people swear buy ebates (cash back app) and similar apps as well as buying resale gift cards at raise.com but we didn’t try any of these.
Trick/Tip: Rent DVC Points
I don’t know anything about this, but I know it saves some people some money.
Tip: Use a crowd calendar
Effort: Low Value: High to Extreme
They’re not perfect by any means, but at least you won’t be surprised if you show up and the park is absolutely mobbed. The one I used is TouringPlans.com but you need a subscription to see more than 30 days out, I think. UndercoverTourist.com is also highly regarded.
Tip: Book during a sale or use a travel agent
Effort: Medium Value: High
We booked during the free dining plan sale (usually available in April for vacations in the fall and winter) and got all our meals for free, which was probably worth well over $1k. The other big discounts are the room only discounts (you can add tickets and a dining plan if you want) which are usually made available in early October for stays in the spring. MouseSavers.com has a list of when each discount has been made available in the past and what travel dates it applies to. A lot of the selection for these discounts sell out FAST (24-48 hours) so don’t assume that because the sale expires in 3 months, that what you want will be available in 3 months. If you can’t be bothered with these details often travel agents can get you good deals, will help you book Fastpasses, and can answer any of your questions. They get their commission from Disney so they’re free to you. I’ve heard very good reviews of Magical Vacations Travel.
Tip(maybe): Get to the park 30 minutes before it opens or 1 hr. if you’re heading towards a popular ride.
Effort: High Value: Medium (Very High if you didn’t get a FastPass for a very popular ride)
They will often let people into the park well before the listed opening time and frequently will let people begin riding the biggest rides (Avatar: Flight of Passage or Slinky Dog Dash, for instance) 15-30 minutes before the official opening of the park. If you arrive exactly at opening, you will often be confronted with a multiple hr. wait. Other than 2 days, I didn’t want to get up that early (we were dealing with jet lag from CA) so we just planned around not getting there super early.
Tip: Use morning Extra Magic Hours or avoid that park
Effort: Medium (using EMH) or Low (avoiding EMH park) Value: Medium
Extra Magic Hour is an entitlement for guests staying at a Disney hotel. One park will be open an extra hour early or 1-2 hours late for resort guests only. If you can wake up on time for the morning extra magic hour, you can get a lot done. Beware that the park will be a bit more crowded that day, though, so if you have park hoppers, it is often a good idea to leave that park around 11:00am and find a different, less crowded park to spend the bulk of the day. Evening Extra Magic Hours are a nice bonus, but usually don’t result in super short lines and usually don’t impact crowds too much.
Tip: Magic Kingdom Holiday Parties
Effort: Low Value: Medium-Low
If there are special holiday parties at the Magic Kingdom (Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas), the Magic Kingdom closes to the general public at 6:00 pm. It will be significantly less crowded during the day because people don’t want to get kicked out that early. If you’re planning on ending early (like for a dinner reservation or a dip in the pool) or you have park hoppers, this is a great day to go to the Magic Kingdom.
Tip: All things being equal, save Magic Kingdom for last
Effort: Low Value: Low
This is a personal preference and many would disagree, but we had the most fun at Magic Kingdom and it’s the “most Disney” of all the parks. I think putting it too early could cause a let down at the other parks.
Trick: Save a couple bucks with the sliding window for dated tickets
Effort: Medium-Low Value: Low Sketch Level: Low
The new dated tickets are priced based on their first day. However, they have a few extra days of availability in them (e.g. a 5 day ticket is valid for 8 days). If I know for sure that I want to go to the parks 2/25 - 3/1 then I can choose whether to buy my ticket starting on 2/25 ($81/day) or 2/24 ($80/day) or even 2/22 ($79/day). $10 per person isn’t a lot but if you don’t need the flexibility it’s basically free.
Tip: Room request
Effort: Medium-low Value: Medium-low
If you know where in the resort you want to be assigned, you can call or fax (gasp!) a request for a particular room or area. While not guaranteed, anecdotally the success rate is well over 50%. There are templates for a fax request at Touring Plans and they have an automatic fax request feature.
Tip: Order groceries from Amazon Prime Now , Garden Grocer, or similar
Effort: Medium Value: ?
