It doesn’t matter if this is your First Disney Vacation or just another annual trip. There are certain things that make a Disney Vacation a little more Magical. These things set Disney apart from every other theme park. Dare we say, every other vacation! With fast passes, magic bands and transportation to worry about you’re going to need a quick list of experiences that will make your vacation feel like a Disney vacation and not just a harried checklist of things to do. It won’t matter if you’re staying onsite or off-site, keeping to a budget or schedule. Consider this your best chance for a memorable vacation.
This isn’t a list of rides or restaurants. If you’re hoping for those, check out our best stuff at each park post. You can also check out our 12 step plan for planning a Disney vacation and if you’re tackling this one on your own be sure to read about fast passes, the magical express and Disney dining options.
Our Top 12 things to do at Disney are more about experiences than the bucket list items you’ll be trying to fit into fewer days than possible. It doesn’t matter when you do them or in what order. You can do just one or them all. Here are the things we think most make a Disney vacation great.
A Disney Character Dining Experience
We’ve admitted many times that we have a love/hate relationship with character dining. But if this is your first visit to Walt Disney World the experience is an absolute must-do! Character Dining is Disney in all its glory. Beloved characters parade around the restaurants, visit you at your table, hug you, pose with you, and chat with you as if they’re actually the real character and not just an actor in a costume. If you’re bringing smaller children, the dining experiences are often better than waiting in the lines to meet and greet characters around the parks.
We most love The Crystal Palace at Magic Kingdom with Winnie the Pooh and Friends, and 1900 Park Fare with Cinderella alongside her wicked stepmother and evil stepsisters at the Grand Floridian Resort (accessible via monorail from Magic Kingdom) are very fun. You can also try the Lilo and Stitch breakfast at Ohana in The Polynesian Resort and Trattoria al Forno featuring Rapunzel, Ariel and their princes on the Boardwalk.
Ride A Disney Ride
Maybe you’re not up for a rollercoaster, or think rides are just for kids, BUT Walt Disney himself perfected the art of animatronics and put them in some of the best Disney rides. They’re all worth a try, but these are our favorites that will give you a 360 view of all the magic at Disney. From the classics to the innovative, try for a few of these during your trip; you won’t find rides like these at your regular theme parks. Our favorites are: Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, Spaceship Earth, Soarin, Flight of Passage, Kilamanjaro Safari, Star Tours, and Toy Story Mania.
Treat Yourself to A Disney Snack
You may think it not necessary to spend the money on a special snack, but it really won’t be a Disney vacation if you don’t indulge in at least one treat. A Dole Whip is an absolute must try. You can grab one at the Aloha Isle near the Aladdin ride at Magic Kingdom. If you don’t love a pineapple soft-serve, however, there are plenty of other options! We love the Mickey pretzel, the red velvet Mickey cake pop at the Confectionary, the Mickey Ice Cream Bar and the macrons in Epcot, France but pretty much anything Mickey-shaped will do.
Watch A Disney Parade
The Festival of Fantasy at Magic Kingdom is the quintessential Disney parade combining many characters, fun songs and some extra fire-breathing magic. There are others however, that you will no doubt catch by surprise throughout your time at the parks. Be sure to stop and watch. Some people line up an hour or more before the parades to get the best spots, so they’re definitely worth your time.
Stop For A Disney Day Time Show
All the parks have shows. And yet, loads of people just pass them by! They are so worth stopping for. We like the Animal Kingdom dancing parties in the Oasis and Harambe for something different. You can also catch the show at Cinderella’s Castle at Magic Kingdom which usually happens around noon, or the impromptu shows that pop up all over Epcot and Hollywood Studios throughout the day. All are good, hilarious and really all you have to do is stop and enjoy them.
Stay Late for A Disney Night Time Show
The nighttime shows in the Disney Parks are way more theatrical than the daytime shows. Hollywood Studios has an evening Star Wars show and Fantasmic. Animal Kingdom has Rivers of Light which combines digital light and music and the entire Pandora area of the park glows at night. Epcot has illuminations which happens on the water and Magic Kingdom has the Kiss Goodnight at park closing time.
Have A Disney Resort Experience
You don’t have to stay at a Disney resort to get the Disney resort experience. But you absolutely must visit at least one of them if you’re not staying on Disney property. You can travel by boat from Magic Kingdom to the beautiful Wilderness Lodge, or hop on the monorail to explore The Polynesian, The Contemporary, or The Grand Floridian. We love watching the animals roam the savanna at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, or you can visit the Port Orleans resorts, just a boat ride away from Disney Springs. You can also venture out to Pop Century, where you can see decades of Disney long past. Right across the bay from Art of Animation, if you venture out to Pop Century you can get two resort experiences at once.
A resort experience gives you the feel of the resort theme, so you can try the food, walk the beach, rent the bikes, check out the resort specific gift shops, and all sorts of things that will make you feel like you’re on vacation somewhere new. You can even lounge in the lobby without even staying there. Whenever we need a crowd detox we head to the Grand Floridian for classy lounging while listening to the piano.
Watch the Disney Fireworks
Happily Ever After at Magic Kingdom is by far “the” fireworks show to watch. New as of 2017, this show took almost a year to pull together, features new artwork from favorite Disney movies, and amazing music. You can also grab a fireworks show at Hollywood studios as part of the Star Wars show or as part of any holiday party.
Play A Free Disney Game
Our favorite part of Disney vacations usually involve the games you can play around the parks. Agent P’s Adventure in Epcot is a spy game that shows you secret places around Epcot with hidden features that interact with you once your phone is in range. Treasures of the Caribbean is at Magic Kingdom and can be played with different treasure maps to earn free fast passes to Pirates of the Caribbean. Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom is another favorite that takes some skills and a collection of cards you can pick up at the fire station on Main Street. Check out all our favorite FREE games here.
Visit The Boardwalk
One of the more undiscovered parts of Walt Disney World is The Boardwalk at Epcot, accessible through the international gateway between England and France. Here you’ll find the ice cream shop -Beaches and Cream- at the Beach Club resort, the hidden pathway over to Hollywood Studios, cute shops, Hurricane Hanna’s poolside counter service for a quick lunch and beaches. The beaches are our favorite part, simply because we always love getting our toes in the sand. Its an excellent escape from the craziness of Disney and a little bit of a secret…so you’ll feel like you really got to see all of Disney if you’re able to add this into your first( or only) trip.
Attend a Festival
We cannot get enough of the Epcot festivals. As all festivals at Epcot are included in the price of a park ticket, we usually think of these as free. With quarterly happenings, Epcot is the place to be for fun, food and music. Perfect for families and couples and kids, these festivals showcase the countries at Epcot and all the Disney characters we know and love. We love the Flower and Garden Festival as the perfect first experience for newbies to Epcot.
Dine on Property
There is nothing like a Disney themed restaurant. Mind you, this experience doesn’t have to be an expensive one to be good. Check out our favorite quick serve restaurants if you’re sticking to a budget. If you want to have one special dinner during your trip we love Sanaa at the Animal Kingdom Lodge, Ohana at the Polynesian, and Be Our Guest in Magic Kingdom. Check out our restaurant views in the menu for more ideas.
How to Make the Most of your Disney Trip
It’s easy to feel harried and like you have to fit it all in, navigate the crowds, and spend the least money possible, but adding even just a few of these quintessentially Disney things to your plans will give you the feeling that you didn’t miss anything and that it was all money well spent!
Have a great vacation! 🙂