Food at Disney is expensive and even if you’re on the dining plan, they may not have something you really want. The dining plan also doesn’t help you while you’re in line for a ride. We got a load of groceries delivered the very first night for a small fee (sometimes the resort will also charge you $5 to receive your package) which helped us pack a few snacks for mid-line hunger attacks and some other food items that we couldn’t find at our resort.
Tip: Use a Touring Plan
Effort: Medium to Extreme Value: Very High to Extreme
A touring plan is a strategy or order of attractions you want to hit. Even a basic one like “First we want to do this, then that, then that” is better than nothing, but you can find many at TouringPlans.com which are optimized for expected line length and desired attractions. You can also make your own and the computer will tell you how long it will take or you can feed it a list of attractions and it will tell you the order. Obviously it won’t be perfect (“No plan survives contact with the enemy.” - Helmuth van Moltke, Prussian Commander), but it will give you an idea of what to expect from your day and how much you can expect to get done and which FastPasses to shoot for. This will also help you plan how many days you want in each park.
Tip: Use the My Disney Experience app.
Effort: Medium Value: Extreme
It has great information for lines, park maps, lets you pre-order your food for some quick service restaurants, lets you book FastPasses, and if you’re staying at a Disney hotel (in room details), it can unlock your room, tell you when the buses are coming, let you check your dining plan balance, let you see charges on your room, etc. etc. It is seriously a major help for getting around. Note that the bus locator can tell you when a bus is coming, but if it says “every 20 minutes” that just means that it can’t locate a bus. The next bus may be more than 20 minutes away or it may be pulling into the stop right now.
Tip: Use mobile ordering
Effort: Low Value: Medium
If you’re eating at a restaurant that allows mobile ordering, use it. You can put together your order on the app the morning of and then when you’re 5 minutes away from the restaurant, tap “we’re here” on the app and walk up to the mobile ordering pickup window, skipping the lines. Mobile ordering is part of the My Disney Experience app.
Tip: Single rider line
Effort: Zero Value: Medium?
It’s not as good as a FastPass, but where it’s available (Test Track, Rock n Roller Coaster, Expedition Everest, it will beat standby. Of course, in exchange you don’t get to ride with your party.
Tip: If you prefer a seat somewhere on the ride, just ask.
Effort: Zero Value: Depends on how much you care
My preferences: Front row: Rock n Roller Coaster, Space Mountain Back row: Expedition Everest, Splash (I don’t like getting wet) Middle section, front row: Soarin’ - this actually makes a HUGE difference in the ride. One time we were seated off to the side and the whole projection was curved in a funny way. It definitely took away from the ride.
Note that for Soarin’ this will cost you upwards or 15 minutes whereas for the coasters, it’s usually just 2 or 3 extra minutes.
Tip: There are lots of handy references on the web.
Effort: Medium-high Value: ?
Some are quick and handy like a height limit chart, FastPass Priority Chart, Best Snacks on the Dining Plan, or Best Place to Watch Fireworks. Others were a little more in depth like our personal plans for each day and each park or some reviews of restaurants we were considering. I made a little booklet of all this information and we didn’t use all of it, but some of it came in super handy at certain points.
I laminated all my charts and plans. They laughed until we had a day with torrential downpour and everything was a ball of mush except my laminated references.
FastPass Related stuff
Tip: Learn about FastPass (henceforth FP), book early, use it often.
Effort: High Value: Ultra Extreme
(Note: This is exactly the same thing as FastPass+, FP+, and FPP).
This is BY FAR the most important set of tips I have. FastPass is the best and sometimes only way to ride anything on a crowded day other than getting up early. Learn about the tiering system. Learn about how to get more FP’s on the app. after you use your initial 3. Learn about the rules of getting FP’s while park hopping. Make sure you book your FP’s at the earliest possible minute you can (If you’re at a Disney hotel, it’s 60 days before arrival at 7am Eastern. If you’re not, it’s 30 days before at 7am Eastern) because even then many of the best rides will already be “sold out.” Thankfully, there are a lot of ways to get good FP’s. I have lots of tips and tricks to get more and better FP’s later in this document.
Tip: Plan your latest parks for the hardest to get FP’s
Effort: Low Value: Medium
Since your window to book FP’s opens for your whole trip 60 days before your arrival day, you will have a bigger advantage for the parks later in your trip. If there is a hard to get ride you definitely want to FP, try to put it that park later in your trip.
Tip: Book your FP’s for early in the morning
Effort: Low Value: Medium-low
The goal is to use up all three of your pre-booked FP’s as soon as possible so you can start booking day-of FP’s. There are actually two schools of thought on this topic:
a) book them as early as possible (right at opening) and try to use them as soon as possible
b) book them mid morning (11:00 am) since lines aren’t that long early in the morning anyway.
I personally think a) works better on more crowded days and b) works better on less crowded days.
Note: There are rules about whether a FP counts as “used” if you don’t actually tap in for it (you can tap without riding to get it to count as used, though). Specifically, I’ve heard that if it’s after your tier 1, you will be forced to reschedule it before you can start booking day-of FP’s, but if it’s before your tier 1, it will count as used. This comes up at Epcot a lot because the tier 2 Epcot FP’s are not very useful and a lot of people will just let them expire and then try to book another tier 1. If the tier 2 is after the tier 1, this may not work. When in doubt, just go tap in to get the FP counted.
Tip: Book the hardest to get FastPasses first
Effort: Low Value: Medium-low
Once you know what you want to book, your FastPass day finally arrives (60 days before arrival), and you wake up early to log on, book the FP’s in order of difficulty. Don’t do each day at a time. Start with Flight of Passage and Slinky Dog Dash, even if they’re on different days. In the 5 minutes you’re fiddling around deciding whether to do Kali River Rapids at 2:00 or 2:15, someone may be snatching up the last of the Slinky Dog Dash FP’s.
Trick: When you initially book FP’s, take anything and then modify (sketch level: very low)
Trick: When you book day-of FP’s, take anything and then modify (sketch level: low)
Effort: Low Value: Medium
Credit to @OBNurseNH for this post.
The website and app don’t always show you all the available times. They initially show you suggestions and even if you do a broad search, for some reason there are usually more options if you already have an FP than if you don’t. So say, you want to ride Flight of Passage at 11:00am. You will have better luck if take a 6:00pm and try to modify it to 11:00am than if you just keep searching for 11:00am.
Once you’re in the parks and you’ve used your 3 pre-booked FP’s, the same applies. I’ve heard of people constantly refreshing hundreds of times and modifying closer and closer to the time they actually want until they get it, though I didn’t feel the need to put in that much effort. That said, it is not unusual to be able to get a FP for a ride and then modifying it to the current time in less time than you’d wait in line.
Trick: Ask the concierge at your hotel for more FP’s
Effort: Low Value: Medium Sketch level: low
The concierge at your hotel is empowered to give you more FP’s. If you have a sob story or a celebration (“it’s our anniversary and we love Test Track, but we just couldn’t get FP’s for it online) they are more likely to help you out. We got a full set of 7 Test Track FP’s this way. You can repeat this each night if the person there is different, but you might be increasing the sketch level.
Tip: Sometimes it will help to split your party.
Effort: Medium-low Value: Medium-low
You may not be able to find 6 FP’s for one time slot, but through modifying, maybe you could get 3 for 1:30 and 3 for 2:00.
Trick: FastPass grace period
Effort: zero Value: Low Sketch level: low
FP’s are actually good for 5 minutes before the stated period to 10 minutes after (sketch level zero). And if you’re outside that window, sometimes just asking will get you in (sketch level low).
Trick: FastPass quantity grace
Effort: zero Value: Low Sketch level: Medium,
Sometimes if you don’t have enough FP’s for your party, you can just ask and they’ll let you in.
Trick: Magic band swapping
Effort: Low Value: Medium Sketch level: Medium
Cast members never check whose band a person is using. If grandma doesn’t want to ride something, she can still book it and then hand her band off to someone who does want to ride. If grandpa is going to take the kids back to the resort and leave you on a date night, keep their bands and book FP’s on them. However, you can only use FastPasses on a band that has been used to enter the park that day. (You can use FastPasses for someone that hasn’t entered the park, but their account will be locked overnight)
Trick: Modify your pre-booked FP’s once you use one
Effort: Medium Value: Medium-low Sketch level: Low
Again, credit to @OBNurseNH When you pre-book your FP’s they cannot overlap. However, once you use one, the time it USED TO occupy is now available to modify another FP into. Imagine your goal is to get through your 3 pre-booked FP’s so you can start booking more and you have Space 9-10, Splash 10-11 and Thunder 11-12. As soon as you tap in for Space (8:55) you can modify Splash Mountain up to 9:05. You can then modify Thunder up to 10:05. As soon as you tap in for Splash, at say, 9:30, you can modify Thunder up to 9:35 and ride it as soon as you get off Splash. As soon as you tap in for Thunder, you can already be booking day-of FP’s. (This may not be the best strategy but is theoretically possible)
Trick: You can search for and hold FP’s up to five minutes
Effort: Medium-high Value: low Sketch level: Low
If you have an FP, (I think) you can still search for the one you want after. You will not be able to confirm it, because you’re still holding one, but it’s set aside as yours until you cancel or confirm it. You can have it up on the app. for 5 minutes before it automatically gets cancelled, during which time, you could tap in for the original FP and then confirm it. e.g. Say I have an FP for Seven Dwarfs at 10:00. At 9:51 I find a 10:15 FP for Space. I leave my phone on without cancelling or confirming the Space FP’s. Right at 9:55 I tap into Seven Dwarfs(because of the grace period) and then immediately confirm the 10:15 FP for Space. Tapping in for Seven Dwarfs will allow me to get another FP at which point I should be able to confirm the 10:15 FP for Space.
Trick: Flipping an FP to an anytime
Effort: Medium Value: Medium-low Sketch level: Medium
If you have a FP for a ride when it goes down, it turns into an anytime/any ride FastPass. Once you’re in the park, you can often look for a ride that’s down on the app (put the wait times in list mode and look at the bottom) and then modify your current FP to that ride. Once that FP’s time comes, it will switch to an anytime / any ride FP. Obviously you shouldn’t do this with your very rare FP’s, but this works well if you have something you don’t really want to ride or think you can easily book again.
Trick: Late night lotto
Effort: Low Value: Low Sketch level: Low
With the above trick, if the ride goes down late at night (~90 minutes before closing or later), instead of an anytime/any ride FP, you will get an anytime/any ride/any park FP for the following day. As you’re walking out of the park, book whatever FP’s you can, even if you have no intention of using them. Hope that the ride goes down and you get an anytime/any ride/ any park FP for the next day. The rides that break down near the end of the day most often are Test Track (15%), Frozen (8%), Kali River Rapids (7%), Dinosaur(5%), Splash (7%), Space (7%), and Pirates (4%). You can also play each time a park closes, so you could be in your hotel room and at 6:00 play late night lotto for an 8:00 Animal Kingdom close, at 7:30 play for a 9:30 Epcot close, and at 9:35 play for an 11:00 Magic Kingdom close.
Trick: FP Drop times
Effort: High Value: High (if it works) Sketch level: Zero
There are known times when day-of FP’s are made available. As of this writing, Flight of Passage FP’s are made available at 11:01, 1:01, 3:01 and 5:01. You can either book them as day-of or modify some other pre-booked FP into them (assuming you don’t already have Navi River Journey, because that would violate the tiering rules). They only last for a few seconds, but if you’re on there at the time, I’ve heard you have a pretty good chance of getting one. Epcot drops Soarin’ and Test Track at 11:30, 1:30, and 3:30 and Hollywood Studios drops Toy Story, Alien Saucers or Rock n Roller Coaster at 12:00 and 2:31.
Tip: All these FP shenanigans can be murder on your phone’s battery. Be sure you’re charged and maybe even bring a spare battery just in case.
Tip: Rider switch
Effort: Medium-high Value: High
If you have someone in your party who can’t or won’t ride something with a height limit and can’t be left alone, whether they are a child (even one who meets the height limit) or an adult with disability, you can use rider switch. When you first approach the cast member at the entrance to the ride, ask for a “rider switch.” They will ask who will ride first (Party 1)and who will wait with the child (party 2). The person waiting with the child (Party 2) and two other people including up to 2 people in party 1(!), will get a free Rider Switch FastPass added to their account so that they can ride immediately after the first party is done. If party 1 is riding standby, they will add the Rider Switch for approximately when they expect party 1 to finish. If party 1 is riding by FP, they will add the Rider Switch for 5 or 10 minutes in the future.
So on Expedition Everest mom, son1, and son2 had FP’s. I did not and my daughter was too short to ride. We all approached the cast member, I asked for a rider switch and got a free RSFP for me, son1, and son2. Mom, son1, and son2 rode and once they finished, I also rode with son1 and son2. In total it took less than 15 minutes. This is the actual advertised use.
Notes: You can only hold one rider switch at a time and I don’t know whether the expiration time listed is actually enforced or not.
Trick: Book FP’s with RS in mind
Effort: Medium Value: Very High Sketch level: Low
If your mind works like mine, you probably read the last paragraph and your eyes lit up. The most obvious benefit of Rider Switch is the actual advertised use. For instance, if we had a party of 6 and 1 infant we could pre-book 3 Soarin’ (Alice, Betty, Charles) and 3 Test Track (David, Evan, Felicia) and use rider switch to get David, Evan, and Felicia on Soarin’ and Alice, Betty, and Charles on Test Track. This is Disney’s intention.
Tip: Book your dining reservations at 180 days
Effort: Medium Value: Medium
Just like FastPasses, the sooner you book, the more options you’ll have. Dining reservations for your whole trip are available 180 days before arrival at 7:00 am Eastern. As with FastPasses, the later you put hard to get reservations in your trip, the better chance you’ll have of getting them. Many of the same tricks that work for getting good FastPasses also work for dining reservations.
Tip: Pre-park opening (PPO) breakfast
Effort: Low Value: Medium
If you can get a reservation at a restaurant which opens before the park opens, you can eat briskly and be in line for a ride before other guests are even let into the park. e.g. Be Our Guest will put you first in line for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Garden Grill will put you first in line for Soarin’
Tip: A QS meal is often more than enough food for an adult
Effort: Low Value: Medium
At most QS meals, we fed 4 adults and 3 kids on 5 adult meals. Especially since we were on the dining plan,we could supplement with a few snacks if anyone was still hungry.
Trick: Dining Reservations are considered fulfilled by one person
Effort: Zero Value: Low Sketch level: Low
If one person shows up for a dining reservation, it is considered fulfilled and will not render a penalty, no matter how many guests were on the reservation.
Trick: Multiple dining reservations
Effort: Low Value: Medium-low Sketch level: Medium
You can’t book multiple dining reservations for the same time, but since cancelling reservations is super easy, you can book multiple reservations next to each other and cancel the ones you don’t want 24 hrs. in advance. If you have access to multiple accounts you can book overlapping reservations on the different accounts, as along as neither person is assigned to the other reservation.
Trick: Bump and Run
Effort: Medium Value: Medium-Low Sketch level: Medium
You can’t cancel a reservation without penalty once you’re within ~24 hrs. However, you can modify the reservation to some date in the future, then cancel it. This is called a “bump and run.” Obviously you can use this if you decide you don’t want a reservation or if you were choosing between multiple reservations.
It turns out you can also Bump and Run hotel reservations, so if you’re within the cancellation penalty period, but decide not to go, you can modify it to much later, then cancel it.
Dining Plan Stuff
Tip: If you’re on the dining plan, character meals and dining packages are still 1 TS credit
Effort: Low Value: High(?)
Normally, character meals and dining packages (which get you FastPasses to Fantasmic! or priority seating for Rivers of Light) are more expensive than other meals. However, on the dining plan they all cost just 1 TS credit. So if you’re interested in them, you might as well book them. We booked all our meals with characters or dining packages just because we could.
Tip: QS dining plan credits do not have age, TS do except at buffets and family style
Effort: Low Value: Low
If you’re worried about your kids having enough food or not wanting kid’s food all the time, take them to buffets or family style restaurants. They can eat all the adult food they want. If you’re at a QS restaurant, go ahead and order all adult meals - the credit use is the same.